Science in Society Archive

Good-Bye GMOs

Forcing GM food aid on famine-stricken southern Africa is a sheer act of desperation. Behind the aggressive stance and rhetoric, the biotech corporate empire is crumbling. It is morally, scientifically and financially bankrupt. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho reviews.

For a much longer and fully referenced version of this article, see "The biotech debacle in four parts", ISIS Members website.

Market plummets, mass layoffs and investment dries up

Biotech shares have fallen below the languishing Dow Jones index for months now, and show no signs of recovering. More than 1 500 have been laid off from the genomics sector since the industry peaked in the fall of 2000. Most companies are still reporting double-digit losses and profitability remains years away. Venture capital has dried to a tenth of what it was in 2000.

Monsanto is teetering on the brink of collapse as one company after another has spun off agbiotech and cut investments in research and development completely to concentrate on biomedical applications.

Third World governments have been seduced into investing heavily in biotech as the downward slide in Europe and the United States has begun. Singapore is caught without matching private venture capitol.

Mounting evidence of hazards

The latest to hit the headlines is the finding that GM DNA of soya flour eaten in hamburger and milk-shake, found its way to bacteria in the human gut, a possibility that the pro-biotech scientists have been denying for years. Other predicted hazards have also been confirmed. Multi-herbicide tolerant volunteers have rapidly evolved from GM canola in US and Canada. Superweeds, in the form of Roundup-tolerant marestails, are now plaguing GM soya and cotton fields in the US. Both established commercial seed stocks and indigenous varieties are now contaminated by GM, with serious consequences for agricultural biodiversity.

The biomedical sector has been hard hit with increasing evidence that the hazards associated with gene drugs may be generic. Eprex, made by Johnson & Johnson and sold only outside the United States, is widely believed to be responsible for 141 cases of red cell aplasia, in which the body is unable to produce red blood cells, making some patients dependent on transfusions to survive. The body treats those proteins as foreign and mount immune reactions against them, probably because they have been made in GM bacteria and do not have the correct processing or folding.

In the case of Eprex, a hormone boosting the body to make red blood cells, the body’s own hormone is also destroyed.

Another problem is gene drugs is quality control, which is impossible, as biological organisms cannot be standardised and controlled in the way that chemical synthesis can be.

World-wide rejection of GM crops

Long before the high-profile rejection of GM food aid by Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, citizens of many other countries especially the UK, have been fighting to prevent field trials of GM crops. UK food manufacturers have joined consumers in rejecting GM ingredients.

In August, the State Government of Karnataka in India has decided not to allow Bt-cotton to be grown as a commercial crop, till experts come up with a report on the adverse effects of the crop. It was fully vindicated when at the end of the month, 100% failures of bt-cotton was reported in Madhya Pradesh in central India, and by September, 70% losses reported in the neighbouring state of Maharashtra (see "Massive failures of Bt-cotton in India", this series).

A landmark agreement in Australia in May 2002 allowed the commonwealth to establish GM-free zones, Tasmania was the first to declare itself GM-free and other Australian states are set to follow.

New Zealand’s new government is adopting a tough stance in banning all GM imports. It has forced Australian seed giant Pacific Seeds to incinerate 30 tonnes of maize in Auckland, after it emerged that the seed was contaminated with genetically modified material.

Italy too is cracking down on companies selling GM contaminated seeds. And US consumers have targeted supermarkets to go GM-free.

Biosafety regulations tighten

More than 35 countries have already legislated for the mandatory labelling of food containing GM ingredients, or else laws restricting the import of some gene-foods. These countries comprise more than half the world s population.

Most significantly, the European Parliament has adopted strict new rules for traceability and labelling that would effectively ban all imports from the United States and other major producers, unless they can take measures to segregate and prevent GM contamination.

The US Department of Agriculture recently said it may create a voluntary system to verify if shipments of US corn, soya beans and other crops are GM. This is US’ version of Europe’s labelling and traceability programme, and may be a sign that US is caving in to Europe’s tough stance over GM imports.

All in all, GMOs are going, going…..

GMOs are on the way out. But we should make sure to give them a good send off!

To see why GMOs are failing so badly, see "What’s wrong with GMOs?" and articles following for in-depth analyses, to appear in coming issue of Science in Society.

Erratum and additional information:

Thanks to David Wansbrough, Senior Policy Analyst, Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, New Zealand for supplying the information.

New Zealand has not banned all GM imports: GM foods and ingredients are permitted after safety assessment and approval by the Australia and New Zealand Food Regulation Ministerial Council. At present, 19 GM foods have been formally approved and can be present in non-viable form (eg in processed foods).

Living GM organisms must be assessed and approved before they can be released into the environment, though no GM organisms have been approved yet. There is a temporary restriction on new applications until 29 October 2003 to allow the government to implement its response to the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification [The Royal Commission report is available at www.gmcommission.govt.nz].

Medicines that are or contain live GM organisms approved for human or veterinary use are exempt. The restriction also does not affect GM organisms imported or developed in New Zealand for the purpose of laboratory work or contained field tests. New Zealand introduced labelling of GM foods in May 1999 and amended the rules on 7 December 2001 (it has a joint system with Australia). Labelling is required in two circumstances: where novel DNA and/or protein is present in the final food; and where the food has altered characteristics. There are two exemptions: one is for flavourings making up less than 0.1% of a final food, the other is for an ingredient that unintentionally contains GM material, but which is less than 1% of that ingredient. Food prepared at the point of sale does not require labelling.

More information is available from www.foodstandards.govt.nz/whatsinfood/gmfoods/index.cfm.

The Royal Commission examined this labelling system and was basically satisfied, although suggested ways of improving the availability of information for the public. The government has created and distributed information about GM foods and the labelling system [available at www.gm.govt.nz], and is working with consumers and industry on "non-GM" labelling. Information about the New Zealand government's policy on GM organisms can be found at www.mfe.govt.nz/new/inquiry_into_geneticmod.htm.

Pacific Seeds and the incineration of 30 tonnes of maize:

The government did not force Pacific Seeds to incinerate 30 tonnes of maize. The maize was incinerated, but it was the company's decision to do so, not the government's. Information about this incident is available at www.maf.govt.nz/gmseedsnaininformation

Article first published 10/9/02



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