Healthy Plate, Healthy Planet Series:
By Carol Spearman, Becketwood Member
Several years ago a friend gave me the non-fiction book, Seeds of Deception by Jeffrey Smith, insisting I should read it. I dutifully did so and it changed my life. The first few chapters read like a thriller. The intriguing story was about a research grant to create a model for testing whether genetically modified organisms (GMOs) were safe in our food. The year was 1995, and the grant went to the Rowett Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland, under the leadership of distinguished scientist, Dr. Arpad Pusztai. His team, including his wife Susan Bardocz, had been working for two years on the project when they were alarmed by their results. I leave the details to your curious minds, but tease you with the conclusion of Dr. Pusztai: Genetic modification of food must be stopped immediately and further research carried out.
The drama that followed in the lives of Arpad and Susan, and others who worked with them, was a story the world needed to know. I contacted Jeffrey Smith and suggested that we needed a popular movie, a Blood Diamonds type of film (this film alerted people to the human devastation caused by the diamond trade) that would wake up people to the dangers of genetic modification. I wanted to expose what had happened to the competent researchers who began their project with great hopes for genetic modification and were discredited for reporting their “inconvenient” results. Alas, Jeffrey was raising money for a documentary and he suggested that I write the screenplay.
After some soul-searching, I decided to try writing the script. I had taken some film-writing courses in Britain and I had an idea for staging the drama—Jeffrey's book would be the selection for a women's book club. The discussion would become the impetus for action that would place the characters in jeopardy. It would be a cross between “The Golden Girls” and “Charlie’s Angels.” In 2009, I finished a draft of the screenplay, called Angels of Deception, and sent it to Jeffrey. I considered contacting Dr. Pusztai and Jeffrey encouraged me to do so. The next thing I knew I was communicating with Dr. Arpad Pusztai and planning to meet him to review the script of the screenplay the next time I was in Scotland. (Yes, I did wonder why a man with a name like Pusztai was in Scotland.)
A few months later Rowland decided to visit northern Scotland to see some of his old friends. Since Aberdeen was on the way I sent a message to Dr. Pusztai about meeting in May, but didn't hear from him. We left for Scotland without an answer. Then a message appeared from his wife Susan, who knew nothing of our arrangements. She informed me that Arpad was hospitalized in Hungary, their original home country. After a few more e-mail exchanges she suggested that we could come to Budapest to meet her. I looked at Rowland and he said, “Why not?” We booked flights to Budapest and returned from Scotland. As we left for the airport, we learned that Arpad was being discharged from the hospital and he and Susan were leaving for their countryside home for his recovery from a stroke. We could drive to Lake Ballentine to see them after a couple of days. Susan invited us to stay at their home, as long as we understood the need to take care of ourselves. That night we rented a car and drove into Budapest in the dark, trying to understand Hungarian road signs and find our hotel.
We arrived at Lake Ballentine in the late afternoon and met Susan, but Arpad was resting. We had a short tour of the grounds including gardens and fruit trees. I left the script with Susan, with trepidation, and we went to a local restaurant she recommended. When we returned she invited us to share a glass of wine, offering several kinds made from the fruit trees we had seen. She provided us with homemade bread and jam for our breakfast and told us to relax in the morning. By the second day we had spent time with Arpad, who was unable to speak, but Susan had read the script to him. That evening she shared their special love story with us and said I could incorporate it into the script. When we left the next day, after dinner with the two of them and some friends, we felt honored to have been a part of their lives for just this small amount of time. As I said goodbye to Arpad, I felt the grateful acknowledgment in his eyes that someone wanted to tell their story to the world.
You ask, why haven't you ever heard of this research? During their drama, which went on for months, Arpad was discredited, terminated from a position he held for 34 years, and silenced by a gag order. Months later his research was supported by scientists from around the world, the gag order to silence him was lifted in February 1999 and he was asked to make a presentation of his findings to the British Parliament. The opposition to genetically modified food in Europe stems from his early research and determination to warn the world about the dangers of genetic modification. During the months these events were unfolding, only seven articles were written about this story in the United States.
While teaching business ethics for the College of St. Scholastica, I pointed out the lack of coverage of Dr. Pusztai's research findings. I read journal articles from the University of Minnesota that claimed there had never been any research linking genetic modified food to health issues. I cited this lack of coverage as an example of how the press can be selectively controlled by corporate interests. GMO potatoes have just been introduced into Great Britain, claiming once again that there is no danger. (GMO potatoes were actually the diet fed to rats in the Rowett Institute study). Our business ethics textbook covered the fact that the Arthur Anderson Consulting firm had designed a plan for Monsanto to own the “seed” market across the world and that market is heavily dominated now by genetic modified seeds.
As individual states tried to pass labeling requirements for GMO food, they cited surveys with high percentages of residents wanting their food labeled. Many people knew little about genetically modified processes but most just want to know more about what is in their food. What about you? Do you understand genetic modification/ how it differs from hybrid products/ how it is done/ what problems it causes for our health and environment? I hope my personal story about GMOs, and why I became so concerned about them, will lead you to find out more about what you are eating every day.
Most corn and soy raised in the United States and canola produced in Canada is genetically modified to be weed resistant. Most people in our country consume food with GMOs several times a day in the form of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), corn syrup, cornstarch, sugar from sugar beets, canola oil, corn oil, vegetable oil, soy lecithin, tofu, soy flour and soy protein, food additives and aspartame; GMOs also come from meat, poultry, eggs, cheese and milk from animals fed GMO grains. Everything from baby formula to salad dressing, condiments, bread, cereals, packaged and prepared mixes are likely to have several GMO ingredients.
Research studies in Canada have shown that the chemicals used in modifying corn and soy to be weed-resistant are passing through the mother's placenta in pregnant women, although claims from industry say this is not happening. Studies in France have shown that giving GMO feed to rats causes them to miscarry, have deformed offspring and become infertile in three generations. These studies have been suppressed.
Where is the script now? We read it in our book club and with a group in England. I rewrote it for community groups to present, but haven't found a way to make it widely known. Marketing is not my thing! People suggested Oprah, but not how to get things to her! I write letters to the President of General Mills about their need to stop using GMOs, I post notices on Facebook and applaud companies that are producing GMO-free products. I write to politicians about the need to convert our corporate farming from GMO corn and soy to sustainable agriculture and diverse production for the wellbeing of our children. This conversion also would make economic sense, because most countries across the world are trying to be GMO free and will eventually refuse to import our grains.
The chemicals that have been used for genetic modification are affecting our personal health and the planet’s health. We could stop this deterioration if enough people knew about the heavy price we are paying for believing our food is safe. If you want to know more about GMOs, there is a lot of information available, including movies, articles and websites. Here at Becketwood, we are working to bring together the connections between a Healthy Plate and a Healthy Planet. We are planning educational programs with the Environment, Food Service and Wellness committees. Join us if you would like to know more.