Interview: Jeffrey Smith – Dangers of Gm Foods

  • OSU assistant farm manager Wayne Lewis cultivates for weed control in soybeans. (Photo by Keith Weller, courtesy of USDA)

Products made from genetically engineered crops are appearing in more and more foods. There’s a good chance just about any prepackaged food that’s made with soybean oil, soy flour, corn flour, corn oil or Canola will be derived from genetically engineered crops. Critics make strong claims about the risks associated with bio-engineered foods. In the first of two interviews on the subject, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham talked with Jeffrey Smith, who’s spoken and written extensively on genetically engineered crops. He asked Smith why he’s opposed to the approach to altering crops:

Transcript

Genetically engineered foods are appearing in more and more foods. There’s a good chance just
about any prepackaged food that’s made with soybean oil, soy flour, corn flour, corn oil or
Canola will be derived from genetically engineered crops. Critics made strong claims about the
risks associated with bio-engineered foods. In the first of two interviews on the subject, the Great
Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham talked with Jeffrey Smith who has spoken and written
extensively on genetically engineered crops. He asked Smith why he’s opposed to the approach
to altering crops:


Smith: “Genetically engineered foods are inherently unsafe. In fact, the FDA’s own scientists, as
evidenced by internal memos that were made public by a lawsuit, described the dangers of
genetically modified foods as potentially allergens, toxins, new diseases and nutritional problems
that would not necessarily be detected by the creators of those foods, and they urged their
superiors to require long-term safety testing in order to protect the public. But their superiors
were political appointees, including a former attorney for Monsanto, a leading biotechnology
company, and they in a memo, said that they were creating a policy in line with White House
policy, which was for the safe and speedy development of the U.S. biotechnology industry. So
they ignored their own scientists and allowed the foods on the market without safety testing, and
gave companies like Monsanto and others the complete authority to determine whether the foods
are safe. Those who have looked at the research studies by industry have been shocked at how
flimsy and superficial they have been and how they could be putting the public at risk.”


LG: “On the other hand, some of these genetically modified foods have been around for almost
20 years in some cases, and there have been relatively few problems with these. For instance,
Roundup Ready soybeans have been around for quite a while now, and there’s been no report of
any substantial problems.”


Smith: “It’s easy to say there’s no report because there’s no one looking for a report. There are
very few studies done on Roundup Ready soybeans, and the one, the big study by Monsanto that
was put out in ’96, was basically rigged to avoid finding problems according to many scientists
I’ve talked to.”


LG: “When I talk to people who are knowledgeable about growing food, using genetically
engineered foods, and worried about the food supply, they say the world needs genetically
engineered foods in order to feed the growing population. In fact, I talked to Nobel Peace Prize
winner Norman Borlaug, and he says the small risks that are associated with genetically
engineered foods are well worth it, and I’m wondering what you think of that.”


Smith: “Well, it’s irresponsible to say that it can only create minor risks, because it could put the
whole population in peril. But also, as far as the feed the world mythology, if you look at the
United Nation’s FAO report, they said we have more food per person than any time in history,
and if you project food production and if you project population growth, we’re not going to run
out of food any time soon. Many, many commentors have said that famine and hunger are not the
result of lack of production overall, they’re the result of economic and distribution problems, as
evidenced today by the fact that so many people go to bed hungry, and yet we have more food per
person than any time in history.”


LG: “Are you suggesting that we abandon genetically engineered foods altogether?”


Smith: “My suggestion is that at this point in the infant stages of understanding the DNA, where
every month we learn more and more about gene expression, we are way too early to be putting
the population at risk with foods. I’m not in favor of abandoning research on biotechnology, but I
am shocked that the United States government has allowed these foods on the market at this early
stage.”


LG: “That gets to another point – some would say, ‘well just let consumers decide.’ I’m
wondering what you think of the fact that we don’t know whether we’re eating soybeans or corn
or animals that have eaten those kinds of foods – it’s not on the label.”


Smith: “Well, the vast majority of Americans, more than 90%, want GM foods to be labeled.
Also, about 58% said that if the foods were labeled, they would choose not to eat it. Now the
FDA has a specific mandate to promote the biotechnology industry. So if they’re trying to
promote biotechnology, they certainly don’t want to do what the citizens want, which is to give
them a chance to avoid it. So those who want to avoid eating GMOs have to eat no soy, no corn,
no cottonseed oil, no canola oil whatsoever, unless it says non-GMO or organic. So it puts a
higher burden on the consumer and it goes against what the consumers want. The United States
is one of the very few industrialized countries that don’t have labeling laws about GMOs.”


HOST TAG: “Jeffrey Smith, speaking with Lester Graham. Smith is the author of the book,
Seeds of Deception: Exposing Industry and Government Lies about the Safety of the
Genetically Engineered Foods You’re Eating
.”

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Interview: Bruce Chassy – Gm Foods Are Safer

  • Soybeans were among the first genetically engineered crops. (Photo by Scott Bauer, courtesy of USDA)

Critics of genetically engineered foods question the safety of using genes from different species to alter the behavior of plants. But the supporters of bio-engineered crops say the plants are rigorously tested before they’re allowed on the market. In the second of two interviews on the subject, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham talks with Bruce Chassy. Chassy is with the University of Illinois’ biotechnology center. Graham asked why the agriculture industry is pushing genetically engineered crops:

Transcript

Critics of genetically engineered foods question the safety of using genes from different species
to alter the behavior of plants. But the supporters of bio-engineered crops say the plants are
rigorously tested before they’re allowed on the market. In the second of two interviews on the
subject, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham talks with Bruce Chassy. Chassy is
with the University of Illinois’ biotechnology center. Graham asked why the agriculture industry
is pushing genetically engineered crops:


Chassy: “They’re much more environmentally friendly than regular crops. They allow us to move
away from using chemicals in agriculture. They allow us to use no-till agriculture in many cases
which is much better for the soil, stop soil erosion. We get better water quality because we’re
using less chemicals. A whole variety of environmental gains. Plus, in some cases, they’re
actually safer as foods. One of the problems with the controversy about bio-tech is that it gets our
mind off what are the real food safety concerns that consumers ought to have in their minds.
There are toxins in our food, but they’re natural toxins and toxins that things like molds put on
them. I’m sure you’ve heard of aflatoxins or microtoxins. These are really, really deadly toxins
that nature puts on our foods. And bio-tech corn, for example, has a lot less of them because the
insects don’t eat them and they don’t get fungus in their wounds and they don’t make microtoxins,
so you can get a safer crop because it’s bio-tech. And safer for another reason. Most of the
conventional foods we have on the market have never been safety tested by the FDA. In fact,
bio-tech foods at least have gone through a rigorous safety test.”


LG: “Well, most of the foods on the market have been through centuries of human testing.”


Chassy: “That’s true and it’s not true. It’s true in the sense that humans have been eating food for
an awfully long time, but most of the varieties of the foods we eat are only recently developed.
We do an awful lot of plant breeding. And, you know, when you say a ‘tomato,’ you’re talking
about 2500 different varieties of things. When you say ‘wheat,’ you’re talking about hundreds of
varieties of wheat. And all of them have been subjected to genetic manipulation by plant
breeders.”


LG: “We’ve gotten along with hybridization and different kinds of cross-breeding of genetically
like plants for centuries and have increased production and increased quality of food. Why isn’t
that cross-breeding enough?”


Chassy: “Well, simply because there are certain kind of traits that you’d like to introduce into
plants that you can’t introduce through cross-breeding because plants that are close enough to do
cross-breeding with don’t have those traits. They’re not in the family of things that would cross-
breed. By being able to move a gene from one place to another, you can, for example, take a
gene out of a bacteria – which is exactly what they do – and put it into a plant and make it
herbicide tolerant or to make it insect resistant. The other point about this that really needs to be
said is that too much has been made of this technology in a way. It’s probably not as powerful as
it’s made out to be, although it’s very powerful. It’s certainly not as dangerous as it’s made out to
be. But, to the plant breeder, it’s simply another tool in the tool kit. It’s a way of doing a specific
thing and that’s moving a trait around. But, we still have plant breeders that are doing classical
plant breeding. It’s a very useful kind of activity. So, think of this as not the replacement for all
plant breeding, but rather just one more implement that helps a plant breeder produce plants that
are more productive and more environmentally friendly and maybe someday more nutritious or
healthier for us.”


LG: “If that’s the case, then why don’t the industry and the government say ‘Fine. Look these
things are safe. You shouldn’t be concerned about them, but for those of you who are concerned,
we’ll make sure there are labels put on those foods that are using bio-engineered crops or foods.’
That way you can make up your own mind.”


Chassy: “We have a labeling law in the United States that the FDA enforces which simply says
when food is materially changed, when it’s changed in such a way that it affects its health or
safety for the consumer, it must be labeled. If you ask people do they want something labeled,
they will always say ‘Yes.’ And then they will tell you they won’t buy it if it’s got a label on it
because people interpret that label as a safety warning. And, that’s why the manufacturers and the
FDA don’t want to put that label on there, because there is no safety concern. The problem is that
consumers have been misled about whether there should be safety concerns or not. They haven’t
really heard the whole story about these. So, why would you put a negative label on something
that offers a positive good?”


HOST TAG: Bruce Chassy, speaking with Lester Graham. Chassy works with various
organizations to promote using genetic engineering to alter the behavior of crops. He’s a
professor of food microbiology at the University of Illinois.

Related Links

Interview: Great Lakes Need Citizen Input

A recent report indicates many of the problems troubling the Great Lakes are due to poor governance of the lakes. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham talked with the chief author of the report, Restoring Greatness to Government: Protecting the Great Lakes in the 21st Century. Dave Dempsey is a policy advisor with the Michigan Environmental Council, which published the report:

Transcript

A recent report indicates many of the problems troubling the Great Lakes are due to poor
governance of the lakes. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham talked with the
chief author of the report Restoring Greatness to Government: Protecting the Great Lakes in
the 21st Century
. Dave Dempsey is a policy advisor with the Michigan Environmental
Council, which published the report:


Dave Dempsey: “Well, we have sick Great Lakes in part because we have a sick governance
system. We have an array of 21st century problems facing the lakes from climate change to
continued degradation of some of our waters with toxic chemicals, but we have a 19th century
system of government that’s trying to protect them and failing.”


Lester Graham: “Now, the International Joint Commission, which is a body made up of
appointees by the Canadian government and the U.S. government, is to watch over the water
quality agreement and the treaty between the U.S. and Canada as to how we treat the Great Lakes.
And the Great Lakes Commission is another group that’s made up of representatives from the
eight Great Lakes states and the two provinces in Canada that surround the Great Lakes. And
these are all 21st century people, I know some of them, and they’re bright folks, they’re doing an
earnest and fairly decent job. What’s holding them back? They’re not 19th century people.”


DD: “No, but the structures and the systems they use are 19th century. There’s two problems: with
several of the commissions, they’ve become very politicized. The International Joint Commission
used to have a tradition of independence from political pressures and looking at the long-term
health of the Great Lakes. That’s been compromised since the ’90’s. But maybe more
importantly, with all these institutions, they’re relying on the old fashioned way of dealing with
public input. We think, in the environmental community, that the way to restore healthy Great
Lakes is to make sure the citizen voice is heard. These institutions cover a Great Lakes basin
that’s hundreds of thousands of square miles, and they’re expecting people to show up at public
hearings, perhaps traveling hundreds of miles to get there. Today, what we need to do is take
advantage in governance of the Internet, and other ways of involving people that don’t require
that kind of commitment or sacrifice because people frankly don’t have the time.”


LG: “How would increased participation of the public help the health of the Great Lakes?”


DD: “Well, looking at the history of the Great Lakes, every time the public voice is heard
strongly in the halls of government, the Great Lakes recover. Every time the voices of special
interests are drowning out the public voice, the lakes begin to deteriorate and that’s what we see
happening now.”


LG: “The Great Lakes Commission has had some success recently in getting more money from
the government for the Great Lakes recovery, the IJC has done a good job recently of working
with the media to bring public awareness to invasive species because of the Asian black carp. So,
are those moves the kind of thing you’d like to see to solve this problem?”


DD: “I think it’s helpful. Both of these commissions can use their bully pulpit to publicize
problems and call attention. But if you took a poll of the average Great Lakes residents, very few
of them would ever have heard of these commissions. We need bodies that look out for the Great
Lakes that are really plugged into individual communities, and that doesn’t exist right now. The
Great Lakes Commission specifically was set up to promote commercial navigation in the Great
Lakes, and while it has broadened its agenda to look at ecosystem issues, it has been an advocate,
for example, for the Great Lakes review of navigation that could result in more invasive species
coming into the Great Lakes by allowing more ocean-going vessels. We need an institution that’s
looking at the health of the Lakes first, not at the health of the industries that sometimes exploit
them.”


LG: “Bottom line, what would you like to see done?”


DD: “I’d like to see a Great Lakes citizens’ commission building on the existing institutions that
plugs into the individual states and provinces around the Great Lakes and brings people and their
voices together so that their vision of healthy Great Lakes can be carried out by government.”


Host Tag: Dave Dempsey is chief author of a report on governance of the Great Lakes issued by
the Michigan Environmental Council. He spoke with the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester
Graham.

Related Links

The Allure of Cicadas

This year, cicadas are re-emerging in many parts of the eastern United States. While not really locusts, they are considered a plague by some people. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Jim Blum goes beyond the backyard to find out there is little to fear:

Transcript

This year, cicadas are re-emerging in many parts of the eastern United States.
While not really locusts, they are considered a plague by some people. The
Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Jim Blum goes beyond the backyard to find out
there is little to fear:


(sound of cicadas)


Reporter Jim Blum: “I’m Jim Blum with naturalist Dan Best. Seventeen years ago this
month, Magicicada septemdecula and other species of periodic cicadas rose out
of the ground to lay eggs. Then, and now, and likely 17 years from now,
communities will expect a disaster. Dan, is it?”


Naturalist Dan Best: “No, I wouldn’t call it a disaster. Tremendous
natural phenomenon, yes, but disaster, no. Anytime you have large, big buzzy insects
around, people tend to get shook up, whether it’s bumblebees or dragonflies, but
especially when something shows up in prodigious numbers like these cicadas.”


JB: “Now, unlike a large outbreak of gypsy moths, the periodic cicadas don’t
actually eat the leaves.”


DB: “No, that’s right. The damage we are likely to see is the result of
female cicadas laying eggs.”


JB: “How?”


DB: “Well, they have a structure called an ovipositor, and in the end of a
twig they will use this like a little saw to make slits in the twig where they
will lay their eggs inside of that.”


JB: “How will that be apparent to us?”


DB: “Well, the twig will split as a result of several of these little egg laying
gouges in the twig, and from that point the twig may die, or the end of the
branch. And so you’ll notice withered brown leaves at the tips of branches.”


JB: “And that’s what they recognize as ‘flagging?'”


DB: “That’s the term.”


JB: “Now, what size trees are going to be affected?”


DB: “Branches or twigs that are half-inch in diameter or smaller. So on
big, mature trees that’s just the outer growth, no big deal. The trees
that are more vulnerable are the young trees, where literally all the
branches are that size.”


JB: “If this is not a disaster, what is it?”


DB: “I think it’s a tremendous natural phenomenon to experience. It only
occurs like a comet or a blue moon, and perhaps even less frequently than that.
You don’t want to miss it.”


(guitar music)


JB: “Now what’s a good time to see this emergence?”


DB: “Evening, just after dark. You’ll see the holes before the actual
emergence. And then, as they emerge, they’ll be coming up and you’ll see
them all over small trees. The edge of the woods is a good place to see
it.”


JB: “From the pictures I’ve seen, and from what I remember from 17 years ago,
the periodic cicada, bumblebee sized, black, orange eyes and wings. Do
they look like this when they come out of the ground?”


DB: “No, they don’t. What comes out of the ground are the nymphs, the
golden brown color, and no wings at all. Then they make their way up a tree
trunk or out on a branch, and this exoskeleton that they have splits open and
out emerges the adult which is a creamy white color with red eyes and a
couple of big black patches on it.”


JB: “Dan, are these cicadas going to be everywhere?”


DB: “Well, they are not going to be popping out of every square foot of ground in
the area, but there will be kind of a spotty emergence. But very heavy in
some places.”


JB: “If the visual spectacle of the emergence for some reason, doesn’t happen in my yard,
will I have missed out on the experience?”


DB: “No, because it’s almost impossible to escape what comes next.”


(sound up of cicadas)


DB: “The sound is an overwhelming, even annoying, series of buzzes and ticks.”


JB: “How do they make this noise?”


DB: “This loud noise is created by the males to attract the females. The
males vibrate two drum-like membranes to create the sound, which is then
resonated or amplified by a hollow chamber in their body.”


JB: “Not unlike the sound box of a guitar.”


DB: “That’s right.”


(strumming on guitar)


JB: “How long will we hear them?”


DB: “We’ll here this noise during the month of June and be over by about the
Fourth of July.”


JB: “About the same time that the annual or dog days cicadas show up.”


DB: “That’s right, that we’ll here during the hot days of July and August.”


JB: “Now why are those called annual cicadas?”


DB: “Well, unlike the 17-year cicada, which emerges from a single brood in
our area, we have several broods of these annual cicadas which have a much
shorter cycle in the ground. So every year, one way or the other, we have
annual cicadas.”


JB: “Why 17?”


DB: “Jim, I can’t tell you, I don’t know, it’s just one of those great mysteries
of nature.”


JB: “That’s naturalist Dan Best, and I’m Jim Blum, for the Great Lakes Radio
Consortium.”

(cicadas fade out)

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Interview: Feathered Friends Return

It’s no wonder the International Migratory Bird Day is held in the month of May. This is the time when trees leaf out and provide a welcome habitat to birds returning from their southern dwelling spots. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Jim Blum ventures beyond the backyard to see who’s back:

Transcript

It’s no wonder the International Migratory Bird Day is held in the month of May. This is the time
when trees in the Great Lakes states leaf out and provide a welcome habitat to birds returning
from their southern dwelling spots. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Jim Blum decided to
venture beyond the backyard to see who’s back:


Blum: Take a stroll into a forest and you may notice that trees have greened out this month.
There are thick canopies overhead that weren’t there just a week or two ago. Naturalist Dan Best
says, that times out very nicely for returning migratory birds.


Best: That’s right. A few warm days and the leaves just explode out of the buds. And we have
full leaf-out already. May is just an amazing month. You still have the wildflowers, lots of
wildflowers. And well, Jim, what do you hear?


Blum: Well, certainly a parade of birds that I didn’t hear a month ago. The nuthatches and the
chickadees are still here, but who’s joined them?


Best: Lots and lots of birds. New arrivals here. We have thrushes and warblers and vireos and
tanagers, flycatchers – a tremendous variety of birds that have come to us from their wintering
areas in Latin America. That is South America, Central America, the Caribbean nations. These
birds have made their way, many of them traveling at night, using amazing means of navigation.
They’re using celestial navigation, that is, using the stars. They’re using perhaps the earth’s
magnetism, sensitivity to polarized light, a variety of different means to make their way
thousands of miles over land and ocean to return here to our forests to nest.


Blum: Why May, why now, why so many?


Best: Well, let’s take a walk over to some of these leaves, and no matter what kind of tree you’re
looking at here, what do you notice on these leaves?


Blum: Well, it seems as if several of them have little chew marks or holes.


Best: That’s right, holes. And no sooner does a leaf out, then the salad bar is served for
hundreds of different kinds of caterpillars, whether they be butterflies or especially moths. Their
hatching of these eggs of these caterpillars is synchronized with this leaf-out.


Blum: So, apparently there are many visitors to this buffet, but who, what, and where?


Best: Well, ok. Let’s listen here. (bird chirps) Hear that over there? That’s a hooded warbler.
(bird chirps again) Yeah, there it goes. Now that one will tend to stay low. Oh, the male might
go up a little higher to sing to announce its territory, but generally it’s gonna forge in this shrub
layer in the lower part of the forest.


Blum: (another bird chirps) Now what was that?


Best: Well, I can hear a nice warble up there. That’s the rose-breasted grosbeak. They all
spend most of their time in the understory – that’s about halfway up in this mature forest we’re in.
And then listening a little higher above us, I can hear that nice hoarse, robin-like song of the
scarlet tanager. And I’m even picking up the cerulian warbler, and a little bit of the hoarser vireo
sound, as well as the yellow-throated vireo, and those birds like to stay high up in the canopy.


Blum: So in order for this forest restaurant, if you will, to accommodate so many different
customers, it needs different stories.


Best: That’s right. These birds are here because of the big insect menu that the forest has to
offer. And they’re not fighting for the same seat at the same table because they’re distributed in
these different levels of the forest.


Blum: So if you’re talking about a canopy, an understory, and a shrub layer, you’re indicating a
mature forest.


Best: That’s right. That’s a characteristic of a mature and old growth forest is it has these defined
layers. This kind of habitat, these large tracts of mature forests are getting harder to come by, as
the large trees are logged out, or even worse, these remaining forest tracts are continually
fragmented into smaller parcels, which are less suitable for this big diversity of forest-nesting
birds.


Blum: Now, Dan, I’ve seen the bird books. These birds are extremely colorful. Any tips on the
best chance of actually seeing them?


Best: Well, bring your binoculars into the forest with you. And don’t charge up to every song
that you hear. Just slow down, take it nice and easy. Look where you hear a song. Watch for that
little movement of leaves. Spot that movement. Raise your binoculars and you’ll eventually see
them. You’ll get to see these different kinds of birds.


Blum: That’s naturalist Dan Best. Some of us live in one story houses and some in high-rise
buildings. It’s a good idea when bird-watching to remember that birds also have their own
preferred level. For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Jim Blum.

Why We Waste

A new study from the University of Illinois finds that a surprising
number of the things we buy at the grocery store never get used. Brian
Wansink is a Professor of Marketing at the U-of-I. The Great Lakes
Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham talked to him about why people spend
money on products they never get around to opening:

Transcript

In the back of your cabinets you’ll likely find canned goods or other products you bought years

ago, but never opened. Brian Wansink found as much as twelve percent of the products they buy are

never used.


“In almost all these cases – er – in about three-quarters of the cases, the abandoned products, or

these castaway products that people have in their cupboards, end up being bought for

over-ambitious reasons. They’re essentially events that never happen or for recipes that we never

got around to making or things like that.”


Wansink says when they were asked how they planned to dispose of their abandoned products, more

than fifty percent of the homemakers surveyed said they would end up throwing the items away

rather than keeping them or donating them to a food pantry.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.