GM Crops in Wales?

Letter to Mr Carwyn Jones, AM, Minister for Environment, Planning and Countryside, Welsh Assembly, 19 September 2006
 

Mr Carwyn Jones AM
Minister for Environment, Planning and Countryside
Welsh Assembly Government

 

19 September 2006

Dear Mr Jones

 

Re: GM Crops in Wales?

Scientists for Global Responsibility is a UK organisation of about 850 science, design and technology professionals committed to the ideal that science and technology should be applied in the interests of humanity and of the environment and should avoid harmful consequences. In that spirit, we support the idea of a ban on the growing of genetically modified (GM) crops in Wales and on the import of GM products; in spite of claims made by the GM seed companies of safety for health and the environment, a large body of evidence has been accumulating over the years that the claims are not fulfilled.

 

Co-existence not realisable

On 20 July 2006 the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs issued a consultation paper on GM crops that assumes the possibility of co-existence between GM and non-GM crops. Co-existence is, in fact, not possible in the long term and would be very difficult even in the short term. Having set an 'acceptable' level of contamination at 0.9 %, below which it is not legally required to declare that a food is genetically modified, the Government will be obliged in future to raise this level to ever higher levels as contamination becomes more widespread over time.

Already at the time when a crop is growing in the field, the separation distances between GM and non-GM varieties are set so as to allow the full amount of contamination of 0.9 %. Yet, even if the separation distances were effective in eliminating outcrossing, further contamination would inevitably accumulate in the final food during processing, storing, transporting, etc. Even organically produced food will no longer be a refuge for the majority of the population who reject the notion of eating GM food. There is abundant evidence, both observational and theoretical, that segregation of GM pollen, seeds and foods from non-GM counterparts does not function adequately in practice:

• On the theoretical side, we have made a presentation [1] to the GM Science Review and will submit a response to the current consultation on co-existence between GM and non-GM crops. Theoretical modelling of pollen transport demonstrates that relatively large levels of contamination can occur in pockets of high pollen deposition in a farm field, even if statutory separation distance are observed. This patchiness is especially important for crops that are sold individually, like cobs of sweetcorn, in contrast with grains, which are mixed over an entire field.

• An incident in Illinois, USA demonstrates that a significant amount of maize pollen can be carried on the wind to large distances [2]. A farmer who decided to grow a rare blue maize received complaints from three neighbours that their yellow maize had been contaminated with blue kernels. None of the three farms was downwind of the offending crop, and the farthest was 3 miles away -- enormously farther than the few hundred metres separation distance set by the UK Government. A rough estimate of the level of outcrossing was that about 1 percent of the kernels on the yellow cobs were blue, which is at the level of GM contamination permitted in non-GM food. Had the neighbouring farms been downwind or nearer to the farm with blue maize, the contamination would have been heavier.

• In Saskatchewan, Canada, GM oilseed rape has caused contamination on such a scale that organic farming of the crop in that province has been virtually wiped out [3]. In North America, it is now extremely difficult to find seeds that are free of GM admixture for crops of which GM varieties are grown [4].

• In the United Kingdom, Advanta's rapeseeds were found to have been contaminated to levels as high as 2.6 percent with an unapproved GM gene [5], even though the seed crops had been grown at distances at least as great as the official separation distance (800 metres) from any GM variety.

• There is additional danger of contamination post-harvest, and the Starlink incident in the United States and elsewhere demonstrates that GM and non-GM varieties in food cannot reliably be kept separate. Starlink maize, which had not been approved for human consumption, was found to have contaminated the human food supply and, three years later, remained present in more than 1 percent of samples submitted by growers and grain handlers [6].

• Last month, a new incident was been reported: a GM rice that has not been approved for either human or animal consumption has been found mixed with the rice sold for human use in the United States [7].

• Within the past few weeks, it has been discovered that China has been exporting to the United Kingdom, France and Germany products containing an illegal GM rice [8].

Environmental concerns

Not only do GM crops fail to live up to the claims made for them, but they contribute to environmental problems:

• Most GM crops today have been engineered to tolerate some particular herbicide, and it is claimed that they reduce the amount of herbicides that need to be used. In 2004, a large study of agrochemical use in the United States found that this claim was fulfilled only in the first few years; for the five years leading up to the study, herbicide use was increasing every year and had reached a level that exceeded the level for non-GM varieties [9].

• Crops engineered for pest resistance by insertion of a gene from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt crops) have fared little better. Harmful insects can develop strains resistant to the in-built pesticide in a few years. New varieties of insects that did not previously affect a crop may also appear. Larvae of the diamondback moth, a pest species, have actually been found to gain extra nourishment from the Bt toxin, increasing the growth rate by 56 percent [10].

• GM plants containing built-in pesticide (Bt crops) can harm beneficial insects. Some varieties of GM canola [a type of oilseed rape] have been found to destroy the ability of bees to recognise flower odours [11]. Genetic material from GM canola was shown to have been transferred to bacteria in the gut of honeybees - a case of horizontal gene transfer [12]. The effects of this are unknown.

• Increased use of chemicals in agriculture leads to a decrease in wildlife on farms. The Farm-Scale Evaluations of GM crops in the United Kingdom demonstrated that the effect is more pronounced with the GM crops than with non-GM crops for spring oilseed rape, winter oilseed rape and sugar beet. Non-GM maize in these trials proved more harmful than the GM variety; but the non-GM farmers used atrazine on the maize, which is so damaging that it has been banned by the European Union [13].

• Studies have shown that wild plants in Britain have been or can be pollinated by GM varieties. For example, wild turnips have been found to have hybridised with oilseed rape growing as far away as 26 km [14]. This not only affects the nature of the wild plants but can lead to the creation of superweeds. Canada already suffers from a new, major weed problem: oilseed rape that is resistant to several herbicides simultaneously, having acquired a multiplicity of GM genes [15]. America has seen the emerging dominance of tenacious weeds in areas where they were not found before [16].

• Soil micro-organisms, vital to the maintenance of fertile soil, have been found to be affected by horizontal gene transfer from GM crops, but the effects have not yet been studied [17]. If the original micro-organisms cease to function normally and if they become dominant, the soil will gradually become less and less productive [18].

• A further concern is that GM crops, like other conventionally grown crops (i.e., crops grown as monocultures with the use of chemicals) are highly reliant on the use fossil fuels for the production of the chemicals used and for operating the heavy machinery required on large farms. Organic farms are much more efficient in the use of oil. Not only is the supply of oils in the world dwindling, but farm use of oil contributes significantly to global warming.

Health concerns

Evidence of harm to the internal organs and immune systems of experimental animals consuming GM products continues to rise. There is also evidence that GM pollen has, in some cases, caused health problems to human beings. There are also concerns related to the fact that the use of GM crops continues our dependence on chemical farming, and residues of harmful agrochemicals are often found, albeit usually at low levels, in food.

• A preliminary report [19] disclosed that more than half of the mice born to mothers that had received GM soya died within the first three weeks; this was six times the mortality rate of mice with mothers receiving a non-GM diet. Six times as many of the GM-fed offspring were also severely underweight. Other research found that GM soya affected the liver, pancreas and testes of young mice.

• Monsanto sponsored a study of the effects of feeding its GM maize MON863 to rats. It was found that the rats had smaller kidneys and raised levels of white blood cells than did rats fed a non-GM maize [20]. These results were kept secret until a court order forced Monsanto to disclose them [21]. Nevertheless, the UK Food Standards Agency voted in EU deliberations to approve the maize for human use.

• Peas modified with a gene from a common bean harmed the lungs of mice, and the research project had to be abandoned even though 10 years of work had already gone into it [22]. The fact that the peas were tested at all in the manner that revealed this damage was most unusual.

• Even the pro-GM European Commission has secretly, in documents prepared in connection with the dispute over GM crops put before the World Trade Organisation, acknowledged that there are scientific concerns over the safety of GM crops [23].

• Several dozen people in a Philippine village suffered health problems in 2003 when a nearby field of GM maize came into flower; and most of them continue to be ill. In the following year, residents of four other villages became ill under the same circumstances. Blood samples disclosing antibodies to the GM gene suggest that the pollen from the maize has caused the health problems [24].

• Chemical farming, such as is used to grow GM crops, gradually degrades the soil and also leads to progressive decrease in the amounts of minerals that plants are able to absorb from the soil. The amounts of minerals in our foods today have been compared with the amounts that prevailed 50 years ago: huge decreases, by as much as 50-95 %, have been found in many cases [25]. Deprivation of adequate mineral content in our food is a cause of at least some of the ill health suffered by people in the Western world.

Financial and economic effects

Significant financial and economic problems have arisen from the growing of GM crops. Liability issues can and do occur as a result of the impossibility of co-existence, but legislation on liability for GM contamination has not yet been enacted in the United Kingdom.

• In the United States and Canada, farmers who have had GM pollen or seeds arrive accidentally onto their farms, against their wishes, have had to pay huge fines for breach of GM patent law and some have, in addition, found contamination of their own seeds that they had developed over many years [26].

• Lawsuits have also arisen when food has been contaminated with unauthorised GM strains. In the United States the Starlink contamination prompted sixteen state attorneys general to seek more compensation for affected farmers and grain elevators [27]. In six American states, farmers are now suing Bayer CropScience over the current incident of rice contamination with its unapproved GM variety [28].

•The European Union has raised concerns about rice imports from the United States. Rice farmers say that prices have dropped dramatically [29].

• In China, a recent study showed that GM farmers were losing money in comparison with non-GM farmers, even when harvests were good, because of the high price paid for the seeds - and pests were on the increase [30].

• Despite the claims made by GM seed companies that GM crops produce higher yields and decrease the need for herbicides and pesticides, farmers' experiences and university-led studies show that, in many cases, after the first few years (if not immediately), yields can not only decline but nearly an entire crop is sometimes wiped out, while non-GM counterparts growing in the same region show good harvests.

• In India, many farmers have committed suicide after the failure of GM crops for which great claims had been made and for which the farmers had borrowed money to purchase these patented varieties [31].

• Enormous amounts of money are spent on the evaluation of the risks of growing and consuming GM crops. The Farm-Scale Evaluations alone cost several million pounds of taxpayers' money [32]. No other food entails this type of expenditure. It will be a permanently continuing expenditure if recommendations of advisory bodies are accepted, that each GM crop should be analysed on a 'case-by-case' basis [33].

Much more could be written about the hazards of growing and consuming GM products. We therefore urge you to take the precaution of avoiding all these troubles by firmly refusing to allow GM products to come to Wales. Under those circumstances, Wales could proudly attract customers beyond its borders to its GM-free agricultural products.

Yours sincerely,

(Dr) Eva Novotny.

Notes

1. Eva Novotny, 2003, "SGR Response and Annexe to the GM Science Review - First Report (October/November 2003)", http://www.sgr.org.uk/GMOs.html

2. ibid.

3. Hugh Warwick and Gundula Meziani (Azeez), September 2002, Seeds of Doubt: North American farmers' experiences of GM crops, Soil Association report, p. 26.

4. ibid, p. 25.

5. ibid, p. 26.

6. Lim Li Ching, "Genetic Engineering Dangers & Impacts: Lessons from Real Life - Starlink maize contaminates food supply", www.indsp.org/MOP1-GEHazards.php.

7. Andrew Pollack, 22 August 2006, New York Times.

8. Greenpeace press release, 5 September 2006.

9. Dr Charles M. Benbrook, 'Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use in the United States: The First Eight Years', http:/www.biotech-info.net/highlights.html#technical_papers.

10. Geoffrey Lean, The Independent on Sunday, 30 March 2003, 'Insects Thrive on GM "Pest-Killing" Crops'.

11. The Ecologist, vol. 28, No. 5, 1998, p.273.

12. Joe Rowland, commercial beekeeper and Secretary/Treasurer of the Empire State (New York) Honey Producers Association, October 2000, 'Letter to the editors of bee journals'. .

13. Royal Society, 16 October 2003, "Farm-Scale Evaluations published today", www.royalsoc.ac.uk/news.asp?year=&id=1645;

Royal Society, 21 March 2005, "Final GM Farm-Scale Evaluations paper published today", www.royalsoc.ac.uk/news.asp?id=2999.

Paul Brown, The Guardian, 2 October 2003, "GM crops fail key trials amid environment fear"

Friends of the Earth, press release, 25 June 2002, "GM Crop Trials Undermined by New U.S. Evidence".

14. M. Wilkinson, 2003, DEFRA Project RG0216.

15. The Sunday Times, 12 August 2001;

English Nature Press Release, 2 February 2002.

16. Paper presented by Dr Margaret Mellon at a conference on Genetically Modified Foods - the American Experience, sponsored by the Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University, Copenhagen, Denmark, June 12-13, 2003.

17. M. O'Callaghan and T.R. Glare, 2001, 'Impacts of Transgenic Plants and Micro-organisms on Soil Biota', 54th Conference Proceedings (2001) of The New Zealand Plant Protection Society Incorporated.

18. See the list of papers on soil ecology at www.psrast.org/ctenvir.htm.

19. Research led by Dr Irina Ermakova presented at a workshop held by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation in Rome, reported by Geoffrey Lean, The Independent on Sunday, 8 January 2006, "New study shows unborn babies could be harmed", http://news.independent.co.uk/environment/article337253.ece.

Similar results were found in three repetitions of the experiment, according to Dr Mae-Wan Ho, Science in Society, issue 29, Spring 2006, p.27.

20. Geoffrey Lean, The Independent on Sunday, 22 May 2005, 'Revealed: health fears over secret study into GM food', http://news.independent.co.uk/world/science_technology/story.jsp?story=40430.

21. Geoffrey Lean, The Independent on Sunday, 12 June 2005, 'Judges order disclosure of secret study on GM risks', http://news.independent.co.uk/uk/environment/story.jsp?story=646237.

Greenpeace, Brussels, 20 June 2005, 'Monsanto ordered to make secret study public', http://eu.greenpeace.org/issues/news.html#050620_a .

22. Emma Young, NewScientist.com news service, 21 November 2005, 'GM pea causes allergic damage in mice', http://www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=dn8347 .

23. Friends of the Earth Europe, press release, 18 July 2006, 'European Commission Guilty of Wrongfully Concealing GMO Documents Says Ombudsman', www.foeeuropa.org/press/206/AB_july_Ombudsman.htm.

24. Dr Mae-Wan Ho, Spring 2006, Science in Society, issue 29, pp. 26-27.

25. R.A. McCance and E.M. Widowson, 1940 to 1991, commissioned first by the Medical Research Council and later by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and the Royal Society of Chemistry, as reported in What Doctors Don't Tell You, Dec. 2002, vol. 13, no. 9, p. 2.

26. Hugh Warwick and Gundula Meziani (Azeez), September 2002, Seeds of Doubt: North American farmers' experiences of GM crops, Soil Association report, pp. 47-52.

27. Associated Press, 16 November 2000.

28. Reuters, 28 August 2006.

29. ibid.

30. Cornell University, 25 July 2006, "Bt Cotton in China Fails to Reap Profit After Seven Years", http://www.newswise.com/articles/view/522147/#imagetop.

31. Teresa Anderson, 28 October 2005, "Lessons for Africa in India's Bt cotton failure", http://www.gmwatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=5884.

AgBioIndia Bulletin, 9 June 2003, "Bt cotton -- A harvest of anger".

32. Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 1 February 2002, "Farm-Scale Evaluations of Genetically Modified Crops: Answers to some frequently asked questions".

33. See, for example, the Government's GM Science Review, 2003.