From the Institute of Responsible Technology
Monsanto Whistleblower Says Genetically Engineered Crops May Cause Disease
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 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 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 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 process.
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. (more at link)