GM crops are unsound and unsafe; the biotech corporations are still making
promises that they cannot keep while their real aim is to tighten their stranglehold
on seeds to starve the world. Prof.
Announcing a new Report from ISIS. The most complete up-to-date summary of the dangers of GM agriculture in 52 pages. Buy Now, or download here
agriculture is not the answer, neither is GM
the starting point, I think, has to be the recognition that the commercial
industrial technologies that are used in agriculture today to feed the world
are technologies that are not inherently sustainable and they have not worked
well to promote either self-sufficiency or food security in developing countries.”
Most people would be surprised to learn that these are the words of Robert
Shapiro, then the CEO of Monsanto :
And earlier : “Loss of topsoil, salinity of soil as a result of irrigation
and ultimate reliance on petrochemicals [which are] obviously not renewable.
That clearly isn’t sustainable.”
This is the sort of statements you’d expect to come from a campaigning group
rather than a big corporation. It’s a solid condemnation of the Green Revolution
and a warning that the current attempt to extend it to Africa is misguided. Of course Shapiro was pushing
what he saw as the alternative to industrial agriculture, namely genetically
modified organisms (GMOs) for crops and livestock.
In fact, the evidence shows that the answer lies neither in conventional industrial
agriculture nor in GMOs, but in organic agriculture. The 400 scientists who
contributed to the recent report of the International Assessment of Agricultural
Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) certainly did not see GM as
the answer to the food problem. On the contrary, they concluded it could have
at most a relatively minor role [3, 4] (“GM-Free Organic Agriculture to Feed the World”,
The truth about genetic engineering is that it has consistently failed to
deliver. It has not increased yields : for example, researchers at the
Universities of Kansas in the United States found that the yields of GM soya
were about 6 per cent lower than those of their nearest conventional relatives
, confirming results obtained since 2002  (GM
Crops Failed, SiS 13/14). It has not decreased the
amount of herbicides and pesticides used. Since Roundup Ready crops have been
widely grown in the USA, glyphosate application
on major crops has gone up by a factor of 15 . That has not been merely
a matter of farmers switching to Roundup (Monsanto’s proprietary formulation
of glyphosate); the application of other herbicides has also gone up. And
it has not increased the profits of farmers: for example, a study has shown
that farmers in the American state of Georgia who grew Bt cotton did not make
more money than those who did not [9, 10] (Transgenic Cotton Offers No Advantage,
SiS 38) and the mass suicides of cotton growers in India are all too
well known (see GM is Dangerous and Futile , SiS 40).
The only group that have gained from GM are the biotech companies.
The supporters of GM continue to make extravagant claims for what it can accomplish,
and you can easily be taken in if you do not look carefully at the evidence.
For example, in the abstract of a recent paper in Science  the
authors write: “Our data suggest that Bt cotton not onlycontrols
H. armigera on transgenic cotton designed to resistthis
pest but also may reduce its presence on other host cropsand may
decrease the need for insecticide sprays in general.”
The abstract is all you can read for free on the web, and it is what most
commentators are likely to quote, especially if they are supporters of GM.
In the full paper, however, the authors report that mirids, podsucking bugs
that used to be controlled by spraying and by competition with the bollworm,
have now become key pests of cotton in China. They conclude their paper
with the statement: “Therefore, despite its value, Bt cotton should be considered
only one component in the overall management of insect pests in the diversified
cropping systems common throughout China.” That’s not at all what you would infer
from the abstract.
Do they really believe what they say?
How far do
the biotech people themselves really believe the claims they make in public?
In their more thoughtful moments, some of them talk quite differently.
The Biotechnology Industry Organization’s (BIO) slogan for its annual meeting
held in San
in June was ‘Heal, fuel, feed the world.’
On no count is this equivocal or faltering or modest. Of course, perhaps
that should be expected of an industry lobby organization whose job it is
to proselytize the potential of its members’ technology and products. But
the problem is the slogan just isn’t very realistic.
“There are hundreds of thousands of acres of genetically modified (GM) crops
being grown around the world, but they are not at present addressing key agricultural
problems for poor farmers, such as salinity, desertification and drought.
Nor are they addressing problems such as malnutrition (although with Golden
Rice, they could).”
(Actually, Golden Rice
can’t contribute to the problem of malnutrition because it can’t supply anything
like the required amount of β-carotene and what there is won’t be converted
to vitamin A if you are undernourished  ('Golden Rice' - an exercise in hownot to do science, TWN/ISIS
publication), but let’s go on.)
And although biotech has addressed a few orphan diseases, produced new therapies
in infectious disease, cancer and autoimmune disorders, and recombinant versions
of biologics for diabetes and growth disorders, it hasn’t delivered on the promised
‘cures’ of genetic therapies or even the wide adoption of molecularly targeted
medicine. Certainly, it hasn’t done much to address disease and malnutrition
among the world’s poor.
“This journal champions biotech research, so we are not downbeat on its prospects
to, one day, generate products that will heal, fuel and feed the world. That
is, nevertheless, an outrageous act of faith bordering on the religious.”
All that from a committed supporter of GM!
What can GM do?
2008, the British government announced that it was going to change its policy
and allow GM crops to be grown in the UK. The then science minister, Ian Pearson, explained
that the world needs GM because “we can grow drought resistant crops”. (And
as we have just learned from environment editor Geoffrey Lean of the Independent
on Sunday , that was part of a secret plan instigated by the pro-GM
president of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso with the UK and 26 other European
governments to spread GM crops in Europe.)
Except that we can’t make drought resistant crops by GM. Even the editor of
Nature Biotechnology admits we can’t. What the minister should have
said was “The biotech companies have promised us that at some unspecified
time in the future they will produce drought resistant crops by some method
that they haven’t yet developed, and that is why in the present we are going
to allow them to grow Bt maize in the UK even though we don’t need it and
the consumers have made it abundantly clear that they don’t want it.”
There’s a gap in the logic there, and an even more important gap in the science.
In the first place, contrary to what is often stated, genes don’t make traits
like higher yields, drought-resistance, or being perennial instead of annual,
or even, make women want to marry older men and men want to marry younger
women . (No, I didn’t make the last one up. It’s one of the classic claims
of so-called evolutionary psychology). What genes do is to code for the production
of proteins. The traits we observe, what biologists call the phenotype, as
distinct from the genotype, arise through the complex interactions of these
gene products with other gene products and with the environment.
Secondly, while most people think of a gene as a piece of DNA, that is at
best a vast oversimplification. Not only do genes come in many separate pieces,
the pieces don’t even all have to be on the same chromosome. The same piece
of DNA can be part of two genes at the same time. And there are other complications
as well. The situation is so complicated that modern molecular biologists
define a gene by what it does rather than by what it is. 
(see also ).
Now in genetic engineering, what we do is to cut out or copy a piece of DNA
from one genome, or take an entirely synthetic piece of DNA, and insert that
into a DNA molecule in another genome. But whatever a gene is, it is not a
single stretch of DNA, so what is being transferred cannot be a gene. Add
on to this the fact that most traits are determined by more than one gene,
and there is little reason to suppose that genetic engineering can work at
all, save for the simplest characteristics, such as insect resistance or herbicide
tolerance, which is practically all we have now.
We certainly cannot just choose any trait we want and use genetic engineering
to make a crop that has it. Stan Cox has described how he and his colleagues
at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, are using the traditional techniques
of selection and hybridisation to produce perennial grain crops  (Ending 10 000 Years of Conflict between Agriculture and
Nature,SiS 39). This may strike you as a bit old
fashioned, and you may have wondered why they do not simply transfer the gene
for being perennial to the crop plant, or the gene for high yield to the perennial.
The answer, as Cox pointed out, is that there are no such genes. For example,
for sorghum, originally a tropical plant, to be perennial in a temperate climate
depends on genetic material on 9 of the plant’s 10 chromosome pairs. Transferring
such a trait by genetic engineering is clearly impossible.
So if we want perennial crop plants that yield as well as their annual counterparts,
it looks like we’re going to have do it by the sort of breeding that’s been
known for centuries. The same is true for most traits, including almost all
of those we would really like our crops to possess.
GM hazards to health
not lose sight of the fact that there are serious health hazards associated
with GM crops , which would be a reason for rejecting them even if they
performed better than conventional crops, and they do not.
The biotech industry is fond of saying there is no evidence that any humans
have been harmed by eating GM food. In the first place, that’s because they’ve
very carefully not looked for evidence and have ignored all the reports of
real incidents. They have also worded their usual statement very carefully
to make it sound much stronger than it is. Eating GM food is not the
only exposure that can be harmful, as in the Philippines and in India, where
villagers and farmers exposed to Bt maize pollen and Bt cotton suffer allergy-like
symptoms since 2005 [23, 24] (GM
Ban Long Overdue, SiS 29; More
Illnesses Linked to Bt Crops, SiS 30), and this
is continuing in India to the present day  (see Save Farmer Movement for
the latest news, http://www.kisanbachaoandolan.co.cc/).
There is ample evidence that animals have been harmed by GM feed in
laboratory experiments ; from the findings of Arpad Pusztai and colleagues
on rats fed GM potatoes, of Irina Ermakova on the offspring of rats fed GM
soya, of researchers at the CSIRO in Australia on mice exposed to transgenic
pea containing a gene from a bean, which you would have thought would be relatively
safe because the two plants are closely related, but the transgenic pea made
the mice seriously ill. Then farmers have witnessed cows in Germany that died
after being fed on Bt maize; and sheep, goats, cows and other livestock in
India that fall ill and died after grazing on Bt cotton crop residues or even
cotton seed cakes .
Whether humans have been harmed by actually eating GM food is hard to tell
because there is no labelling in countries like the USA where people are most
likely to be eating GM food (though most of it has probably gone into animal
feed after processing). Also, the effect may take time, just as the effects
of smoking and asbestos do.
We do know, however, that serious allergies are much more common now than
they used to be, and we also know that humans and animals can get allergic
reactions to GM food and pollen, which is not surprising as new molecules
are involved. That doesn’t prove GM was the cause, but there’s certainly no
justification for claiming that it wasn’t.
GM hazards to the environment
to what Shapiro claimed, GM crops are no better than conventional agriculture
in their effect on the environment, and in most cases worse: more pesticides
and herbicides used after just a few years , less biodiversity , secondary
pests explode as the targeted primary pest becomes diminished , or worse,
become resistant to the pesticide; and herbicide resistant superweeds .
Just like conventional crops only more so, GM crops degrade the soil because
of the heavy use of herbicides and pesticides and because of their reliance
on chemical fertilisers. They also contaminate other crops by of cross pollination
Contamination At 21 km and Farther. No Co-Existence Possible,
SiS 35) or
by horizontal gene transfer between unrelated species, especially via bacteria
in the soil  (Horizontal Gene Transfer from GMOs Does Happen,
The biotech industry and the regulators sometimes claim that a separation
of only a few metres between GM and conventional fields is enough to prevent
contamination. This is patently not the case, as confirmed by the most recent
large scale study carried out by scientists at the US Environment Protection
Agency, showing contamination at 21 km away . In large areas of Canada there is no longer any
GM-free canola .( Do
Not Let our Nightmare Become Yours, Warn Canadian Farmers, SiS 17};
resistance has also spread to weeds . So after a few years of whatever
gain there is from growing Roundup Ready crops, the farmer is likely to be
worse off than before. And it is not just the farmers who choose to plant
GM seed that will have the problem. All farmers will have to cope with
Monopoly on food
party that have profited from GM are the biotech companies. Some supporters
of GM will even admit to that, though they immediately go on to say that in
the future we will all gain, clearly a case of pie in the sky.
The reason biotech companies are so keen on GM crops is because they are patentable,
unlike ordinary crops. If you breed seeds by conventional methods, you can only
get “breeder’s rights”. Exactly what that entitles you to varies a bit from
country to country, but essentially it means that no one else can market seeds
of that variety until the rights expire. Farmers are, however, specifically
permitted to save seeds for their own use. In complete contrast, because GM
varieties can be patented, the biotech companies can and do prevent farmers
from saving the seeds, as Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser discovered. (Schmeiser's Battle for the Seed,
The big seed companies are buying up the smaller ones, and Monsanto has been
particularly aggressive in acquiring seed companies in recent years. It controls
more than 90 percent of the market in many important crop seeds, and Iowa attorney general Tom Miller
has been investigating the company to determine if it violates antitrust laws..
As the company controls more and more of the market, it makes non-GM seeds
harder and harder to get, and it won’t make any attempt to improve those that
remain. It is able to raise prices to whatever level it likes, and farmers
are already paying higher seed prices with less choice in the marketplace.
If nothing is done to combat this, every farmer in the world will have to
buy seeds every year from one of half a dozen or fewer corporations that will
thus have a complete stranglehold on the world’s food supply.
That’s bad enough in the USA, but in the third world,
where farmers are typically close to the margins, it is disastrous. If farmers
have to borrow money to buy seeds they stand to lose their farms if the harvest
is not what they were promised. Thousands of suicides in India have been blamed on GM
cotton. The only thing that saves them is to switch back to growing organic
with their traditional varieties  (Message
from Andra Pradesh:Return to organic cotton & avoid the Bt cotton trap,
SiS 29), the seeds of which they can save from year to year and get
a bumper harvest without fertilizers and pesticides to get them into a cycle
is clear: industrial agriculture is out; GM agriculture is worse and unsafe.
Organic agriculture, on the other hand, can feed the world, and feed
it well, as Catherine Badgley and colleagues in the University of Michigan
have shown by a careful analysis of data already published , and as many
other studies have confirmed in ISIS’ own report  (Food
Futures Now *Organic *Sustainable *Fossil Fuel Free). Especially relevant is the project carried
out by Sue
Edwards and colleagues at the Ethiopian Institute of Sustainable Development
in Tigray over a period of seven years, documenting how compost produced yields
30 per cent greater than chemical fertilisers. (Not surprisingly, crops treated
with chemical fertiliser did better than those that were not treated at all,
so if this had been a Green Revolution project it would be claimed as a great
triumph for chemicals.)
A couple of years ago, some ordinary rice in the USA became contaminated with GM rice that was being
trialled. This was not picked up by the Americans, which shows how feeble
their testing is, but was noticed in Europe. The authorities were slow to act, the UK worst of all  (GM Rice Contamination How Regulators Tried to Sidestep
the Law, SiS 32), but the consumers would not tolerate it.
You can see just how strongly they objected from a packet of rice found in
a London greengrocer. The original
label described the contents as “American Long Grain Rice”, but this apparently
referred to the variety of rice, not its origin. So the distributor had covered
it with a new label, informing the consumer that this was “Long Grain (Non
USA Origin): Please Ignore All References to the USA”.
Can GM be stopped? Yes, it can, if consumers refuse to buy it and if farmers
refuse to grow it. That little package of rice reminds you what can happen
when consumers will not buy something they don’t trust and don’t want. And
if consumers don’t want to buy GM, farmers have even less reason to grow it.
Among the strongest critics of the lax US regulation and quality control that allowed contaminated
rice to be exported were American rice farmers who saw their overseas markets
And when governments and industry give up devoting so much time, effort and
resource to what even the IAASTD considers to be a side issue as far as feeding
the world is concerned, we will be able to concentrate on measures that will
really make a difference.
is based on lectures delivered at the International Conference on Climate
Change, GMOs and Food Security, held on 1-2 October, 2008, in New Delhi. India, and the Forum on Genetically
Modified Organisms: “Have GMOs Delivered?” held on 16
October 2008 in Manila, Philippines.
5. FAO The State of Food
and Agriculture, 2003-4, .http://www.fao.org/es/esa/en/pubs_sofa.htm
6. Gordon, B. Manganese resistance
of glyphosphate resistant and conventional soybeans. Better Crops with
Plant Food No. 4, 2007. See <http://www.ipni.net/ppiweb/bcrops.nsf/$webindex/70ABDB50A75463F085257394001B157F/$file/07-4p12.pdf>
8. Who benefits from gm crops?
The rise in pesticide use, executive summary, Friends of the Earth International,
Amsterdam, January 2008.
9. Jost P, Shurley D, Culpepper
S, Roberts P, Nichols R, Reeves J and Anthony S. Economic Comparison of transgenic
and montransgenic cotton production systems in Georgia. Agronomy Journal
2008, 100, 42-51. (doi:10.2134/agronj2006.0259)
20. Buss DM. . Mate preference
mechanisms: Consequences for partner choice and intrasexual competition. In
The Adapted Mind. (Barkow, JH, Cosmides, L & Tooby J, eds). pp
249-266, Oxford University Press, New York. 1992.
21. See, for example, Darnell,
J, Lodish, H and Baltimore, D. Molecular Cell Biology. Scientific American Books,
1986. This text is over 20 years old, so the realisation that the gene is
not a simple piece of DNA came long before the big push into genetic engineering
that depends on the assumption that it is.
22. Cox S. Ending 10 000 years
of conflict between agriculture and nature. Science
in Society 39, 12-15, 2008.
23. Ho MW. GM ban long overdue.
Dozens ill & five deaths in the Philippines. Science
in Society 29, 26-27, 2006.
32. Badgley C, Moghader, J,
Quintero, E, Zakem, E, Chappell MJ, Aviles-Vásquez K, Samulon A and Perfecto,
I. Organic agriculture and the global food supply. Renewable Agriculture
and Food Systems 22 (2007) 86-108.
33. Ho MW. Burcher S. Ching
LL. & others. Food Futures Now Organic and Fossil Fuel Free ISIS/TWN,
34. Saunders PT. GM rice contamination:
How regulators tried to sidestep the law. Science
in Society 32, 4-5, 2006.