20, 2003 -- CropChoice news -- The Ecologist, August 2003:
The Ecologist spells out the
five overriding reasons why the commercialization of GM crops
should never be allowed in the UK.
1. GM WILL REMOVE CONSUMER CHOICE
The UK government's official adviser on GM, the Agriculture
and Environment Biotechnology Commission (AEBC), has said
it would `be difficult and in some places impossible to guarantee'
that any British food was GM-free if commercial growing of
GM crops went ahead. In North America, farmers can no longer
be certain the seed they plant does not contain GM genes.
GM genes are often `dominant' - i.e., they are inherited at
the expense of non-GM genes when cross-pollination occurs
between GM and conventional species. With the first GM crops
considered for commercialization - oilseed rape and sugar
beet and maize - the `gene flow' (ability to contaminate non-GM
varieties) is `high' and `medium to high', respectively.
To prevent cross-pollination, the official advice in the UK
is that there should be a separation distance of just 50 meters
between GM oilseed rape and non-GM varieties. But pollen can
travel a lot further than that. Bees, for example, regularly
fly for up to 10 kilometers; hence, oilseed rape pollen has
been found in hives 4.5 kilometers from the nearest GM crop
field. Tree pollen grains have been recorded in the essentially
treeless Shetland Isles, which are 250 kilometers from the
nearest mainland. And the University of Adelaide has published
research into wind pollination distances that shows oilseed
rape pollen can travel for up to 3 kilometers.
GM seed, or parts of GM root crops like sugar beet, may be
shed and left in a field where they may grow later.
Combine harvesters move from field to field, and leftover
GM seed may be spilt if equipment is not cleaned properly.
Lorries removing a harvested crop from a farm may spill seed
near fields where non-GM or organic crops are grown.
For crops with very small seeds like oilseed rape spillage
can be high. In May 2002 the European Commission's Joint Research
Centre (JRC) echoed the AEBC almost verbatim when it warned
that if GM crops were widely adopted, preventing contamination
of organic food would be `very difficult and connected to
high costs, or virtually impossible'.
Likewise, the Soil Association's investigation into the impact
of GM in the US concludes: `All non-GM farmers in North America
are finding it very hard or impossible to grow GM-free crops.
Seeds have become almost completely contaminated with GM organisms
(GMOs), good non-GM varieties have become hard to buy, and
there is a high risk of crop contamination.'
2. HEALTH RISKS HAVE NOT BEEN DISPROVED
Allergic reactions Genetic modification
frequently uses proteins from organisms that have
never before been an integral part of the human
food chain. Hence, GM food may cause unforeseen
allergic reactions, particularly among children.
When a new food is introduced, it takes five to
six years before any allergies are recognized.
Antibiotic resistance A 2002 study
commissioned by the UK's Food Standards Agency (FSA)
showed that antibiotic-resistance marker genes from
GM foods can make their way into human gut bacteria
after just one meal. Two years previously, the British
Medical Association had warned: `The risk to human
health from antibiotic resistance developing in
micro-organisms is one of the major public health
threats that will be faced in the 21st century.'
Industrial and pharmaceutical crops
Since 1991 over 300 open-field trials of `pharma'
crops have taken place around the world. Last year
in Texas 500,000 bushels of soya destined for human
consumption were contaminated with genes from maize
genetically modified by the US firm Prodigene so
as to create a vaccine for a stomach disease afflicting
Pro-GM voices claim that after six years there have been
no adverse health effects from eating GM foods in the US.
But then, there has been no effort by the US authorities to
look for health impacts either.
Safety data comes from the biotech firms themselves. Independent,
peer-reviewed research showing that GM food poses no danger
to human health is not required. One Monsanto director said:
`[We] should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food.
Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible.'
The common methodology for government food-safety requirements
in North America and Europe has traditionally been a comparison
between a food and a conventional counterpart. The assumption
is that existing foods have a long history of safe use. So,
if a GM crop is found to be `the same' as a non-GM counterpart,
it can claim this history. This is called `substantial equivalence'.
But GM crops are not the same, because of the random nature
and uncertain consequences of modification. Biotech firms
acknowledge this when it suits them - stating, for example,
that their GM varieties are distinctive enough to warrant
their own patents.
There have been no properly controlled clinical trials looking
at the effects of short- or long-term ingestion of GM foods
by humans. Moreover, as Dr Arpad Pusztai (who was sacked when
he printed research about the effects of GM potatoes on lab
rats) warns: `There is increasing research to show they may
actually be very unsafe.'
3. FARMERS WILL BE DESTROYED
Within a few years of the introduction of GM crops in North
America the following occurred:
CORPORATE CONTROL GROWS
Adopting GM crops would place farmers and the
food chain itself under the control of a handful
of multinational corporations such as Monsanto,
Syngenta, Bayer and DuPont. For US farmers this
1) Legally-binding agreements that force
farmers to purchase expensive new seeds from the
biotech corporations each season; to
further guarantee seeds are not reused biotech
firms invented `terminator technology' that stops
GM plants producing fertile seeds;
2) Having to buy these corporations' herbicides
(at a cost considerably above that of a generic
equivalent) for herbicide-tolerant crops;
3) Paying the biotech firms a technology
fee based on the acreage of land under
4) The development of so-called `traitor
technology' crops on which particular chemicals
will have to be applied if the crops'
GM characteristics (such as their time of flowering
or disease resistance) are to show;
5) Biotech firms buying up seed companies.
This creates monopolies and limits farmers' choices
still further. DuPont and Monsanto are now the
two largest seed companies in the world. As a
result of their control of the seed industry,
farmers are reporting that the availability of
good non-GM seed varieties is rapidly disappearing.
6) US farmers are obliged by their contracts
to allow biotech company inspectors onto their
farms. As with all crops, leftover seed
from GM plants can germinate in fields since used
to grow different crops; the seeds produce so-called
`volunteers'. If biotech company inspectors find
any such plants, they can claim - and have repeatedly
done so - that the farmers are growing unlicensed
crops and infringing patent rights. For example,
David Chaney, who farms in Kentucky, had to pay
Monsanto $35,000; another Kentucky farmer agreed
to pay the firm $25,000; and three Iowa farmers
are on record as having paid it $40,000 each.
- Almost all of the US's $300m annual maize exports and
Canada's $300m annual rape exports to the EU disappeared;
- The trade for Canadian honey was almost completely destroyed
because of GM contamination;
- Asian countries, including Japan and South Korea—the
biggest foreign buyers of US maize, stopped importing North
- Just like domestic consumers, food companies—including
Heinz, Gerber and Frito-Lay—started to reject the
use of GMOs in their products.
Former White House agriculture expert Dr. Charles Benbrook
calculates that the lost export trade and fall in farm prices
caused by GM commercialization led to an increase in annual
government subsidies of an estimated $3-5 billion.
In December 2000 the president of Canada's National Farmers
Union, Cory Ollikka, said: `Farmers are really starting to
question the profit-enhancing ability of products that seem
to be shutting them out of markets worldwide.'
Farm, which represents UK farmers, has said: `Farmers are
being asked by the agro-biotech companies to shoulder the
economic and public-image risks of their new technology, for
which there appear to be few or no compensating benefits.
The claimed cost savings are either non-existent or exaggerated.
The long-term health and environmental impacts are still uncertain.
And consumers don't want to eat GM food. So why would farmers
sow something they can't sell?'
Higher costs, reduced profits
The Soil Association's US investigations found that GM crops
have increased the cost of farming and reduced farmers' profits
for the following reasons:
- GM varieties increase farmer seed costs by up to 40 per
cent an acre; GM soya and maize, which make up 83 per cent
of the GM crops grown worldwide, `deliver less income on
average to farmers than non-GM crops';
- GM varieties require farmers to pay biotech firms a `technology
- The GM companies forbid farmers to save their seeds for
replanting; contrary to traditional practice, farmers have
to buy new seed each year; and
- GM herbicide-tolerant crops increase farmers' use of expensive
herbicides, especially as new weed problems have emerged—rogue
herbicide-resistant oilseed rape plants being a widespread
problem; contrary to the claim that only one application
would be needed, farmers are applying herbicides several
Even a 2002 report by the US Department of Agriculture, a
key ally of the biotech industry, admitted that the economic
benefits of cultivating GM crops were `variable' and that
farmers growing GM Bt corn were actually `losing money.'
The University of Nebraska recorded yields for Monsanto's
Roundup Ready GM maize that were 6-11 per cent less than those
for non-GM soya varieties. A 1998 study of over 8,000 field
trials found that Roundup Ready soya seeds produced between
6.7 and 10 per cent fewer bushels of soya than conventional
Trials by the UK's National Institute of Agricultural Botany
showed yields of GM oilseed rape and sugar beet that were
5-8 per cent less than conventional varieties.
Organic farmers ruined
The introduction of GM products is especially hard on organic
farmers that rely on their ability to guarantee their consumer
a chemical free, non-gm product. Last month a survey by the
Organic Farming Research Foundation found that one in 12 US
organic farmers had already suffered direct costs or damage
because of GM contamination.
Saskatchewan lost almost the entire organic oilseed rape sector
to contamination a potential loss of millions of dollars.
While contamination cost US organic maize growers $90m in
annual income (the losses were calculated by the Union of
Concerned Scientists in an analysis for the US Environmental
If commercial planting of GM crops took place in Britain,
the UK's burgeoning organic sector - now worth £900m,
and set to increase with (supposed) government support - would
perish. If, by some miracle, contamination could be avoided
the costs involved would inevitably lead to organic farmers
going bust. A study published by the JRC in May predicted
that efforts to protect conventional and organic crops from
contamination would add 41 percent to the cost of producing
non-GM oilseed rape and up to 9 percent to the cost of producing
non-GM maize and potatoes.
4. THE ENVIRONMENT WILL SUFFER
The proponents of GM argue that the technology will lead to
a reduction in the use of chemical weed-killers. But for the
majority of GM crops grown so far, the evidence does not bear
Four years worth of data from the US Department of Agriculture
shows herbicide use on Roundup Ready soya beans is increasing.
In 1998 total herbicide use on GM soya beans in six US states
was 30 percent greater on average than on conventional varieties.
The Soil Association's US investigation found that `the use
of GM crops is resulting in a reversion to the use of older,
more toxic compounds' such as the herbicide paraquat.
Stronger chemicals are needed to kill stronger weeds.
Genes modified to make crops herbicide-resistant can be transferred
to related weeds, which would then also become herbicide-resistant.
Crops can themselves act like weeds. Because GM crops are
designed to have a greater ability to survive, leftover seeds
can germinate in later years when a different crop is growing
in the same field. The leftover volunteer plants would then
contaminate the new crop. In Canada, where GM herbicide-tolerant
oilseed rape has been grown since 1998, oilseed rape weeds
resistant to three different herbicides have been created.
These oilseed rape weeds are an example of `gene-stacking'
- the occurrence of several genetically-engineered traits
in a single plant. Gene-stacking was found in all 11 GM sites
investigated in a Canadian ministry of agriculture study.
As professor Martin Entz of Winnipeg's University of Manitoba
observes, `GM oilseed rape is absolutely impossible to control'.
Following a review of the Canadian experience, English Nature
- the UK government's advisory body on biodiversity - predicted:
`Herbicide-tolerant gene-stacked volunteers of oilseed rape
would be inevitable in practical agriculture in the UK.'
There has also been an increase in pesticide use by farmers
attempting to cope with pest resistance created by GM Bt crops.
Bt crops are modified to produce the insecticidal toxin Bacillus
thuringiensis (Bt) in all their tissues.
However, the World Bank says insects can adapt to Bt within
`one or two years'. And scientists at China's Nanjing Institute
of Environmental Sciences have concluded that if it was planted
continuously Bt cotton would probably lose all its resistance
to bollworm - the pest it is designed to control - within
eight to 10 years.
Sustainable agriculture projects have led to
millet yields rising by up to 154 per cent in
India, millet and sorghum yields rising by 275
per cent in Burkina Faso and maize yields increasing
by 300 per cent in Honduras. Combined with reforms
aimed at achieving more equitable land ownership,
protection from subsidised food imports and the
re-orientation of production away from export
crops to staple foods for local consumption, sustainable
farming could feed the world.
In 1998 a delegation representing every African
country except South Africa submitted a joint
statement to a UN conference on genetic research.
The delegates had been inspired by a Monsanto
campaign that used images of starving African
children to plug its technology. The statement
read: `We strongly object that the image of the
poor and hungry from our countries is being used
by giant multinational corporations to push a
technology that is neither safe, environmentally-friendly
nor economically beneficial to us. We do not believe
that such companies or gene technologies will
help our farmers to produce the food that is needed
in the 21st century. On the contrary, we think
it will destroy the diversity, the local knowledge
and the sustainable agricultural systems that
our farmers have developed for millennia, and
that it will undermine our capacity to feed ourselves.'
Meanwhile, pests' adaptability to pest-resistant GM crops
could force farmers onto a `genetic treadmill' of ever more
technical biotech fixes (including new varieties of pest-resistant
crops) and more frequent spraying, and more toxic doses, of
chemical pesticides. It could also destroy the effectiveness
of Bt as a natural insecticide in organic agriculture.
Perversely, GM pest-resistant crops could make agriculture
more vulnerable to pests and disease; they could end up harming
beneficial soil micro-organisms and insects like ladybirds
and lacewings that keep certain pest populations in check.
The Delhi-based Research Foundation for Science, Technology
and Ecology found in a study of four Indian states that `not
only did Monsanto's Bt cotton not protect plants from the
American bollworm, but there was an increase of 250-300 percent
in attacks by non-target pests like jassids, aphids, white
fly and thrips'. And researchers at Cornell University in
the US found that the pollen from Bt corn was poisonous to
the larvae of monarch butterflies.
As GM `pest-resistant' crops fail to deliver, Australian farmers
have been advised to spray additional insecticide on Monsanto's
Bt cotton by the Transgenic and Insect Management Strategy
Committee of the Australian Cotton Growers Research Association.
Overall insecticide applications on Bt maize have also increased
in the US.
GM crops may also reduce the diversity of plant life by
contaminating their wild relatives and indigenous crop varieties
in areas where the crops evolved. Widespread GM contamination
of conventional maize has already been detected in Mexico.
In Europe, contamination of wild relatives of oilseed rape
and sugar beet is considered inevitable if GM commercialization
goes ahead. The same applies to wild relatives of rice in
If wildlife is harmed `unexpectedly' (i.e., without the harm
having officially been predicted), and an official risk assessment
had not previously decided that GM crops were safe, it would
be the state and society that would have to pay for putting
things right - if this is possible.
5 GM CROPS WILL NOT FEED THE POOR
The idea that GM will end global poverty is probably the biggest
of all the GM apologists' lies - the one used to accuse anti-GM
campaigners in rich countries of not caring about the developing
world. The truth is that the introduction of GM crops could
damage delicate third world economies and while there is no
evidence that gm-crops increase outputs there is evidence
that the world is currently producing enough food to feed
There is no evidence that genetic modification increases yields.
But, just to make the point, consider the following:
- a US Department of Agriculture report published in May
2002 concluded that net yields of herbicide-tolerant soya
bean were no higher than those of non-GM soya, and that
yields of pest-resistant corn were actually lower than those
of non-GM corn;
- in September 2001, the state court of Mississippi ruled
that a Monsanto subsidiary's `high-yielding' GM soya seeds
were responsible for reduced yields obtained by Mississippi
farmer Newell Simrall; the farmer was awarded damages of
But then, no commercial GM crop has ever been specifically
engineered to have a higher yield.
Crop failures have already occurred with GM soya and cotton
plants in the developing world. This is largely due to the
unpredictable behavior of these crops. GM soya's brittleness,
for example, has made it incapable of surviving heat waves.
And in 2002 `massive failure' of Bt cotton was reported in
the southern states of India; consequently, in April the Indian
government denied Monsanto clearance for the cultivation of
its Bt cotton in India's northern states.
The ruin of small farmers
GM would force the two billion people who manage the developing
world's small family farms to stop their age-old practice
of saving seeds. Each year they will have to buy expensive
seeds and chemicals instead. The experience of North American
farmers shows that GM seeds cost up to 40 per cent more than
World hunger is not a lack of food
Inadequate yields are not the cause of hunger today. As Sergey
Vasnetsov, a biotech industry analyst with investment bank
Lehman Brothers, says: `Let's stop pretending we face food
shortages. There is hunger, but not food shortages.' In 1994,
food production could have supplied 6.4 billion people (more
than the world's actual population) with an adequate 2,350
calories per day. Yet more than 1 billion people do not get
enough to eat.
Furthermore, the GM crops being produced are almost exclusively
for the processed-food, textiles and animal-feed markets of
the West. Instead of being used to grow staple foods for local
consumption, millions of hectares of land in the developing
world are being set aside to grow GM corn, for example, to
supply grain for pigs, chicken and cattle. In May, ActionAid
published a report called GM Crops: going against the grain,
which revealed that `only 1 per cent of GM research is aimed
at [developing] crops [to be] used by poor farmers in poor
countries'. And ActionAid calculates that those crops `stand
only a one in 250 chance of making it into farmers' fields'.
As the UN Development Program points out, `technology is created
in response to market pressures - not the needs of poor people,
who have little purchasing power'.
Sources: Briefing papers by Genewatch, Friends of the Earth,
the Soil Association, GM Free Wales, Farm