Reviewed by Jack Kittredge
This is an important book. Druker, a public interest attorney, sued the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1998 to get to the bottom of why and how the agency made the determination that foods derived from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) were “Generally Regarded as Safe” (GRAS) when there was clear scientific evidence that they could not be regarded as safe. The memos and internal documents he uncovered, along with the other evidence presented in this book, tell a chilling story of how business interests have corrupted our political leaders and many within the science community.
The story begins in 1996, when Druker became interested in the effort, just beginning to be commercialized, to restructure the genetic basis of the world’s food supply. The decision by the FDA to allow these foods onto the US market was key to the success of this technology, and he wanted to understand how that happened. His suit resulted in the turning over of thousands of documents from the FDA. An analysis of these documents revealed that the scientists within the FDA had issued strong warnings that genetic engineering of foods entailed significant risks, and they should undergo serious long term safety tests before being released to the public. Yet those warnings had been ignored and over-ruled by the political appointees at the head of the agency.
The bulk of Druker’s book is a narrative of how this new technology, guided by commercial interests and an ideological rejection of regulatory caution in favor of “regulatory relief”, came to be so successful. It is written as a page-turner, a narrative telling the story of people — how some of those people became so focused on victory that they were willing to cut corners and conceal the truth. Of course this is an old story, but it is one with important lessons for today’s citizens.
The record of President George H. W. Bush’s “Competitiveness Council”, headed by Vice President Dan Quayle, and its efforts to sidetrack the government’s regulatory scientists, is a sorry one. Yet it is the drama repeated now in virtually every gathering of establishment scientists or publication in which biotech companies advertise.
Anyone who disagrees with the dominant paradigm – in this case that GMOs are safe – is automatically driven from the community of respectable scientists. This inquisition does not proceed by burnings at the stake, but by funding cuts, rejection by peer reviewed journals, failure to get tenure, even termination. Who, in that environment, has the strength of character to continue to pursue independent studies where they may lead? Far easier to follow the herd and either avoid the topic entirely or forego your integrity and make sure your studies don’t ask the critical questions.
This is the real value of Druker’s book. It shows us how science, the modern era’s last remaining bastion of unchallenged authority now that church and royalty have been debunked, has itself been consolidated.
But, like all efforts to canonize doctrines that fly in the face of common sense, the dogma of ‘GMOs as safe’ is already collapsing. Polls show even gullible Americans are no longer fooled but want labeling so that, once labeled, they can refuse to buy them. Despite the chilling morality tale Druker recounts, the conclusion is going to be a reaffirmation of faith in people.