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Biotech in our backyard: from committees to cover-ups, Cindy Burda explores the biotech industry's recent history and big plans for WNC.

On a gorgeous Friday this past Spring, a group of folks calling themselves the Steering Committee to Strengthen Biotechnology in Western North Carolina unveiled their plan to make WNC a tempting destination for the companies that study plant and animal molecular structure for the purposes of genetic engineering. The Committee--comprised of local university chancellors, presidents of major area employers, and other regional movers-and-shakers--made promises and predictions about what bringing biotechnology to the area would mean. The vision the Committee painted was one most people living here find irresistible: More jobs. Better jobs. Jobs that actually pay livable wages.

As the local paper reported, North Carolina's existing biotech industry already generates $2.5 billion in annual revenues and employs some 17,000 residents, primarily in and around the Research Triangle Park. Just about everyone in that Friday morning's one-hundred-plus-person crowd lauded the Committee's efforts to lure some of that money and employment to the western reaches of the state.

Just about everyone, that is, except Debi Athos.

Two years ago, Debi co-founded Carolina Partners for Pure Foods (CPPF), an organization dedicated to educating the public about one branch of biotechnology in particular: genetically engineered (GE) food. A few weeks before the Committee made its plans public, CPPF held its own conference to discuss the side of biotechnology the mainstream media seems, for the most part, to ignore.

Although Athos applauds the biotech industry's contributions to modern medicine, she is deeply wary of its work with the world's food supply. Her uneasiness, which is shared by groups including the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), is that biotech companies are making changes to staple foods such as corn, soybeans, and milk that may compromise human and environmental health. Worse, as husband-and-wife journalist team Steve Wilson and Jane Akre revealed at CPPF's conference, the industry seems to be doing everything it can to keep consumers in the dark.

Jane and Steve should know. They lost their jobs trying to bring a biotech story to light.

In 1996, soon-to-be-Fox-affiliate WTVT Channel 13 in Tampa Florida hired the award-winning journalists to produce hard-hitting investigative reports. One of the first stories Jane tackled dealt with recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone, or rBGH. (GE food giant Monsanto Corporation developed the drug to increase milk production in dairy cattle.)

Over the next several months, she and Steve put together a story they felt the public had to hear. Jane described it in her contribution to a collection of essays by journalists whose work had been censored in some manner, Into the Buzzsaw (Prometheus Books, 2002): The story attempted to answer some troubling questions: Why had Monsanto sued two small dairies to prevent them from labeling their milk as coming from cows not injected with the drug? Why had two Canadian health regulators claimed, like Richard Burroughs at the FDA, that their jobs were threatened--and then said they were offered a bribe by Monsanto if they gave fast-track approval to the drug? Why did Florida supermarkets break their much publicized promise to consumers that milk in the dairy case would not come from hormone-treated cows "until it gained widespread acceptance" among the wary public? And why was the United States the only major industrialized nation to approve the use of this genetically engineered hormone regardless of concerns about human health?

At first, WTVT's managers seemed to think the public had a right to hear the story, too; they decided to run it during Sweeps Week and spent thou sands of dollars advertising it. Then, just days before it was scheduled to air, they had second thoughts. Monsanto had caught wind of the story--and the mega-corporation's lawyers made very sure Fox knew Monsanto didn't like the gist of it. Monsanto exerted enough pressure to convince Fox to encourage WTVT to re-write the story more to the company's liking. Steve and Jane tried to comply with their management's wishes--but refused to distort the facts they'd uncovered or produce a story that was less than true. After 83 rounds of rewrites and several attempts by Fox to bribe the couple to either change the story to suit Monsanto or just drop it altogether, the station fired both of them.

In 1998, Jane and Steve sued Fox under a whistleblower law (something never attempted by journalists). Although Steve lost his case, Jane won hers. Four years later, though, the case is still consuming her life. "You go through all of this, and you win, and then you never see a dime. And they just keep after you," she told NLJ in a recent interview.

Fox, of course, appealed the judgement. The court was to rule on the appeal at the time this publication went to print.

Prior to the Fox/Monsanto incident, Steve had received several Emmys for his investigative work, and the couple won the prestigious Goldman Foundation Award ("I've heard it called the Pulitzer Prize of environmental writing," Jane explains) for their story on rBGH. They are not uninformed tree-huggers. They are journalists committed to the truth--even at the expense of their careers and financial well-being.

And the truth about some genetic engineering, as Jane sees it is this: "It's a wholly untested--for-humans and for the environment--new technology that has been thrust upon us and, like rBGH, we really don't know what the consequences are--to our food, to our environment, to ourselves. It's just put out in the marketplace and we have to hope for the best."

As for claims by companies such as Monsanto that genetic engineering is essential if we are to feed the world's people, Jane laughs. "Well, what else are they going to say? `We're doing it to make money'? Which is the truth. I mean, come on, the reason people aren't fed is because they live in oppressive regimes and food doesn't get to them. It's often said that there's enough food produced for everybody; it's the distribution systems that are at fault."

She continues, "It's funny. Probably anti-GE folks are the ones who are called radical. But no, it's the industry that is absolutely radical, irresponsible, and out of control. And, again, the government is not safeguarding us, in my opinion." Nor is the mainstream media, if Jane and Steve's case has--as Jane suspects--become the norm.

"You have entertainment companies--your Disneys and Viacoms--producing the news, and these are people who don't have roots in journalism. As media broadcast groups consolidate, yes, it is getting worse, because they're acting more like businesses, not acting in the public interest."

So if you can't trust the news to tell you the truth and you can't trust the FDA to keep food safe, what do you do? First, according to Jane and to Debi (of CPPF), you buy organic. "Steve was in the hospital recently, and the man in the bed next to him was in the dairy industry--and be bought organic milk," Jane reveals.

Debi also recommends buying whole foods, "As much as 80% of the processed food you buy in the grocery store contains genetically engineered ingredients," she warns.

Next, stay informed. Visit the web sites for the FDA (www.fda.gov), Monsanto (www.monsanto.com), and the North Carolina Biotechnology Center (www.ncbiotech.org) to see what they have to say. Be sure to check out CPPF's site at www.purefood-partners.org, too. It has links to many other useful sites. Perhaps most important, go to The Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods web site at www.thecampaign.org. There you'll find information to help pass a law that will require food producers to label their products if they contain GE ingredients.

Although biotech companies are spending millions to ensure that engineered food will become the status quo, many consumers are feeling a disturbing sense of unease that our families' diets are being created in a lab. As Jane Akre and Debi Athos tell us, now is a crucial time to ask the right questions, especially now that biotech is in our back yard.

Cindy Burda is a frequent contributor to New Life Journal.
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Title Annotation:Western North Carolina
Author:Burda, Cindy
Publication:New Life Journal
Geographic Code:1U5NC
Date:Jun 1, 2002
Words:1336
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