Institute for Responsible Technology  [Printer-friendly version]
August 29, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: The biotech food industry denies the
possibility that genetically engineered crops may cause human
disease, but a former Monsanto scientist tells a distinctly different

By Jeffrey M. Smith

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

"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 place."

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

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 knowledgable 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

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 subjects."


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

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. (Check further here.)

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.


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, is the world's bestselling book
on the subject.

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.

Sign up here for the Institute's monthly newsletter, Spilling the

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by Jeffrey Smith (see


[1] 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, available

[2] Mortality in Sheep Flocks after Grazing on Bt Cotton Fields ?
Warangal District, Andhra Pradesh. Report of the Preliminary
Assessment April 2006.

[3] Ashish Gupta, et. al., Impact of Bt Cotton on Farmers' Health (in
Barwani and Dhar District of Madhya Pradesh), Investigation Report,
Dec 2005.

[4] See for example, "Monsanto Cited In Crop Losses," New York Times,
June 16, 1998; and see Greenpeace web site.

[5] Antje Lorch, Monsanto Bribes in Indonesia, Monsanto Fined For
Bribing Indonesian Officials to Avoid Environmental Studies for Bt
Cotton, ifrik Sept. 1, 2005.

[6] 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; see also
this article.

[7] Jaideep Hardikar, One suicide every 8 hours, Daily News &
Analysis (India), August 26, 2006.

[8] Rick Weiss, U.S. Rice Supply Contaminated, Genetically Altered
Variety Is Found in Long-Grain Rice, Washington Post, August 19,

[9] Jeffrey Smith, US Government and Biotech Firm Deceive Public on
GM Corn Mix-up, Spilling the Beans, April 2005

[10] See for example, Christopher Doering, ProdiGene to spend
millions on bio-corn tainting, Reuters News Service, USA: December 9,

[11] See

[12] Office of Inspector General, USDA, Audit Report Animal and
Plant Health Inspection Service Controls Over Issuance of Genetically
Engineered Organism Release Permits, December 2005

[13] 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