Dr Jonathan Latham joins me today to discuss agriculture and how it affects almost everything on the planet, including our own health, drinking water and biodiversity. We discuss chemicals and how they’re regulated, something that definitely affects all of us and our health.
Selected Links from the Episode
Dr Ron Ehrlich: Hello and welcome to Unstress, I’m Dr Ron Ehrlich. Now today’s show is a particularly interesting one because it covers so many areas that we’ve touched on in previous shows and brings them together in a really interesting way. One of those subjects, of course, is agriculture. Another is food, from soil to plate, another is the role of the chemical, food and pharmaceutical industry, particularly the chemical industry, in healthcare and another subject we touch on is the fact that regulatory bodies aren’t always doing what we assume they should and that protects the public interest and that means to protect public health rather than ensure corporate sales are maintained.
There are so many examples in the last 100 years of that happening, most notably lead in petrol. Now it was known in the 1920s that there was a problem, ethanol could’ve been used to stop engines knocking, because that was the problem, but the problem was that was it was available to everybody and if they patented lead in the petrol, they could charge an extra three cents a litre as it was then in the 1920s. They knew it was toxic. They knew lead was toxic. Eventually, some 70 or so years later, lead was banned in the 1990s but we’re still feeling the effects of that one today. Tobacco was another one, known to be bad for health many many years ago in the 1940s or ’50s but it was only just after the year 2000 that the FDA and the US Congress eventually labelled tobacco addictive. That was called the tobacco playbook.
We see the same thing happening today with glyphosate, electromagnetic radiation, perhaps we could argue about climate change as well, but anyway, I digress. My guest today is Dr Jonathan Latham. Now Jonathan is the co-founder and executive director of the Bioscience Research Project and editor of the Independent Science News, what a novel idea. A science that’s independent of industry and profit, just interested in science and its effects on public health. Jonathan holds a master’s degree in crop genetics and a PhD in virology. He was subsequently a post-doctoral research associate in the department of genetics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Before heading the Bioscience Research Project, he has published scientific papers in disciplines as diverse as plant ecology, plant virology, genetics and the very topical, genetic engineering.
He regularly presents at scientific conferences on papers published by the Bioscience Research Project. We cover some interesting territory and as if we needed reminding, why should we all be interested in agriculture? Well, it affects almost everything on the planet and that includes our health, the drinking water, biodiversity. Remember, the more diverse, the more resilient. The more resilient, the healthier we are and so is the planet. It also affects the climate, food safety, livelihoods, coral reefs, culture, rivers, lakes, all affected by agriculture.
I think this whole discussion today on the chemicals and how they’re regulated and how they found their way in is a particularly interesting one and I think it makes good sense that we should all be interested in this. It’s one of the reasons why I focus on regenerative agriculture so much on this show. Anyway, I hope you enjoy this conversation I had with Dr Jonathan Latham.
Welcome to the show, Jonathan.
Dr Jonathan Latham: Hi there Ron, thanks for having me.
Dr Ron Ehrlich: Jonathan, there’s so much I wanted to talk to you today about but I wondered if you might share with our listener a little bit about your background and specifically the Bioscience Resource Project, what it might be. What’s your background?
Dr Jonathan Latham: So, my PhD was in plant viruses but before I did a PhD I was already interested in eating and growing. When I was very young, I used to grow. I started with radishes and carrots and whatever and that’s at school. Before high school, I had my garden. The school had space where you could grow vegetables. I was interested in the plant world and the animal world before I was interested in science. I became interested in science from the point of view of justice. If you can have the truth, then you can have a chance at having justice. The two things came together. I ended up doing a PhD but I was doing a PhD in a field of science that I didn’t want to be in. I was doing molecular biology and this very reductionist molecular stuff and basically because my professor, my mentor at the undergraduate level, he said, “If you do some kind of holistic biology, you will not get a job.” So I took this holistic… this not holistic, rather, career path but always with this secret interest of being more of a holistic, non-reductionistic biologist. I ended up doing a PhD in plant science and plant biology and then I did medical research.
So I did three years of medical research at the University of Wisconsin in America. My PhD was in England and I moved to America to do animal biology. At that time, it was unusual to transition between such different phylogenetic groupings. To go from plants to animals to do medical research was kind of a weird thing to do but it was a good thing, actually, in the long term for me.
Dr Ron Ehrlich: I mean the word PhD is almost the opposite of the word holistic, isn’t it?
Dr Jonathan Latham: You know, a lot of science is built explicitly around reductionism, yeah.
Dr Ron Ehrlich: I mean, you get to learn more and more about less and less as you do your PhD.
Dr Jonathan Latham: Yeah. In a sense, it’s less and less but you don’t have to think of it as less and less. In a sense, if you don’t believe that some things are more fundamental than other things, which is the basic thought behind holism, then the fact that you’re learning about something really small is not different from learning about something big. You’re just learning more about the small thing and less than you would about the big thing. Ultimately, there’s no contradiction there.
Dr Ron Ehrlich: So it’s an attitude thing?
Dr Jonathan Latham: Yeah, it is. It is.
Dr Ron Ehrlich: It’s interesting because I am a holistic dentist and people always ask that and I’ve come to the point where I just say, “The only difference between a holistic dentist and a traditional dentist is the attitude.” I think we’re a dentist with attitude but what about the Bioscience Resource Project that is something you’re very involved in?
Dr Jonathan Latham: Yeah. To do the work that I wanted to do… I was working with my wife, partner, Allison Wilson and we started becoming… We left academia. We became critics of biotechnology from a series really of happenstances. We wanted to have the backing of being a nonprofit so we started a nonprofit. We came to realize that we were publishing scientific papers that were hard to disseminate. Before the days of the Internet and so forth, it was hard to share information. If a publisher or somebody didn’t want to cite your work, you’re reliant on all kinds of other people and the Internet changed all that but it also meant that we could use a website and we could use a nonprofit to share other people’s information. Other people were great scientists, in our opinion, and great biologists who also were not getting a space at the table, if you like. So we wanted to be able to share other people’s stuff, so we made a website and we made a nonprofit.
Dr Ron Ehrlich: I kind of love this idea of what appealed to you as truth, justice and science because those three, you would hope, would be so intimately connected that the future of mankind would be in safe hands but it’s not quite as straightforward as that, is it?
Dr Jonathan Latham: There’s a load of very complicated stuff that goes on in that space because historically if you think about religions, religions were the origins of truth in societies. You study the bible to find out what the world is really like or you study your deities to try to understand the universe and try to be more like the universe. Truth and religion were the same things in many ways and there was an institution that was the religion sometimes but that institution often got in the way of the truth. In the middle ages, the bible became an instrument for teaching people that there were deities and ideas about, for example, the idea of the divine right of kings. [inaudible 00:10:01] an institutional idea dreamed up between the church and the royal family to justify a monarchical dictatorship.
The truth and justice and the sources of truth became very confused. Science, we imagine that science is there to put that all right but the danger is that science becomes used by Monsanto or by a government or by some other powerful entity, sometimes a scientific publisher, to tweak the truth so that they sell more product, for example.
Dr Ron Ehrlich: This is a story that we pursue a lot on this program and it’s one I feel pretty passionate about. It’s a story, I think, that’s very easy to miss, but once you become aware of it, it’s very difficult to ignore because basically, it’s interesting, truth, justice and science or historically, truth, justice and religion, the common denominator that underpins a lot of that is certainty. We love certainty as individuals, don’t we? And we’re drawn to certainty and that’s a great marketing tool, isn’t it? Provide people with certainty.
Dr Jonathan Latham: I mean, there’s a load of history around that because we live in the materialistic society. I was watching Einstein’s video of him explaining E=MC squared and explaining that energy and matter were manifestations of the same thing, is how he put it, and essentially we built a very materialistic society and if you want to have a materialistic society then material objects, like a rock, for example, is a thing that you can hang your hat on, if you like. That’s the way we like to think about it and it’s an incontrovertible thing but what he’s saying is that it’s also energy and energy is something that’s passing between molecules and is essentially is not solid like a rock. It more has to do with the heat that comes from that rock, for example or the fact that we’re talking to each other.
If you have a pleasant experience, the first thing that you want to do is share that experience, right? As a living being. So you have all these interactions in the world. All the ideas that you have and that you associate with your mind and consciousness, they come from other people. There’s all this non-materialistic stuff that’s going on in our world that essentially we choose to ignore for the most part and that’s really why we like certainty and not dynamism, I would say, because you have all these interactions and all these complicated relations that are also going on but we don’t live in a society that recognizes that. So there’s a whole set of layers of, if you like, confusions going on. The reasons why we cling to uncertainty are not biological. They’re not to do with the fundamental properties of the human mind or human biology. They’re learned things.
Dr Ron Ehrlich: Yeah. Now listen, I know another subject that we’re very passionate about this program is agriculture, specifically regenerative agriculture but agriculture. Why is agriculture an issue that everyone should be interested in?
Dr Jonathan Latham: That’s a great question. Most of the talks I give, I talk with this point, which is that agriculture is at the epicentre of all these things that we care about. If you worry about, for example, your health or you worry about the climate or you worry about coral reefs or you worry about the rainforest, you can ask this really important question. What is the primary driver of the harms that that object is receiving? If it’s the climate, if you ask a question about any of those things, the answer comes back to being agriculture. Agriculture is the single, arguably, most important thing that we do on this planet. It occupies the largest area. It consumes the most chemicals. It provides us with all our nutrition. It has the most effect on the climate.
What I talk to people about is the idea of the food movement is a set of people who have understood that agriculture and the food system are the drivers of the future. The reason why we end up with a climate that we do and the seas that we do and the dead zones that we do and the water quality that we do is to do with agriculture and so, that means that there are potential solutions. Good agriculture should not harm waterways. It shouldn’t harm your health. It shouldn’t harm the climate and we have solutions to all these things, which are organic, regenerative, agroecological forms of agriculture and local food systems that essentially can solve all our problems, is what I would argue and there’s plenty of other people who are arguing that too.
Dr Ron Ehrlich: Yes, look I’ve said on this program before that the last century was the century of the revered financier or economist and I hope that the coming century will be the century of the revered farmer. They should be at the absolute pinnacle of our society.
Dr Jonathan Latham: I like that way of putting it.
Dr Ron Ehrlich: Thank you. Now listen, the other one is we hear a lot about the food crisis. “We’re not going to have enough food to feed the world,” and yet I think the statistic is something like a third of the food produced is wasted. Are we producing too much food? I know that’s an odd question to be asking in this day and age but are we producing too much food?
Dr Jonathan Latham: Yeah, that’s also a really good question and my answer to that is that we produce already, and there’s good data to support this, far more food than there are people in the world. That’s partly what the waste is going on. The waste, in my opinion, is not due to… To understand that waste, you have to think that we already produce too much food in the world and something has to happen to that food. We end up feeding Smarties and things that have gone past their sell-by date to dairy cows to use up all this extra food. The food that’s… I’m not explaining this too well but basically, we have an agricultural system that’s primed to overproduce and something has to happen to that overproduction and we produce more food not only than we need today but more food probably than we will ever need already. It’s been estimated we make enough food already on the planet for 14 billion people. That’s twice as many people as we have, but that’s the origin of food waste and it’s not the case.
What’s going on is a big propaganda battle. There’s a propaganda battle in which there are people who want to supply to farmers all kinds of things that arguably farmers don’t need, like pesticides, like fertilizers, like very fancy seeds and in order to justify those sales in the eyes of policymakers, in the eyes of consumers, who are actually being poisoned by some of these things, they need to justify that by saying that there is some kind of a need, so if you see the food… The food shortage narrative originates from multi-national corporations. It originates from organizations, so they’re controlled by those multi-national corporations like often farmers organizations, like often university departments, they’re all sharing this narrative that works for all these people who want to get between the farmer and the consumer.
The original relationship is mere that you have somebody who grows and somebody who eats and they basically supply each other and for thousands of years, that was a very close relationship and now we have all these groups that want to basically interfere in that and in order to morally justify that, they need to have a narrative that these interventions, these middlemen, are actually necessary to the food system but really they’re not because we’re already overproducing and all that happens to farmers, it really hurts farmers because what happens to farmers when we overproduce is prices go down and they’re still buying their inputs but the price is too low. You see it all over the world. Prices that are incredibly low for dairy products, for meat, for grains, for vegetables, for fruit. These things, the farm [inaudible 00:19:04] prices are incredibly low and the reason is that each one of these sectors is independently overproducing but that’s what all these middlemen who ultimately control the system, want.
They want this overproduction because that enables them to sell more product.
Dr Ron Ehrlich: That’s what I mean. It’s a part of the picture that is very easy to miss but difficult to ignore, which brings me to the business of chemical testing because again, we are exposed to literally 10s of thousands of chemicals and it’s easy for us to assume rather naively that if it’s on the shelf, the government has deemed it to be okay but it’s not quite as simple as that. There’s an issue about integrity. Tell us a bit about chemical testing out there in the industry, in the world, in our real world.
Dr Jonathan Latham: I mean, we’ve made a special study of chemical testing because we think that it is indicative of the, what would I say, the corruption of the chemical industry. What’s going on is complicated. In an ideal world, you have all these independent actors who basically… For example, you could imagine how the Environmental Protection Agency in the country I live in, which is the USA, basically independently testing compounds to see whether they’re safe or not and they’re independent of the producers and so therefore, they could essentially be a third-party verification of that system and somebody phone me up one time who worked for the EPA in the very old days, when they first started in the early 1970s and he was doing, inside the EPA, he was doing chemical testing. He was giving rats chemicals and seeing what happened to them and he never really got much feedback on what he was doing and one day, he went upstairs, metaphorically, to ask the people what they were doing with his reports and he found out they were throwing them away.
Why would they do that? This is a really interesting question to ask. Why would they do that? His results were showing, sometimes, harm to animals and you have to think about the Environmental Protection Agency in this country and how its lines of control work. So the head of the EPA is the only person who can ban a substance or organize the prosecution of a company, for example, that’s producing a harmful product. They are appointed by the president. What that means is the president gets the final say on whether the EPA can prosecute a company or find a company or ban a product. Now the president is likely to be worried about their financing, their income from their donors. They’re likely to be worried about the economy. They’re likely to be worried about all kinds of stuff but they’re probably not likely to be worried about the health of individual people because you’d have to be a scientist to worry about that because this is all scientific data that’s being accumulated and it doesn’t necessarily mean very much to the Donald Trumps or the Richard Nixons of the world.
So you need scientists to verify that that information is demonstrating harm. These tests are complicated and essentially what this line of command means is that essentially everybody at the EPA ultimately understands that their boss does not want to hear about the harm of chemicals because if they tell their boss about harm from chemicals, for example, they discover that Roundup is causing tumours, they’re going to have to give that information to their boss and their boss is not going to happen about it because they’re going to have to pass it upstairs and it’s finally going to go upstairs to someone who basically is not in a political position to ban Roundup because they’ll be fired if they do.
There will be pushback. Think about how the political system works. If the EPA decides that they want to ban Roundup, what’s going to happen? They’re going to have to go to the president’s office and say, “We need your political backing to do this. We can’t just bankrupt the largest chemical company in the country and expect that you’re going to approve this decision.” So they have to go to the president for that backup and the president’s going to say, “No.” And therefore, essentially, the head of the EPA doesn’t want to have to ask that question. They do not want to ask because they know that if they ask that question, they’ll be fired. You have to think about how that feeds back to the individual people who work on the shop floor, if you like, of the EPA. Essentially, what they all understand is bad news doesn’t travel upwards. That’s we have to do.
Essentially what we have to do is bury the bad results of chemical testing. We’ve been involved in this project of releasing documents, internal documents of the Environmental Protection Agency and what you see is these scientists, administrators, scientists, various people at different levels of the EPA all basically passing the buck or trying to minimize the evidence of harm from chemicals. They’re getting this data that so and so the chemical is not good and another chemical is not good or that there’s a fraud in chemical testing, for example, and nobody wants to deal with this issue. They all want to bury it and you can see in the arguments and the back and forth discussions, they all want to bury it and if you didn’t understand what I previously told you about the lines of command, you would find that mysterious because we all believe that the EPA exists to protect us from toxic chemicals but that’s not actually what its function is. The unwritten rule contradicts the written rule of what the written mandate of the institution is.
Coming back to your question of the fraud in chemical testing, what these papers show is that much of the data that is sent into EPA in the first place is actually fraudulent and this fraudulent data is coming from so-called independent testing companies and these independent testing companies are sending in data, some of which is very obviously fraudulent and EPA is overlooking it. Now, that would be a mystery, if you didn’t already understand what I just told you because if you think about it, the simplest thing for EPA is to outsource the fraud. If the testing companies never tell EPA that there’s any problem with any of these compounds then they can pass it onto the public and to their political seniors without any qualms, without any concerns that they are contradicting themselves.
So what’s happening in the agency is they’re spending all their time trying to wipe out evidence of chemical harm, which is being submitted to that by these independent testers and the easiest solution in all this is for this original reports to be fraudulent. So you have a combination of two things going on, even though many of the results are fraudulent, what is being passed onto EPA, sometimes shows evidence of harm nevertheless. There are certain amounts of harm you can’t cover up with fraud but essentially what you’re seeing is, EPA is encouraging these companies to submit fraudulent data.
Dr Ron Ehrlich: Jonathan, it’s probably worth pausing at this point to remind our listener that your whole Bioscience Resource Project has tracked these documents through freedom of information and just research. This isn’t just you having a little conspiracy theory going on in your head. This is actually, I’ve heard you present this and it’s compelling and we will have links to those presentations. This is your resource project. This is what you have done and there is very clear evidence to support exactly what you’re saying. You mentioned a company called IBT. Is that one of those independent research companies that the EPA draws on?
Dr Jonathan Latham: Yeah.
Dr Ron Ehrlich: Can you share our listener a bit about that story?
Dr Jonathan Latham: I mean, IBT doesn’t exist anymore. It became defunct because in the 1960s to early 1970s, they were testing about 40 per cent of all the chemicals that we used in agriculture and commerce at that time. They testing PCBs, they tested Roundup, they tested atrazine, they tested dicamba. Huge numbers of chemicals commonly used. There was a guy called Adrian Gross who worked at the FDA and he had data submitted to him from IBT, which was also testing pharmaceuticals. Some information was going to FDA and he spotted this data as clearly fraudulent and so he went to the company and took it upon himself to investigate because of no one… Lots of people could’ve spotted this but they didn’t and this is part of the story. Why did he take it upon himself to go to the company, fly to Chicago from Washington and go and walk in through the door of this company?
Basically he arrived at the desk and he showed them his card from the FDA and they called the police on him and while they were calling the police on him, he went for a wander and discovered all these tests, went into the laboratory testing regions and identified for himself that these people were testing animals under completely unscientific conditions. He saw dead animals lying around the place. Things that were completely inconsistent with the good scientific method and this all came out in a trial. EPA was essentially forced to prosecute this company and what we know is that they covered up a lot of what this company did but EPA, basically, because he went public, because Adrian Gross went public with all this, EPA was forced to prosecute this company and it turned out that basically everything that they had submitted over the last 40 years, was basically fraudulent. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of tests, 4,500, in fact, independent scientific tests were fraudulent.
Dr Ron Ehrlich: I guess the fact is that industry’s got a greater interest in defending its business model than public health. I mean, that is essentially what we are dealing with generally out there in terms of environmental chemicals, particularly. There’s a business model and you mentioned marketing and I think the marketing is so exquisitely designed that sometimes the people who are the experts, who are doing the marketing even don’t realize they’re marketing against themselves. I mean that’s how exquisite this marketing project is but the regulatory process is not in favour of public health. It’s more in favour of industry business models, isn’t it? I mean that’s basically what it boils down to.
Dr Jonathan Latham: I mean, the ultimate intention of the EPA… Think about, the Environmental Protection Agency was born in 1970 and that was in the aftermath of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. A popular uprising against the use of toxic chemicals in agriculture and other places. What’s happened to that environmental protection movement is that it’s kind of defused in the intervening period and I believe that the purpose of the EPA, as far as Richard Nixon was concerned, who was the president, who basically organized the existence of the EPA, he wanted it to defuse the environmental movement because, we’ll bring all these chemical testing things together in this one authentic agency and this agency will do the job that our independent regulators, people like the USDA have been failing to do in the past, so they built all this credibility around the EPA, that basically, it didn’t warrant.
The EPA is bought and paid for by the chemical industry. They know that they control the output for the reasons that I elaborated on earlier. They know that the EPA can’t act without their agreement and they’re not prepared to give that agreement and so the EPA historically has done nothing. When they do something, they spin their wheels. They try not to act. The tweak that I would put on your interpretation of all of this is that the standard description of this is regulatory capture. Regulatory capture is the idea that the chemical industry has more of an interest in controlling the EPA than does the public and therefore the EPA gets influenced by all the industries that it regulates. They spend their time cultivating people, introducing clever ideas that they want the EPA to take up. They spend all their time lobbying them and so forth.
We have a slightly different interpretation. The internal dynamics that I explained to you is really, these companies are pushing at an open door. The open door is the institutional arrangements, the internal arrangements of the EPA that mean that it can’t act. So a good example of this… None of this is my theorizing. It comes from people who work at the EPA, who worked at the EPA themselves. So for example, we have articles on our website. We have a website called Independent Science News. That website has articles by somebody called Bill Sanjour. Bill Sanjour used to write the regulations for toxic waste dumps. He was asked by his boss to write loopholes into those regulations. They explicitly asked for that. The reason why they ask for it is not that the EPA was captured by the company because the company didn’t know what EPA was doing.
The reason why is because of the lines of command that I am explaining to you. Because he wrote loopholes, then the EPA lawyers, subsequently when it came to flagrant violations of the [inaudible 00:35:13] act and so on, the EPA lawyers could throw up their hands and say, “We can’t do anything because we can’t enforce these regulations.” But he understood that the regulations were written on purpose like that. So regulatory capture, it turns out, is an idea that comes from Chicago economists of the 1970s. These were right-wing economists who want to discredit the whole notion of government. They came up with this phrase, regulatory capture. It’s not properly defined. It’s not clear if it’s a verb or a noun or whatever on Earth it is. But they came up with this idea and then they bandy it about in the scientific literature and the humanities literature. The economics literature. It gets all this traction.
But it’s not an idea that makes a lot of sense. The alternative understanding that I want to offer is power relations. That what matters is not the power of the industry, what matters is the self-referential nature of the Environmental Protection Agency itself. It makes it incredibly vulnerable to pressure from industry. You could design environmental protection agencies that were much more effective. For example, if you think about what happened in the case of IBT. In the case of IBT, the EPA, we know, was telling IBT to collect the evidence against itself. Now think about this. When the police want to prosecute someone for a burglary, do they ask the burglar to collect the evidence against themself? We don’t do it that way. The reason is that we have several branches of government that solve legal problems.
We have, for example, we have a parliament that writes laws. Then we have a police force that catches suspects and then we have a judiciary that supervises a jury trial that gets to decide whether the police found the right suspect and determine what the sentencing should be. So you have three branches of government that are all separate from each other, that are ensuring more or less, give or take, that the right person is prosecuted and gets the sentence they deserve. If you look at environmental regulations in the US, those functions are all folded into one agency. The EPA writes the regulations. It collects evidence against the suspects. It formulates the prosecution and judges do not mess around with EPA decisions. If the EPA lets off some company because it said that they didn’t do too much, no judge is going to challenge that. But it was very deliberately done by Richard Nixon to fold in all these functions into one agency. Because then it becomes vulnerable to corruption and that’s exactly what happened.
Dr Ron Ehrlich: It’s interesting isn’t it, because that was a movement… Nixon I think became president in ’68 until his glorious exit in I think 1973 and then the emergence of the free market economy and deregulation and economic rationalism let the markets dictate. A lot of these regulatory bodies had their resources cut, didn’t they? I mean it was kind of self-regulating was the idea. So, the EPA reflected a political movement that in many ways is still going on. I mean, here we are in 2019. I mean that’s just like, what’s the maths on that, almost 50 years later or 40 or 50 years later we’re still reaping the benefits of that deregulation. I often say, you know, that if you ever needed a metaphor for the power or the wonderful potential for deregulation, I think what happened in the UK with the Grenfell Tower fire was a classic example of that.
I remember reading an article from the Home Secretary about six months before it happened to say, “Look how fantastic we are. We’ve cut the red tape. You can now get building approvals in 45 minutes whereas it used to take weeks before.” It’s rare to see a metaphor for deregulation as powerful as that one but I think there was a really important message there.
Dr Jonathan Latham: It is. My take on this is, regulation is the fundamental business of government. Governments have to adjudicate between interests. You have a very diffuse [inaudible 00:40:04] and you have a very concentrated chemical industry that all coordinates its actions and so forth. Whenever somebody from the chemical industry approaches the EPA, it’s always with the backing of everybody else in the chemical industry. They’re very organized. They’re very, what’s the right word, thoughtful in their approach. Thoughtful is the wrong word. It’s not the word I’m looking for. Cynical. They basically, they bring ideas to the EPA that work for all of them. They get together. I mean it was the chemical industry that proposed animal testing. They wanted animal testing because they knew that they could get their products through animal testing if they were careful enough.
But animal testing, my argument about animal testing is that animal tests… Rats are not people. If you look at the science of testing chemicals on rats and you see whether there are any overlaps between the effects on rats and the effects on people, the frequency of that overlap is about 50 percent. Right? It’s not very high. So essentially what the chemical industry understood is if we have this test that half the time gives our chemicals basically a get out of jail free card like it fails to identify harms, then we can kind of bullshit our way around the rest of it. Right? That’s what they’ve been doing for 50 years. Animal testing doesn’t work but because they have out-thought essentially the regulatory system and they’ve out thought the NGOs, they figured ways to get through all these problems but they do it in a very calculated… Calculated is the word I was looking for, calculated way.
Dr Ron Ehrlich: Now. Okay. What are some of the remedies to these problems Jonathan? You must have given a lot of thought to how we should be doing things. How can we remedy some of these problems?
Dr Jonathan Latham: There are some pretty good remedies. For example, there’s a certain amount of merit to animal testing. But the merit that it has is all lost if you outsource it. If you brought animal testing back inside the auspices of the EPA, if anybody did fraud on those animal tests, for example, if the EPA tried to perpetrate the fraud itself, you could use freedom of information act request to discover that. It would be very difficult to hide it. The whole reason why they outsourced chemical testing was so that so-called independent chemical company could commit fraud. That is my belief. Because everybody knew that those independent chemical testing companies were not independent because they were repeated customers of the chemical industry. The chemical industry knows that there’s a relatively small number of chemical testing companies out there.
They’ll send their chemical, if necessary, to two or three different ones. They’ll take the answer they want. When they know that one company produces more favourable results than the others, they’ll ignore the ones that produce unfavourable results. So there’s a built-in conflict of interest, which, if you bought chemical testing in house, into the EPA, it would solve a lot of these problems. So there’s that. There’s separating the agency and its rulemaking from its prosecution of environmental crimes, for example. That would be a solution. Also making the head of the EPA independent of the president. If you think about the federal reserve bank, this is a US situation. But the head of the federal reserve bank is independent of the president. They cannot be fired by the president. Why is it that we have some government institutions whose heads are independent of the president and some whose institutions are not independent of presidents. That determines their ability to act.
Dr Ron Ehrlich: So I mean, independence is an obvious one. I know we’ve quoted this before on our program too as an example of that because the issue of say statins to control cholesterol. Harvard did a study on it, which found that industry-funded studies were 20 times more positive than independent studies. So there is just one example. But listen, you also mentioned glyphosate, Roundup. Tell us a little bit about that story. The glyphosate story’s quite an interesting one, isn’t it?
Dr Jonathan Latham: Well it is. I mean it begins with the fraudulent testing of IBT, which is very hard to imagine that Monsanto didn’t know about this. We know that Monsanto officials used to visit IBT on a fairly routine basis around the time of these tests. Right? If Adrian Gross could go to IBT and discover within five minutes, even though they tried to stop him, that they were doing fraudulent tests, it’s hard to imagine that Monsanto people didn’t also know. But essentially Roundup ends up being fraudulently tested. Then that test is replaced. Right? So the company does a new test. But what appears to have happened with that new test is that it detected harm, basically tumours. An excess of tumours in the treatment group. So there was a whole kind of effort at the EPA to cover that up. Hopefully, now you can understand why EPA… Why this was a back and forth thing right? And why EPA should have any interest whatsoever in covering up the tumours of Roundup.
Dr Ron Ehrlich: What year are we talking about? What sort of year are we talking about when we’re talking-
Dr Jonathan Latham: We’re talking about the early ’80s.
Dr Ron Ehrlich: Early ’80s, yeah. Because Roundup is still being used in 2019 quite universally, isn’t it?
Dr Jonathan Latham: Yeah. It is. It is. I think there’s now… I was talking to a lawyer from the law firm that has been prosecuting Monsanto in San Francisco and winning those huge judgements against the company. What he told me is there are no Roundup experts who are prepared to speak on Monsanto’s behalf.
Dr Ron Ehrlich: Interesting.
Dr Jonathan Latham: They cannot find anyone with credible toxicological experience.
Dr Ron Ehrlich: This is interesting on another level too because Europe’s approach to chemicals, I think, although they use Roundup I’m sure in Europe, but the precautionary principle is a little stronger in Europe. Whereas in America and I think in Australia too, the attitude is, “We’ll put it out there. See what happens. Let the courts decide.” That’s what the courts end up doing and giving some huge payouts for that but the companies feel that’s not a bad part of the business plan.
Dr Jonathan Latham: Companies understand that their products have a lifespan. That eventually the patent will run out or insects will become resistant. So their job as they see it is to get the product out there as quickly as possible and then if there are negative health consequences they will take time to show themselves. They take several years or it may take 20 years to get cancer from these products. If they know that they can… They can fend off a small number of studies. They can confuse the issue. They have all kinds of levers that they can use. Then when eventually the product becomes unequivocally indicated, they can remove it from the market and replace it with a new one. So they’re perfectly happy in all this. Essentially what happens, when these products leave the market, it’s very often merely because the manufacturer withdraws them. It’s not because the chemical agency, safety agency has banned them.
Dr Ron Ehrlich: Which is interesting, isn’t it? In terms of the business model, I think it kind of is almost breathtaking to think that the companies earn so much money in the sales over the 20, 30, 40, 50 years of the sale of the chemical that if “Hey look we end up getting a billion or $2 billion fine at the end of it, it’s part of the marketing budget.”
Dr Jonathan Latham: They see that as the cost of doing business. [inaudible 00:49:04] and I think it’s true.
Dr Ron Ehrlich: Now Jonathan I also wanted to talk to you about GMOs because that’s something we hear a lot about. I wonder if you might share with our listener, GMO 101. You know, like, tell us a… We hear a lot about genetically modified organisms. Tell us what it is.
Dr Jonathan Latham: Well, you know I think the easiest place to start is to talk about how a GMO is made. A GMO is made, so I used to do this when I was doing my PhD. What you do is, you take a piece of leaf tissue. This is a very standard… I mean there are variants on it. Take a piece of leaf tissue. You put that leaf tissue onto a Petri dish, which has hormones on it and will provide the life support system for that. These hormones are de-differentiating this tissue. They’re turning it into something that will eventually start sprouting shoots and it loses its chlorophyll. Various changes happen. It starts producing shoots or roots. The tissue is… All plant cells can be turned into individual plants if you put them under the right conditions. What the genetic engineer will do is they will take a gene that they’ve assembled from other species.
Say an insect tolerant gene. You will take the coding sequence, the code for the protein itself. You’ll add various bits that make sure that it’s expressed at the right time, that it’s turned off at the right time. You’ll also have a marker gene to show that the cells have taken up this gene. You will also potentially have some other pieces of DNA that have ancillary functions. You will use a gene gun and you will shoot that into the cells that are sitting on your Petri dish. Then what you’ll do, is you’ll apply an antibiotic. What that antibiotic does is make sure that only cells that contain the DNA that you shot in, survive. Those surviving cells will shoot and generate a new breeding stock. You’ll take those shoots that arise and you’ll put them into a new pot. They will grow roots and they will grow leaves. Eventually, you’ll put them outside. They’ll produce pollen and seeds. That’ll become your breeding stock.
But what you’ve done, when you’ve used this gene gun, is you have penetrated the cell with a metal particle. That metal particle carrying the DNA that you’ve put in there, it will pass through, for example, a chloroplast. A chloroplast is full of DNA. It will blast its way through. It will liberate pieces of DNA in the process. It will then blast its way through to the nucleus, to the centre of the cell. In the process, it’s a sizable metal particle. It will damage the DNA in that cell in the nucleus. It will make a hole in the DNA and the cell tries to repair that damage to the DNA because any damage to DNA is potentially fatal to a cell. No cell, once it’s had its chromosomes severed, can divide. Because it’s only got part of its chromosome content. Right? So it can’t divide. So it’ll either commit suicide or it will repair itself.
It will repair itself with whatever DNA that you supply that ends up in the cell. So essentially this article comes through, it comes barreling through and it’s accumulated chloroplast DNA, it’s accumulated DNA possibly from other cells, possibly from that same genome. Then the cell goes into panic mode and tries to repair all this. What you end up with is not a precise insertion of a transgene but a kind of an unholy mess. This is a standard result. We published a review paper in 2006 and the central question of the review paper was, what is the genetic damage that results from this process of shooting in metal particles and adding your supplies of DNA and so forth? It turned out that no one knew. Nobody had any clue. I’m giving you a visual representation of what’s going on here but I don’t think too many people had put two and two together and tried to work out what was going on.
There was this whole industry talking point that adding a gene was a precise thing. But it turned out that everybody who tried to sequence the DNA around the insertion event where these particles presumably are blasted through and DNA had been filled in, nobody had managed to get to analyze one of these events. Because they were so complicated. It turns out that it’s standard to have hundreds of thousands of base pairs, dozens of genes messed up. So dozens of genes lost. More genes added. Stuff coming from other places. A huge mess in this location of the insertion event. But that becomes your breeding stock. Right? This is your breeding stock. Basically what the company will do is they will make like 5,000 different… They will use the cells, the little plantlets that develop from about 5,000 of these events. They will attempt to select the one that is the simplest and that gives them the result that they want.
So from all these different events, they will try to select one that more or less replicates their idea of what these events should look like, which is a simple insertion event. But there is no simple insertion event possible from this method. So what they end up doing is fudging the results and pretending that they sequenced bits that they didn’t do. And essentially fibbing to the regulators about what they’ve done. The regulators have this kind of don’t ask, don’t tell policy. That is very similar. The whole EPA thing that I was explaining to you before, the reason why I understand that this system works the way it does is that I’ve already seen it operate in the world of GMOs. It already rings all these bells to me.
Dr Ron Ehrlich: I mean, we have this image of GMO being a very, very precise thing. You know, “We just take the length of DNA and we snip it right there where we don’t want and we snip that, take that out, put in the DNA that we do want. There we are. We’ve got a terrific new GMO product that we know exactly…” Not quite as simple as that. I mean I can only imagine the challenges given how successful we’ve been at regulating chemicals, how we even go about thinking about GMO. This comes back to… Because you mentioned to me before when we started to talk about a reductionist model and a more holistic model and the DNA kind of centric… I think you referred to it as the central dogma that DNA is everything, it fits very much into that reductionist model. But there’s another way of looking at things isn’t there? I think you call it systems. Looking at the system.
Dr Jonathan Latham: The talking point, the basic assumption of the whole biotech industry, is that you can take pieces of DNA from one organism and put them into another organism and have them perform a predictable function. But the problem with that thesis is that we don’t have evidence that genes work that way. The way genes work, you have to think of them as kind of a library. So a cell wants a new protein. Say an enzyme. Say you go drinking. The cell needs an enzyme to deactivate the alcohol that you’ve just drunk. What it does is it goes to the library of DNA and it says, “I want more copies of alcohol dehydrogenase.” It consults with the library and it gets this library to produce more copies. That is the correct relationship, if you like, between the DNA and the cell. The DNA is not telling the cell what to do, the cell is requesting information from the DNA and proteins and whatever from the DNA.
But this is part of a bigger understanding of how organisms function, in which the cell is the central unit of organization of an organism. The cell, for example, is something that existed for a billion years before DNA ever was invented. In evolutionary terms, the organism’s life began with cells. It began with biochemistry. It began with enzymes. It had all these properties. So, for example, you have a membrane outside of the cell. Then you have all these minerals and you have energy, kind of all cycling inside the cell. This cell is a self-organizing system whose purpose is to preserve itself at the most fundamental level. It may also choose to reproduce and copy itself and divide or whatever. But its fundamental need is to survive. It uses DNA as a source of information about enzymes.
But the model of the biotech industry is that the DNA is in control of everything and therefore if you can control the DNA and add pieces of DNA and so on, you can have predictable consequences. But if it’s true that the cell is actually in charge and is organizing everything and on a bigger scale, the organism itself is in a bigger… You know if we’re talking about humans or plants there’s a bigger scale here. If that cell and those organisms are essentially in charge of what happens then adding DNA doesn’t necessarily have predictable consequences. So there’s a whole philosophical issue here going on in which, for example, if we go back to the example of the insect-resistant GMO that we were discussing earlier, essentially the biotech industry is making 5,000 different transgenic plants. Instead of them just adding one gene to one plant and saying, “This is the one that we’re choosing,” what they’re doing is they’re basically doing a crapshoot and then they’re selecting one that happens to work for them.
But the way they present it is, we added one gene to this one plant and of course, it did what we thought it would. That is not actually how their business model is operating. So their business model is operating as if what I’m telling you about cells and organisms and so forth is true but the pretence is that this is all a thing that’s controlled by the DNA.
Dr Ron Ehrlich: One of my guests, I think we talked about this before he came on, Bruce Lipton, he said something that I thought was profound and that fits into this, what you’re talking about. That is that… Because of his background in cell biology. That if you take out a nucleus, the DNA from a cell, it will survive for days, maybe even weeks. But, if you remove the cell membrane, which contains the whole system of the cell, the cell dies immediately.
Dr Jonathan Latham: That’s true. But I mean think about how bacteria kill cells is normally by making a hole in the cell membrane. That’s a very standard way that they kill cells. The example that I often use is the red blood cell. A red blood cell is a cell without a nucleus. But that lives for months and months in your blood. It functions to collect oxygen and dispense oxygen and does a whole load of basic functions without a nucleus at all. This is just a piece of support… These are just bits of supporting evidence that the systems view of life, of biology, is the correct one. The DNA, genetic determinist view of life and biology is essential, it’s a social construct is what it is, that happens to suit the biotech industry. It happens to suit all kinds of different needs that we have in our society for linear thinking and all these political needs that we have.
Dr Ron Ehrlich: Do you know, it’s interesting, I never thought of evolution as a political construct but actually you know, when you look at the idea of the survival of the fittest, that mutations determine the progression of evolution, it fits very well into our system of corporate competition and all of that. Whereas the whole synergy idea, this systems and synergy idea is far more inclusive, holistic, real but I never really thought of evolution as being political or economic construct but it is. Don’t you think?
Dr Jonathan Latham: Well the idea of evolution as survival of the fittest, there’s some really interesting stuff that’s been written about this, which is independent. I mean I agree with you, that the idea of survival of the fittest is an idea that’s very similar to competitive capitalism. But there’s also there’s a bunch of other things that are going on here. Evolution is real. But what’s evolving is not the DNA. What’s evolving is the organism itself. The DNA has to evolve in concert with that. The central object of evolution is the organism, but what happened in the history of the theorizing about evolution is that a bunch of people who now call themselves neo-Darwinists, what those neo-Darwinists did is they invented this idea of fitness.
The idea of fitness was applicable to basically enable them to talk to each other because you had all these people who work on the evolution of whales and other people who would work on the evolution of bacteria and other people who were working on the evolution of plants and other people who were working on the evolution of mammals. These organisms are so different from each other that their evolutionary processes if you want to think about evolutionary processes as things that generate diversity, which is what is of interest to all of us right? Why are there trees? Why are there sea urchins? Why are there fruit flies or whatever? That’s what makes evolution interesting.
But what they wanted to do was collapse that whole thing to create an institution. An institution of people who can talk to each other. They invented this word fitness that enabled them to write the organism out of the theory of evolution so that they could just talk about DNA. Once they’re all talking about DNA, “Well we’re all studying the same subject, we can all form part of a genetic society and an ideology,” that controlled the debate. The people who studied DNA got to write the theory of evolution because they studied “fitness,” which they could never agree on a definition of and so on. But they agreed to ignore all that.
What happens is the actual organisms, the bits that we’re supposed to be studying. The whole reason why evolution, as I said, is interesting, is because it gives rise to all these different organisms. They get written out of the story so that these people can all talk to each other and form an institutional structure.
Dr Ron Ehrlich: Now listen, if people are listening to this now and given everything you know, what would you say to our listener would be one of two things that you would want to convey to them about how to approach this issue of exposure to chemicals in our everyday life? What would you advise them given what you know?
Dr Jonathan Latham: Yeah. Well, what I do is I treat every synthetic chemical as untested, as in effect untested. So I try to have wooden things in my house. I try to have glass things in my house. I try to have things made of metal. I try to know what it is that I’m bringing into my house. If I want to bring something in, even soil into my garden, or whatever, I want to know where it comes from and ideally, I won’t bring in anything. So I try to live a life, you know, I try to have cotton clothing. I try to have leather shoes. I try to have metal cutlery for example or ceramic. Ceramic is also a good product to use because you know it won’t be off-gassing because you know it won’t be diffusing into you because it’s not relying on complicated moving parts. I, in a sense, simplified my life in such a way that, as much as possible, other things being equal, I need a computer for my work. I need a telephone. I need various things. But as much as possible I don’t bring weird, synthetic objects into my house.
Because they off-gas stuff. All of them do. Paints, whatever. I look at them before I buy them. It’s very hard actually to do that. It requires a lot of training. It requires you to look at the labels and to understand what all these chemicals mean for example. There are some chemicals I avoid even more than others. Like things with chlorine in them for example, which tend to be long-lived. The whole chemistry of chlorine, when it interacts with the human body, is really interesting. There’s a very great book that’s written called Pandora’s Poison by somebody called Joe Thornton. He was comparing chlorinated compounds with non-chlorinated compounds. What you see with molecules… that the chemical industry has substituted chlorines for hydrogens in many, many compounds. The effect of chlorine is to make compounds more long-lived, more fat-soluble and more toxic.
All of those are not good properties as far as you’re concerned because they will get into you and they won’t leave you and they will cause you more harm. On average, you know, the more chlorine molecules that a compound has, the more likely it is to harm you. You can make some big picture calculuses about whether you want substances in your… PVC, the C in PVC stands for chlorine. That means you probably don’t want that substance in your life or your paint or your whatever it is. In your food. In your food storage containers and so forth. If you know a little bit of chemistry for example, useful… I’d call it a heuristic. It’s a heuristic for reducing your risk. All of these things are heuristic because we don’t know anywhere near as much as we need to know about these chemicals in our daily life really to protect ourselves. We cannot. You’re harmed by the book covers probably. You’re harmed by your computer keyboard.
You’re harmed by substances emanating from cars that drive past your house. There’s a limit to what you can do but if you can reduce your exposure… I don’t take any medications. I don’t have any underlying physical illnesses that I know of. I am a relatively healthy person and all I do is try to eat organic food as much as possible and get a decent amount of exercise and follow some fairly basic things. And I don’t have diseases that many people at my age do.
Dr Ron Ehrlich: Jonathan, that’s a great note to finish on and thank you so much for joining us today and sharing with us your knowledge. We’re going to have links to your resource project and some of those talks that I referred to, so thank you so much for joining me today.
Dr Jonathan Latham: Thanks so much, Ron.
Dr Ron Ehrlich: Well there was so much there and there is so much more. We will of course have links to many of Jonathan’s sites, the bioresearch project, Independent Science News and Jonathan’s own webpage, Science Writings, where he covers some interesting topics like, the meaning of life, the EPA, which is the Environmental Protection Authority, friend or foe, is conservatism and genetic determinism the same thing? And the politics of pesticides, to name just a few. Now don’t forget to get onto iTunes and please do leave us a review. Now apparently the more reviews that are favourable, the higher the listening audience is and this podcast ends up with, well, more listeners.
I honestly believe that the messages I discuss here are important to the health of the individual and the planet, which as you all know are connected. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be doing it. I’ve also discovered the wonders of Instagram so if you’re interested, hop onto Instagram and follow me on Instagram. I can’t believe I just said that but I did. And of course Facebook and all those other social media platforms. Don’t forget, you can download the Unstress app on the App Store and Google Play and there are some great resources on there as well. So until next time, this is Dr Ron Ehrlich, be well.
This podcast provides general information and discussion about medicine, health and related subjects. The content is not intended and should not be construed as medical advice or as a substitute for care by a qualified medical practitioner. If you or any other person has a medical concern, he or she should consult with an appropriately qualified medical practitioner. Guests who speak in this podcast express their own opinions, experiences and conclusions.