Fri Jun 6th, 2008 at 03:20:49 AM EST
As the FAO summit on the "food crisis" deliberated in Rome, I went to a projection of Le Monde Selon Monsanto (The World According to Monsanto).
I'd already seen it when Arte showed it last March, and found it impressive. But what drew me on Monday evening was that the film's maker, Marie-Monique Robin, was to be present.
Robin is an experienced maker of documentaries, and a true investigative journalist. There's something of the Michael Moore in her question-and-answer tenacity, except that she doesn't adopt Moore's Joe Six-Pack stance. She's an accredited and award-winning journalist (she won the Prix Albert Londres, the French Pulitzer). That doesn't necessarily show when she's interviewing Very Serious People™ in the film. Some of them tend to take her condescendingly for a sort of fluffy French lady, then start wondering why they agreed to the interview as she wrongfoots them and pins them down.
In real life, facing a packed (admittedly not hostile) house, she was focussed and energetic (though she'd just returned from Canada). She answered questions with relevance and at length, and some of the lines of force of the film became clearer. It's not, in any case, a standard hit job, nor a piece of journalistic conspiracy-and-doom porn. It's an historical investigation, and its sequences are lean and chosen with care.
Still and all, it worried me (the first time I watched it) to see this (well, school-teacherly) woman sitting at a desk and typing "Monsanto" into Google. Then waiting for the revelation. Aaaarggh. But in fact no. The point of the googling is to bang home that all the documents she used in building the film are freely available to the public on Internet. The second good thing is that she doesn't waste time wandering around the internets : from Google she cuts to the real world. It may only be archive film footage when she covers Mon$anto's supply of 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T to the US military (defoliants known together as Agent Orange), but mostly it's meeting with real protagonists, like the sufferers from PCB exposure in Anniston, Alabama, for example. The documentary also covers Mon$anto's recombinant bovine growth hormone (rGBH) product and its drawbacks (see some examples of the corporation's aggressiveness in defending the product here and here). The portrait of ruthlessness in search of power, influence, and profit goes on to handle, above all, Mon$anto's move into genetically-engineered crops and its buy-out of seed companies to become a global gatekeeper (the "Micro$oft of agriculture").
This roll-out is what struck me most in Robin's documentary. She goes back to the 1980s and the beginnings of GMOs. There's a priceless sequence from the archives where V-P Pappy Bush, in 1987, visits Mon$anto's laboratories, tries his hand at inserting a transgene, and promises the administration's backing and help. And Bush is president when, in 1992, Mon$anto is greatly aided by the FDA's adoption of the principle of substantial equivalence as the rule for determining (almost by default) the safety of GM crops for public health.
Substantial equivalence is a principle whereby:
Substantial equivalence - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
biochemical profiles of a new food are deemed to be substantially equivalent to an existing food if they fall within the range of natural variation already exhibited by biochemical profiles of existing foods or crops
Practically, this means that a company wishing to put a novel genetically-engineered life-form on the market (where it will enter the human food chain either directly as a foodstuff or indirectly as animal feed) just has some simple lab work to do comparing the chemical profile of the GE form with a similar but non-GE form. Unless there are major discrepancies, the company will get automatic authorisation from the FDA.
At the same time, the company will be claiming to the US Patent Office that the form is entirely novel and not to be assimilated to pre-existing life-forms. And will be getting a patent (which it will enforce with the greatest vigour).
A cogent brief critique of substantial equivalence (Beyond substantial equivalence, Millstone et al, Nature, 1999), says this:
the industry wanted to argue both that GM foods were sufficiently novel to require new legislation -- and a major overhaul of the rules governing intellectual property rights -- to allow them to be patented, yet not so novel that they could introduce new risks to public or environmental health.
Looking at the options the industry (Mon$anto mostly) wished to avoid :
One obvious solution at that time would have been for legislators to have treated GM foods in the same way as novel chemical compounds, such as pharmaceuticals, pesticides and food additives, and to have required companies to conduct a range of toxicological tests, the evidence from which could be used to set `acceptable
daily intakes' (ADIs). Regulations could then have been introduced to ensure that ADIs are never, or rarely, exceeded.
From the point of view of the biotechnology industry, this approach would have had two main drawbacks. First, companies did not want to have to conduct toxicological experiments, which would delay access to the marketplace by at least five years, and would add approximately US$25 million per product to the cost of research and development. Second, by definition, using ADIs would have restricted the use of GM foods to a marginal role in the diet.
The authors conclude:
Substantial equivalence is a pseudo-scientific concept because it is a commercial and political judgement masquerading as if it were scientific. It is, moreover, inherently anti-scientific because it was created primarily to provide an excuse for not requiring biochemical or toxicological tests. It therefore serves to discourage and inhibit potentially informative scientific research.
Substantial equivalence is given, however, broad backing among official experts. The origins of the doctrine are generally ascribed to an OECD report in 1993, validated by a later FAO/WHO report. In fact, as Robin makes clear, the FDA promulgated the principle (for the USA) before it was rolled out internationally by these, let's say, reliably Washington-Consensus organizations. A name that comes up often (in FAO/WHO literature, for example) is that of the Biotechnology Coordinator of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, James Maryanski. He it was who guided substantial equivalence into official doctrinehood in 1992. Robin interviews him at length in her documentary (this is probably the strongest single aspect of the film), and he rather candidly admits that the decision was political, inspired by the White House.
Digging around the net about that 1992 FDA decision, I found some interesting material. FDA officials were far from agreeing with the process that Maryanski was driving through. There are links to internal FDA documents on this Biointegrity.org page that explains:
These documents became available through the Alliance for Bio-Integrity's lawsuit (Alliance for Bio-Integrity et al., vs. Shalala, et al.) to gain mandatory safety testing and labeling of these foods.
There are (typewritten) internal notes that date to the prepatory stages of the announcement in May 1992. From Dr Linda Kahl to Maryanski in January:
From the Director of Toxicological Review and Evaluation to Maryanski, January 1992:
From Dr Louis J Pribyl, March 1992:
From the Director of the Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) to Maryanski in February 1992 (the CVM's interest is in the use of GM crops in animal feed):
There are more, it's worth taking a look through.
Spooking people with scare stories of Frankenfoods seems to me counter-productive. However, the more I learn about GM crops, the more concerned I am that adequate testing for possible public health problems has been simply swept aside. And that has largely happened by political choice, in order to set the American biotech industry, and Monsanto in particular, in a dominating global position. It's the usual two-way process: less regulation that businesses don't want (in this case, safety precaution costs), more regulation they do (intellectual property rules).
It's part of the great Reaganian roll-out of the US as sole world superpower: the FDA pilots the rules that will be accepted elsewhere (little by little), the administration protects and supports a major corporation (that has major lobbying clout and government revolving-door infiltration). And also part of the "drown government in a bathtub" movement, since it's about dogmatic refusal to legislate or write correct regulation.
Robin's film shows a clip of Dan Quayle regurgitating something he was told to say about this. The concern, says Quayle, is regulatory relief. Oh boy. "Relief" is a word like "reform" that the free-market right has stolen. Can you remember "famine relief"? "Pain relief"? Well, two things hurt in the neoliberal's world: taxes and regulation. So we have "tax relief", and, wonder of wonders, "regulatory relief". Unsurprisingly, the current administration has gone ahead with regulatory relief all around (2006 Financial Services Regulatory Relief Act, anyone?).
And it's the reason why genetically-engineered crops can be sold with little or no pre-market testing - why the precautionary principle is not respected.