Many people feel that the jury is still out on the issue of genetically modified foods, though Europe and the UK have led the international backlash against crops which have had their genetic codes modified in the lab, much like computer software is rewritten by technicians. For many, the idea of tinkering with the programming of life is a kind of modern wonder — the contemporary equivalent of “better living through chemistry.” We can, for example, insert some fish genes into a plant and create a supposedly better tomato. Genetic engineering is an extension of mankind’s control over the planet; it is yet another way of conquering nature. To most people it, makes no difference at all that this year, one-third of the U.S. corn used in everything from Doritos to Pepsi to beef feed will be grown with genetically-modified seed.
But for some, the issue of genetically modified foods is on the level of a religious matter.
Tampering with genetics is not like playing God, it is literally doing so. Think about it for a few moments and a flood of questions can arise. What will the long-term effects be? How can we turn loose pollen with rewritten DNA codes into the environment in an uncontrolled experiment? Will it mutate other forms of life? Where will the future of this science take us, and how can we possibly deal with the ethical questions raised by corporations patenting life and selling it back to us? Can they patent human genetics? Have we not learned any lessons from the breaking of the atom, which led to the nuclear arms buildup and hundreds of atomic energy plants, any of which could become another Chernobyl or Three Mile Island any day?
Is there a DNA equivalent to this kind of disaster-about-to-happen?
There are many troubling issues. Yet the one question that’s not being asked is, who exactly is this deity that is experimenting with cutting and pasting the scripts and data of life like so much computer code?
One answer is Monsanto. Over the past ten years, Monsanto, once a chemical industry giant, has divested itself of its chemical interests and has gone exclusively into what it calls “life sciences.” After investing untold billions in research, development and marketing, Monsanto genetically modified wheat, corn, flax and other crops to withstand application of its own herbicide, Roundup (these are called “Roundup Ready” seeds). Monsanto’s life scientists designed something called bovine growth hormone, which forces cows to produce more milk, which is said to be harmless. Another Monsanto product is a specially-designed potato that kills the potato beetle; the entire vegetable is registered as a pesticide with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and then it’s made into things like French fries, potato chips and knishes.
Now a highly profitable company doing many billions of dollars worth of business every year, Monsanto has humble beginnings. On Nov. 29, 1901, Edgar Monsanto Queeny, starting off with $5,000, filed incorporation papers in Jefferson City, Missouri for Monsanto Chemical Works. At the time, Queeny was working full-time for Meyer Brothers Drug Co. and moonlighting as a chemical entrepreneur. Queeny had saved up $1,500 from his day job and borrowed $3,500 from another business. Monsanto’s first product was saccharin, a sweetener derived from coal tar.
But it wasn’t long before the company was thriving in the rise of the modern world, manufacturing chlorinated industrial chemicals such as PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls, used in the electrical industry and many others, which were finally banned in 1976), wood preservatives, and herbicides like the Vietnam defoliant (and lawn-care chemical) Agent Orange. Chlorine does not occur as a free-standing element on our particular planet. It is made from breaking apart sea water, and then, because chlorine is unstable, it’s bonded with other substances, like oil. Tinker with oil and chlorine and you can make untold thousands of products, from plastics to bug killers. But in the process of making these chemicals, a waste product is often created, called dioxin.
Dioxin is a totally unnatural substance. The stuff is so toxic that all of the contaminated food recently discovered in Belgium, and now banned throughout Europe and the United States (everything from meat to mayonnaise) has been traced back to a quantity of dioxin small enough to fit in a single pill — about 80 milligrams.
Because Monsanto has been a leader in the chlorinated chemicals industry, it’s one of the world’s largest producers of dioxin. Dioxin is an extremely versatile poison. It behaves like a sex hormone (estrogen), one of the most fundamental chemicals regulating life, and it sneaks past the body’s defenses. Then it plugs itself into receptor slots the body uses for hormones, and goes to work damaging the immune system, the reproductive system and scrambles DNA, waging a campaign of biological disinformation. Immune collapse, birth defects, multigenerational cancers and many other illnesses are the logical result.
In 1949, around when dioxin was first discovered, there was a horrible accident at a chemical plant in Nitro, West Virginia, resulting in a large dioxin release. The disaster was cleaned up and rabbits were put in cages in the allegedly “clean” area; they died immediately. Then other rabbits were put in the same cages in which the other rabbits had died, only away from the accident scene, and these rabbits died in a matter of hours. But these tests were kept secret from the government, the press and the public.
Internal corporate memos indicate that a great deal was known about dioxin by the chemical companies, including Dow, through the 1950s and 1960s. It wasn’t until the next decade that the world outside the upper echelons of the chemical business started learning about this problem. Then in the late 1970s, a rail car accident in Sturgeon, Missouri spilled thousands of gallons of wood preservative called octochlorophenol. Monsanto denied that any dioxin was present in the spill, but testing documented high levels. Residents of the town, including a woman named Frances Kemner, sued Monsanto. During the trial, Kemner’s lawyer, Rexford Carr, was able to perform legal miracles, and the court ordered Monsanto to reveal the contents of its secret dioxin files. The documents could fill a small warehouse. Carr then called Monsanto officials as witnesses and questioned them extensively on what they had written and done, and what they knew. Based on this evidence, Rexford Carr wrote what has become known as “The Kemner Brief,” which Monsanto has gone to great lengths to try to keep away from the public and out of the newspapers.
Before I quote the Kemner Brief, I need to mention a technical detail. The formal name for dioxin is 2,3,7,8 tetrachlorodibenzo-para-dioxin. There are 217 kinds of dioxins, but this variety is the most toxic of all by a factor of hundreds or thousands. The numbers “2,3,7,8” refer to where the chlorine is placed in the molecule — on the four corners, making it very stable and very, very poisonous. This form of dioxin is referred to by its numbers, or as TCDD.
Rex Carr’s Kemner brief tells the story of dioxin through the history of Monsanto. Monsanto has now moved on into what it felt was a more promising field of biotech, spending $8 billion to buy seed companies in recent years, and striving to be one of the world’s largest corporate purveyors of biology — but it’s important to know who and what this company has been in the past.
In the Kemner trial, “Monsanto’s chemical engineer, Donald Edwards, testified that for at least seven years in the 1970s, Monsanto was dumping daily 30 to 40 pounds of dioxin into the Mississippi River from its Krummrich Plant,” Carr wrote in the Kemner Brief, a fact which internal memos showed Monsanto tried to hide. “This dumping was continuing as late as 1977, although Monsanto officials recognized the potential health hazard from dioxin’s getting into the St. Louis food chain through the river. Monsanto secretly tested fat samples from several deceased St. Louis area residents who had died in accidents and not as a result of illness, and the test results showed that every such cadaver contained 2,3,7,8 in its fat tissue.”
Large chemical firms like Monsanto manufacture products that they sell to other manufacturers, which are then put into household products. “Monsanto’s Santophen is the active ingredient in Lysol disinfectant and cleaning products,” the Kemner Brief continues. “Monsanto’s analytical chemist, Fred Hileman, testified that Monsanto knew that Lysol is recommended for cleaning babies’ toys and for various other cleaning activities involving direct contact with the human body. Yet, there is no dioxin warning on the Lysol package. Hileman testified that he knew people who used Lysol were contacting three parts per billion of 2,3,7,8 and that 2,3,7,8 is extremely toxic. [These are historical facts, not statements of the current state of Lysol or numerous other products that may contain chlorinated chemical agents – ef.] Hileman testified that he knew people were spraying their lawns with products containing Monsanto’s 2,3,7,8 and that these people didn’t even know it because they had not been told the products contained dioxin, let alone 2,3,7,8.”
Another product component made by Monsanto is called 2,4-Di. This was an ingredient in Agent Orange, and is currently used as a lawn care product because it kills weeds. As of the mid-1990s, one out of every three packages of this product, for sale in supermarkets and used by lawn-care services, is known to be contaminated with dioxin, though the federal government will not reveal which brands because it’s considered a “trade secret.” (Any lawn care product that says “Plus Two” or “+2” on the package contains 2,4-Di.)
“Monsanto’s Dr. James Wilson’s testimony shows that Monsanto decided to sell its 2,4-Di despite Monsanto’s having assumed that it contained 2,3,7,8. In fact, Wilson testified that Monsanto knowingly sent TCDD-contaminated 2,4-Di to its customers from 1978 to 1983 and that there was no evidence that any customer ever was notified of the contamination. Wilson testified that Monsanto possibly was shipping out Santophen [the Lysol ingredient] with 65 parts per billion of TCDD before February of 1979, and that who got the contaminated product depended on the ‘luck of the draw’. Wilson testified that Monsanto has produced products with dioxin for fifty years. Even though Monsanto had adapted Dr. Paget’s recommendation that one part per billion 2,3,7,8 is ‘probably medically acceptable’, Monsanto knew that higher levels of TCDDs that ‘coeluete like’ 2,3,7,8 were in its products, and yet gave no notice to its customers. Wilson knew Monsanto was sending out 2,4-Di with much more than 100 parts per billion of TCDDs. Wilson testified that he knew Lysol was used on children and dogs.”
Monsanto’s Elizabeth Fay “testified that the Santophen Monsanto had been selling for 23 years was used in hospitals and homes, and that it could have contained levels of TCDD. The transcript contains literally hundreds of admissions that Monsanto was knowingly selling dioxin-contaminated chlorophenol products to its customers for nearly 30 years, and that it did so with the knowledge that these products contained a contamination that was highly toxic to both the environment and to human beings.”
In 1976, Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act, which gave new powers to the EPA. This law required companies like Monsanto to report dioxin contamination to the federal government if they discovered it in their products. Despite this, testimony revealed that in 1978, all Monsanto products were contaminated with dioxin, which went unreported to the EPA.
“At one time in 1979, Monsanto represented to the EPA that Monsanto could not test its products for the presence of 2,3,7,8 because the extreme toxicity of the 2,3,7,8 precluded its use in Monsanto’s labs.* The testimony was that this was an untrue statement and that the upper echelons of Monsanto Company knew 2,3,7,8 was being used in Monsanto’s labs. In fact, Monsanto had a 2,3,7,8 sample in its lab no later than 1970. [*Carr’s footnote: At trial, one of Monsanto’s excuses for its not having tested its products and not having reported its TCDDs and 2,3,7,8 was that Monsanto did not have sufficiently precise testing methods to detect it at low levels.
“Wilson testified TCDD testing could have been done as early as 1957, but Monsanto tested very few batches before the Sturgeon spill. Fred Hileman admitted that it was possible that Monsanto just did not utilize its full testing capacity. Monsanto had no regular testing program before the spill. James Mieure’s testimony shows that Monsanto implemented only after the Sturgeon spill a much more precise TCDD testing method that it could have implemented before the spill.]
“At trial, Monsanto offered several other excuses for its having not reported the 2,3,7,8 TCDD contained in its products to the EPA. In one instance, Monsanto identified 9.5 parts per billion of what ‘coeluetes like 2,3,7,8 ‘, but failed to report this because they were not certain that it was not indeed 2,3,7,8. Yet, there is no evidence that Monsanto told the EPA when these ‘uncertainties’ later were removed by exact identification of 2,3,7,8. It was [Monsanto lawyer] Phocion Park’s opinion that Monsanto had no duty to report small amount small amounts of 2,3,7,8 in its products. Park stated that reporting very low levels of 2,3,7,8 would merely ‘add fuel to the media fires’. Park testified further that the EPA need not have been notified of dioxin in Monsanto’s products because the EPA already knew that dioxin was dangerous!”
This kind of circular reasoning can be found all through the environmental lawsuit files of almost every corporation that’s been brought to court. With Monsanto, even as the catastrophic dangers of its products were being exposed in environmental and health disasters, its product development committee was voting to increase sales of the same products, in one case by twenty-fold. And if customers were ever warned about potential dangers, it was a special situation, and it came after many years of denials. Carr deals with the warning issue in the Kemner Brief.
“Monsanto never warned any of the potential customers even though it knew the consumers would be exposed to quantities of Monsanto’s dioxin. Monsanto knew that people were spraying their lawns with a product containing 2,3,7,8 and that these people had no way of knowing of the presence or toxicity of 2,3,7,8 in these products. Monsanto knew that Lysol contained Monsanto’s 2,3,7,8 and that Lysol was recommended for cleaning [household items] and children’s toys, although there was no warning to customers that Lysol contained any dioxin.”
But now for the obvious question:
“Why did Monsanto lie and fail to notify the world about the dioxin in [its] chlorophenols?” Carr asks in the Kemner Brief. “Monsanto knew that its chlorophenols would be less marketable if customers learned about the dioxin content. Monsanto’s James Wilson testified that it was profitable for Monsanto to not notify its customers.”
Could it really be this simple?
“Phocion Park testified that sales could be affected if customers thought there could be adverse health effects from the products. Park testified that Monsanto knew that its business could be hurt if its customers learned that dioxin was in Monsanto’s products. Plaintiffs’ Exhibit 1326 is a March 9, 1989 Edwards to Wilson memo about TCDD in Monsanto’s chlorophenols as being of ‘very high importance’ to the continuation of business. Monsanto worried that Lehn and Fink [then makers of Lysol] would quit purchasing Santophen if notified, so Lehn and Fink was not notified. Park’s testimony on the cost of ceasing production shows clearly why Monsanto kept its dioxin a secret.”
But as the years passed and the facts emerged, it was not easy to keep these problems quiet. To maintain the illusion and keep business going, Monsanto had to resort to creating false “scientific evidence” about the safety of dioxin. At the time, the company was facing lawsuits from Vietnam veterans, as well as dealing with the bad press Love Canal disaster in Niagara Falls, NY, and the world was witnessing the total evacuation of Times Beach, Missouri, all of which disasters involved dioxin contamination and scandals.
Writes Carr, “Probably the most appalling feature of this story is Monsanto’s efforts to convince the world that dioxin is harmless and Monsanto did, in fact, produce ‘research’ to defend its position that dioxin is harmless. In 1949 there occurred a 2,4,5-T explosion in the Nitro, West Virginia plant [2,4,5-T is another herbicide, a chlorinated chemical that comprised 50% of the defoliant Agent Orange. It has since been banned by the government]. As a result, many of the plant workers were exposed to the 2,4,5-T and its dioxin contaminants. These workers were studied by Monsanto and the results of these studies were published by Monsanto and accepted as valid by the world.
“The record, however, shows a deliberate course of conduct designed to convince its employees and the world at large that dioxin is harmless and that even large doses of dioxin cause only chloracne (‘something similar to teenage acne’, according to Monsanto’s press releases) aside from some minor initial reversible health effects. The ‘research’ studies prove these bald-faced lies were created by Monsanto’s agents and employees and published in the world’s literature without any refutation until this case was tried. All of the data, until released to the plaintiffs during the discovery process, had been under Monsanto’s exclusive control and never released to the world.”
Through my journalism in the past seven years, I have carefully reviewed and published articles about the documentation of these health effect studies, particularly the example given next.
“During the course of this trial,” Carr writes in the Kemner Brief, “these salient and deeply disturbing facts about the health effects of dioxin surfaced:
“Zack and Gaffey, two Monsanto employees, published a mortality study purporting to compare the cancer death rate amongst the Nitro workers who were exposed to dioxin in the 1949 explosion with the cancer death rate of unexposed workers. The published study concluded that the death rate of the exposed worker was exactly the same as the unexposed worker. However, Zack and Gaffey deliberately and knowingly omitted 5 deaths from the exposed group and took 4 workers who had been exposed and put these workers in the unexposed group, serving, of course, to decrease the death rate in the exposed group and increase the death rate in the unexposed group.
“The exposed group, in fact, had 18 cancer deaths instead of the reported 9 deaths, with the result that the death rate in the exposed group was 65% higher than expected. Consider what the medical community would believe about dioxin, if these facts were known outside the confines of this case!! The plaintiffs, in cross examining the medical director of Monsanto, Dr. Roush, clearly established the fraud that took place. The cross examination not only revealed that the overall death rate from cancer was 65% greater in the exposed population than expected, but that the death rate from lung cancer was 143% higher than expected, the bladder cancer death rate was 809% higher and the lymphatic cancer death rate was 92% higher. Death from heart disease was 37% higher than expected.” [Heart disease often kills dioxin exposure victims before cancer has a chance to.]
These are not the only examples of Monsanto’s manipulation of “science” and publishing their made-up findings in the world medical literature. Testimony and evidence about the manipulation of cancer studies of PCBs and other products has been garnered in several lawsuits, which was used to forestall the banning of PCBs by the government. And a Monsanto employee, Paul L. Wright, went to federal prison for mail and wire fraud because of his conduct involving a safety testing service used by Monsanto to certify its products, called Industrial Bio-Test labs in Illinois. Evidence clearly indicates that cancer studies were rewritten and submitted to the government to give the appearance that chemicals were safe when they really were very dangerous [this story is told in Conspiracy of Silence, originally published in Sierra magazine, by Eric Francis].
So, now we can consider Monsanto’s “life sciences” — genetic engineering — in a whole new light. It may be difficult, because we tend to have a very high opinion of science in our culture. When we think of scientists, we usually imagine idealistic people working hard in pursuit of pure knowledge, for the betterment of humanity. We think of the honest men and women who give their lives to research to cure the world’s ills. Names like Jonas Salk, Margaret Mead and Rachel Carson come to mind.
Yet as corporate science, driven by profits and a spirit of conquering and plundering, enters the next age of humanity, we have an important question to meditate on. Monsanto is striving to dominate the food industry, making the entire world dependent on its crops with tampered DNA. Do we really want to leave the fate of life on Earth in its hands?