Say No To GMOs! logo
December 2009 Updates

Another Study Questions the Health Effects of GMOS

By Tom Philpott
December 16, 2009

Better living through biotechnology? Pity executives at genetically modified seed giant Monsanto. Not only are they having to knock heads with Department of Justice lawyers over the company's business practices, but some of their most-cherished PR talking points are being obliterated by researchers.

In the past few months, we've learned that its much-vaunted technologies don't really increase yields after all; and aren't really all that promising for adapting to climate change.

We're also getting a trickle of information that calls into serious question the PR talking point on which the entire GMO seed industry hangs: that GMO products are safe to eat. This is a widely held assumption; but as Don Lotter showed in a recent paper in the International Journal of the Sociology of Food and Agriculture, there has actually been shockingly little research done on the long-term effects of eating GMO foods - and most of what has been was conducted by the industry itself.

The problem is that government funding for independent research on GMOs is scant - and industry funding is non-existent. And it's extremely difficult for independent researchers to get their hands on GMO seeds without signing restrictive contracts with their patent holders, as the New York Times reported earlier this year.

The independent research that has been done on the health effects of GMOs paints an alarming picture. Here's my discussion of the results of a multigenerational study, funded by the Austrian government, that came out last year on the effects of GMO corn on mice. Short story: in the third and forth generations, mice fed GMOs showed "statistically significant" reproductive dysfunction.

And now comes this study by three French university researchers. It's a fascinating piece of work. The researchers analyzed data from tests done on rats by Monsanto and another biotech firm, Covance Laboratories, submitted to European government in 2000 and 2001. The firms conducted the tests to prove that their products were safe to eat; scrutinizing the same data, the researchers arrived at a different conclusion.

The three products in question are still quite relevant: one strain of Roundup Ready corn, engineered to withstand Monsanto's flagship herbicide; and two strands of Bt corn, engineered to contain the insect-killing gene from the BT bacteria. Roundup Ready and Bt products are ubiquitous in the U.S. seed supply, often "stacked" into the same seed.

Here's what the researchers found: in the three GM maize varieties that formed the basis of this investigation, new side effects linked to the consumption of these cereals were revealed, which were sex- and often dose-dependent. Effects were mostly concentrated in kidney and liver function, the two major diet detoxification organs, but in detail differed with each GM type. In addition, some effects on heart, adrenal, spleen and blood cells were also frequently noted. As there normally exists sex differences in liver and kidney metabolism, the highly statistically significant disturbances in the function of these organs, seen between male and female rats, cannot be dismissed as biologically insignificant as has been proposed by others [4]. We therefore conclude that our data strongly suggests that these GM maize varieties induce a state of hepatorenal [i.e., kidney] toxicity.

The researchers also found "clear negative impact" on their livers of rats fed all three kinds of GMO corn.

They added that it's impossible to tell, based on the data, whether the damage was caused by the specific genes introduced to the corn, or - more troubling still - if the very process of genetic modification creates a toxic effect. And they call for more research: In conclusion, our data presented here strongly recommend that additional long-term (up to 2 years) animal feeding studies be performed in at least three species, preferably also multi-generational, to provide true scientifically valid data on the acute and chronic toxic effects of GM crops, feed and foods.

Here's hoping that governments find the will - and the courage - to find such research; it's clear that industry won't.

I want to acknowledge that one risks sounding like a fanatic or a "denier" when bringing the issue of GMOs and human health. Here's why. Nearly our entire corn and soy crops crops are genetically modified - and have been for nearly a decade. Corn and soy course through the food system like blood in a body. If GMOs caused harm, wouldn't it be obvious by now?

Moreover, most corn and soy goes into animal feed. Last I checked, pigs, chickens, and cows on factory animal farms haven't been dropping dead en masse before their date with the executioner. Again, if GMOs were dangerous, why aren't factory animal farmers rejecting them?

This thinking, I think, represents educated opinion on GMOs. The logic would be persuasive, if scientists were claiming that GMOs caused spectacular, virulent illnesses, the kind associated with, say, E. coli 0157 or salmonella. But instead, the evidence I'm referring to suggests that GMOs cause low-level, chronic damage.

And think of the U.S. diet. People here tend to survive on refined sugars and processed food, and are routinely exposed to toxic chemicals like BPA. Moreover, we have high and growing levels of chronic ailments. To me, it's highly plausible that yet more low-level toxins could enter the food stream without causing immediately identifiable trouble.

As for animals on factory farms, their lives are by design short, nasty, and brutish. The game is to fatten them as quickly as possible for slaughter, not to make sure they're feeling well. So, again, it seems plausible that subtly health-damaging feed could be intorduced without causing much of a stir.

Read the CRIIGEN Press Release


Monsanto's Practices Weed Out Competition

By Christopher Leonard
Associated Press
December 17, 2009

Licensing pacts, science propel seed company to dominate position in United States

ST. LOUIS -- Confidential contracts detailing Monsanto Co.'s business practices reveal how the world's biggest seed developer is squeezing competitors, controlling smaller seed companies and protecting its dominance over the multibillion-dollar market for genetically altered crops, an Associated Press investigation has found.

With Monsanto's patented genes being inserted into roughly 95 percent of all soybeans and 80 percent of all corn grown in the U.S., the company also is using its wide reach to control the ability of new biotech firms to get wide distribution for their products, according to a review of several Monsanto licensing agreements and dozens of interviews with seed industry participants, agriculture and legal experts.

Monsanto's methods are spelled out in a series of confidential commercial licensing agreements obtained by the AP. The contracts, as long as 30 pages, include basic terms for the selling of engineered crops resistant to Monsanto's Roundup herbicide, along with shorter supplementary agreements that address new Monsanto traits or other contract amendments.

The company has used the agreements to spread its technology -- giving some 200 smaller companies the right to insert Monsanto's genes in their separate strains of corn and soybeans. But, the AP found, access to Monsanto's genes comes at a cost, and with plenty of strings attached.

For example, one contract provision bans independent companies from breeding plants that contain both Monsanto's genes and the genes of any of its competitors, unless Monsanto gives prior written permission -- giving Monsanto the ability to effectively lock out competitors from inserting their patented traits into the vast share of U.S. crops that already contain Monsanto's genes.

Monsanto's business strategies and licensing agreements are being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice and at least two state attorneys general, who are trying to determine if the practices violate U.S. antitrust laws. The practices also are at the heart of civil antitrust suits filed against Monsanto by its competitors, including a 2004 suit filed by Syngenta AG that was settled with an agreement and ongoing litigation filed this summer by DuPont in response to a Monsanto lawsuit.

The suburban St. Louis-based agricultural giant said it's done nothing wrong.

"We do not believe there is any merit to allegations about our licensing agreement or the terms within," Monsanto spokesman Lee Quarles said. He said he couldn't comment on many specific provisions of the agreements because they are confidential and the subject of ongoing litigation.

"Our approach to licensing (with) many companies is pro-competitive and has enabled literally hundreds of seed companies, including all of our major direct competitors, to offer thousands of new seed products to farmers," he said.

The benefit of Monsanto's technology for farmers has been undeniable, but some of its major competitors and smaller seed firms claim the company is using strong-arm tactics to further its control.

"We now believe that Monsanto has control over as much as 90 percent of (seed genetics). This level of control is almost unbelievable," said Neil Harl, an agricultural economist at Iowa State University who has studied the seed industry for decades. "The upshot of that is that it's tightening Monsanto's control, and makes it possible for them to increase their prices long term. And we've seen this happening the last five years, and the end is not in sight."

At issue is how much power one company can have over seeds, the foundation of the world's food supply. Without stiff competition, Monsanto could raise its seed prices at will.

The price of seeds is already rising. Monsanto increased some corn seed prices last year by 25 percent, with an additional 7 percent hike planned for corn seeds in 2010. Monsanto-brand soybean seeds climbed 28 percent last year and will be flat or up 6 percent in 2010, said company spokeswoman Kelli Powers.


Monsanto's broad use of licensing agreements has made its biotech traits among the most widely and rapidly adopted technologies in farming history. These days, when farmers buy bags of seed with obscure brand names like AgVenture or M-Pride Genetics, they are paying for Monsanto's licensed products.

One of the numerous provisions in the licensing agreements is a ban on mixing genes -- or "stacking" in industry lingo -- that enhance Monsanto's power.

One contract provision likely helped Monsanto buy 24 independent seed companies throughout the Farm Belt over the last few years: that corn seed agreement says that if a smaller company changes ownership, its inventory with Monsanto's traits "shall be destroyed immediately."

Another provision from contracts earlier this decade-- regarding rebates -- also help explain Monsanto's rapid growth as it rolled out new products.

One contract gave an independent seed company deep discounts if the company ensured that Monsanto's products would make up 70 percent of its total corn seed inventory. In its 2004 lawsuit, Syngenta called the discounts part of Monsanto's "scorched earth campaign" to keep Syngenta's new traits out of the market.

Quarles said the discounts were used to entice seed companies to carry Monsanto products when the technology was new and farmers hadn't yet used it. Now that the products are widespread, Monsanto has discontinued the discounts, he said.

The Monsanto contracts reviewed by the AP prohibit seed companies from discussing terms, and Monsanto has the right to cancel deals and wipe out the inventory of a business if the confidentiality clauses are violated.

Thomas Terral, chief executive officer of Terral Seed in Louisiana, said he recently rejected a Monsanto contract because it put too many restrictions on his business. But Terral refused to provide the unsigned contract to AP or even discuss its contents because he was afraid Monsanto would retaliate and cancel the rest of his agreements.

Independent seed company owners could drop their contracts with Monsanto and return to selling conventional seed, but they say it could be financially ruinous. Monsanto's Roundup Ready gene has become the industry standard over the last decade, and small companies fear losing customers if they drop it. It also can take years of breeding and investment to mix Monsanto's genes into a seed company's product line, so dropping the genes can be costly.

Monsanto acknowledged that U.S. Department of Justice lawyers are seeking documents and interviewing company employees about its marketing practices. The DOJ wouldn't comment.

Monsanto chairman and chief executive officer Hugh Grant told investment analysts during a conference call this fall that the price increases are justified by the productivity boost farmers get from the company's seeds. Farmers and seed company owners agree that Monsanto's technology has boosted yields and profits, saving farmers time they once spent weeding and money they once spent on pesticides.

Any Justice Department case against Monsanto could break new ground in balancing a company's right to control its patented products while protecting competitors' right to free and open competition, said Kevin Arquit, former director of the Federal Trade Commission competition bureau and now a antitrust attorney with Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP in New York.

Other seed companies have followed Monsanto's lead by including restrictive clauses in their licensing agreements, but their products only penetrate smaller segments of the U.S. seed market. Monsanto's Roundup Ready gene, on the other hand, is in such a wide array of crops that its licensing agreements can have a massive effect on the rules of the marketplace.


Monsanto was only a niche player in the seed business just 12 years ago. It rose to the top thanks to innovation by its scientists and aggressive use of patent law by its attorneys.

First came the science, when Monsanto in 1996 introduced the world's first commercial strain of genetically engineered soybeans. The Roundup Ready plants were resistant to the herbicide, allowing farmers to spray Roundup whenever they wanted rather than wait until the soybeans had grown enough to withstand the chemical.

The company soon released other genetically altered crops, such as corn plants that produced a natural pesticide to ward off bugs. While Monsanto had blockbuster products, it didn't yet have a big foothold in a seed industry made up of hundreds of companies that supplied farmers.

That's where the legal innovations came in, as Monsanto became among the first to widely patent its genes and gain the right to strictly control how they were used. That control let it spread its technology through licensing agreements, while shaping the marketplace around them.

Quarles pointed out that Monsanto has signed agreements with several companies allowing them to stack their traits with Monsanto's. After Syngenta settled its lawsuit, for example, the companies struck a broad cross-licensing accord.

At the same time, Monsanto's patent rights give it the authority to say how independent companies use its traits, Quarles said.

Some independent seed company owners say they feel increasingly pinched as Monsanto cements its leadership in the industry.

"They have the capital, they have the resources, they own lots of companies, and buying more. We're small town, they're Wall Street," said Bill Cook, co-owner of M-Pride Genetics seed company in Garden City, Mo., who also declined to discuss or provide the agreements. "It's very difficult to compete in this environment against companies like Monsanto."


Trio Fights GMO Wheat

By Dan Wheat
Capital Press
December 18, 2009

New committee says modified wheat will destroy markets

WATERVILLE, Wash. -- Three Waterville wheat growers have formed a committee and launched a petition drive against genetically modified wheat.

They are concerned that if GMO wheat gets started in the region it could torpedo sales to Japan, the largest consumer of north-central Washington wheat. They are also concerned about potential health risks of GMO wheat. Japan is opposed to GMO wheat but has accepted some GMO canola, said Tom Mick, chief executive officer of the Washington Wheat Commission and the Washington Grain Alliance in Spokane.

The commission and alliance know of the Waterville growers' concerns and have not endorsed the release of any GMO wheat, but the organizations have endorsed research into it, Mick said.

They have done so because they don't want to be left behind, Mick said. Midwestern growers want GMO wheat to better compete for acreage with GMO corn and soybeans.

At the urging of Midwest growers, the National Association of Wheat Growers has asked Monsanto to research GMO wheat, Mick said.

Several years ago, research was dropped because of grower opposition, he said.

North-central Washington produces about 13.5 million bushels of dryland soft white winter and spring wheat annually. About 85 percent of it is exported to Asia, mainly Japan.

Fourth-generation Waterville grower Tom Stahl said he and fellow growers Joe Ludeman and Lynn Polson are concerned about losing that market. He said they formed a committee Nov. 20 and since Nov. 25 have gathered 126 signatures in Waterville and Wenatchee on petitions asking the national and state associations to warn farmers against growing GMO wheat unless customers agree to buy it. The petitions seek investigation into the health safety of GMO wheat and oppose open-air test plots of it, Stahl said.

The group plans to gather signatures until March 10 and then present the petitions to the associations and Central Washington Grain Growers Inc., the co-op that serves north-central Washington wheat growers.

Kevin Whitehall, manager of the co-op, said the organization respects the group's opinion but is neutral on the issue. Whitehall said he hasn't heard very much from growers in the co-op for or against GMO wheat.

Stahl said Kazakhstan could become a source of wheat for Japan. He said the Institute for Responsible Technology in Fairfield, Iowa, has raised concerns about health risks.

He said GMO wheat could be tolerant of glyphosate to allow farmers to spray herbicides to kill weeds without killing wheat . He said it also could contain Bacillus Thuringiensis, a bacterium that's poisonous to bugs.


Groups Applaud American Public Health Association for Opposition to Hormone Use in Beef and Dairy Production

Press Release
Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Food & Water Watch, Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility
December 22, 2009

Washington, D.C. - Public health and consumer groups today applauded the decision of the American Public Health Association (APHA) to oppose the use of growth hormones in beef and dairy production by calling for a ban on the use of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) in dairy cows and a slate of growth hormones in beef cattle.

APHA is the oldest and largest association of public health professionals in the world, representing 50,000 professionals nationwide. APHA's resolution follows an official position statement released last year by the American Nurses Association opposing rBGH. The past president of the American Medical Association (AMA) last year asked all AMA members to serve only rBGH-free milk in hospitals.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has estimated that over 42 percent of large dairy operations in the United States inject their cows with rBGH, a synthetic hormone that induces cows to produce more milk. Six steroid hormones are in widespread use in U.S. and Canadian beef cattle to speed weight gain.

"Americans are now awash in environmental hormones, while the science reveals that hormone- related diseases are on the rise," said David Wallinga, M.D., physician/director of Food and Health at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. "The most prudent step - and the one called for by APHA - is to reduce the needless and risky addition of hormones to the food chain wherever possible." APHA's resolution asks the Food and Drug Administration to ban the use of rBGH and growth- promoting beef hormones, and recommends that hospitals, schools and other institutions - especially those serving children - serve food produced without these hormones. The resolution also supports product labeling for consumers to make informed purchasing decisions.

"For too long, regulators have looked the other way while industrial beef and dairy operations use hormones recklessly," said Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter.

"APHA's resolution against this practice sends a clear signal that public health, not industry convenience, should guide U.S. food policy."

The use of rBGH has well-known negative impacts on the health of dairy cows. Human consumption of dairy products produced using the hormone also may increase the risk of certain types of cancer. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and all 27 members of the European Union have disallowed the use of rBGH. Codex Alimentarius, the United Nations' main food safety body, twice determined that there was no consensus on the safety of rBGH for human health.

It is widely acknowledged that the use of hormones in beef production leaves hormone residues in meat, putting consumers at risk for prolonged exposure. While European Union authorities have never approved the use of hormones in beef production, the U.S. government has relied on very limited and now out-of-date research to back its claim that it is safe for producers to use growth hormones on their animals.

"In the marketplace, consumers are demanding meat and dairy produced without these hormones," said Martin Donohoe, MD of Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility. "But access to safe food should not depend on the whims of the market. It is the government's responsibility to ensure that all consumers are protected."

The APHA resolution can be viewed at:

top of page