- Brewster Kneen
for Gateway Greens, November 1998
'Safety' and 'choice' are words often used in discussion of biotechnology,
but both are traps to be avoided.
Back in the middle ages -- the middle of the last decade, that is, when
rBGH was being promoted as the wonder drug for dairy cows -- the drug's
pushers, led by Monsanto, had planned on confining the debate to a matter
of the technical 'safety' of the drug for cows and humans. They knew that
if they could define the discourse in this way, the debate could go on, and
on, and on... while they went ahead with their marketing plans. 'Safety'
could be defined, and redefined, so that the debate would never end. (We
see this with agrotoxins and allowable residue levels etc.) If we could be
preoccupied with questions of 'safety', the drug pushers, and their alter
egos, the agrotoxin makers and salesmen (I've never yet seen a woman
selling agrotoxins), could work quietly on the FDA, Agriculture Canada, and
similar agencies to change the rules of the game.
The rule change that industry wants, and which it is quietly getting, is a
radical redefinition of 'burden of proof'. Instead of the manufacturer
having to prove to the public authorities that their product is safe, it is
rapidly becoming the rule that it is the responsibility of the regulator to
prove that a product is harmful in order to deny approval or licensing.
Harm, however, is much more difficult to actually prove, in the current
ideology of 'science', than no harm. For example, the manufacturers of
rBGH and their scientists, such as Dale Bauman at Cornell, simply pointed
to the absence of "catastrophic effects" on the health of cows as proof of
the drug's safety. Similarly, there are any number of agricultural
chemicals that cannot be clinically proven to be specifically harmful but
for which anecdotal evidence indicates a level of probable harm that is
quite unacceptable, as with endocrine disruptors.
For the manufacturer of genetically altered foods, the reversal of the
burden of proof from having to prove safety to demonstrating the absence of
harm also makes it possible to transfer liability from itself or its agents
to the regulatory agency. If the regulatory agency does not find the g.e.
food harmful or unsafe -- which might mean the impossible task of
identifying previously unidentified and unknown allergens or toxins -- then
a person affected by eating the food in question cannot hold the
manufacturer liable. This will protect corporate profits, but not public
The reversal of 'burden of proof' is now being engineered from Codex
Alimentarius down to national regulatory standards. Instead of requiring
the proponent of a 'novel food' to show that it is 'substantially
equivalent' to a traditional or already recognized food, the regulators, if
the biotech industry gets its way, will have to prove that the 'novel food'
is 'substantially different' and therefore will not be approved or will
In the case of rBGH, Monsanto wanted us to believe that the only issues
were safety and efficacy. If there were any deleterious consequences for
the cows who were injected, or if the drug did not force the cow to give as
much milk as Monsanto claimed it would, then the problems were not those of
the drug or its manufacturer, but the result of poor management by the
farmer; a clever shifting of the burden of proof so that Monsanto need
never take responsibility for the failure or consequences of its products.
We have seen this with cotton, canola and corn, where any problems are the
fault of bad management, the weather, or unusual pest conditions.
In Canada we chose to fight rBGH on the larger issues of animal welfare,
long-term human health problems, effect on the structure of the dairy
industry, and the essential immorality of pushing drugs. The drug has not
been approved for use in Canada.
Another problem with the 'safety' debate is that it can absorb any amount
of energy without ever being decided. Meanwhile all the larger and more
holistic issues get ignored; questions such as, Why is this product being
produced in the first place? What will its environmental effect be? What
are the likely consequences of the production of the crop or food on the
structure of society and the distribution of wealth and power? How else
could the purported purpose of the product be achieved?
The second issue is the 'right to know' or the 'right to choose'. While I
recognize that American individualism likes to argue in terms of 'rights',
I think that this is a bad way to frame the real issue, which is one of
What is at issue is my responsibility to think and act ethically and
holistically, that is, socially. I cannot do this, and I cannot exercise
my responsibility to society and ecology, if the implications of my choices
are hidden from me. This is the real significance of labelling. We should
not argue for the labelling of either organic or genetically altered foods
simply on the grounds of an abstract right to choose, or even right to
know, even if my preference is for my own good health. If I argue for this
kind of 'choice', then I am not challenging the production and marketing of
genetically engineered foods, but simply saying that I want the choice,
personally, to avoid them. There is no inherent social consequence of my
choice; it is simply my individual choice.
Yet we must demand comprehensive labelling if we object to g.e. foods on
ecological, ethical and social grounds and wish to act in a socially
responsible way. Labelling is a necessary and useful tool for public
education and action.
The argument we should be using is that if genetic engineering is so good,
then the products of g.e. ought to be prominently labelled and priced at a
premium. When their manufacturers argue against labelling, then I have to
get suspicious of what they are trying to hide!
When they say that they cannot label because it is not possible to
segregate g.e. crops and foods, we simply have to say that they are lying.
The very same companies are producing crops, genetically engineered and
no-g.e., such as canola, corn and soy with special characteristics that
require segregation from beginning to end. In addition, the farmer gets a
premium for growing and segregating such 'Identity Preserved' crops.
On the labelling issue, the biotech promoters are up to the same trick as
they are with the food safety issue. They are trying to reverse the burden
of proof. What they want is the right to conceal, while putting the burden
of labelling on the public. So now Monsanto is saying that they are all for
labelling -- if it is required by the regulators in the interest of public
health and safety.
"Crop protection", "technology protection" (the Terminator), consumer
protection... to listen to the chemical-biotech industry they are in the
protection racket. Pay them enough and they will provide all the protection
you and your food need. Or they might even leave you alone. But who asked
for their protection, or their products, in the first place?
Actually, what companies like Monsanto want is protection from the public.
Shifting the burden of proof is a clever way of trying to achieve this.
Nov 29, 1998
Brewster Kneen is the publisher of The Ram's Horn newsletter, and author of
"Farmageddon: Food and the Culture of Biotechnology", to be published by
New Society Publishers, spring, 1999. He can be reached at:
S-12, C-11, RR.1
Sorrento, B.C. V0E 2W0, Canada
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