Once the bully on the block, Monsanto is on the run. Environmentalists will recall the early years of genetically modified (GM) crops when wind pollination contaminated the crops of traditional farmers and the company forced victim-farmers to pay for patent infringement, an atrocity upheld by the US judicial system until the horrendous consequences of GM foods became too palpable to ignore.
Victims of Monsanto’s weedicide, Roundup, scored a major victory in July 2018 when a California jury awarded $289 million as compensation to a former school groundskeeper who is dying of cancer due to ingesting the chemical regularly while spraying. DeWayne Lee Johnson, then 42, contacted Monsanto after developing a rash, but was never warned it could cause cancer; he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2014. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer classified glyphosate (the key ingredient) as a “probable human carcinogen” in 2015.
In 2017, California added glyphosate to its list of chemicals known to cause cancer. The ruling will impact other cases filed by cancer survivors against Monsanto, which now have to be faced by its new owner, Bayer AG. Johnson’s legal team presented internal emails showing how the company rejected critical research and expert warnings against glyphosate’s potential risks.
Inspired by the verdict, Vietnam has decided to seek justice for victims of Agent Orange, used by the US military during the Vietnam War. Nguyen Phuong Tra, deputy spokesperson of the foreign ministry, stated, “The verdict … refutes previous claims that the herbicides made by Monsanto and other chemical corporations in the US and provided for the US army in the war are harmless. Vietnam has suffered tremendous consequences … especially with regard to the lasting and devastating effects of toxic chemicals, including Agent Orange.”
Agent Orange is a defoliant used to strip Vietnam’s thick forests; it poisoned the soil in large tracts, causing genetic deformities in generations of Vietnamese. Nearly three million Vietnamese were exposed to Agent Orange between 1961 and 1971, when nearly 12 million gallons were sprayed over the jungles. Monsanto claimed the chemical was produced for and used by the government, and that it was only one among nine wartime contractors who produced the toxin.
Amidst rising public awareness, an organisation called Moms Across America is agitating for a ban on glyphosate in all 50 states, in the wake of evidence that gluten foods and too many illnesses are linked to glyphosate and GMO poisoning. The activists point out that most European and many other countries have banned GMOs and Roundup as people and animals are becoming sick from herbicides/pesticides in the food, water and air.
Europe is emerging as the next battleground. Reports suggest that the European Union could withdraw the license for Roundup this year. Earlier, the licence was extended for five years, until 2022, instead of the usual 15 years. The lawyers involved in the California lawsuit claim to have revealing documents about Monsanto’s activities in Europe. Robert Jr. Kennedy told Euronews, “…we have documents now in our possession, several hundreds of documents, that have not been declassified and some of those are explosive”. In Brazil, a federal judge in August 2018 ordered suspension of all products containing glyphosate until the government reassesses its toxicity. As Brazil has used Monsanto’s GM soybean seeds and herbicide on a large scale for four decades, the decision is startling and unexpected.
Recently, the Public Library of Science (PLOS) published research showing that the DNA of GM foods can enter the human bloodstream intact and cause many health problems. Researchers collected blood samples of more than 1000 participants; “the results indicated that meal-derived DNA fragments (which were large enough to carry complete genes) can avoid degradation and ultimately enter the human body’s circulation system”. Hungarian researchers observed that these are not just fragments of DNA but stretches of DNA which are large enough to pass complete genes of GMO plants (like soy, corn or canola oil) to humans.
In some blood samples, the relative concentration of plant DNA was higher than human DNA. The researchers noted that participants with inflammatory bowel disease and auto-immune disease had the highest concentration of the transgenic gene. Previous studies have indicated that GMOs could change the beneficial bacteria in the intestines and trigger auto-immune diseases and inflammation. Beneficial bacteria help with food digestion and protect the human body against foreign invaders. However, when the DNA of GMO foods enters the small intestine, it can alter the composition of beneficial gut bacteria and make the body unable to absorb real nutrients in foods.
Other studies suggest a link between GMOs and auto immune diseases. The researchers have observed that pigs fed on GMO soy and corn suffered from severe inflammation of stomach and intestine; female pigs fed a GMO diet had their uteri (uterus) enlarged by 25%.
These studies refute the claims made by biotech and regulatory agencies regarding the safety of GMO foods. Independent scientists and researchers have long warned regulatory bodies and the biotech industry that GMO genes can be transferred from dairy and animal products to people. After years of denial, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has reluctantly admitted that DNA from food (GMO and non-GMO) could end up in animal tissues and milk and dairy products consumed by people. The critical issue is GMO, as it marries a bacterium, a microbial species, with plant tissue – a hybrid alien to Nature.
In Canada, meanwhile, authorities discovered a patch of an unapproved, genetically modified strain of wheat in the wild, far from the old Monsanto test areas. The crop was found on an access road in Alberta in 2017, after it survived the spraying of the area with herbicide. Tests by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency revealed that the crop was genetically modified and herbicide-tolerant; was never approved for commercial use or production within Canada; and belonged to a Monsanto GM wheat line (MON71200) which was used in multiple confined research field trials in the late 1990s and early 2000s in Canada and the United States. It was subsequently destroyed.
But the fact that the strain got into the wild more than 100 kms away from any known former test fields, and survived for nearly two decades thereafter, is a warning of the dangers posed by GM plants, whether food or non-food.
The author is Senior Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library; the views expressed are personal
The Pioneer, 19 September 2018
The column was published a day late due to unforeseen circumstances