Winners and Losers in the GM Debate

Presentation given by Dr Eva Novotny at a GM briefing at the London Assembly, 19 January 2004
 

Introduction

As individuals, we shall all be either winners or losers, and some of us might be a mixture of both. But we can also ask what the future portends for various groups of people:

  • Consumers
  • Farmers
  • Scientists who do research on genetic engineering
  • The Government
  • GM seed companies and their shareholders

We shall examine the prospects of each of these, dwelling on the first two (consumers and farmers) but touching only briefly on the others.

Consumers

Health is a prime consideration

If genetic modification of our food can improve our health, we shall certainly be winners on this score.

Let us begin with nourishment. The fundamental basis of our health is the basic building blocks we supply to our bodies for maintenance and repair. These must be derived from our food. There is at present no GM food that has an advantage in terms of health over conventionally produced food, i.e., food produced with the use of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides. Plans for a ‘Golden Rice’ containing elevated content of Vitamin A seem to have dwindled away Even if it is developed, an adequate amount of vitamin A could be obtained only by eating 9 kilogrammes per day of the cooked rice.1 A GM ‘Protato’, with a one-third increase in protein content, has come into the news.2 Yet it hardly seems worth the trouble of creating a new variety to boost protein content of a potato by about 1 gm, a negligible contribution to the daily requirement. Genetic engineering is not the only answer to producing new varieties with dramatic performance For example, Uganda has used traditional breeding to produce, in a few years on a small budget, a virus-resistant sweet potato that increases yields by 100%. The virus is one that was said to be ‘a problem that cannot be solved through conventional breeding.3 A non-GM rice containing elevated levels of vitamin A, zinc and iron has recently been developed by traditional breeding methods in the Philippines.4

A crucial factor in determining the amount of minerals available in a food plant is how much of the minerals are contained in the soil in which they are grown. Chemical farming, whether conventional or GM, continually takes out a wide range of minerals from the soil, but puts back only a small number like potassium, nitrogen and phosphorus. This ‘mining’ leads to progressive deficiency of minerals supplied in the diet. The degradation of minerals in the soil, during the lifetimes of many of us, has been dramatic. During the 51 years between 1940 and 1991, the amounts of calcium, magnesium, iron and copper in our vegetables, fruits and meats declined by as much as 75% or even 96%.5 GM crops cannot restore these elements; they must come from the soil. Levels of vitamins A and C have also declined dramatically.6 Wheat has lost much of its protein since 1900.7

Medical researchers found that ‘exposure to herbicides and fungicides resulted in significantly increased risks for NHL’ i.e., non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer. They also said that ‘glyphosate deserves epidemiological studies’.8, 9 Glyphosate is the principal ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide. Glyphosate was used in the Farm Scale Evaluations of sugar beet.10, 11

Is something wrong with GM food?12

Many anecdotes come from farmers in America, telling how their conventional or organic crops were eaten up by wild animals, while a GM variety growing nearby remained untouched; or how domestic animals refused GM rations and lost weight if forced to eat them.13 Given the sensitive instincts that animals often display, these incidents should be a cause for worry. The government’s advisors assure us that GM foods are safe — but at the same time some of them advise that, if GM crops are produced here, the health of the population should be monitored, especially the health of vulnerable groups like young children.14 This advice should be heeded. ‘Research in animal feeding trials has indicated that health effects often only reveal themselves over long time spans, sometimes even over successive generations.’15

Consumers reject GM foods

A few years ago, supermarkets yielded to public pressure and eliminated GM foods at least from their own brands. Increasingly, even the indirect consumption through animal products, resulting from giving GM feed to animals, is being reversed at the behest of consumers. In last summer’s public debate16, 86% of respondents said they were unhappy with the idea of eating GM food and only 2% were happy to eat GM food in all circumstances. Moreover, 93% said that too little is known about the effects of GM foods on health.17 Some regions in Europe and at least 10 in the United Kingdom have already made it clear that they wish to remain GM-free.18

The verdict

If GM crops are approved by Ministers, consumers will be losers.

Farmers

The current GM crops were designed to appeal to farmers

Most GM crops available today have been designed either to withstand the seed company’s own-brand herbicide or to produce a toxin within the plant that will make it a self-contained pesticide.19 Thus it is farmers who stand to benefit from this technology. By reducing the destruction of crops by weeds and pests, the net yields of the crops should be greater. In practice, yields are often less20, and more herbicide is used.21 Another problem with GM crops is that weeds with resistance to the herbicide begin to flourish.22 Resistance to two or more herbicides occurs simultaneously in some weeds, causing much difficulty for farmers.23

Other problems arise.24 Roundup has recently been banned in parts of Denmark because it was contaminating water supplies.25 Prices of fertilisers will rise as world supplies of the oil required to manufacture them dwindle. By contrast, there are a myriad ways in which natural, sustainable solutions have already been applied to increase crop production, sometimes by as much as two or three times.26

If GM maize is grown, the government has been advised that it be under the same regime used in the Farm-Scale Evaluations.27 However, a farmer who obeys this regulation and applies only a single dose of the herbicide is apt to find his maize field covered in an unacceptable level of weeds.28 Non-GM maize farmers have been using atrazine, which is even more damaging than the weedkiller (glufosinate) used on the GM plants.29 The use of several applications of this harsh chemical, which has just banned by the EU, on the non-GM crop is the reason why the GM crop in the trials proved more friendly to wildlife. Other GM crops in these trials proved less friendly, on the whole, to wildlife than the corresponding non-GM crops.30

A study of the GM experience in North America, based on the literature and on interviews with farmers, came to the following conclusion: ‘The evidence we set out suggests that, in reality, virtually every benefit claimed for GM crops has not occurred. Instead, farmers are reporting lower yields, continuing dependency on herbicides and pesticides, loss of access to markets and, critically, reduced profitability … 31

GM crops are costly and farmers are liable

Even when GM crops are successful, the farmer pays dearly for them. They must pay a special technology fee and must buy the appropriate chemicals. GM seeds are expensive, and farmers must sign a contract32 that prevents them from saving seeds for re-planting. The contract also makes them liable to pay damages for breach of property rights if GM plants are found growing on their land in a subsequent year, if the license fee has not been paid.33 It makes no difference how the plants came to be there. Some American farmers have had to pay crippling penalties when GM plants grew from seeds that fell to earth in a previous year or when GM pollen blew in from another farm.34 Farmers fear such financial losses and may therefore continue to grow GM crops.35 Sometimes they have no choice, because the large biotechnology companies have caused non-GM seeds to be withdrawn from the market.36

GM crops contaminate other crops

Contamination of non-GM crops by GM counterparts is inevitable, as the government has admitted. GM pollen can travel over large distances.37 It is distributed by wind, insects and farm machinery. Organic farmers will be at risk of losing their certification, as has happened to many in America.38

Farmers have responsibility for wild plants and animals

Farmers are expected to be custodians of the countryside. With chemical agriculture, however, wildlife has been in severe decline for several decades The abundance and diversity of wildlife on organic farms have been demonstrated to be much greater than on conventional farms. Ironically, the one species that was more numerous on conventional farms was aphids.39

In a recent study in Britain, pollen from conventional oilseed rape was found 26 km from the pollen donor. This hybridisation was found to be more widespread and more frequent had been than expected.40 Superweeds with GM genes, some with resistance to more than one herbicide simultaneously, have already emerged. They have become a major nuisance in Canada.41 Pests are also developing resistance to pesticide.42

Soil organisms and soil fertility are at risk

Although organisms in the soil are out of sight and many are invisible to the eye, they are nevertheless vital to plants. It is only they that have the capability of breaking down organic matter so as to become available to feed plants. Little research has been done so far on the effects of GM plants on the soil, but it is now known that ‘Pest resistant GM (Bt) crops are exuding pesticides at unpredicted levels … producing 10-20 times the amount of toxins of conventional pesticides and leaching toxins into the soil, with negative effects on insect larvae.43 A review paper on the effects of GM plants on soil organisms concluded that ‘The frequency of reports of detectable changes in soil biota is perhaps somewhat unexpected, given that research into this area has only recently begun. The long-term implications of these changes in soil must be assessed.’44 A report by nine experts on soil ecology and related subjects has warned that GM genes leaking out of crops into soil micro-organisms and transferred directly (‘horizontally’) into different species of micro-organisms may result in altered behaviour that could reduce soil fertility. In the worst case, there could be irreparable, cumulative damage to soil fertility, with the GM genes spreading uncontrollably over vast areas.45

The verdict

If GM crops are approved, some farmers could expect to be lucky in some seasons; but, on the whole, farmers and the environment, as well, would be losers.

Scientists who do research on GM

If Ministers reject GM crops, scientists who are engaged in developing new GM plants might find it difficult to secure funding in the United Kingdom for the development of further GM plants. However, they could re-direct their skills to genomics applying genetic tests to samples of new plants developed by traditional breeding methods and not involving the invasion of DNA with foreign genes.

Pure research along the current, invasive lines could be permitted only within sealed and closely monitored laboratories.

The Government

The Government, while claiming to be neutral, has seen to it that the Minister for Science and Innovation is an ardent supporter of genetic engineering, Lord Sainsbury46. He undoubtedly retains his financial investments in this sphere, although these are in a blind trust. He also oversees the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, which awards research grants. The government provides generous funding for biotechnology.47 Advisory bodies tend to be weighted with pro-GM members. Scientists who urge caution over GM have sometimes been obliged to resign or have been threatened.48 It would be a difficult decision for the Government to disallow GM crops to be grown here. They would be losers in their own eyes; but the nation as a whole would win.

GM-seed companies and their shareholders

It is hard to say whether GM companies would be winners or losers if GM crops were adopted in Britain. The obvious answer would be ‘winners’; but we already see that consumers have roundly rejected their offerings49, GM farmers elsewhere have lost their markets50 and farmers in this country are likely to be cautious about buying the seeds. The economics review commissioned by the Government last summer confirmed that there is now little market for GM crops.51 An investment company has warned against putting money into this type of fund,52 and the companies themselves are already withdrawing some of their enterprises from Europe.53 Ultimately, the GM companies might do best to cut their losses and begin producing something their potential customers will actually want.

Conclusion

In conclusion, we should ask why we would want to introduce GM technology into our food. The introduction and usage of GM technology is being driven not by any need for such plants but by the eagerness for large profits by powerful companies. The hazards are tremendous.54 How could any government hope to cope with and eradicate life forms that are regenerating themselves throughout the farms, throughout the countryside and throughout the soils? Will the GM companies come back and offer us yet more clever technological solutions to counter the effects? There is so much we do not yet understand about the complex interactions of the natural world: inside DNA, inside our bodies and amongst all the biological and physical elements of the environment. Why has Nature herself never performed the experiment of crossing species? Or has she, and found it to be a failure? How can Man, who has been manipulating genes for only a few decades, presume to be more clever than Nature, with the experience of 3 billion years? If any of the foreseen potential hazards become reality, we shall have brought upon ourselves a just punishment for our arrogance towards the natural world. What unforeseen consequences lie ahead may be even worse. Once we allow genetic engineering into this land, it may be impossible to turn back. There is no desperate urgency to introduce these crops now. But once they are here, it may not be possible to turn back from the consequences of genetic engineering. Let us be reminded of the warning of the poet Omar Khayyam:55

‘The Moving Finger writes; and having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.’

Notes:

[The reference list below is not intended to be complete. Web links correct as of January 2004]

1 Paul Brown, 10 February 2001, The Guardian.

2 The Hindu, 14 June 2003

3 (1) Aaron deGrassi, June 2003, Third World Network, ‘Genetically Modified Crops and Sustainable Poverty Alleviation in Sub-Saharan Africa’, pp. ii, 16. Also quoted in Science in Society, autumn/winter 2003, issue 20, p. 13 (2) http://www.gmwatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=1429.

5 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.

6 What Doctors Don’t Tell You, 2002, vol. 13, No. 9, p. 4

7 ibid.,, p. 3

9 For an in-depth document on glyphosate, see David Buffin and Topsy Jewell, Health and environmental impacts of glyphosate, July 2003; available at http://www.foe.co.uk. Search for ‘glyphosate’.

10 ACRE (Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment), 13 January 2004, ‘Advice on the implications of the farm-scale evaluations of genetically modified herbicide-tolerant crops’ , available at http://www.defra.gov.uk/environment/gm/index.htm

11 For a discussion of both glyphosate and glufosinate, see Mae-Wan Ho and Lim Li Ching, Independent Science Panel, 15 June 2003, The Case for a GM-Free Sustainable World, pp .27-30.

12 Harm to the internal organs of rats fed GM potatoes has been discussed at this Briefing by Dr Arpad Pusztai and Dr Mae-Wan Ho. Chickens fed GM maize and rats fed GM protein indicated a difference in patterns of weight gain and food consumption, when groups of the animals were compared with similar groups given a non-GM diet (E. Novotny, 2002, Chardon LL Hearing Report I, at http://www.sgr.org.uk) Human beings fed a GM meal had GM DNA transferred to their gut bacteria; but the consequences of this are not known. (T. Netherwood, S.M. Martin-Orue, A.G. O’Donnell, S. Gockling , H.J. Gilbert and J.C. Mathers, Transgenes in genetically modified Soya survive passage through the small bowel but are completely degraded in the colon. Technical report on the Food Standards Agency project G010008 “Evaluating the risks associated with using GMOs in human foods”- University of Newcastle, available at http://www.FoodStandards.gov.uk. Search for ‘human gut’. See comments on this study by Dr Mae-Wan Ho, 21 July 2002, ‘GM DNA in Human Gut Underestimated’ at http://www.i-sis.org.uk. Search for ‘human gut’.

13 American journalist Steven Sprinkel wrote an article with the above title in an ACRES, USA Special Report dated 19 September, 1999; available at http://www.btinternet.com/~nlpwessex . Search for ‘Sprinkel’.

14 Royal Society Policy Document 4/02, February 2002, Genetically modified plants for food use and human health — an update, available at http://www.royalsoc.ac.uk.

15 (1) Soil Association, Organic farming, food quality and human health, 2001, p. 3

(2) Cancer is a disease that may require years to develop.

16 GM Nation?, 2003, Report at http://www.aebc.gov.uk/reports/gm_nation_report_final.pdf

17 Such distrust is well founded. For example,

(1) Mae-Wan Ho and Lim Li Ching, Independent Science Panel, 15 June 2003, The Case for a GM-Free Sustainable World, Part 2.

(2) Prof Masaharu Kawata has written about the flaws in Monsanto’s safety assessment of its GM soya beans. See http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?recid=2215

(3) See note 12.

18 Regions in the United Kingdom that wish to be GM-free include Devon, Dorset, Lancashire, Cornwall, Warwickshire, South Gloucestershire, Shropshire, Cumbria, Somerset and the Lake District National Park.

19 The herbicides commonly used are based on either glyphosate or glufosinate (i.e., glufosinate ammonium). These are applied to the GM crops, which have been genetically engineered to withstand the herbicide. However, the pesticide in ‘Bt’ crops is manufactured within the plants, which are genetically engineered to produce the toxin that originates in Bacillus thuringiensis.

20 (1) R.W. Elmore et al., 2001, Agronomy Journal, 93, 408-412.

(2) Dr Charles Benbrook, Ag BioTech InfoNet Technical Paper, Number 1, 13 July 1999, p. 1; available at http://www.biotech-info.net/troubledtimes.html, this is the original paper These results were confirmed for 1999 and 2000, published in May 2001, and consist of Parts I-III, Appendix 1, References and Further Information, which are also found on this web site.

(3) Soil Association, September 2002, Seeds of Doubt: North American farmers’ experiences of GM crops, pp. 11-12.

21 (1) Dr Charles Benbrook, October 2001, Pesticide Outlook; available at http://www.researchinformation.co.uk/pest.php.

(2) See note 20 (2).

(3) Dr Charles Benbrook, Ag BioTech InfoNet Technical Paper, Number 6, 2003; available at http://www.biotech-info.net/technicalpapers6.html

(4) Soil Association, September 2002, Seeds of Doubt: North American farmers’ experiences of GM crops, pp. 15-16.

22 (1) Andrew Pollack, 14 January 2003, New York Times, available at http://www.mindfully.org/GE/2003/Roundup-Losing14jan03.htm

(2) Soil Association, September 2002, Seeds of Doubt: North American farmers’ experiences of GM crops, pp. 16-17.

23 ‘Volunteers’of GM oilseed rape, which grow from the fallen seeds of a previous crop, have become an important weed in Canada. Henry A. Wallace Center for Agricultural and Environmental Policy, November 2000, Transgenic Crops: An Environmental Assessment; referenced in Soil Association, September 2002, Seeds of Doubt: North American farmers’ experiences of GM crops, pp. 22.

24 David Buffin and Topsy Jewell, Health and environmental impacts of glyphosate, July 2003; available at http://www.foe.co.uk. Search for ‘glyphosate’.

25 http://www.gmwatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=1424

26 (1) Mae-Wan Ho and Lim Li Ching, Independent Science Panel, 15 June 2003, The Case for a GM-Free Sustainable World, pp. 57-59.

(2) George Monbiot, The Guardian, 24 Aug. 2000, ‘Organic Farming Will Feed the World’. Reproduced with references added by the author at http://www.psrast.org/orgfarmmonbiot.htm . Referring to Jules Pretty, ‘Feeding the world?’, Splice, the magazine of the Genetics Forum, August/September 1998, vol. 4, issue 6.

27 Advice of ACRE (Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment), 13 January 2004; available at http://www.defra.gov.uk/environment/gm/index.htm.

28 Soil Association’s evidence on the Farm-Scale Evaluations of GM crops; available at http://www.SoilAssociation.org. Search for ‘Farm scale evaluations’.

29 ibid., p. 9.

30 The results of the Farm-Scale Evaluations are reported at http://www.defra.gov.uk/environment/gm/fse/index.htm.

31 (1) Soil Association, Seeds of Doubt: North American farmers’ experiences of GM crops,, September 2002, p. 3

(2) See note 35.

32 (1) Western Morning News, 9 August 2003, ‘GM crop farmers “will end up serfs”’, http://www.WesternMorningNews.co.uk.

(2) Soil Association, Seeds of Doubt: North American farmers’ experiences of GM crops,, September 2002, pp. 47, 51, 53.

33 (1) Soil Association, Seeds of Doubt: North American farmers’ experiences of GM crops, September 2002, pp. 47-54. (2) Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, 4 December 2001, press release at http://www.connectotel.com/gmfood/ia041201.txt.

34 The most famous case is that of Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser, who was sued by Monsanto but who is fighting his case:

(1) Soil Association, Seeds of Doubt: North American farmers’ experiences of GM crops, September 2002, p. 48.

(2) ‘Monsanto’s lawyers rebuffed in Schmeiser case’, 21 January 2004, at http://www.GeneWatch.org.

35 (1) Soil Association, Seeds of Doubt: North American farmers’ experiences of GM crops, September 2002, p. 58-59.

(2) Michael Hart, a British farmer and Chairman of the Small and Family Farmers Alliance, visited the United States in 2002 to meet farmers. All whom he met were dissatisfied with GM crops, which needed more chemicals and, at best, only equaled the yields of non-GM varieties. They feared to discontinue growing GM crops because of the danger of being fined in subsequent years. See http://www.ruralfutures.org Click on ‘reports’, find title ‘Food and farming’, then ‘Michael Hart meets US farmers’.

36 See note 35 (1).

37 (1) Pollen from oilseed rape has been carried over at least 26 km: Gavin Ramsay, Caroline Thompson and Geoff Squire [Scottish Crop Research Institute], 2003, Final report of DEFRA Project RG0216: ‘An experimental and mathematical study of the local and regional scale movement of an oilseed rape transgene’, p. 4. (2) Maize was found to be contaminated at a distance of 650 m from GM maize: Christine Henry, Derek Morgan, Rebecca Weekes, Roger Daniels and Caroline Boffey, September 2003, Farm scale evaluations of GM crops: monitoring gene flow from GM crops to non-GM equivalent crops in the vicinity (contract reference EPG 1/5/138, Part I: Forage Maize, p. 10; available at http://www.defra.gov.uk/environment/gm/research

38 Soil Association, Seeds of Doubt: North American farmers’ experiences of GM crops, September 2002, pp. 52, 53, 55.

39 Soil Association, 2003, The Biodiversity Benefits of Organic Farming, p. 3.

40 M. Wilkinson, 2003, DEFRA Project RG0216. A summary may be found at http://www.news.independent.co.uk/uk/environment/story.jsp?story=451733

41 (1) English Nature Research Reports, no. 443, January 2002.

(2) Soil Association, Seeds of Doubt: North American farmers’ experiences of GM crops, September 2002, p. 24.

(3) Weeds with some natural tolerance to herbicide begin to replace non-tolerant ones: see Soil Association, Seeds of Doubt: North American farmers’ experiences of GM crops, September 2002, pp. 16-17.

42 Lim Li Ching, April 2003, ISIS Report, ‘Environmental and Health Impacts of Bt Crops’, at http://www.i-sis.org.uk.

43 Soil Association, The Biodiversity Benefits of Organic Farming, May 2000, p. 34

44 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; http://www.hortnet.co.nz

45 http://www.psrast.org/soilecolart.htm, ‘Genetically Engineered Crops — A Threat to Soil Fertility?’, April 2001; summary at http://www.psrast.org/soilfertfact.htm

46 George Monbiot, 2000, Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain, Nacmillan, London, pp. 270-274.

47 ibid., pp. 272, 275.

48 Professor Carlo Leifert and Dr Andrew Stirling, both on the Science Review Panel, are recent cases. Mark Townsend, 24 August 2003, The Observer.

49 GM Nation? debate, 2003, report at www.aebc.gov.uk/reports/gm_nation_report_find.pdf

50 The United States lost 99.4 % of the value of its exports of maize to Europe between 1996 and 2001. Canada lost almost totally the value of its exports of oilseed rape to Europe between 1996 and 1998. Soil Association, Seeds of Doubt: North American farmers’ experiences of GM crops, September 2002, pp. 43-45.

51 Report of the Strategy Unit, 2003, available at www.number10.gov.uk/output/page4127.asp

52 Innovest Strategic Value Advisors warned that Monsanto is a poor investment. See http://www.scoop.co.nz/mason/stories/BU0304/500204.htm

53 Paul Brown, 30 April 2003, The Guardian.

54 Other speakers at this Briefing have also discussed various hazards. The presentations are available at http://www.indsp.org.

55 Omar Khayyam of Naishapur, Rubaiyat, translated by Edward Fitzgerald