An Interview with Ronnie Cummins

Ronnie Cummins is the director of the Campaign for Food Safety, based in Little Marais, Minnesota. Cummins is among those leading an effort to plan a global campaign against Monsanto, the biotechnology industry leader.

The United States has the most conta minated food supply in the industrialized world. There are several types of contamination. One is chemical contami nation. Then there is contamination relat ed to filthy meat and poultry slaughter houses and factory farms. And since 1994, consumers now have to worry about genetic contamination as well.

Multinational Monitor: What is the status of food safety in the United States?
Cummins: The United States has the most cont arninated food supply in the industrialized world, according to official government statistics put out by the Centers for Disease Control.

There are several types of contamination. One is chemical contarnination˝pesticide, herbicides and fungicides, drug residues from animal antibi otics and also from steroids and hormones, contamination that is airborne f om incinerator plants and other industrial polluters.

Then there is contamination related to filthy meat and poultry slaughter houses and factory farms˝E.coli, salmonella, camphylobacter, liste ria and other pathogens.

And since 1994, consumers now have to worry about genetic contamination as well, since the government has allowed the commercialization of 37 new genetically engineered foods and crops, with no special pre markct safcty testing required, nor labeling.

Multinational Monitor: What is rBGHand why do you think it should be banned from the mar ket?

Cummins: Bovine growth hormone is a genetically engineered animal drug that Monsanto developed. It mimics a chemical hormone that

occurs naturally in a cow's body. When you shoot up a milk cow with Monsanto's rBGH, it forces the cow to produce excess quantities of a potent chemical messenger called IGF 1, which in turn forces it to give 15 to 25 percent more milk.

We call rBGH crack for cows," because when you shoot up a cow with rBGH, it revs up their system in such a way that it causes major stress on the cows, major animal health problems. The government admits that there are 22 serious health problems in cows that result from shooting them up with this drug.

When you shoot up theca cow with this drug, the animals suffer a much higher rate of mastitis˝ which is an inScction of the udder. Dairy farmers then shoot up the cows with more antibiotics to fight off the infections, and many of the antibi otics end up as residues in the milk, because the U.S. government does not have an adequate sys tem for monitoring the antibiotic residues in the milk.

It is for that reason that the Government Accounting Office recommended to the FDA, both in 1992 and 1993, that it not approve this drug. They said, "We've already got a problem with excessive antibiotic residues in our milk sup ply and, if you legalize rBGH, the problem is going to get much worse."

The first concern regarding human health haz ards is increased antibiotic residues in dairy prod ucts. The second major hazard is IGF 1. There is mounting scientific evidence that humans who have high levels of IGF 1 in their blood stream are more susceptible to breast cancer, prostate cancer and colon cancer.

Multinational Monitor: If this is the case, then why did the U.S. ,government approve it?

Cummins: It appears that the reason the U.S. government approved the drug is because of a rampant conflict of interest in the Clinton admin istration with the Monsanto Corporation. The top scientists at the FDA at the time they were approving rBGH had previously worked for Monsanto as researchers. And the top decision maker at the FDA on approval and labeling, Michael Taylor, previously worked for the King & Spalding law firm, which has Monsanto and its subsidiary Searle as a major client. After Taylor left the FDA he once again went back to work for King & Spalding.

Multinational Monitor: If you go to buy a gallon of milk, what are the chances that the milk comes from an rBGH treated cow?

Cummins: The chances are pretty good because approximately 7 or 8 percent of all U.S. dairy cows are being shot up with this drug every two weeks. And since non organic milk is typically pooled˝genetically engineered milk is being commingled with the regular milk˝you have most people getting at least trace doses of rBGH in their milk and dairy products˝unless they are buying organic dairy products or products certi fied and labeled "rBGH free."

Multinational Monitor: But it is not just RN that disturbs you about Monsanto.

Cummins: Monsanto has a 100 year history of producing toxic chemicals, such as Agent Orange, PCBs and NutraSweet, poisoning workers, pollut ing communities and then avoiding liability. In Washington, D.C., it has been a prime lobbyist for so called tort reform˝limiting the damages from those poisoned by chemical corporations and other polluters. And Monsanto is the world leader in trying to force genetically engineered foods and crops down the throats of consumers around the world. rBGH is important because it is the first product of genetic engineering. It was commercialized in the United States in 1994. But since then there have been 37 other genetically engineered products approved in the United States and a couple of dozen in places like Cana da, Japan and Europe.

The majority of these new genetically engi neered products have been commercialized by Monsanto. These include crops such as the Round Up resistant soybeans, cotton and corn; Bt cotton and Bt corn, which have a pesticidal soil microorganism, Bt, spliced right into them; and genetically engineered tomatoes and rapeseed ( canola) plants . Monsanto has been the most vocal of a handful of companies across the globe pushing this tech nology. Others include DuPont, Novartis, Agre vo, Dow, Eli Lilly.

Multinational Monitor: Monsanto says that splicing the pesticide Bt into the plant is a good thing, because it eliminates the risk of spraying pesticides.

Cummins: Bt is a soil microorganism. It is the most important tool for organic farmers across the world and for farmers who are trying to use fewer toxic chemicals. Say you are trying to grow pota toes organically. If you have an infestation of pota to beetle, you would spray a bit of Bt on your crops, just the minimum amount you need to repel the beetles, and just for the shortest amount of time. In a similar fashion, Bt is used by organ ic farmers as an emergency tool to repel corn bor ers in corn, or boll worms in cotton, or potato beetles in potatoes. It is the most important nat ural bio pesticide found in nature that we have. Unfortunately, Monsanto has now stepped up and said, "Look, we are going to take that Bt and gene splice it into the genome of crops like cot ton, corn and potatoes, so that every cell of these plants will permanently produce Bt. This will repel the pests so farmers won't have to spray all of those nasty toxic insecticides on the plants."

The problem with this line of reasoning, and the reason that organic farmers are up in arms about gene altered Bt crops, is that, as any farmer knows, if you overuse a biopesticide such as Bt, the pests will develop permanent resistance to it. And there is a heck of a difference between using Bt as an emergency tool ˝ spraying small amounts˝and gene splicing it into the plant. And sure enough, we are already starting to see signs that a variety of pests are developing resis tance to Bt.

The problem is that once Bt is rendered use less, how are organic farmers going to survive economically? The answer is they are not going to be able to. They are going to be forced to turn to toxic chemicals after a few years or else go out of business.

Multinational Monitor: Why does popular resis tance to genetically engineered foods appear stronger in Europe than in the United States?

Cummins: The European resistance to genetical ly engineered foods has been so strong, first of all, because of the horrific historical experience of the Europeans with genetic engineering during the Nazi era. When Monsanto or Dow gene engineers pop up and say they are going to create a master race of plants, Europeans are not that impressed. Europeans also have a more heightened con sciousness regarding out of control technologies because of recent nuclear plant accidents like Chernobyl and the advanced suite of environmen tal destruction in areas such as Eastern Europe. So, people are more skeptical about Big Science over there.

Secondly, Europe, since 1996, has gone through a food crisis triggered by the mad cow epidemic in Great Britain and other countries. Consumers have learned in Europe that industri alized food production, in this case, feeding back dead and diseased animals on an industrial scale to animals, has unleashed a deadly and incurable brain wasting disease called CJD, which is the human equivalent of mad cow disease. Even though only 30 or 40 people have died from this particular disease, scientists in the United King dom are still warning that it could reach hundreds of thousands or even millions before this epidem ic runs its course. So, people are very concerned about what is going into their food.

Finally, the media in Europe have publicized the debate over food safety and genetic engineer ing much more thoroughly than in the United States. In the United States, if you ask someone on the street about genetically engineered food, probably the only "Frankenfood" they have ever heard of is the bovine growth hormone. When the U.S. media did publicize the rBGH controversy in 1994 and 1995, there was a tremendous upsurge in consumer concern about this, there were protests and milk dumps all over the country, 325 dairies pledged to not use rBGH, there were hear ings in Congress, a bill was introduced in Con gress and a federal court case was launched.

But, no v five years later, most consumers have no idea that there are 45 million acres of geneti cally engineered crops across the country, 37 genetically engineered foods and crops, and that most processed foods in supermarkets have at least traces of genetically engineered ingredients. So, the American public is just now starting to learn that industry and government have covertly genetically engineered a lot of the food out there and that they're not allowed any choice over the matter because the government says that it does n't have to be labeled.

The government is disregarding polls which have shown over and over again in the last 10 years that 80 to 95 percent of American con sumers want a choice in the marketplace. They want to know whether foods have been genetical ly engineered or not, so that they can exercise their right to not buy them.

Multinational Monitor: Last year, the Depart ment of Agriculture proposed new federal regulations that would permit genetically engineered food to be labeled as organic. How did that hap pen?

Cummins: Because there is such a problem with food safety and genetically engineered foods, more and more consumers over the past decade have turned to organic food. Last year, $5 billion worth of organic foods were sold in the United States. This is only about 1.5 percent of the total food dollar, but it is a market that is expanding rapidly˝25 percent every year.

In a poll done by Novartis Corporation in Feb ruary 1997, 54 percent of the American public said that they want ~e doniina~m of agriculture in this country. The b~king at this and saying, "This is not a good thing."

The organic industry is no longer just a few hippies selling some wilted looking produce at a few tiny stores. This is now starting to be a big industry. Corporate America needs to either take over this industry or keep it marginal. So, trade associations such as the Biotechnolo gy Industry Organization, the National Food Processors Association, Grocery Manufacturers of America and the Farm Bureau sat down with the Clinton Administration and said, "Let's draw up some federal regulations on organic foods so that you can call genetically engineered foods organic, so you can call irradiated foods organic, so you can call the products of factory farms organic, as well as foods produced with toxic sludge organ ic."

In addition, the food giants said, "Let's give the government a monopoly over the word organic. Let's make it illegal for any organic certi fiers to have standards higher than the minimum USDA standards, which we believe should be the lowest in the world. And let's ban anything that even implies organic, like eco labels."

The government released its proposed federal regulations in December 1997, right before Christmas. But they got a big surprise. During the public comment period, 280,000 Arnericans wrote in irate letters, faxes and e mails to the USDA basically saying, "Hell no, we will not accept genetic engineering, irradiation, toxic sludge, antibiotics, factory farming or these other industrial food processes under the organic label."

By May 1998, the USDA realized it had a major problem. Even companies like Monsanto told the USDA to back off on the idea of biotech being okay under the organic label because it is starting to damage the industry's entire reputa tion, it is starting to damage the entire biotech industry. Back off for a few years and we'll try again later, they said.

The USDA admitted that it received 20 times more comments from citizens on their proposed organic regulations than any other USDA regula tion in the history of the agency. So they said, "Okay, obviously organic consumers don't want this, so we'll come back with some better pro posed rules." Unfortunately, the USDA came up with a posi tion paper on October 28, 1998 that is the begin ning of the second set of proposed regulations which shows they are still up to their old tricks. They are temporarily backing off on genetic engi neering, sewage sludge and irradiation, but they still want industrial agriculture practices to enter into the organic market forcefully. But it appears that these latest proposals are not going to fly with consumers either. There is going to be a continuing battle for the next several years over the government's attempt to degrade organic standards and outlaw dissent.

Multinational Monitor: Why are farmers around the world concerned that Monsanto is underminin,~ seed saPin,!r?

Cummins: Traditionally, farmers would save their seeds and exchange them. Over time, farmers improved the seed stock, through trial and error. Since the Second World War, we have had the development of a small number of seed companies developing hybrid seeds. The seed companies were never able to develop hybrid seeds for rice and wheat and a number of other crops that they really wanted to monopolize. Farmers continued to save those seeds. The chemical and genetic engineering compa nies are saying that it is not a good idea for farm ers to be able to save seeds any longer. "We have invested a lot of money into developing these seeds," they say, "and we don't want farmers to save them."

When you buy Monsanto's genetically engi neered seed, you have to sign a contract agreeing that you will not save and replant the seeds. You have to give Monsanto the right to enter your farm and inspect the premises to make sure you are not saving your seeds.

In 1998, the USDA and a company called Delta & Pine Land Company, a cotton seed pro ducer, announced it had a joint patent for what is called the Terminator technology. Delta & Pine has since been bought out by Monsanto. The research on the Terminator gene was done with taxpayer money and now the exclusive rights to the patent are going to be held by Monsanto. The Terminator gene is the solution to the seed monopoly's problem of farmers saving seed. These seeds will not reproduce. So, if you manage to corner the market in India for wheat seeds by perhaps giving them away to farmers or giving them good credit in exchange for the seed, when the farmers go to save their seeds, as they have always done, they are not going to work. They are going to have to come back to the seed monop oly to purchase their seeds. This technology is not going over well in coun tries around the world. You've had Monsanto's experimental crops burned in India. You've had mass demonstrations in places like the Philippines.

Last year, there was a telling controversy in this regard. Monsanto forked over $150,000 to the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. The Grameen Bank is the best known micro lender in the world. It lends small amounts of money to hundreds of thousands of poor peasants in Bangladesh. It has been a successful project. Monsanto and the Grameen Bank announced they were launching a joint project to make high-tech genetically engineered inputs available to low income peasants in Asia. There was a tremen dous uproar over this and the Bank was forced to give back the money to Monsanto and back out of the deal.

Multinational Monitor: Other activists around the world are engaged in civil disobedience and destroying genetically engineered test crops

Cummins: In the last several decades there have been several mass citizen movements in the Unit ed States and in Europe˝the civil rights move ment, anti war movements and the anti nuclear movement. In Europe, over the last three years, we are seeing a new mass anti genetic engineering movement that rivals in scale the European anti nuclear movement of the 1970s and 1980s. We are seeing explosions of energy at the grassroots.

This movement is saying, "We refuse to have one more fascist technology˝in this case, genet ically engineered food˝crammed down our throats." People have organized all over Europe and destroyed the test crops of genetically engineered foods. Groups like Greenpeace have blocked the pathway of ships unloading genetically engineered soybeans and corn. There have been protests at the ministerial meetings of the European Com mission.

There have been actions in which Novar tis and Monsanto's offices have been occupied by protesters. Farmers in France last year destroyed the entire shipment of Bt corn seeds that were sent into the country. There have been boycotts instituted that have been successful to the point where major supermarket chains in countries like Austria, Germany, UK and Switzerland are now saying they will not accept genetically engineered foods or ingredients.

In the UK, the parliament banned genetically engineered foods in its canteens and cafeterias. Thousands of school districts across Europe have banned these products. The European Commis sion has started to develop laws that will require mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods and crops. Activists are trying to force U.S. companies to segregate the crops so that retailers and consumers have a choice in Europe.

Multinational Monitor: Isn't it impossible to segregate the genetically engineered crops from those that are not genetically engineered?

Cummins: No, it is not impossible. The giant grain companies like Cargill and Continental and ADM like to say that it is technically impossible, but on the other hand, they are selling "identity preserved" grains which are guaranteed not to be genetically engineered˝at a higher price, of course˝to EU buyers who are demanding these products.

Multinational Monitor: Let's take milk. Can you tell whether milk has rBGH in it or not?

Cummins: Approximately 10 percent of the fluid milk in the United States today is labeled that it does not have rBGH in it. But for the 90 percent of the non organic milk in the United States, consumers are left in the dark as to whether it does contain genetically engineered ingredients. To our knowledge, the only way a consumer can guarantee that processed food or produce is not genetically engineered nowadays is to buy organically certified food.

Multinational Monitor: If these foods were labeled as genetically engineered, consumers wouldn't buy them and the technology would be dead.

Cummins: Mandatory labeling, as called for in the May 27~ 1998 lawsuit of the Center for Food Safety against the FDA, would slow down the technology to the point where the public could take a long, hard look at it and decide whether it had any benefit or not. As the head of Asgrow Seed Company, now a Monsanto subsidiary, admitted, labeling genetically engineered food in the U.S. would be comparable to putting a skull and crossbones on it.

At this point, the public˝even those who don't know that much about this technology˝ are using common sense and saying, "If industry and government are going to such lengths to con ceal from us the fact that they arc genetically engi neering our food, then it must be dangerous."

Multinational Monitor: Do you believe that the technology is a danger to us ?

Cummins: I believe that it is dangerous, not only to public health but also to the environment. You have to look at each one of the 37 genetically engineered foods and crops individually, but over all genetic engineering creates new toxins, new allergens, damages the nutritional value of food, and creates asupenveeds" and "superpests."

This is a totally unnecessary and radical new agricultural technology being rushed to market because these companies want to drive up their stock prices, capture monopoly markets and make more money˝not because it is going to do any of things its corporate apologists say, like clean the toxins out of agriculture,. or feed the world's hun gry.

Multinational Monitor: Nouv is the traditional cross breeding of plants different from what Monsanto is engaged in?

Cummins: Traditional cross breeding of plants and animals can only occur in species and varieties that are closely related. In nature, you are never going to have a pig mate with a human being and produce an offspring. And you are never going to have a flounder fish with an antifreeze gene spliced in it. You are never going to have a toma to with its ripening gene reversed. You will never find these things in nature. Only the mad scien tists in lab coats can cross breed outside of nature's laws. Genetic engineering is a radical new creation whereby scientists can take anything in nature and splice it into anything else. They can put human genes into animals and plants, they can take soil microorganisms and splice them into animals. They can literally create new human beings, new plants and new animals. And they are beginning to do this. This has nothing to do with traditional cross breeding techniques. This is totally new, radical, bizarre˝and dangerous.

Multinational Monitor: What is your prediction as to the future of ,genetically engineered foods?

Cummins: Genetically engineered foods are going to fail, just like nuclear power. The kind of opposition that has developed in Europe and that we are seeing increasing in Japan, Australia and New Zealand is going to spread in the United States. You are going to see the kind of resistance across the board that you saw in 1994 and 1995 against rBGH. We too are going to build a mass movement comparable to the anti nuclear move ment of the 1970s and 1980s.

This time it is going to be a mass movement for sustainable and organic agriculture. We will make clear that chemical intensive and genetically engi neered agriculture are a threat to the planet and we have to put an end to them.


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