This week the Food Nation Radio Network interviewed former Monsanto employee Kirk Azevedo about his concerns with the leading biotech company's practices, a timely interview as the battle over genetically engineered (GE) food regulation continues on a state, national, and international scale.

Azevedo graduated with a biochemistry degree from California Polytechnic State University and started working for the chemical industry doing research on Bt (or Bacillus thuringiensis) pesticides. Around 1996, he became a local market manager for Monsanto, serving as a facilitator for GE crops for the western states. He explained to Food Nation Radio how he had assumed that California cotton that was genetically engineered for herbicide resistance could be marketed as conventional California cotton (to get the California premium) since the only difference between the two, he believed, was the gene Monsanto wanted in the crop. However, one of Monsanto's Ph.D. researchers informed Azevedo that "there's actually other proteins that are being produced, not just the one we want, as a byproduct of genetic engineering process." This concerned Azevedo, who had also been studying protein diseases (including prion diseases such as mad cow disease) and knew proteins could be toxic. When he told his colleague they needed to destroy the seeds from the GE crop so that they aren't fed to cattle, the other researcher said that Monsanto isn't going to stop doing what it's been doing everywhere else.

Azevedo recalls his disillusionment:

I saw what was really the fraud associated with genetic engineering: My impression, and I think most people's impression with genetically engineered foods and crops and other things is that it's just like putting one gene in there and that one gene is expressed. If that was the case, well then that's not so bad. But in reality, the process of genetic engineering changes the cell in such a way that it's unknown what the effects are going to be.

Azevedo has since left the chemical industry and now calls for the enforcement of GE labeling laws. In California, such a law will appear on voter ballots in the upcoming November election as Proposition 37 – the first of its kind, if passed (although no labels would be required for livestock that feed on GE crops). Supporters of GE labeling predict the California rule, which would require labels on most foods containing GE ingredients, could influence food labeling throughout the country.

Not so great news on the national front, however. The U.S. House agriculture committee passed its version of the proposed Farm Bill this week that includes attached provisions severely weakening USDA's oversight of GE crops. Not only does the bill provide backdoor approval for any new GE crop before meaningful environmental review, but it also protects the biotech industry from lawsuits brought by organic farmers whose crops are contaminated by GE crops through "genetic drift." According to the Center for Food Safety, "all requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act or Endangered Species Act would be banned, even if a crop approval would harm protected species."

If that isn't unsettling enough, news that the European Union is proposing to drop its "zero-tolerance" policy regarding untested GE ingredients in food really takes the cake. This would be a significant change from its usual reputation of far surpassing the United States in holding industry accountable:

The new proposal would allow GM ingredients into the food supply in levels below a certain threshold. This echoes a decision made last year to allow GM crops to be used in animal feed below certain concentration levels. Why this recent "change of heart"? Opponents of GM crops note that the dropping of the zero-tolerance policy is due to pressure from the U.S. government, the World Trade Organization (WTO), and the biotech industry (arguably led by Monsanto).

Perhaps it's not too much of a surprise, given the evidence of Washington's aggressive promotion of GE crops abroad and even threats of retaliation against dissenting countries. Even so, Azevedo's words of caution regarding the unknown health effects of Monsanto's and other biotech companies' creations make these deregulatory efforts very disconcerting. Our government representatives should be heeding Azevedo and biotech whistleblowerswho put public and environmental health before Big Ag interests.

Sarah Damian is New Media Associate for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.

By Sarah Damian, Food Integrity Campaign
14 July 12