Article by Eva Novotny, 16 March 2004
Margaret Beckett, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has announced approval by the Government for the commercial growing of the GM fodder maize Chardon LL in the United Kingdom. Yet the GM Science Review and the Economics Review identified as many uncertainties and risks as possible benefits, while the public debate ‘GM Nation?’ and a MORI poll both showed that many more people oppose eating GM food than favour it. The only basis for approval seems to be that the Farm-Scale Evaluations (FSEs) showed a positive outcome for GM maize, in that the chemical management of that crop was less damaging to wildlife than that of the non-GM crop.
The FSEs for maize, however, were invalid. The lesser damage to wildlife resulted from the spraying of the non-GM maize with the herbicide atrazine, which is so toxic that it has recently been banned by the EU, although the ban is not yet in force.. To compensate partly for this complication in the assessment, resort has been made to the older National List Trials; but at least some of those trials used atrazine on the maize. Comparison with the National List Trials suggests a lower benefit for wildlife than that apparent in the FSEs.
A future problem is already on the horizon, and this is the experience over several years of growing this variety in the United States. It is found that, after the first few years, the intended herbicide Liberty used on the GM maize can no control weeds; and atrazine is now being added to Liberty in the United States.
Another problem is that the distinguishing feature of the GM maize is the insertion of a gene to induce tolerance of the herbicide Liberty, based on glufosinate; but this herbicide has not, to date, been granted consent for commercial agriculture. Glufosinate is known to cause birth defects in mammals1 and is harmful to marine life.2 An Emeritus Professor of Medicinal Chemistry has warned that ‘far-reaching and long-term consequences’ would result from the interaction of glufosinate in the human body.3
New varieties of seeds are legally required to show Value for Cultivation and Use. Yet the FSEs demonstrated that, under the cultivation procedures used in those trials, the yield of the GM maize was markedly lower than that of the conventional maize. This was not officially recorded because of the extremely narrow remit of the trials — hence it has apparently been ignored. Another fact not officially recorded and apparently ignored is that its late-maturing characteristic makes it unsuitable for growing in most parts of the United Kingdom. A farmer who grew it in the FSEs for three years said that it never ripened and that “It will only ripen here one year in ten”.4
Cross-contamination of non-GM varieties, by various means, is certain to occur. Theoretical predictions of how far maize pollen can be carried by the wind must be regarded as highly uncertain.5 Recently, it has come to light6 that three farmers in the United States found their maize contaminated by pollen from a rare blue variety planted on a farm as far as three miles away, in a direction crossways to the direction of the prevailing wind; yet the largest recommended separation distance is 200 m. An American seed company requires that its seed growers must not lie within five miles of any GM maize field.7 Conventional maize and organic maize in this country would therefore be under threat. Even gardeners who delight in home-grown maize would have to check whether GM maize is growing within several miles of their land.
The results of one more study should be seen before a decision is made to approve this forage maize. In 2002, the developer of the GM maize seed (Aventis/Bayer CropScience) announced that, in response to reports of animals refusing to eat GM crops or of losing weight if offered no choice, a feeding study on cattle was being undertaken. Only a one-page brief about this study is now available, prior to peer review. This brief does not mention whether the willingness of cows to eat GM maize has been tested, or whether they maintain their weight if they do eat it. The study concludes that ‘nutritional value’ and the yield and composition of milk are comparable for the GM and non-GM silage. Even favourable results in this experiment, however, do not obviate the need for more research to assess the long-term effects of GM crops and foods. It is known that these may take years, and even generations, to become apparent.8
The recent statement from the British Medical Association9 is not as supportive of GM crops and foods as was suggested by media reports. The statement declares that ‘…the evidence for real benefit [of GM crops] is not yet sufficiently persuasive to grow GM crops at the expense of conventionally derived alternatives that can be grown at least as effectively’ and concludes that the BMA ‘does not feel that the argument has yet been made to allow widespread commercial planting of GM crops in this country.’ Additional extracts are presented on a separate page.
An economic aspect to consider is that the technology is very expensive and is absorbing large amounts of public money on research and monitoring. Case-by-case assessment for approval of each new crop has been recommended. After approval is granted, even more funds will be needed if the recommended post-surveillance monitoring is carried out to see whether there are any adverse effects on human health or the environment. If there prove to be such, as many fear, further public funds will doubtless be used in the attempt to counter those effects and their legal consequences.
Legal consequences have not yet been dealt with by the government. As yet there is no law to assign liability for damage caused by GM crops. Margaret Beckett said that such laws need to be in place before the GM maize can be planted next year. The GM companies, however, have always refused to accept responsibility for harm resulting from their products, and it would appear overly optimistic to suppose that they will not exert extreme pressure to prevent the Government from enacting any meaningful legislation. Insurance companies have refused to insure farmers against GM contamination. In the United States, farmers whose fields have been contaminated with spurious GM plants have been heavily fined for breach of GM licensing regulations. This fact has caused many American farmers to continue planting GM crops year after year in spite of their lower yields and increased chemical use, in order to avoid the greater financial loss of being sued. For consumers, there will be no possibility of exercising the choice the Government has promised, of being able to avoid GM-derived food: products from animals given GM feed will not have to be labelled
With all this evidence in hand, but with the World Trade Organisation (at the instigation of the United States) threatening the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe over the GM moratorium, and with the powerful GM corporations exerting their influence, the Cabinet sub-committee on biotechnology met on 10 February to discuss the issue of approval of GM crops. It was chaired, not by the Chief Scientific Advisor, who sat on the sub-committee and who also led the GM Science Review Panel, but by the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw. This is one more clue that the Government has sacrificed science, economics and the will of the people for political reasons.
Dr Eva Novotny is SGR's Co-ordinator for GM Issues
1 Prof Joe Cummins of the University of Western Ontario, in an article sent in April 2000 to the Institute of Science in Society (ISIS), citing the following references: Fujii, T and T. Ohata, 1994, J. Toxicol Sci., 19, 328; EPA/OTS : DOC #88-920003678; Watanabe, T. and T. Iwase, 1996, Terat. Carcinog. Mutagen., 287, 1996; Watanabe, T., 1997, Neurosci. Lett., 222, 17; Watanabe, T., 1995, Teratology, 4, 25B.
2 U.S. EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), 1990, HOE 039866 Technical. Data Evaluation Record, cited in Cox, 1996, op cit., Estuarine invertebrate toxicity test; U.S. EPA, 1986, Data Evaluation Record, cited in Cox, 1996, op. cit., Aquatic invertebrate acute toxicity. Soluble concentrate 200g/l. Also: Friends of the Earth Briefing Sheet by Emily Diamand, Genetically Engineered Oilseed Rape, Nov. 1997.
8 .Soil Association, Organic farming, food quality and human health, 2001, p. 3.