You Are What You Eat

As the UA's BIO5 Institute grows, opponents of genetically modified foods express concern

The University of Arizona's BIO5 Institute dedicates a shiny new building Friday, Dec. 1, and to mark the occasion, a small group of people would like to talk about how some BIO5 scientists are manipulating the crops we plant and the foods we eat.

What these scientists are doing isn't always in the public's best interest, the Group on Social Aspects of Biotechnology says.

BIO5 is a collaborative bioresearch institute, bringing together scientists from a variety of disciplines "to solve complex biological problems," according to its Web site. Some of the scientists involved with the institute are working on ways to modify crops to make them hardier and more nutritious.

In fact, BIO5's published goals say agricultural biotechnology "is essential for addressing many of the most pressing challenges to the future well-being of humanity. ... Genetic improvement of crop plants to resist drought, salt, pests and pathogens is going to be essential if we are to increase the productivity required to maintain the health and well-being of our children and grandchildren."

It's all this talk about genetically modified (GM) foods being "essential" and "necessary" that rubs the group the wrong way. There's more to solving the problems of world hunger than developing a silver bullet through tinkering with genes, said Brian Marks, a UA geography grad student who is helping to organize the group's event. It will be held Wednesday, Nov. 29, at 7 p.m. in Room 202 of the Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering Building, 1130 N. Mountain Ave.

According to Marks, the talk will revolve around the notion that biotech scientists often fail to account for the human dimension of hunger.

"Our belief is not 'no technology'--we're not primitivists," Marks said. "It is the belief that technology alone can't solve these problems."

Attempts to reach BIO5 Director Vicki Chandler and Karen McGinnis, a researcher who works with Chandler on maize genetics, were unsuccessful.

GM foods haven't been proven safe; they haven't alleviated world hunger, and they have unintended ecological and political impacts that often slip under the radar, said Teresa Leal, co-director of the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice. Leal will also speak at the group's event, which is being billed as "an alternative voice in the biotech discussion."

"It (knowledge of agricultural biotechnology) has got to become more of an everyday thing," Leal said. "It's something we need to get people to be thinking about."

And getting people thinking about GM foods is how Leal envisions her role. She's an environmental justice activist on both sides of the Southwest border and spent time as a young woman with the United Farm Workers. She said she's striving to help people find ways to survive in a globalized world.

The impact of agricultural biotechnology has been far-reaching, she said. The Green Revolution, or the popularized notion that science and technology can alleviate world hunger, has taken away "the naturalness of food (and) the naturalness of food production," Leal said. The term Green Revolution was coined by William S. Gaud, the administrator for the United States Agency for International Development in the middle of the 20th century.

And that revolution has largely been driven by "corporate agendas," Leal said. Although, by far, the largest portion of BIO5's funding comes from the government (it received $24.7 million in federal research grants in fiscal year 2005), the institute is looking to expand its industry sponsorship. Corporate-sponsored contracts accounted for $1.2 million of BIO5's budget in 2005.

When business controls academia's purse strings, then academia becomes a tool of business, according to Leal. And she asked how much control a farmer in Sonora can have if corporations modify the corn the farmer plants in ways he or she doesn't want them to.

"It's part of a corporate agenda that makes us as consumers and as residents of this planet subject to being victims without our knowledge--unless we make a stand," she said. "It's not to the benefit of corporations that people be aware."

Leal told the Weekly she'll provide information at the talk to help people make that stand, so that they're not "chronic laboratory animals."

Marks referred the Weekly to Vermont's Brian Tokar, the director of the Biotechnology Project at the Institute for Social Ecology and an outspoken critic of genetically modified foods who has written two books on the subject. He echoed Leal's concerns about health, citing studies that have shown elevated chances of allergic reactions from consuming GM crops, as well as changes to digestive and immune-system functions.

"The biotechnology industry has been claiming since its very beginnings in the 1980s that they were going to feed the world, and they've utterly failed in that pursuit--to the point where people all over the world, especially in the so-called developing countries, have pretty much come to agreement that the biotech industry is only interested in feeding the world in their public-relations departments," he said.

There is some evidence to support Tokar's claims. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization announced last month that 10 years after the World Food Summit in Rome, where participants agreed to halve world hunger by 2015, there are actually more hungry people. Each year, 4 million people are added to the approximately 820 million who don't have enough food today, the FAO found.

Tokar, who spoke at the UA last year about GM foods, said applying basic science to traditional crop-raising techniques has been far more successful in alleviating hunger. Simple things like studying the life cycles of pest species or intercropping, which is done to increase yields, have worked well, he said.

It all comes back to money, according to Tokar: GM crops benefit a small number of corporations, Monsanto foremost among them. He said that company pushes herbicide-resistant crops on the public to, first, sell more herbicide, and second, to allow farmers to use a "broad-spectrum" chemical, such as Monsanto's Roundup, to kill pests as a "convenience factor." But that convenience factor is being lost as pest plants become resistant to these chemicals, he said.

And all that money has been a "corrupting" influence on the academic side, allowing corporate sponsors to censor scientific results that are not favorable to them, he said.

"When I was in graduate school studying biophysics in the 1970s, corporate sponsorship of research was uniformly considered a scandal," he said. "Now, 30 years later, many, many universities have become entirely dependent on corporate sponsorship, and many researchers have become dependent on corporate sponsorship. ... Rather than enhancing the pursuit of science, it's actually impaired scientific freedom and the ability of scientists to freely exchange information."

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