Film by Bertram Verhaag and Denkmal Films. 60 minutes, Plus 30 minute bonus documentary: Monster Salmon.
“One question means one career.” This was the harsh warning of UC Berkeley Professor Ignacio Chapela for those daring to conduct independent research on genetically engineered foods and crops. “You ask one question, you get the answer and you might or might not be able to publish it; but that is the end of your career.” Both he and biologist Arpad Pusztai dared to asked questions and do the research. And then all hell broke lose.
Using stunning visuals filmed on three continents, veteran German filmmaker Bertram Verhaag tracks the fate of these two scientists at the hands of a multi-billion dollar industry that is desperate to hide the dangers of their genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
BR Online says of the film, “Belief in noble and incorrupt research and science is reduced to absurdity.” Arthouse says the “movie shows how purchased truth becomes the currency in the perfidious business between science and multinationals.” And GMWatch writes, “Original research showing problems with GM crops is buried under a deluge of smears and follow up studies are not done.”
The insect-killing, career-ending potato
“As a scientist looking at it and actively working on the field, I find that it’s very, very unfair to use our fellow citizens as guinea pigs.”— Arpad Pusztai, UK’s World in Action TV show
When Dr. Pusztai voiced his concerns about the health risks of genetically modified (GM) foods during a nationally televised interview in August 1998, his was not simply just another voice in a contentious debate. Pusztai was the world leader in his field, and he had received major government funding to come up with the official method for testing the safety of GM foods. His protocols were supposed to become the required tests before any new GMO entered the European market. Pusztai was an insider, and an advocate of GM foods—that is until he actually ran those tests on supposedly harmless GM potatoes.
The high-tech spuds were engineered to produce their own pesticide. “The point of the whole genetic modification experiment was to protect the potato against aphids, which are one of the major pests in Scotland,” he said. His team inserted a gene from the snowdrop plant into the potatoes, which did in fact protect the GM crop from the insects.
As part of his safety studies, he fed that insecticide producing GM potato to rats, along with a complete and balanced diet. Another group of rats ate natural potatoes. A third was fed not only the natural potatoes, but they also received a dose of the same insecticide that the GM potato produced. This way, if the insecticide was harmful, he would see the same health problems in both the group that ate the GM potatoes, and those that ate the diet spiked with the insecticide. To his surprise, only those that ate the GM potato had severe problems—in every organ and every system he looked at.
Massive health problems linked to GMOs
“After the animals were killed and dissected,” Pusztai recalled, “we found out that in comparison with the non-genetically modified potatoes, their internal organs developed differently.” The intestines and stomach lining, for example, increased in size, the liver and kidneys were smaller, and the overall rate of growth was retarded. And the immune system suffered. Pusztai emphasized, “They found in those data 36 – 36! – very highly significant differences between the GM-fed animals and the non-GM fed animals.”
Since the rats that ate the natural potatoes plus the insecticide did not have these issues, there was one obvious conclusion—the process of genetically engineering the potatoes caused unpredicted side effects, turning a harmless food into a dangerous one.
When Pusztai saw the extensive damage that his potatoes caused in the lab animals, he also realized that if biotech companies had done the safety studies, the dangerous potatoes would have easily made it to market. He knew this because a few months earlier, he had reviewed the confidential submissions from the biotech companies which allowed their GM soy and corn onto the market. “They were flimsy,” he said. “They were not scientifically well founded.” They would never detect the changes in GMO-fed animals.
Reading the industry studies was a turning point in Pusztai’s life. He realized what he was doing and what the industry scientists were doing was diametrically opposed. He was doing safety studies. Companies like Monsanto, on the other hand, were doing as little as possible to get their foods on the market as quickly as possible.
Pusztai also realized that the GM soy and corn already on the market had been produced using the same process that had created his dangerous potato. Thus, the GM crops being consumed in the UK and the US might lead to similar damage in the gut, brain and organs of the entire population.
Thus, during his TV interview, Pusztai flatly stated: “If I had the choice, I would certainly not eat [GM foods] until I see at least comparable experimental evidence which we are producing for genetically modified potatoes.”
After the TV show aired, Pusztai was a hero at his prestigious Rowett Institute, where the director praised his work to the press, calling it world-class research. After two days of high-profile media coverage throughout Europe, however, the director received two phone calls from the UK Prime Minister’s Office.
“It’s only when we think there was political pressure coming from the top that the situation changed,” said Pusztai. “And then the director, to save his own skin, decided that the best way to deal with the situation [was] A) to destroy me, B) to make me shut up.”
Pusztai was told the next morning that his contract would not be renewed, he was silenced with threats of a lawsuit, his team was disbanded, and the protocols were not to be implemented in GMO safety assessments. And then came the attacks.
Coordinated between the Institute, biotech academics, and even the pro-GMO UK government, a campaign to destroy Pusztai’s reputation was launched. They were determined to counter the negative media coverage and protect the reputation of GMOs—even if it meant promoting blatant lies and sacrificing a top scientist’s career. Because Pusztai was gagged, he said, “whatever they did say on TV, radio and wrote in the newspapers, I could not deny it, I could not correct it, I could not say what was the real situation.”
“The most hurtful thing of all,” remembers Pusztai’s wife Susan, “was that he wasn’t allowed to talk to his colleagues and his colleagues were not allowed to talk to him. So whenever he entered a room, they went silent within seconds.”
After seven excruciating months, a committee at the UK Parliament invited Pusztai to speak. This lifted the gag order, which allowed Pusztai to ultimately publish his research, and be interviewed for this film.
Oops—GMOs weren’t supposed to be there
Ignacio Chapela, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, had “a long-term relationship with a group of indigenous communities” in Mexico. Although GM corn was not yet legally grown in the country, Chapela decided to equip the Mexicans with a laboratory that could test for its presence, in case GMOs were eventually introduced. To help with the training, his colleague David Quist brought GM corn from the US. For the non-GM control corn, Chapela said, “we thought we should just use the local corn, which, of course, is going to be clean and wonderful. And the surprise came when the negative control started coming out positive. That means we started finding transgenic materials where they were not supposed to be.”
Chapela says, “The reason why our findings were so astounding was because it was thought that there was no transgenic corn being planted in Mexico at all. And people wanted it that way. . . . Why? Because Mexico is the center of origin of corn. The Mexican government was worried about maintaining the integrity of the land races.” Apparently GM corn imported as food was unknowingly being grown, and had already started contaminating the source of corn’s biodiversity.
According to Chapela the industry “had been telling the world that they really had control over these crops, that if they planted . . . transgenic corn in one field, that transgenic corn would not go anywhere else. So our discovery that we were finding transgenic corn maybe a thousand miles from the nearest legal transgenic corn field was a huge problem for them because it really showed very simply, and with real evidence, that they really did not have control.”
Chapela and Quist wrote up the finding, which was accepted for publication by the prominent journal Nature. This made “many people within the industry very nervous and very unhappy,” says Chapella. They “started a discreditation campaign for the paper. They did not want the paper to be published.”
Unable to stop Nature, however, a Monsanto PR company – the Bivings Group – deployed plan B. “They created two fictitious characters, two doctors,” recounts Chapela. “And these two doctors went on the internet and started spreading rumors that what we had said was false and that the paper was flawed.” The disinformation campaign went viral. It put huge pressure on Nature, spread the false notion that contamination had not taken place, and resulted in a campaign against Chapela by biotech advocates in his University.
“In my case,” says Chapela, “I was pushed out of the university at least three times. Every time I fought back and we managed to keep my job. But it’s been very difficult.”
Trashing scientists worldwide
The treatment of Pusztai and Chapela illustrates what happens around the world to scientists who discover harm from GM crops. The work of Russian scientist Irina Ermakova, for example, was viciously attacked, and there were repeated attempts to intimidate her: papers were burnt on her desk and samples were stolen from her lab.
Peeking through these stories of personal attacks are the very real dangers of GMOs, which compel the audience to question the use of GMOs in their own diets. Consider the impact of Ermakova’s research on young women planning to raise a family. After she fed genetically engineered soy flour to female rats, more than half of their offspring died within three weeks.
The film also unravels the claims of biotech benefits on the farm level. A visit to Brazil introduces herbicide-tolerant Roundup Ready soybeans, engineered to make weeding a field easier. Farmers can spray Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide right on the field, and the GMOs survive. But this has led to massive overuse of Roundup, which in turn has led to the emergence of herbicide-tolerant superweeds—no longer controllable with Roundup.
A natural reaction to these stories might be to ask why isn’t the government telling us the truth and protecting us. Unfortunately, they are part of the problem.
FDA cover up
The FDA scientists who reviewed GMOs in the early 1990s were uniformly concerned about their health impacts, according to attorney Andrew Kimbrell, who runs the D.C.-based Center for Food Safety. He was on the team that sued the FDA in 1998, forcing them to turn over nearly 60,000 pages of secret internal memos. Kimbrell extracts key memos from massive filing cabinets in his office, reading the scientists’ warnings: toxins, nutritional problems, loss of biodiversity, change in water use, etc.
“So the scientists asked for these studies,” says Kimbrell. “But the politicians at the FDA and in the administration at that time said no. They suppressed the science. And these questions, these studies, have never been done.”
Instead, the US government maintains the illusion that nothing is wrong, and that this science works just as the biotech companies are telling us. This is beautifully illustrated with excerpts of biotech apologist Nina Fedoroff, the former science advisor to the Secretary of State. Her bland assurances about the safety of GMOs crumble with each new revelation in the film.
Unprecedented risks; no benefits
“No one gets up in the morning saying I want to go buy a genetically engineered food,” says Kimbrell. “They offer no benefits, no more nutrition, no more flavor, no nothing. They only offer risks.” He says the average rational person would ask, “Why would I buy a food that offers me no new benefits but only risks?” Kimbrell, who wrote the book Your Right to Know, says it was “critical for the industry to get these foods out without anyone knowing, because if they knew, they would obviously choose not to buy them.”
But as Chapela’s discovery of self-propagating GMO contamination illustrates, the risk of GMOs extends well beyond individual considerations. He warns, “We are manipulating life in a way that we really do not understand, we cannot control, and then we’re letting it go into the environment. So it’s a change that is radical, that is unprecedented, that is beyond anything we can understand, and it is irretrievable. We cannot get it back. That’s my concern!”
Scientists Under Attack is recommended for all those who love nature, and for everyone who eats. To view the trailer, click here.
The Scientists Under Attack DVD includes a 30 minute bonus film Monster Salmon, also by Bertram Verhaag. It describes the efforts by the US firm AquaBounty to bring fast growing genetically engineered salmon to market in the US. Given the FDA’s recent attempts to fast-track this controversial fish, this additional documentary is important and timely.
Film by Bertram Verhaag and Denkmal Films. 60 minutes, Plus 30 minute bonus documentary: Monster Salmon.
Jeffrey M. Smith is the author of Seeds of Deception, the world’s bestselling book on GMOs, which also presents the stories of Arpad Pusztai and Ignacio Chapela. He is also the author of Genetic Roulette, and the Executive Director of the Institute for Responsible Technology. The Institute’s Non-GMO Shopping Guide website, iPhone app, and pocket guide, help people navigate to healthier non-GMO foods. Mr. Smith appears in the film Scientists Under Attack, and has arranged for its distribution in the US.