Monsanto was quite happy to recruit young Kirk Azevedo to sell their genetically
engineered cotton. Kirk had grown up on a California farm and had worked in several
jobs monitoring and testing pesticides and herbicides. Kirk was bright, ambitious,
handsome and idealistic—the perfect candidate to project the company’s
“Save the world through genetic engineering” image.
It was that image, in fact, that convinced Kirk to take the job in 1996. “When
I was contacted by the headhunter from Monsanto, I began to study the company,
namely the work of their CEO, Robert Shapiro.” Kirk was thoroughly impressed
with Shapiro’s promise of a golden future through genetically modified
(GM) crops. “He described how we would reduce the in-process waste from
manufacturing, turn our fields into factories and produce anything from lifesaving
drugs to insect-resistant plants. It was fascinating to me.” Kirk thought,
“Here we go. I can do something to help the world and make it a better
He left his job and accepted a position at Monsanto, rising quickly to become
the facilitator for GM cotton sales in California and Arizona. He would often
repeat Shapiro’s vision to customers, researchers, even fellow employees.
After about three months, he visited Monsanto’s St. Louis headquarters
for the first time for new employee training. There too, he took the opportunity
to let his colleagues know how enthusiastic he was about Monsanto’s technology
that was going to reduce waste, decrease poverty and help the world. Soon after
the meeting, however, his world was shaken.
“A vice president pulled me aside,” recalled Kirk. “He told
me something like, ‘Wait a second. What Robert Shapiro says is one thing.
But what we do is something else. We are here to make money. He is the front
man who tells a story. We don’t even understand what he is saying.’”
Kirk felt let down. “I went in there with the idea of helping and healing
and came out with ‘Oh, I guess it is just another profit-oriented company.’”
He returned to California, still holding out hopes that the new technology could
make a difference.
Possible Toxins in GM Plants
Kirk was developing the market in the West for two types of GM cotton. Bt cotton
was engineered with a gene from a soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis. Organic
farmers use the natural form of the bacterium as an insecticide, spraying it
occasionally during times of high pest infestation. Monsanto engineers, however,
isolated and then altered the gene that produces the Bt-toxin, and inserted
it into the DNA of the cotton plant. Now every cell of their Bt cotton produces
a toxic protein. The other variety was Roundup Ready® cotton. It contains
another bacterial gene that enables the plant to survive an otherwise toxic
dose of Monsanto’s Roundup® herbicide. Since the patent on Roundup’s
main active ingredient, glyphosate, was due to expire in 2000, the company was
planning to sell Roundup Ready seeds that were bundled with their Roundup herbicide,
effectively extending their brand’s dominance in the herbicide market.
In the summer of 1997, Kirk spoke with a Monsanto scientist who was doing some
tests on Roundup Ready cotton. Using a “Western blot” analysis,
the scientist was able to identify different proteins by their molecular weight.
He told Kirk that the GM cotton not only contained the intended protein produced
by the Roundup Ready gene, but also extra proteins that were not normally produced
in the plant. These unknown proteins had been created during the gene insertion
Gene insertion was done using a gene gun (particle bombardment). Kirk, who
has an undergraduate degree in biochemistry, understood this to be “a
kind of barbaric and messy method of genetic engineering, where you use a gun-like
apparatus to bombard the plant tissue with genes that are wrapped around tiny
gold particles.” He knew that particle bombardment can cause unpredictable
changes and mutations in the DNA, which might result in new types of proteins.
The scientist dismissed these newly created proteins in the cotton plant as
unimportant background noise, but Kirk wasn’t convinced. Proteins can
have allergenic or toxic properties, but no one at Monsanto had done a safety
assessment on them. “I was afraid at that time that some of these proteins
may be toxic.” He was particularly concerned that the rogue proteins “might
possibly lead to mad cow or some other prion-type diseases.”
Kirk had just been studying mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy)
and its human counterpart, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD). These fatal diseases
had been tracked to a class of proteins called prions. Short for “proteinaceous
infectious particles,” prions are improperly folded proteins, which cause
other healthy proteins to also become misfolded. Over time, they cause holes
in the brain, severe dysfunction and death. Prions survive cooking and are believed
to be transmittable to humans who eat meat from infected “mad” cows.
The disease may incubate undetected for about 2 to 8 years in cows and up to
30 years in humans.
When Kirk tried to share his concerns with the scientist, he realized, “He
had no idea what I was talking about; he had not even heard of prions. And this
was at a time when Europe had a great concern about mad cow disease and it was
just before the noble prize was won by Stanley Prusiner for his discovery of
prion proteins.” Kirk said “These Monsanto scientists are very knowledge
about traditional products, like chemicals, herbicides and pesticides, but they
don’t understand the possible harmful outcomes of genetic engineering,
such as pathophysiology or prion proteins. So I am explaining to him about the
potential untoward effects of these foreign proteins, but he just did not understand.”
Endangering the Food Supply
At this time, Roundup Ready cotton varieties were just being introduced into
other regions but were still being field-tested in California. California varieties
had not yet been commercialized. But Kirk came to find out that Monsanto was
feeding the cotton plants used in its test plots to cattle.
“I had great issue with this,” he said. “I had worked for
Abbot Laboratories doing research, doing test plots using Bt sprays from bacteria.
We would never take a test plot and put into the food supply, even with somewhat
benign chemistries. We would always destroy the test plot material and not let
anything into the food supply. Now we entered into a new era of genetic engineering.
The standard was not the same as with pesticides. It was much lower, even though
it probably should have been much higher.”
Kirk complained to the Ph.D. in charge of the test plot about feeding the experimental
plants to cows. He explained that unknown proteins, including prions, might
even effect humans who consume the cow’s milk and meat. The scientist
replied, “Well that’s what we’re doing everywhere else and
that’s what we’re doing here.” He refused to destroy the plants.
Kirk got a bit frantic. He started talking to others in the company. “I
approached pretty much everyone on my team in Monsanto.” He was unable
to get anyone interested. In fact, he said, “Once they understood my perspective,
I was somewhat ostracized. It seemed as if once I started questioning things,
people wanted to keep their distance from me. I lost the cooperation with other
team members. Anything that interfered with advancing the commercialization
of this technology was going to be pushed aside.”
He then approached California Agriculture Commissioners. “These local
Ag commissioners are traditionally responsible for test plots and to make sure
test plot designs protect people and the environment.” But Kirk got nowhere.
“Once again, even at the Ag commissioner level, they were dealing with
a new technology that was beyond their comprehension. They did not really grasp
what untoward effects might be created by the genetic engineering process itself.”
Kirk continued to try to blow the whistle on what he thought could be devastating
to the health of consumers. “I spoke to many Ag commissioners. I spoke
to people at the University of California. I found no one who would even get
it, or even get the connection that proteins might be pathogenic, or that there
might be untoward effects associated with these foreign proteins that we knew
we were producing. They didn’t even want to talk about it really. You’d
kind of see a blank stare when speaking to them on this level. That led me to
say I am not going to be part of this company anymore. I’m not going to
be part of this disaster, from a moral perspective.”
Kirk gave his two-week notice. In early January 1998, he finished his last
day of work in the morning and in the afternoon started his first day at chiropractic
college. He was still determined to make a positive difference for the world,
but with a radically changed approach.
While in school, he continued to research prion disease and its possible connection
with GM crops. What he read then and what is known now about prions has not
alleviated his concerns. He says, “The protein that manifests as mad cow
disease takes about five years. With humans, however, that time line is anywhere
from 10-30 years. We were talking about 1997 and today is 2006. We still don’t
know if there is anything going to happen to us from our being used as test
It turns out that the damage done to DNA due to the process of creating a genetically
modified organism is far more extensive than previously thought.
GM crops routinely create unintended proteins, alter existing protein levels
or even change the components and shape of the protein that is created by the
inserted gene. Kirk’s concerns about a GM crop producing a harmful misfolded
protein remain well-founded, and have been echoed by scientists as one of the
many possible dangers that are not being evaluated by the biotech industry’s
superficial safety assessments.
GM cotton has provided ample reports of unpredicted side-effects. In April
2006, more than 70 Indian shepherds reported that 25% of their herds died within
5-7 days of continuous grazing on Bt cotton plants. Hundreds
of Indian agricultural laborers reported allergic reactions from Bt cotton.
Some cotton harvesters have been hospitalized and many laborers in cotton gin
factories take antihistamines each day before work.
The cotton’s agronomic performance is also erratic. When Monsanto’s
GM cotton varieties were first introduced in the US, tens of thousands of acres
suffered deformed roots and other unexpected problems. Monsanto paid out millions
in settlements. When Bt cotton was tested in Indonesia,
widespread pest infestation and drought damage forced withdrawal of the crop,
despite the fact that Monsanto had been bribing at least 140 individuals for
years, trying to gain approval. In India, inconsistent performance
has resulted in more than $80 million dollars in losses in each of two states.
Thousands of indebted Bt cotton farmers have committed suicide. In Vidarbha,
in north east Maharashtra, from June through August 2006, farmers committed
suicide at a rate of about one every eight hours. (The list
of adverse reactions reported from other GM crops, in lab animals, livestock
and humans, is considerably longer.)
Kirk’s concern about GM crop test plots also continues to remain valid.
The industry has been consistently inept at controlling the spread of unapproved
varieties. On August 18, 2006, for example, the USDA announced that unapproved
GM long grain rice, which was last field tested by Bayer CropScience in 2001,
had contaminated the US rice crop (probably for the past
5 years). Japan responded by suspending long grain rice imports and the EU will
now only accept shipments that are tested and certified GM-free. Similarly,
in March 2005, the US government admitted that an unapproved corn variety had
escaped from Syngenta’s field trials four years earlier and had contaminated
US corn. By year’s end, Japan had rejected at least
14 shipments containing the illegal corn. Other field trialed crops have been
mixed with commercial varieties, consumed by farmers, stolen, even given away
by government agencies and universities who had accidentally mixed seed varieties.
Some contamination from field trials may last for centuries. That may be the
fate of a variety of unapproved Roundup Ready grass which, according to reports
made public in August 2006, had escaped into the wild from an Oregon test plot
years earlier. Pollen had crossed with other varieties and wind had dispersed
seeds. Scientists believe that the variety will cross pollinate with other grass
varieties and may contaminate the commercial grass seed supply—70 percent
of which is grown in Oregon.
Even GM crops with known poisons are being grown outdoors without adequate
safeguards for health and the environment. A corn engineered to produce pharmaceutical
medicines, for example, contaminated corn and soybean fields in Iowa and Nebraska
in 2002. On August 10, 2006, a federal judge ruled that
the drug-producing GM crops grown in Hawaii violated both the Endangered Species
Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.
A December 29, 2005 report by the USDA office of Inspector General, blasted
the agriculture department for its abysmal oversight of GM field trials, particularly
for the high risk drug producing crops. And a January 2004
report by the National Research Council also called upon the government to strengthen
its oversight, but acknowledged that there is no way to guarantee that field
trialed crops will not pollute the environment.
With the US government failing to prevent GM contamination, and with state
governments and agriculture commissioners unwilling to challenge the dictates
of the biotech industry, some California counties decided to enact regulations
of their own. California’s diverse agriculture is particularly vulnerable
and thousands of field trials on not-yet-approved GM crops have already taken
place there. If contamination were discovered, it could easily devastate an
industry. Four counties have enacted moratoria or bans on the planting of GM
crops, including both approved and unapproved varieties. This follows the actions
of more than 4500 jurisdictions in Europe and dozens of nations, states and
regions on all continents, which have sought to restrict planting of GM crops
to protect their health, environment and agriculture.
Ironically, California’s assembly, which has done nothing to protect
the state from possible losses due to GM crop contamination, passed a bill on
August 24, 2006 that prohibits other counties and cities from creating GM free
zones. The senate is expected to vote on the issue by the end of their session
on August 31st (see http://www.calgefree.org/preemption.shtml).
It is yet another example of how the biotech industry has been able to push
their agenda onto US consumers, without regard to health and environmental safeguards.
No doubt that their lobbyists, anxious to have this bill pass, told legislators
that GM crops are needed to stop poverty and feed a hungry world.
[Update 9/1/06: The California Senate session ended without
senators voting on the bill to prevent local jurisdictions from creating GM-Free
zones. For the time being at least, California counties and cities may still
enact GM-Free zones. Click
here to read the full press release.]]
Jeffrey Smith’s forthcoming book, Genetic Roulette, documents more than
60 health risks of GM foods in easy-to-read two-page spreads, and demonstrates
how current safety assessments are not competent to protect consumers from the
dangers. His previous book, Seeds of Deception (www.seedsofdeception.com),
is the world’s best-selling book on the subject. He is available for media
Dr. Kirk Azevedo has a chiropractic office in Cambria, California. Press may
reach him at (805) 927-1055 or at drkirk(at)charter.net.
Spilling the Beans is a monthly column available at www.responsibletechnology.org.
The Institute for Responsible Technology is working to end the genetic engineering
of our food supply and the outdoor release of GM crops. We warmly welcome your
donations and support.
if you'd like to make a tax-deductible donation, or click here
if you would like to become a member of the Institute for Responsible Technology.
Membership to the Institute for Responsible Technology costs $25 per year. New
members receive The GMO Trilogy, a three-disc set produced by Jeffrey Smith
 JR Latham et al., “The Mutational Consequences of
Plant Transformation,” The Journal of Biomedicine and Biotechnology, Vol
2006 Article ID 25376 Pages 1-7, DOI 10.1155/JBB/2006/25376; for a more in-depth
discussion, see also Allison Wilson et al., “Genome Scrambling -Myth or
Reality? Transformation-Induced Mutations in Transgenic Crop Plants, Technical
Report - October 2004, www.econexus.info.
 Mortality in Sheep Flocks after Grazing on Bt Cotton
Fields – Warangal District, Andhra Pradesh. Report of the Preliminary
Assessment April 2006, http://www.gmwatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=6494
 Ashish Gupta, et. al., Impact of Bt Cotton on Farmers’
Health (in Barwani and Dhar District of Madhya Pradesh), Investigation Report,
Oct - Dec 2005
 See for example, Monsanto Cited In Crop Losses New York
Times, June 16, 1998 , http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9A04EED6153DF935A25755C0A96E958260;
and Greenpeace http://archive.greenpeace.org/geneng/reports/gmo/intrgmo5.htm
 Antje Lorch, Monsanto Bribes in Indonesia, Monsanto Fined
For Bribing Indonesian Officials to Avoid Environmental Studies for Bt Cotton,
ifrik 1sep2005, http://www.mindfully.org/GE/2005/Monsanto-Bribes-Indonesia1sep05.htm
 Bt Cotton - No Respite for Andhra Pradesh Farmers More
than 400 crores' worth losses for Bt Cotton farmers in Kharif 2005 Centre for
Sustainable Agriculture: Press Release, March 29, 2006 http://www.gmwatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=6393;
see also November 14, 2005 article in www.NewKerala.com
regarding Madhya Pradesh.
 Jaideep Hardikar, One suicide every 8 hours, Daily News
& Analysis (India), August 26, 2006 http://www.dnaindia.com/report.asp?NewsID=1049554
 Rick Weiss, U.S. Rice Supply Contaminated, Genetically
Altered Variety Is Found in Long-Grain Rice, Washington Post, August 19, 2006
 Jeffrey Smith, US Government and Biotech Firm Deceive
Public on GM Corn Mix-up, Spilling the Beans, April 2005
 See for example, Christopher Doering, ProdiGene to spend
millions on bio-corn tainting, Reuters News Service, USA: December 9, 2002
 See www.centerforfoodsafety.org
 Office of Inspector General, USDA, Audit Report Animal
and Plant Health Inspection Service Controls Over Issuance of Genetically Engineered
Organism Release Permits, December 2005 http://www.thecampaign.org/USDA_IG_1205.pdf
 Justin Gillis, Genetically Modified Organisms Not Easily
Contained; National Research Council Panel Urges More Work to Protect Against
Contamination of Food Supply, Washington Post, Jan 21, 2004
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