Science, Society, Sustainability
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ISIS Report 28/06/07

No to GMOs, No to GM Science

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho exposes the scandals of GM science that promotes GM crops in the face of damning evidence for health and the environment, and warns that further indulgence in GMOs will severely damage our chances of surviving global warming

Briefing to European Parliament, Scientists for a GM Free Europe , 12 June 2007

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On first encountering GM science

I am a scientist who loves science, and would have happily remained an ivory tower academic had I not met some remarkable people in 1994, among them Martin Khor, director of the Third World Network, who persuaded me to look into genetic engineering biotechnology, which they saw as a special threat to poor farmers in the Third World. GM crops were looming large on the world horizon, promising to deliver miracle crops that would boost yield to feed the world, improve nutrition, and clean up and protect the environment. Monsanto’s Flavr Savr tomato, the first GM crop, had just been commercialised, though it turned out to be a complete flop.

All the signs were already there that the dream would turn into nightmare. Naively, I thought that if the public and the policy-makers were informed of the problems and dangers, everything would be fine and I could go back to my lab. But that was when I encountered GM science. I don’t just mean the science behind GM, which is bad enough, but also genetically modified science, science modified at source to mislead the public and policy-makers for the benefit of the biotech corporations.

I told the story of my encounter with GM science in a book first published in 1997/1998 [1] Genetic Engineering Dream or Nightmare, the Brave New World of Bad Science and Big Business, which became an international bestseller, translated into many languages, and was recently reprinted with an extended introduction to coincide with its translation into Indonesian. Everything predicted in that book has happened. It also explained why the science behind GM is bad. A story elaborated further in [2] Living with the Fluid Genome.published in 2003.

Genetic engineering of plants and animals began in the mid 1970s under the illusion that the genome – the totality of all the genetic material of a species - is constant and static, and the characteristics of an organism is hardwired in its genes. But geneticists soon discovered to their surprise that the genome is dynamic and ‘fluid’, in that both the expression and structure of genes are constantly changing under the influence of the environment.

The most useful outcome of the human genome project is to finally explode the myth of genetic determinism, uncovering additional layers of molecular complexity and dynamism to our picture of the fluid genome and its overwhelming responsiveness to the environment [3] (Life Beyond the Central Dogma series, SiS 24).

The processes responsible for the ‘fluid genome’ are precisely orchestrated by the organism as a whole, in a highly coordinated ‘dance of life’ that’s necessary for survival. In contrast, genetic engineering in the laboratory is crude, imprecise and invasive. The rogue genes inserted into a genome to make a GM plant or animal could land anywhere; typically in a rearranged or defective form, scrambling and mutating the host genome, and has the tendency to move or rearrange further once inserted. That is basically why genetic modification does not work and is dangerous besides.

Independent science against GM

In 1999, I co-founded the Institute of Science in Society (ISIS) with my husband and long-term collaborator Peter Saunders, Professor of Mathematics at King’s College, London, to work for science, society and sustainability and to reclaim science for the public good. We are fortunate to have the support of wonderful fellow scientists, especially Prof. Joe Cummins, who joined ISIS very early on and continues to play the leading role in monitoring GM science.

In 2003, dozens of scientists from around the world including those in ISIS formed the Independent Science Panel, and produced a report, The Case for A GM-Free Sustainable World [4], on all the evidence of problems and hazards of GM crops as well as the successes and benefits of non-GM sustainable agriculture. The report was republished within a year, translated into many languages and widely circulated. We presented the report to this Parliament in 2004 [5] (Keep GM Out of Europe, SiS 24), with the help of Jill Evans MEP and her office.

We have now updated the ISP report with a dossier containing more than 160 fully referenced articles from the Science in Society archives, recording the scandals of serious hazards ignored, scientific fraud, the regulatory sham and violation of farmers’ rights [6] (GM Science Exposed: Hazards Ignored, Fraud, Regulatory Sham, Violation of Farmers Rights). Duped farmers in India are driven to suicide in droves. GM science is a crime against humanity.

ISIS’ scientific review paper [7] (GM Food Nightmare Unfolding in the Regulatory Sham) has just been published online. It exposes how national and international regulators and advisory bodies such as the European Food Safety Authority have been ignoring the precautionary principle (which is accepted by the European Commission), abusing science, sidestepping the law, and helping to promote GM technology in the face of evidence piling up against the safety of GM food and feed.

And so we are here again to press for a GM-Free Europe and a GM-free world, thanks to the efforts of our partner organization TWN, and the GreenNetwork, and Mr. Janusz Wojciechowski MEP and his office. We have in our panel key scientists from six countries, and friends of independent scientists, Caroline Lucas MEP, Jill Evans MEP, and Jeffrey Smith, who have championed our case so admirably.

Our case has grown much stronger since 2004, not only because so much more evidence has stacked up against GM crops; but especially because accelerating global warming, and the depletion of water and fossil fuel make it that much more urgent to shift comprehensively to sustainable food and energy systems as we have proposed in ISIS’ comprehensive energy report [8, 9] (Which Energy?, ISIS Publication; Dream Farm 2 - Story So Far, SiS 31) instead of wasting extremely limited time and resources on GM. Because if we do, it could seriously damage our chances of surviving global warming..

We’d had 30 years of GMOs and more than enough damage done, as documented in the ISP Report [4] and in our GM Science dossier [6].

Thirty years of GMOs are more than enough

  • No increase in yields; on the contrary GM soya decreased yields by up to 20 percent compared with non-GM soya, and up to 100 percent failure of Bt cotton in India 
  • No reduction in pesticides use; on the contrary, GM crops increase pesticide use by 50 million pounds from 1996 to 2003 in the United States
  • GM crops harm wildlife, as revealed by UK’s farm scale evaluations
  • Bt resistance pests and Roundup tolerant superweeds render the two major GM crop traits practically useless
  • Vast areas of forests, pampas and cerrados lost to GM soya in Latin America, 15 m hectares in Argentina alone, may worsen with the demand for biofuels
  • Epidemic of suicides in the cotton belt of India involving 100 000 farmers between 1993-2003, and a further 16 000 farmers a year have died since
  • GM food and feed linked to deaths and sicknesses in the field and in lab tests
  • Roundup herbicide is lethal to frogs and toxic to human placental and embryonic cells; Roundup is used in more than 80 percent of all GM crops planted in the world
  • Transgene contamination unavoidable, scientists find GM pollination of non-GM crops and wild relatives 21 kilometres away [10]

GM food and feed inherently hazardous to health [7]

Here are some highlights from our GM Science dossier on the hazards of GM food and feed. Dr. Irina Ermakova’s work showing how GM soya made female rats give birth to severely stunted and abnormal litters, with more than half dying in three weeks. Hundreds of villagers and cotton handlers in India suffer allergy-like symptoms, thousands of sheep died after grazing on the Bt cotton residues, goat and cows as well were reported this year. A harmless bean protein transferred to pea when tested on mice cause severe inflammation in the lungs and provoked generalised food sensitivities. Dozens of villagers in the south of the Philippines falling ill when neighbouring GM maize fields came into flower in 2003, five have died and some remain ill to this day. A dozen cows died having eaten GM maize in Hesse Germany and more in the herd had to be slaughtered from mysterious illnesses. Arpad Pusztai and his colleagues found GM potatoes with snowdrop lectin damaged every organ system of young rats, the stomach lining grew twice as thick as controls. Chickens fed GM maize Chardon LL were twice as likely to die as controls, and finally, GM maize Mon 863 was claimed to be as safe as non-GM maize by the company, and accepted as such by EFSA. But when re-analysed by independent scientists of CriiGen, they found signs of liver and kidney toxicity.

The evidence compels us to consider the possibility that the hazards of GMOs may be inherent to the technology, as I suggested ten years ago [1]. Different animals and human beings exposed to a variety of transgenic crops with different traits either fall ill or die.

Table 1. Summary of Exposure of Animals and Human Beings to GMOs

Species GM species Transgene trait Effect
RatSoyaRoundup ReadyStunting, death, sterility
HumansCottonCry1Ac/Cry1AbAllergy symptoms
SheepDeath, liver toxicity
MicePeaAlpha-amylase InhibitorLung Inflammation, General food sensitivity
MiceSoyaRoundup ReadyLiver, pancreas and testis Affected
HumansMaizeCry1AbIllnesses and death
RatsMaizeCry3Bbliver and kidney toxicity
CowsMaizeCry1Ab/Cry1AcDeath and illnesses
RatsPotatoSnowdrop lectinDamage in every organ system. Stomach lining twice as thick as controls
MicePotatoCry1AGut lining thickened
RatsTomatoDelay ripeningHoles in the stomach
ChickensMaizeGlufosinate toleranceDeaths

A genetically modified organism (GMO) is an organism whose natural genetic material has been modified by having synthetic genetic material inserted into it. There are several respects in which hazards could arise in the process (see Box 1).

Box 1

Potential Hazards of GMOs

  • Synthetic genes and gene products new to evolution could be toxic and/or immunogenic for humans and other animals
  • Genetic modification is uncontrollable and unreliable, it mutates and scrambles genomes, generating deformities as well as toxic or immunogenic products; these problems are multiplied by the instability of transgenic DNA
  • Viruses in the host genome that cause diseases may be activated by genetic modification
  • Spread of antibiotic resistance genes to pathogens by horizontal gene transfer, making infections untreatable
  • Genetic modification greatly facilitates and enhances horizontal gene transfer and recombination, a main route to creating disease agents
  • Transgenic DNA is designed to invade genomes and its strong synthetic promoters may trigger cancer by activating oncogenes
  • Herbicide tolerant GM crops accumulate herbicide and herbicide residues highly toxic to humans and animals as well as plants

 Worse is yet to come if we don’t stop GMOs now [6]: GM food crops with pharmaceuticals are already with us. And further along, GM crops overproducing nutrients, many of which are toxic in overdose; GM probiotic microbes pre-adapted to live in the human gut; and GM food animals likely to be contaminated with vaccines, immune activators, nucleic acids, and viruses and bacteria that cause diseases.

Biotech spin on green biofuels

And beware of GM bioenergy crops for producing biofuels. Biofuels are not ‘carbon neutral’ They compete directly with food for feedstock like maize, soyabean, oilseed rape, sugarcane etc., sending food prices sky-high. They also compete for land to grow them, causing large swathes of tropical rainforests to be razed to the ground, replaced by plantations, and in the process, sending extra tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, accelerating global warming [11] (Biofuels: Biodevastation, Hunger & False Carbon Credits, SiS 33).

George Bush has set a target of 20 percent biofuel substitution for petroleum by 2017[12] (The BP-Berkeley Energy BioScience Institute, SiS 34). EU says 10 percent of transport fuel must come from biofuels by 2020 [13].

There is also growing pressure to commercialise the numerous GM tree species that have been modified with a variety of transgenes, as GM trees have been widely proposed for plantations on the mistaken assumption that they can offset carbon emissions, and more so, qualify for subsidies under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism [14] (Moratorium on all GM Trees and Ban on GM Forest Trees, ISIS Report).

The biotech industry has already insinuated itself onto the biofuels bandwagon [13], hoping to overcome the stiff public resistance to GM crops by giving GM crops a green wash. It also hopes to sidestep the regulatory hurdle on grounds that safety does not matter because GM bioenergy crops are not used as food. But GM plantations and biofuel crops will exacerbate existing problems with GM crops and make GM contamination much more likely.

US courts rule GM crop field-tests and releases illegal

The message that GM crops are unsafe appears to be getting through to the judiciary system. There have been three recent court rulings against the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) for failing to carry out proper environmental impact assessment, making the original releases illegal [14] (Approval of GM Crops Illegal, US Federal Courts Rule, SiS 34). These are the first rulings against GMOs in the top producing country in the world, which has been also promoting GMOs aggressively.

The first case was on drug-producing GM crops in Hawaii. The court said that the USDA violated the Endangered Species Act as well as the National Environmental Policy Act.

The second court case not only ruled GM herbicide-tolerant creeping bentgrass illegal, but also that the USDA must halt approval of all new field trials until more rigorous environmental reviews are conducted.

The third decision was passed on Monsanto’s Roundup Ready alfalfa for having been commercial released illegally without an Environment Impact Statement.

An avalanche of bans and rulings strikes GM crops worldwide

There have been numerous other bans and restrictions imposed on GM crops within the past year, which fully expose the inadequacies of regulatory regimes worldwide (see Box 2) (thanks to the excellent news archive of GMWatch

Box 2

  • Other rulings and bans on GMOs
  • GM alfalfa ban in USA made permanent [15]
  • Nine towns in Massachusetts USA voted against GM food and crops [16]
  • Santa Cruz County California imposed moratorium on GM crops [17]
  • Ecuador government imposed ban on GM food aid [18]
  • Bolivia to outlaw GM crops and go organic [19]
  • Mexico banned planting of GM corn [20]
  • S Australia extended GM ban and W Australia against GM trials[21,22]
  • Romania to ban GM soya from January 2007 [23]
  • GM seeds ban in place in Greece [24]
  • Germany imposed much stricter regulations on GM maize [25]
  • Hungary to pass the “strictest” GMO crop law [26]
  • Poland imposed ban on GM animal feed and planting of GM seeds [27]
  • India imposed ban on further GM field trials and stringent new conditions on trials approved [28]
  • The Netherlands will either return or burn US shipment of GM maize that lacks safety clearance [29]
  • Cyprus intends to declare itself GM-Free, agricultural minister Photis Photious announced 6 June 2007 [30]

Fossil fuels are rapidly depleting [31] (Oil Running Out, SiS 25) [32]. More serious than that, the water tables in the major breadbaskets of the world are at their lowest levels and suffering prolonged drought. United States is thirsting for water in seven consecutive years [33], Australia is facing its worst drought in 1 000 years [34, 35] and the worst drought in 50 years has hit China [36, 37] The European Parliament should stop wasting any more time and resources on GMOs. Apart from all the problems and hazards they cause, GM crops also require heavy inputs of fossil fuels and water. Any further indulgence in GMOs will surely damage our chances of surviving global warming. We must get on with the urgent business of building sustainable food and energy systems now.

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