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"One of the most important books of the last 50 years" writes world-renowned primatologist Jane Goodall in her foreword to Steven Druker's tome Altered Genes, Twisted Truth, an alarming peek behind the curtain that shrouds the science of genetically engineered food.
Goodall was the opening act at Druker's book launch in Toronto last April. Earlier this week the American public interest attorney was back to give a lecture at University of Toronto, Wilson Hall on "Why bioengineering is really bio-hacking." He was given a heartfelt introduction by 16-year-old food safety activist Rachel Parent founder of Kids Right To Know.
Parent, whose organization is pushing for mandatory GMO labeling, is impressed with Druker's comprehensive account of the GMO story in Altered Genes. She says the book is not only an excellent resource "for people who are older than me, but it will help us, the youth, who will have to deal with these issues in the future."
The blistering argument Druker unpacks is in the book's subtitle: How the venture to genetically engineer our food has subverted science, corrupted government and systematically deceived the public.
The 500-pager, part indictment and part compendium, chronicles the evolution and rise of genetic engineering from the early days of gene-splicing to the controversial recombinant DNA technology we know today.
Druker points out how controversy has dogged bioengineering since its beginnings in the late 1970s and early 1980s when even some pioneering molecular biologists referred to their newly acquired powers of genetic tinkering as "warfare against nature."
In the early days, the focus of biotechnology was on medical applications. Experiments in DNA manipulation were kept safely in the lab. But when research expanded to agriculture the genie was let out of the bottle. To test the efficacy of claims that engineered crops would boost yields, increase nutrition and reduce dependence on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides,the enterprise was moved out of the laboratory into the farmer's field. The question was, would plants that were genetically altered in the lab contaminate the environment?
According to Druker it was during these early days of microbiological experiments being released into the environment that competitive scientists, their institutions and industry colluded to spin the illusion that GMOs designed for agricultural application were scientifically safe.
"Although it purports to be based on solid science and to be in line with the best evidence," says Druker, "this massive venture to reconfigure the genetic core of the world's food supply, actually is out of line with sound science and it could not survive a full and open airing of the facts."
Altered Genes, Twisted Truth is packed with facts and stats that appear to back up Druker's thesis. Most of the facts were released as disclosure documents by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration when Druker and his organization the Alliance for Bio-Integrity and nine scientist-plaintiffs took the FDA to court in 1998. "After combing through 44,000 pages of reports, messages and memoranda," wrote Druker "I had compiled extensive evidence of an enormous ongoing fraud." The documents revealed that the FDA had allowed GMO foods onto the market without first verifying their human safety, "evading the standards of science, deliberately breaking the law and seriously misrepresenting the facts," says Druker.
The kicker for Druker was that Americans were unknowingly buying newly developed food products that were considered risky even by FDA scientists.
The competitive climate in which molecular biologists and industry operated to advance biotechnology and attain U.S. dominance in the field was a perfect fit with president Ronald Regan's deregulation agenda of the 1980s.
Canadian parallels are striking but not accidental. Former Health Canada scientist and whistleblower Shiv Chopra wrote in his 2009 memoir Corrupt to the Coreabout the drums of deregulation beating during the 1985 Shamrock Summit in Quebec City. While the famous Brian and Ronnie duet of "When Irish eyes are smiling" was going on upstairs, downstairs Canadian and American officials were writing the lyrics for NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement. "The underlying message of those sound bites," Chopra writes, "was that they were effectively constructing a policy of deregulation of drugs, foods, medical devices, pesticides, all kinds of products of questionable safety."
Years later Health Canada managers insisted on fast tracking approval of Monsanto's Posilac, a genetically-engineered bovine growth hormone (rBGH) purported to provide increased yields of milk from injected cows. The rationale for accelerated licensing was that the US Food and Drug Administration had approved rBGH. Chopra and other drug evaluators refused to sign off on the approval without seeing the human safety data first. Health Canada's own gatekeepers were sitting on the results of Monsanto's 90-day rat study that indeed revealed harmful side effects. Refusing to approve bovine growth hormone and going public with allegations that Health Canada was in breach of the Food and Drugs Act got Chopra and two other scientists fired in 2004.
"Health Canada, at best, serves as a beast of burden for the USFDA. It does what Uncle Sam wants," says Chopra. "The rejection of rBGH was a rare exception. Even then, it was a half-hearted attempt. Imports of dairy products obtained from rBGH-induced milk were and continue to be allowed in through free trade."
Druker wades into the audience to better hear a broad range of questions from "Will the TPP open the floodgates of unregulated foods?" to "Why are GMOs banned in some European jurisdictions?" Druker fields them all with precision and detail.
"Does the FDA require clear labeling of GMO foods in the U.S.?" The question-asker is Rocco Galati, the well-known constitutional lawyer.
Druker says that in the U.S. as in Canada all kinds of information that has nothing to do with food safety can be found on labels. But both the FDA and Health Canada he says, "adamantly refuse to require that food produced through genetic engineering is labeled."
Rocco Galati who comes from twelve generations of farmers in southern Italy says he's attending Druker's lecture because food safety is both a personal and a professional concern.
"It's a health issue and it's also a constitutional issue because you have a right to know what you're buying in terms of food," says Galati. "Health Canada is supposed to determine that something is not unsafe before they allow it for consumption under the Food and Drug Act. Obviously that's not happening."
Rachel Parent met with Health Canada officials last February to get some answers to her concerns about government policy on GMO testing and labeling. She posted the responses on the Kids Right To Know web site:
"We review the data that is given to us by the company. It's up to them to demonstrate safety. But does Health Canada have the mandate to require mandatory GMO labeling? The answer is, no, because Health Canada is strictly about health and safety." -- Health Canada Director for Bureau of Nutritional Science, Dr. William Yan.
Druker says he doesn't advocate for labeling because if he did he would be admitting that GMO foods are on the market legally. "The proper remedy," he says "is not to stick a label on it, it's to take it off the market."
Druker has his detractors. GMO proponents accuse him of pseudo science and insist that genetic engineering is the same as traditional breeding and that GMO foods are as safe as any other food on the market. But Druker stands by his findings that the FDA is not regulating these products and even concealed the warnings of its own scientists about the "abnormal risks of GE foods."
What concerns Druker more than debunkers is media capitulation to industry threats and "chronic suppression of facts." In his chapter Malfunction of the American Media he describes how his press conference announcing the lawsuit against the FDA was not reported by any of the national networks and major papers in attendance. Druker would learn that when reports on the lawsuit did make it into the media it was not reported that nine well-credentialed plaintiffs were suing the FDA for ignoring science-based research. The number of scientists is never mentioned and the plaintiffs are typically referred to as activists. "Instead they quoted spurious assertions from proponents of GE foods issued in response to our suit," writes Druker.
"Even though managers of mass media have been given incontestable evidence of a government fraud that’s a reckless gamble with public health, they've consistently failed to report it."
Before he wraps up the Q & A to sign copies of his book Druker leaves the audience with the core thesis of Altered Genes, Twisted Truth:
"Monsanto is not the great Satan here," he says. "You take away the disinformation dished out by the scientific establishment all these years, Monsanto wouldn't be able to get away with doing what they've been doing. Health Canada wouldn't be able to get away with what they're doing."