GM Watch review by Claire Robinson
Hidden Dangers in Kids' Meals: Genetically Engineered Foods
Set of three videos on DVD by Jeffrey M. Smith
Orders: Tel (outside the U.S. add 001) 888 717 7000 or via www.gmfreeschools.org
While Jeffrey Smith's book "Genetic Roulette: The documented health risks of genetically modified foods" is a model of clarity, it isn't everyone's idea of bedtime reading. For those of us who, at the end of a day's work, find anything more demanding than The Simpsons a challenge, or for the many who would rather learn by watching and listening than by picking up a hefty book, Smith has provided a solution. He has produced a set of three accessible videos that present the health dangers of eating GM foods, with a special focus on children. Children are most at risk because they have fast-developing bodies that respond more drastically to toxins, their immune systems are less formed and thus more susceptible to allergies, and any problems with nutrition can affect them for life.
Though there are three videos in this set, it is (in football manager parlance) a game of two halves. The first two videos set out the dangers and proven harm of GM foods. The third video presents the enlightened alternative: the Wisconsin School Nutrition Program, which has seen extraordinarily positive results from feeding schoolchildren natural, unprocessed food, and perhaps not coincidentally, from avoiding GM foods.
Video number one features a posse of scientists reporting adverse findings from research on GM foods and explaining why they should worry us. Then there are the inadequate regulations. US FDA apparatchiks override the warnings of their own scientists in line with a government edict to foster the biotech industry. Monsanto people slip into the FDA via the revolving door to write the policy that allows Monsanto GM foods onto the market.
Then, the problems begin. Experienced farmers tell how female pigs fed Bt corn deliver bags of water or nothing instead of a litter of piglets. When farmers stop giving GM feed, the problem goes away. Given a choice, many animals, including cows and deer, won't eat GM feed. Professor of Ecology Terje Traavik warns of coming "ecological and health catastrophes" from GM foods. University of Minnesota biologist Phil Regal predicts: "People who push genetic engineering are going to have to do a 'mea culpa', come clean, ask for forgiveness, and admit they made a mistake, like the Pope did about the Inquisition."
The second video is a filmed talk by Smith. He's a dramatist and story-teller who weaves science into his narrative in a way that is utterly compelling. And he does it all without notes or autocue, and without "ums" or "ers". Here's an idea for a class study topic: watch Smith speak, then George W. Bush. Question: which one eats GM foods?
Smith tells the story of the l-tryptophan catastrophe, in which 5-10,000 Americans got sick and hundreds died after eating an l-tryptophan supplement made using GM bacteria. Many of us are familiar with the bones of the story, but the details as fleshed out by Smith show the corruption of the regulators. The symptoms of the disease were horrific. People's hair fell out; they suffered the worst pain their doctors had ever seen; their white blood cell counts went sky-high. But here's the rub: the epidemic was only noticed and its cause traced because the disease was acute, rare, and had a fast onset. If any one of these conditions had been absent, the disease would have slipped under the radar. Thus, though the incidence of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes continues to rise in the US, no one can tell if GM is a culprit, because these diseases are chronic, common, and slow in onset.
With l-tryptophan, the FDA went to great lengths to deny any GM link. The FDA's biotech coordinator James Maryanski claimed that two dozen cases of the rare disease had shown up *before* genetic modification of the bacteria began in 1988, and thus GM was not the likely cause. The FDA leapt on the alternative cause favored by industry, a new filter that failed to take out impurities. Interestingly, nobody in government or industry was curious to know why this brand of l-tryptophan uniquely contained dangerous impurities that needed to be filtered out in the first place.
Then, a bomb dropped. A confidential document, forced into the open by writer William Crist, revealed that the strain of l-tryptophan implicated in the disease was GM *strain number five*. GM strains one to four had been used in the production of l-tryptophan since 1984 - and Centers for Disease Control documents showed that at least a hundred people, not two dozen, as FDA claimed, got the disease before 1988.
Crist wondered why the FDA didn't know about the earlier GM strains. Then he noticed a fax imprint on the document: "FDA September 17, 1990." It had been faxed by the FDA. The FDA already knew back in 1990 that the earlier strains were GM, but as late as 1996 Maryanski was still claiming ignorance.
An even greater omission occurred in July 1991, when Douglas Archer, deputy director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, testified to Congress about the epidemic. Not only did he not discuss the earlier bacterial strains, he did not mention GM. Instead, he blamed the disease on "health fraud schemes" - alternative health supplements. The FDA used this lie to take all l-tryptophan, GM or not, off the market.
After Smith recounts another set of lies that were woven by industry and the FDA to get Monsanto's GM bovine growth hormone rBGH approved, the third video provides welcome inspiration. "The Wisconsin School Phenomenon" tells the astonishing story of a failing special needs school, Appleton Central Alternative School, that was turned around simply by a change in school meals. Processed, sugary, and junk foods were banished, and natural, unprocessed, fresh foods were brought in.
Before the Wisconsin nutrition programme started in 1997, teachers described the students as rude, obnoxious, and out-of-control. Weapons violations were common, and the school asked a cop to patrol the school full-time. But once the food and drinks were changed, the atmosphere was transformed. The students became calm. Discipline problems vanished. Once a year, the principal has to fill in a state report giving the number of dropouts, expulsions, drugs offences, weapons violations, and suicides. Since the programme began, she says, "Zeros are what I have to report." Academic learning has also improved.
Though this video does not mention GM, Smith points out that most GM foods in the human food supply are concentrated into processed foods, and an enterprising young scientist has already raised the question of behavioral effects when he turned experimental mice into anti-social and frightened creatures simply by giving them GM feed.
British readers of this review who followed TV chef Jamie Oliver's heroic struggle to feed schoolchildren healthy food on the government-set budget of 37p (75 US cents) per meal - less than prisons budget for their inmates - may be wondering about the cost of all this. The school principal explains that one cost reduces another: "I don't have vandalism, litter, or high security." The school district superintendent confirms that due to the success of the programme, he was able to cut USD 5 million out of his operating budget in two years. One problem that Jamie faced - obese mothers shoving emergency supplies of junk food through the school railings at their poor, deprived offspring - doesn't seem to have arisen in the US, where parents and students fully support the programme. It must help that the programme has spread to elementary and middle schools, so children are educated into healthy eating habits at an early age.
The conclusion of these videos is that we can choose either one of two worlds. In the first, the food that should nourish children, poisons them; the regulators who should protect children, endanger them; and the science that seeks truth is twisted into lies. In the second, the truth is as simple and obvious as it should be: nature provides delicious food, and the children who eat it have a radiance that (if the food programme was widely adopted) could reverse the mass exodus from the teaching profession. The choice is, as they say in the US, a no-brainer.