‘Modified’: A Film About GMOs and the Corruption of “Food Supply for Profit”
By Colin Todhunter - Global Research - 24. June 2019
The film centres on its maker, Aube Giroux, who resides in Nova Scotia, Canada. Her interest in food and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) was inspired by her mother, Jali, who also appears throughout. Aube says that when her parents bought their first house her mother immediately got rid of the lawn and planted a huge garden where she grew all kinds of heirloom vegetables, berries, flowers, legumes and garlic.
“She wanted me and my sister to grow up knowing the story behind the food that we ate, so our backyard was basically our grocery store,” says Aube.
During the film, we are treated not only to various outdoor scenes of the Giroux’s food garden (their ‘grocery store’) but also to Aube and her mother’s passion for preparing homemade culinary delights. The ‘backyard’ is the grocery store and much of Giroux family life revolves around the kitchen and the joy of healthy, nutritious food.
When GMOs first began appearing in food, Aube says that what bothered her mother was that some of the world’s largest chemical companies were patenting these new genetically engineered seeds and controlling the seed market.
In the film, Aube explains,
“Farmers who grow GMOs have to sign technology license agreements promising never to save or replant the patented seeds. My mom didn’t think it was a good idea to allow corporations to engineer and then patent the seeds that we rely on for food. She believed that seeds belong in the hands of people.”
As the GMO issue became prominent, Aube became more interested in the subject. It took her 10 years to complete the film, which is about her personal journey of discovery into the world of GMOs. The film depicts a world that is familiar to many of us; a place where agritech industry science and money talk, politicians and officials are all too eager to listen and the public interest becomes a secondary concern.
Watch the trailer of Modified below.
In 2001, Canada’s top scientific body, The Royal Society, released a scathing report that found major problems with the way GMOs were being regulated. The report made 53 recommendations to the government for fixing the regulatory system and bringing it in line with peer reviewed science and the precautionary principle, which says new technologies should not be approved when there is uncertainty about their long-term safety. To date, only three of these recommendations have been implemented.
Throughout the film, we see Aube making numerous phone calls, unsuccessfully trying to arrange an interview to discuss these issues with Health Canada, the department of the government of Canada that is responsible for national public health.
Meanwhile, various people are interviewed as the story unfolds. We are told about the subverting of regulatory agencies in the US when GMOs first appeared on the scene in the early 1990s: the Food and Drug Administration ignored the warnings of its own scientists, while Monsanto flexed its political muscle to compromise the agency by manoeuvring its own people into positions of influence.
One respondent says,
“We’ve had a number of people from Monsanto, many from Dupont, who have actually been in top positions at the USDA and the FDA over the last 20 years, making darn sure that when those agencies did come out with any pseudo-regulation, that it was what these industries wanted. The industry will often say these are the most regulated crops in history… I’m not an expert on the law in many other countries. But I am an expert on the laws in the United States and I can tell you… they are virtually unregulated.”
Aube takes time to find out about genetic engineering and talks to molecular biologists. She is shown how the process of genetic modification in the lab works. One scientist says,
“In genetics, we have a phrase called pleiotropic effects. It means that there are other effects in the plant that are unintended but are a consequence of what you’ve done. I wouldn’t be surprised if something came up somewhere along the line that we hadn’t anticipated that’s going to be a problem.”
And that’s very revealing: if you are altering the genetic core of the national (and global) food supply in a way that would not have occurred without human intervention, you had better be pretty sure about the consequences. Many illnesses can take decades to show up in a population.
This is one reason why Aube Giroux focuses on the need for the mandatory labelling of GM food in Canada. Some 64 countries have already implemented such a policy and most Canadians want GM food to be labelled too. However, across North America labelling has been fiercely resisted by the industry. As the film highlights, it’s an industry that has key politicians in its back pocket and has spent millions resisting effective labelling.
In the film, we hear from someone from the agri/biotech industry say that labelling would send out the wrong message; it would amount to fearmongering; it would confuse the public; it would raise food prices; and you can eat organic if you don’t want GMOs. To those involved in the GMO debate and the food movement, these industry talking points are all too familiar.
Signalling the presence of GMOs in food through labelling is about the public’s right to know what they are eating. But the film makes clear there are other reasons for labelling too. To ensure that these products are environmentally safe and safe for human health, you need to monitor them in the marketplace. If you have new allergic responses emerging is it a consequence of GMOs? There’s no way of telling if there is no labelling. Moreover, the industry knows many would not purchase GM food if people were given any choice on the matter. That’s why it has spent so much money and invested so much effort to prevent it.
During the film, we also hear from an Iowa farmer, who says GM is all about patented seeds and money. He says there’s incredible wealth and power to be had from gaining ownership of the plants that feed humanity. And it has become a sorry tale for those at the sharp end: farmers are now on a financially lucrative (for industry) chemical-biotech treadmill as problems with the technology and its associated chemicals mount: industry rolls out even stronger chemicals and newer GM traits to overcome the failures of previous roll outs.
But to divert attention from the fact that GM has ‘failed to yield’ and deliver on industry promises, the film notes that the industry churns out rhetoric, appealing to emotion rather than fact, about saving the world and feeding the hungry to help legitimize the need for GM seeds and associated (health- and environment-damaging) chemical inputs.
In an interview posted on the film’s website, Aube says that genetic engineering is an important technology but “should only take place if the benefits truly outweigh the risks, if rigorous adequate regulatory systems are in place and if full transparency, full disclosure and the precautionary principle are the pillars on which our food policies are based.”
Health Canada has always claimed to have had a science-based GMO regulatory system. But the Royal Society’s report showed that GMO approvals are based on industry studies that have little scientific merit since they aren’t peer reviewed.
For all her attempts, Aube failed to get an interview with Health Canada. Near the end of the film, we see her on the phone to the agency once again. She says,
“Well I guess I find it extremely concerning and puzzling that Health Canada is not willing to speak with me… you guys are our public taxpayer funded agency in this country that regulates GMOs, and so you’re accountable to Canadians, and you have a responsibility to answer questions.”
Given this lack of response and the agency’s overall track record on GMOs, it is pertinent to ask just whose interests does Health Canada ultimately serve.
When Aube Giroux started this project, it was meant to be a film about food. But she notes that it gradually became a film about democracy: who gets to decide our food policies; is it the people we elect to represent us, or is it corporations and their heavily financed lobbyists?
Aube is a skilful filmmaker and storyteller. She draws the viewer into her life and introduces us to some inspiring characters, especially her mother, Jali, who passed away during the making of the film. Jali has a key part in the documentary, which had started out as a joint venture between Aube and her mother. By interweaving personal lives with broader political issues, Modified becomes a compelling documentary. On one level, it’s deeply personal. On another, it is deeply disturbing given what corporations are doing to food without our consent – and often – without our knowledge.
For those who watch the film, especially those coming to the issue for the first time, it should at the very least raise concerns about what is happening to food, why it is happening and what can be done about it. The film might be set in Canada, but the genetic engineering of our food supply by conglomerates with global reach transcends borders and affects us all.
Whether we reside in North America, Europe, India or elsewhere, the push in on to co-opt governments and subvert regulatory bodies by an industry which regards GM as a multi-billion cash cow – regardless of the consequences.
Modified won the 2019 James Beard Foundation award for best documentary and is currently available on DVD at .modifiedthefilm.com/dvd. It is due to be released on digital streaming platforms this summer.
(*) Colin Todhunter is a frequent contributor to Global Research and Asia-Pacific Research.
Note to readers: please forward this article to your email lists. Crosspost on your blog site, internet fora etc.
A Shadowy Industry Group Shapes Food Policy Around the World
By Andrew Jacobs - 16. September
When the Indian government bowed to powerful food companies last year and postponed its decision to put red warning labels on unhealthy packaged food, officials also sought to placate critics of the delay by creating an expert panel to review the proposed labeling system, which would have gone far beyond what other countries have done in the battle to combat soaring obesity rates.
But the man chosen to head the three-person committee, Dr. Boindala Sesikeran, a veteran nutritionist and former adviser to Nestle, only further enraged health advocates.
That’s because Dr. Sesikeran is a trustee of the International Life Sciences Institute, an American nonprofit with an innocuous sounding name that has been quietly infiltrating government health and nutrition bodies around the world.
Created four decades ago by a top Coca-Cola executive, the institute now has branches in 17 countries. It is almost entirely funded by Goliaths of the agribusiness, food and pharmaceutical industries.
The organization, which championed tobacco interests during the 1980s and 1990s in Europe and the United States, has more recently expanded its activities in Asia and Latin America, regions that provide a growing share of food company profits. It has been especially active in China, India and Brazil, the world’s first, second and sixth most populous nations.
In China, the institute shares both staff and office space with the agency responsible for combating the country’s epidemic of obesity-related illness. In Brazil, ILSI representatives occupy seats on a number of food and nutrition panels that were previously reserved for university researchers.
And in India, Dr. Sesikeran’s leadership role on the food labeling committee has raised questions about whether regulators will ultimately be swayed by processed food manufacturers who say the red warning labels would hurt sales.
“What could possibly go wrong?” Amit Srivastava, the coordinator of the advocacy group India Resource Center, asked sarcastically. “To have a covert food lobby group deciding public health policy is wrong and a blatant conflict of interest.”
The organization rejects allegations that it works to advance the interests of its corporate members. “Under no circumstance does ILSI protect industry from being affected by disadvantageous policy and laws,” the group said in a statement.
After decades largely operating under the radar, ILSI is coming under increasing scrutiny by health advocates in the United States and abroad who say it is little more than a front group advancing the interests of the 400 corporate members that provide its $17 million budget, among them Coca-Cola, DuPont, PepsiCo, General Mills and Danone.
Last year, the candy maker Mars withdrew from ILSI, saying it could no longer support an organization that funds what a Mars executive described as “advocacy-led studies.” In 2015, ILSI lost its special access to governing bodies at the World Health Organization after critics raised questions about its industry ties.
In the 40 years since its creation, ILSI has methodically cultivated allies in academia and government through the conferences it sponsors around the world, and by recruiting influential scientists to committees that work on issues like food safety, agrochemicals or the promotion of probiotic supplements.
Although conference topics seldom touch on politically contentious matters, critics say they serve a larger purpose: cultivating scientists and officials who might normally avoid an event directly sponsored by McDonald’s or Kellogg’s.
“It also helps that they are always held at five-star hotels, and that they serve you lunch,” said Dr. Shweta Khandelwal, a nutritionist with the nonprofit Public Health Foundation of India. “We certainly don’t have the money to pay for people’s lunch.”
In many ways, Dr. Sesikeran is the ideal ILSI recruit: a former top government official and marquee nutritionist. In the seven years since he retired as director of India’s National Institute of Nutrition, Dr. Sesikeran has advised companies like Nestle, the Japanese food giant Ajinomoto and the Italian chocolate maker Ferrero.
Since 2015, Dr. Sesikeran has been a trustee of both ILSI-India and the organization’s global operation based in Washington, and he is a frequent speaker at ILSI events, where he has lectured about the benefits of artificial sweeteners and genetically modified crops.
The ILSI positions are unpaid, but they come with all-expense-paid travel to meetings around the world.
Last year, when the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India needed someone to lead its panel on warning labels, officials chose Dr. Sesikeran. Pawan Kumar Agarwal, the authority’s chief executive, had spoken at ILSI seminars alongside Dr. Sesikeran, and in 2016, he tapped Dr. Sesikeran for a committee weighing the pros and cons of genetically modified mustard plants.
According to Indian law, seats on such scientific panels are reserved for independent experts, a point highlighted in a letter that Mr. Srivastava of the India Resource Center recently sent to the food authority. “The regulated cannot be the regulators,” he wrote, noting that ILSI’s disclosure forms require board members to place the organization above all other interests.
Dr. Sesikeran did not respond to interview requests. Dr. Arun Gupta, a pediatrician with Nutrition Advocacy in Public Interest-India, said that in private, Dr. Sesikeran has defended his close association with industry, saying he believed he could bring about needed change by working with big food companies, not against them.
Rekha Sinha, the longtime executive director of ILSI-India, said suggestions that the organization promotes industry were wrong. In the two decades since its founding, she said, ILSI-India had funded studies on diabetes, helped promote the mandated fortification of processed food with vitamins, and advised the government on how nutrition affects those with H.I.V. and AIDS.
“The criticisms of ILSI-India that are circulating out there are very painful because they are not justified,” she said.
As it expands across the globe, ILSI is drawing unflattering attention. Over the past year, researchers have documented how the organization’s China affiliate helped shape anti-obesity education campaigns that stressed physical activity over dietary changes, a strategy long espoused by Coca-Cola that critics say was designed to protect corporate profits.
In Beijing, relations between ILSI and the government are so intertwined that ILSI’s top leaders double as senior officials at China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Through freedom of information requests, authors of a recent study in the United States obtained emails between ILSI trustees, its corporate members and the group’s allies in academia urging them to step up their fight against the W.H.O.’s increasingly tough stance on sugar.
In one exchange in 2015, Alex Malaspina, the founder of ILSI, sought suggestions from ILSI trustees and an official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta about how to influence Dr. Margaret Chan, then the W.H.O.’s director-general.
“We must find a way to start a dialogue,” wrote Mr. Malaspina, who retired as ILSI’s president in 2001 but was still in frequent contact with its staff, trustees and corporate members. “If not, she will continue to blast us with significant negative consequences on a global basis. This threat to our business is serious.”
James Hill, an ILSI trustee and expert on weight management, responded, “I agree that we need to do something to try and prevent W.H.O. from taking a completely anti-food industry stance in the obesity field.”
In a statement, ILSI, based in Washington, said claims that it sought to influence the W.H.O. were “unfounded and inaccurate.” Although it did not provide further details or respond to specific questions about its activities overseas, the organization said in another statement that ILSI entities are allowed to provide regulators “information relating to factual matters within ILSI’s scientific expertise.”
In addition to its far-flung offices, ILSI runs a research foundation and an institute focused on health and environmental issues that is largely funded by the chemical industry. It also publishes the academic journal Nutrition Reviews and organizes scores of scientific conferences around the world.
Much of ILSI’s work in recent years has focused on fostering relationships in developing countries.
“Emerging economies are where the action is,” said Laura A. Schmidt, a professor of health policy at the University of California, San Francisco. “These are places where the health infrastructure is less established and populations may be less informed about health hazards. If corporations can get in on the ground floor, they can shape the narratives and policies around unhealthy products.”
The organization’s annual report and website brim with assurances about its commitment to transparency. According to its code of ethics, ILSI projects “must address issues of broad public health interest.”
But the organization has a long history of championing corporate interests. In 2001, a W.H.O. report criticized the group for its role in financing studies that cast doubt on the dangers of smoking, and in 2006, the agency barred ILSI from activities involving the setting of standards for food and water after its stealth efforts to sway policy in favor of industry came to light.
Over the past decade, ILSI has received more than $2 million from chemical companies, among them Monsanto, which was bought by Bayer last year. In 2016, ILSI came under withering criticism after a U.N. committee issued a ruling that glyphosate, the key ingredient in Monsanto’s weed killer Roundup, was “probably not carcinogenic,” contradicting an earlier report by the W.H.O.’s cancer agency. The committee, it turned out, was led by two ILSI officials, one of them Alan Boobis, the vice president of ILSI-Europe who has done consulting work for the chemical sector.
In India, ILSI’s expanding influence has coincided with mounting rates of obesity, cardiovascular disease and especially diabetes, which affects more than 70 million Indians. Experts say that number could soar to 123 million in the next decade as more people embrace processed foods high in fat, sugar and salt.
The government has responded with bold measures, including a 40 percent tax on sugar-sweetened soda introduced in 2017. But other efforts, including a ban on junk food sales in and around schools, have stalled amid opposition from food and beverage companies.
“The power of this industry is even greater than that of the tobacco industry,” said Sunita Narain, the director of the Center for Science and Environment in New Delhi. Four years ago, she took part in a government panel on warning labels whose report was promptly shelved. “But they are so shadowy that these players don’t dare come to the table representing the food industry, because no one would accept Coca-Cola or Pepsi in the room.”
ILSI-India has excelled at getting its allies into the room.
In addition to Dr. Sesikeran’s roles, Dr. Debabrata Kanungo, an ILSI member and former official with the Indian Ministry of Health, sits on two scientific food panels: one considering the safety of pesticide residues, and another on additives in processed foods. Ms. Sinha, ILSI-India’s executive director and an economist by training, briefly served on a government nutrition panel along with Dr. Sesikeran, but both were removed after they failed to declare their relationship with ILSI as a conflict of interest.
Even as its influence in the developing world grows, ILSI has faced occasional pushback. An ILSI-funded research project on childhood obesity in Argentina was canceled three years ago after parents whose children were enrolled in the study learned more about the organization. And in 2015, ILSI officials in Washington shuttered ILSI-Mexico after the news media there wrote unfavorably about a conference it organized on sweeteners.
Many of the speakers, it turned out, were well-known advocates for the beverage industry, and at the time, the Mexican government was considering modifications to a newly enacted tax on sugary drinks.
It did not help that the head of ILSI-Mexico was Raul Portillo, a former Coca-Cola executive in charge of regulatory and scientific affairs.
In an email to one of the group’s trustees, Mr. Malaspina, ILSI’s founder, called the incident a “mess” and said he was saddened by the decision to suspend ILSI-Mexico. “I hope we have now reached bottom and eventually we will recover as Coke and ILSI are concerned,” he wrote.
The suspension, it turns out, lasted less than a year, and ILSI-Mexico is up and running with a new executive director: J. Eduardo Cervantes, the former director of public affairs at Coca-Cola of Mexico.