Independent scientists, MEPs, farmers and citizens united at the European Parliament condemning GMOs; the European Food Safety Authority to be sued. Sam Burcher and Dr. Mae-Wan Ho
Scientists from six countries joined forces with Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) to call for a Europe wide and worldwide ban on growing GM crops at a special briefing in the European Parliament in Brussels on 12 June 2007.
The briefing, organized by ISIS, Third World Network and Green Network, and hosted by Janusz Wojciechowski, MEP, the vice-Chairman of the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development for the European Union, coincided with the publication of key scientific papers, GM Food Nightmare Unfolding in the Regulatory Sham (ISIS scientific publication)  and New Analysis of a Rat Feeding Study with a Genetically Modified Maize Reveals Signs of Hepatorenal Toxicity (CRII-GEN)  on how national and international regulators have been ignoring damning evidence against the safety of GM food and feed while colluding with industry to manipulate scientific research to promote GM crops. The papers were presented at the briefing together with a comprehensive dossier containing more than 160 fully referenced articles from the Science in Society archives documenting the serious hazards ignored, the scientific fraud, the regulatory sham and violation of farmers' rights  ( GM Science: Hazards Ignored, Fraud, Regulatory Sham, and Violation of Farmers' Rights , ISIS CD Book, 2007).
All the MEPS who spoke on the panel thanked ISIS for bringing such crucial scientific input into the GM debate, a view overwhelmingly shared by other MEPs and members of the public who attended the briefing.
Janusz Wojciechowski MEP , who chaired the briefing, referred to the paradox of rural development within the GM debate in the European Union (EU). Where conventional and organic crops are concerned, there are political moves to reduce the production of fruit and vegetables crops, but where GM crops are concerned there is pressure to increase production for consumers. He said, “For me, it is obvious that decisions on GMOs must be based on public opinion and I do my best, in that regard as one of the decision makers in the EU, to safeguard the health of citizens above all.”
Jill Evans, a Plaid Cymru MEP, and member of the Greens/European Free Alliance Group, picked up on the und ue influence of the pro-GM campaign in the EU: the anti-GM campaign had to work ten times harder to make their voices heard. She said, “ As an MEP my job is to listen to what my constituents in Wales say and represent their views in the EU. And it is clear that there is overwhelming opposition to GMOs in Wales. Our farming industry, food safety and environment are under threat from GM crops, food and feed. We must keep Wales GM-Free and have a European ban on GM crops.”
Opposition to GM crops started in Wales in the year 2000 when GM field trials in Pembrokeshire were abandoned due to pressure from 80 organic farmers, which attracted local press, and the interest of members of all political parties. The National Assembly in Wales had also voted against GM crops, but in 2001 the UK Government gave them the green light. It was then that the campaign group GM-Free Cymru was set up, and there have been no more plantings in Wales since.
Evans stressed that The National Assembly is proactive in the EU, and has joined GM free networks, but feel that the Welsh decision regarding GM crops, and liability arising from the contamination of native crops, should be taken in Wales by its own advisory committee, and not as is currently done, by DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) in the UK. She said Wales is in favour of asserting its right to GM free zones in accordance with the wishes of the people of Wales, and supported by the scientific evidence presented at the briefing; and vowed to keep the GM-free agenda alive and well in Wales and in Europe.
Dr Caroline Lucas, Green MEP for South-East England, endorsed the firm stance of all the speakers on the panel, She said, “There is every reason why we need to keep up the fight to keep Europe GM-free, the tragedy is that it is such a relentless fight, despite not only the rapidly accumulating evidence in our favour and the enormous relevance of the precautionary principle, but also the overwhelming public opposition to GMOs.” Public opinion polls consistently show that 70 percent or more of consumers in Europe do not want to eat GM food, and more than 170 regions and 4500 other zones belong to the GMO Free European Regions set up in Florence in 2005.
Despite the national bans on GM in 11 European countries, the largely unaccountable European Commission, which lifted the de facto moratorium in 2003, has authorised at least 18 GM varieties for cultivation in the EU, with 12 more pending approval. The good news is that many national governments are sceptical, for example Bulgaria has adopted the GMO Act that is firmly based on the precautionary principle and Hungary states that the production of GM crops is not in its economic, environmental, health or social interests. Lucas was critical of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), supposed to offer independent and scientific expert evidence on the safety risk of GM products, but has failed in its task ever since it was set up in 2002 .
Lucas also criticised EFSA for colluding with biotech companies in giving liberal ‘positive opinions' to their applications for market release, and for its reluctance to commission or conduct independent studies, and acceptance of ‘substantial equivalence' in safety assessments even in cases of hybrids created from two or three GM lines. Finally the ‘commercially confidential' status of dossiers kept away from public scrutiny directly contravenes the provisions of the Aarhus Convention (a United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, or UNECE agreement linking the environment with human rights). She referred to the example of MON863 maize that was approved for food and feed solely on the data provided by Monsanto itself.
The aggressive campaign waged by the US, Canada and Argentina to force Europe to open its door to GM via the WTO ruling backfired when the WTO upheld Europe's right to protect itself from GMOs, Lucas reminded her audience, and reaffirmed the need for a clear system of liability when contamination occurs based firmly on the ‘polluter pays' principle.
Dr Mae-Wan Ho, director of ISIS , painted the big picture on why the world needs to be GM-Free. Her main message was: “ GMOs are not only hazardous for health and bad for the environment, they will severely damage our chances of surviving global warming. GM crops need more fossil fuel and water to grow, both of which are fast diminishing. Europe cannot afford to waste any more time and resources on GMOs, we must start investing in sustainable food and energy systems now.”
After 30 years of GMOs, there has been no yield increase, no reduction in pesticide use , while the continuing forest depletion for GM crops now includes those for producing biofuels. Most of all, 100 000 farmers have killed themselves in India between 1993 and 2003, coinciding with the introduction of GM crops, and a further 16 000 have died every year since then. Members of the audience gasped with approval at her explicit indictment against genetic modification: “GMOs are a crime against humanity.” Nevertheless, she was encouraged by the recent rulings against the legality of GM crops in the United States, and a string of bans imposed in many countries around the world over the past year  ( No to GMOs, No to GM Science , SiS 35).
Dr. Irina Ermakova of the Russian Acad emy of Sciences s aid she started her experiments some years ago, when she heard many positive reports about GM crops from around the world , but almost none on any negative effects. Not until she came across the Statement by World Scientists on ISIS website ( http://www.i-sis.org.uk/list.php ), which highlighted the dangers. She was shocked to find that GM crops were harmful to butterflies and other pollinating insects, so she decided to do some experiments on mammals to investigate the health effects of GM soybeans. The significant difference between her experiments and those of the biotechnology companies was that she used female rats before, during and after pregnancy over five generations.
Ermakova said, “So many things went wrong for rats fed genetically modified soybeans. They became more anxious and aggressive, there was a high mortality of rat pups born to the females in the first generation, disturbances of reproductive functions and pathological changes in the internal organs of males and females.”
She showed her audience abundant unsettling photographic evidence of the malformed, stunted, diseased (including some with cancerous lesions) and dead pups, whose mothers had all been fed Monsanto's Roundup Ready soybeans. The stunned audience was in no doubt that something did go horribly wrong, and that an urgent ban on the sale of the GM soya should be imposed rather than the permissive, turning a blind-eye attitude taking by EFSA and other government regulators.
Dr Christian Velot, Senior Lecturer in Molecular Genetics at the University of South Paris, France, said: “Practically all the studies finding “no effect” of GM food and feed are done by companies seeking market approval or funded by them. This research simply does not stand up to independent scientific scrutiny, and regulators are putting people at serious health risks by accepting such research results.” That was why he joined other French scientists to establish the Committee for Research and Independent Information on Genetic Engineering (CRII-GEN, France) since June 2005.
The CRII-GEN scientists have made it their business to scrutinise research done by companies to obtain market approval of GM food and feed. They found signs of liver and kidney toxicity in rats fed Monsanto's MON 863 GM maize that have been ignored by both the company and the EFSA [2, 5] ( GM Maize MON 863 Toxic , SiS 34) . The CRII-GEN scientists have now analysed yet another feeding study involving Mons anto GM maize, NK603. The company's own results found 60 significant differences between the rats that were fed the GM maize and those fed non-GM maize, in their kidney, brain, heart and liver, as well as body weight . But these differences were ignored and the maize given market approval in the EU in 2004. Velot reasserted the need for science in society to fight against industry that “treats the consumer as the lab rat and the planet as the lab bench.”
Urs Hans, an organic farmer from Switzerland and an activist against GM had news for the EFSA. He represents an international coalition of NGOs, farmers associations, lawyers, legal and scientific academics, professors, scientists, journalists, film directors, church groups, etc. from Germany, Austria and Switzerland that intends to mount “comprehensive litigations” against the deployment of GMOs in Europe. Among its targets are the EFSA and other European regulatory bodies, on the grounds that their support of the pro-GM lobby is illegal and a breach of food security. The coalition includes Greenpeace Germany and leading representatives of Greenpeace Europe, senior politicians in Austria, and a high profile German Constitutional Law professor in Munich. The leading German legal think tank, the Tubingen Institute for Nature Protection and Nature Protection Law, has given the coalition an overview of possible legal strategies, and the lawsuits are represented by a leading German law firm in Hamburg specialising in genetic engineering law. So watch this space, and if you would like to get involved, log onto one or the other of Hans' website: www.publiceyeonscience.ch ; www.bauernverstand.ch .
Hans trained as an agriculturalist in Canada, and then managed his own farm. It was then that he noticed that the organophosphates recommended by the regional government for the treatment of parasites made his animals ill. During the BSE crises organophosphates were strictly imposed on farmers whether their cows were infected or not. Hans felt he was being forced to use chemical substances to support the economic interests of the regional government. He made a decision to stop using organophosphates and was prosecuted three times for his refusal, but he won every case.
Hans sees GM crops forced upon farmers and consumers along the same economic and technological imperative of the intensive chemical agriculture that forced him to use organophosphates. In the end, it's the farmer who pays for this imperative with his health, the health of his animals, spiralling debt for inputs that he cannot afford, and the loss of livelihood. He was inspired to leave his farm to come to the briefing in Brussels to hear sound scientific evidence to support the case against the EFSA, and he was very satisfied with what he has heard.
Joe Cummins, Emeritus Professor in Genetics from University of Western Ontario, Canada, a veteran campaigner against corruption in science on behalf of society and the environment, has led the fight against GM science in ISIS ever since ISIS began in 1999.
The collapse of honeybee colonies worldwide are almost certainly a combination of different factors, the most important among them are sub-lethal levels of insecticides, in particular, a class of new systemic neonicotinoid pesticides widely used to dress seeds and in sprays on crops, and microwave radiation from wireless telephone transmitters and base stations. There has been a suggestion that single-celled fungi, such as Nosema , could be the main culprit  ( Parasitic Fungus and Honeybee Decline , SiS 35) .
However, Cummins presented a convincing hypothesis that sub-lethal levels of pesticides, including the Bt biopesticides produced in GM crops covering some 30 percent of the global area, could be acting synergistically with Nosema in murdering bees. Nosema and other parasitic fungi are also widely used as biological control agents against insect pests  ( Parasitic Fungi and Pesticides Act Synergistically to Kill Honeybees? SiS 35).
Cummins said, “The honeybee is a major pollinator of our food crops, and its demise is a dire warning that the extinction of the human species is not far behind.” What can we do to save the honeybee? Joe concluded with three succinct points for the future survival of humanity: the first one is to eliminate systemic nicotinoid pesticides, the second is to eliminate Bt crops. He raised a hearty laugh with his third, and his favourite, suggestion: replacing all the bureaucrats that turn a blind eye to the plight of nature in favour of the biotech and the agrochemical industry.
Hiltrud Breyer, MEP from Strasbourg intervened from the audience and wanted to know what could be done in Europe to save the bees. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho suggested that an emergency motion should be put forward to the European Commission along the lines laid out by Cummins.
Dr Zbigniew Halat, President of the Association for Protection of Consumer Health in Poland, a medical doctor, and an ex deputy Health Minister for Poland, said: “I believe that the problems caused by genetic engineering are global. It is the proliferation of a kind of biological weapon of mass destruction.” Halat criticized the threshold for contamination of native crops by GM crops of 0.9 percent, or even 0.1 percent as nonsense. He cautioned that even a tiny molecule could cause an anaphylactic (toxic shock) reaction and could kill someone who is allergic.
He believes there is a causal link between GM contamination and the rising allergy rate that has doubled in 10 years. He argued that studies of local incidences of allergic reactions to GM maize crops in the Philippines by Professor Terje Traavik of Genk in University of Tromsø, Norway  ( GM Ban Long Overdue , SiS 29) have provided us with the empirical evidence against GM crops. Furthermore, as GM foods have not been medically proven as safe, it is important that we keep using opinion polls to assess public support for them and epidemiological studies to assess their safety.
He even suspects a relationship between GMOs and the rising cancer rates, antibiotic resistance, and the obesity epidemic. From a medical point of view, he said, we can't wait for outcomes of sickness and deaths from GMOs, we must have proof that GM food and feed is healthy and safe. Finally, we must be aware of the ethical issues around genetic engineering and that it is not job of producers, but of the public authorities to protect our health from diseases.
Dr Pietro Perrino from the Institute of Plant Genetics in Bari, Italy, tells a sorry tale of the destruction of seeds and germplasm held in genebanks throughout the world subsequent to the rise of genetic engineering. On the one hand, genetic engineers have ruthlessly plundered the seeds and germplasm held in the genebanks for genes, DNA sequences and varieties which they patent in acts of biopiracy. On the other and, they are colluding in the destruction of the genebanks themselves [9, 10] ( SOS: Save Our Seeds , Italy's Genebank At Risk , SiS 27).
Perrino explained how genebanks came about through the need to collect, conserve and protect crop diversity because of the genetic erosion caused by industry-led agricultural revolutions that attempted to increase crop yields from monoculture crops of a few species. In the past forty years 1 400 genebanks have been created to compensate for the negative effects of the “Green Revolution.” However, the second generation of the “Gene Revolution” where new varieties can be made by taking the genes from any organism: animal, fungus, plant, microbe or virus to create new plants, are a direct threat to the larger indigenous genetic bases.
Pietro said, “We urgently need to protect the genebanks as they may soon be the only source of uncontaminated seed stocks in the world. This may be why the biotech industry and their supporters are so keen to see them destroyed after they've sequenced the genomes and patented the genes.” Furthermore he called upon the regulators of in-situ plant conservation, organic farmers, natural reserves, and nature conservation organisations to fight what he calls the “genebanks robbers”, the genetic engineers who seek to replace genebanks with DNA biobanks filled with synthetic plant resources that are not only useless, but are also dangerous for biodiversity, and for the health of living organisms, including human beings.
Journalist and author Jeffrey Smith and executive director of the Institute for Responsible Technology; began his talk with, “I am from the US, so I want to apologise for GM at least.” He then slammed the US Food and Drug Administration who say that no testing whatsoever is necessary on GM food. This, he claims, is a lie perpetrated by Monsanto, which has infiltrated the FDA. Who, he asks, has overruled the scientists worried about toxins? Evidence gathered from thirty scientists over three years from his latest book, GM Roulette  documents no less than sixty-five health risks associated with the process of genetic engineering. Jeffrey argues that the main possible cause of health problems is related to DNA mutations within synthetic genes that create changes within the genome. He also points out that industry's claims of safety of the bt toxin used in GM corn and GM cotton crops are a fallacy and they that have caused thousands of allergic reactions around the world, as well as sterility and unexplained death in humans and livestock. The fundamental assumption made by industry that GM crops and pesticides are safe must be overturned.
Mr Wojciechowski closed the meeting with the warning that the expansion of GM production is a trap. And, as a European Parliamentarian, he thanked all the experts who spoke to the meeting for their knowledge. It is a challenge for European Parliamentarians to make their activity against GM more intensive. The first opportunity will be the question raised by MEPs on risk assessment of the EFSA, which will restart the debate over the dangers of GMOs, he said.
Enthusiastic discussions followed for nearly an hour after the official end of the conference, and carried on in the European Parliament cafeteria, where Mr. Wojciechowski kindly treated the speakers and friends of ISIS to lunch.
Article first published 21/06/07
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