The Bizarre History of How Corporate Food Industry Flooded Our Farmlands with GMOs

It's one elaborate con job.

Photo Credit: Sandra Matic / Shutterstock

The following is excerpted with permission from the forthcoming book Badditives! The 13 Most Harmful Food Additives in Your Diet—and How to Avoid Them by Linda Bonvie and Bill Bonvie (January 2017). Copyright 2017, Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

No matter what you may have heard about how completely “safe” genetically modified foods are, it is part of an elaborate con job—one designed to protect the profits of both Big Food and the biotechnology industry at the expense of your family’s health.

Perhaps the best indicator of how patently false those notions are comes from those consumers whose honesty you can always depend on—animals. As Jeffrey M. Smith, executive director of the Institute for Responsible Technology, notes in his book, Genetic Roulette, when given the choice, animals in multiple isolated accounts usually make a point of steering clear of genetically altered foods.

Are these animals merely being finicky, or might they know something we don’t?

There’s an awful lot we don’t know about the hidden effects of altering an organism’s DNA, and the consequences on anyone who consumes it. Despite the lack of any official safety testing on GMOs, the evidence so far suggests that transferring genes from one life form to another can have unanticipated and unintended biological consequences.

Glyphosate: The Other Half of the GMO “Hidden Hazard” Equation

The chief purpose of DNA remodeling, or genetic modification, of crops is to make them “Roundup Ready”—able to survive being doused with Monsanto’s Roundup, currently the world’s most widely used herbicide. Roundup’s main ingredient, glyphosate, was declared a probable cause of cancer by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a World Health Organization subsidiary, in 2015.

 Even before IARC announced that finding, research on the health effects of glyphosate suggested it may be linked to a number of other serious illnesses. A 2013 article pointed out that the chemical can interfere with the biochemistry of beneficial bacteria that humans depend on to synthesize essential amino acids, and that prolonged consumption may therefore predispose humans to a host of chronic health problems, ranging from obesity and depression to autism, inflammatory bowel disease, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s.

Unfortunately, glyphosate is everywhere these days. As agricultural economist Charles Benbrook, PhD, has observed, “no pesticide has come remotely close to such intensive and widespread use” in the United States.

Unlike other agricultural chemicals, however, no one was even attempting to monitor the amounts of glyphosate being harbored in foods, until early in 2016 when the FDA finally announced plans to conduct such testing.

What took them so long? According to a spokesperson, more “streamlined” methods of detection had been developed to replace the “very cost-and labor-intensive” ones previously available.

How a Judicial and Political Coupling Gave Birth to Today’s GMOs

As with other devious schemes, the unleashing of GMOs on an unsuspecting public could not have been accomplished without a considerable amount of “inside help” from the very people whose job it was to keep such breaches from taking place.

It all started with a U.S. Supreme Court decision that allowed certain life forms to be considered private property in 1980, when the high court ruled in a 5–4 decision that scientist Ananda Chakrabarty could own the intellectual property rights to a genetically engineered oil-eating bacterium after the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office initially denied the claim on the grounds that living things “are not patentable subject matter.” The court contended that genetically engineered organisms were “manufactured” and therefore covered by patent law.

While the first biotech application to pass muster with the FDA came in 1982 in the form of a synthetic form of insulin produced by genetically modified bacteria, it would take another decade for the FDA to put its stamp of approval on the marketing of GMOs for food use.

The FDA official who was most responsible for that was Michael Taylor, a former attorney for the Monsanto Corp. of St. Louis. Taylor’s arrival on the scene was the result of a politico-economic policy, one that also began during Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

The first indication of this was the development of “a Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology to provide for the regulatory oversight of organisms derived through genetic engineering” by the federal government in 1986. The following year, according to the HuffPost Green, “then-Vice President George H. W. Bush visited a Monsanto lab for a photo op with the developers of Roundup Ready crops…. When Monsanto executives worried about the approval process for their new crops, Bush laughed and told them, ‘Call me. We’re in the dereg business. Maybe we can help.’”

Help he did, when five years later, as Reagan’s successor, he assigned his own veep, Dan Quayle, to get a “regulatory relief initiative” for GMO crops underway. At a press conference, Quayle, who headed what was known as the “Competitiveness Council,” touted biotech’s potential profitability “as long as we resist the spread of unnecessary regulations.” One way to do that was for the administration to appoint Taylor, who proceeded to have genetically engineered crops declared “the substantial equivalent” of conventional ones, therefore requiring neither safety testing or special labeling—a regulatory paradox, given that the same GMOs were considered to be substantially different enough to merit an actual patent.

All this was accomplished with very little general awareness of what was occurring at the time—as well as of its implications for food production. It did, however, arouse the attention of Steven M. Druker, a public interest attorney who ended up initiating legal action to have this FDA policy reversed. While that litigation ultimately was deflected, it did give Druker access to the innermost details of what had taken place in the form of 44,000 pages of documents, which he came to regard as “extensive evidence of an enormous, ongoing fraud,” one involving evasion of both laws and scientific standards that, as he recounted in his 2015 book, Altered Genes, Twisted Truths, had subjected the American people to “novel foods that were abnormally risky in the eyes of the agency’s own scientists.”

Druker also relied on sources with an inside knowledge of how GMOs came to be accepted with no safety testing, a major one being the biologist Philip Regal, who revealed to him how the interests of investors in the success of the new technology resulted in customary scientific caution being thrown to the winds. Contrary to initial assurances he had received, Regal told him, the attitude he heard expressed at a 1988 conference on the subject by both industry and government officials was, “if the American people want progress, they are going to have to be the guinea pigs.”

The Fight for GMO Labeling

The near-monopoly that Monsanto, in just a few short years, has managed to gain in this manner over some of our most basic agricultural commodities is reflected on supermarket shelves, where well over 80 percent of processed foods now contain genetically modified ingredients. While the powers that be have been fully cooperative in allowing that takeover to take place, the same can’t be said for the buying public, many of whom, despite the safety assurances of both government and industry representatives, have formed what amounts to a full-scale resistance movement. 

For one thing, they’ve been demanding something now required in five dozen other countries—the labeling of GMOs. Such labeling was, in fact, required under a Vermont law that took effect in July 2016, only to be superseded by a bipartisan bill passed by Congress and signed by President Obama at the end of that month, which required GMO labeling only on Smartphone apps, rather than on actual labels. This revised “compromise” version of what came to be known as “the DARK Act” (for Deny Americans the Right to Know), also calls for a study by the USDA to determine whether enough consumers have “access to electronic disclosures,” with “alternative methods of disclosure” to be provided if they’re found not to. Even without such clear and straightforward labeling, a substantial number of shoppers have limited their buying habits either to certified organic foods, in which GMOs are expressly prohibited, or to products bearing the seal of the Non-GMO Project, which tests all ingredients that could be genetically modified prior to approving any item.

The rebellion even had its own contemporary version of the Boston Tea Party, with the deliberate destruction of 6,500 acres of Roundup Ready sugar beets in Oregon during two nights in June 2013, an act condemned as both criminal and cowardly by the state’s top agricultural official, “regardless of how one feels about biotechnology”—but one that appears to have been a form of protest against the “mutation without representation” those GMOs represented.

Such pressure from the public, to be sure, has brought results—most notably agreements from some mainstream food companies, such as Campbell’s Soup, General Mills, and Mars, to begin labeling products containing GMOs, as well as a pledge from the Chipotle restaurant chain to simply stop using genetically modified ingredients.

Despite such concessions, however, and recent surveys that have found that more than 90 percent of Americans are in favor of GMO labeling, forces in both industry and government have gone to considerable lengths in their efforts to convince consumers that their concerns are unfounded.

One of the latest such efforts was a report released in May 2016 by the National Academy of Sciences that purported to have found “no evidence” that GMOs were unsafe to eat or had adverse environmental impacts, and which saw no need for their being labeled. However, as was quickly pointed out by the consumer advocacy group Food & Water Watch, the Academy’s research arm, the National Research Council (NRC), has strong ties to industry that “have created conflicts of interest at every level,” having taken millions of dollars in funding from biotechnology companies and invited sponsors like Monsanto to sit on high-level boards overseeing its work.

The report is also most revealing in what it acknowledges—that these industry-affiliated scientists were unable to come up with any evidence that genetically modified crops have increased potential yields, supposedly the main rationale for having allowed these alien organisms to invade the agricultural scene in the first place.

While GMO labeling would certainly be an important step in advancing the ability of consumers to avoid products containing mutant ingredients, Steven Druker has reservations about how effective it would be and whether it could withstand a court challenge. In his opinion, what we need is nothing less than a complete prohibition on and phase-out of genetically engineered crops, based on having to prove a substance is GRAS (generally recognized as safe) through “rigorous safety testing” before it can be marketed, as is already required by existing law. While acknowledging that this would involve significant complications, he contends it is “far better to weather whatever short-term economic difficulties may be entailed than to suffer the long-term health and environmental damage that could result from inaction.”

While Monsanto and its biotech allies may be able to use their considerable clout, resources, and influence to buy or intimidate scientists and coerce farmers, and lawmakers (as they’ve been doing for years), there’s one force they can’t control, and that’s the power of informed consumers.

A young girl’s protest sign in a New York City march against Monsanto captures the sentiments of countless other Americans in regard to the biotech giant’s genetic tampering with much of the country’s food supply. Photo by: Glynnis Jones / 

How to Recognize and Avoid GMOs

  • Without any easy-to-understand federal labeling mandate, the only sure way to avoid GMO ingredients is to stick with organic processed foods, or ones that have the Non-GMO Project verified label on the packaging.
  • Avoid any product containing non-organic soy, corn, and canola, which are most likely to be genetically modified.
  • Look for products that contain “cane sugar.” Foods and beverages that just say “sugar” on the ingredient label are likely to contain GM beet sugar.
  • Be aware that certain types of produce may now be genetically engineered as well, including papayas, squash, and sweet corn (which has been made available to farmers but is apparently not all that popular).
  • Avoid foods that contain cottonseed oil—something you’ll now find in a lot of nut products. Remember, 90 percent of U.S. cotton crops are now genetically modified.

This has been an excerpt of the forthcoming book Badditives! The 13 Most Harmful Food Additives in Your Diet—and How to Avoid Them by Linda Bonvie and Bill Bonvie (January 2017). Published with permission from Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

Linda Bonvie is a consumer advocate who has spent more than twenty-five years writing on food safety and environmental issues, including serving as writer and editor at, sponsored by Citizens for Health, and coauthoring the book Chemical-Free Kids and Chemical-Free Kids: the Organic Sequel. She lives in Tuckerton, New Jersey.

Bill Bonvie is a former newspaperman who (with his sister Linda) has coauthored many articles on health, food and environmental topics. His commentaries have appeared in newspapers such as the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Berkshire Eagle, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, with fifty of them republished in the essay collection Repeat Offenders. He lives in Tuckerton, New Jersey.

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