Government Funding Industry to Market GM Crops. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho and Prof. Peter Saunders
The UK Government’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) recently put out a press release entitled, “What farmers think about GM crops” , which began: “Farmers are upbeat about genetically modified crops”, according to research it funded.
It went to say that a research team at the Open University has taken “the first systematic look” at what large-scale, commodity farmers (specifically excluding those mainly involved in organic growing) think about GM crops. The research, aimed at the attitudes of farmers expected to be most favourably disposed to using GM crops, found that they regard GM as a simple extension of previous plant breeding techniques, and GM crops an innovation that “they would assess on its merits.” Their real interest is in “how GM crops would work in practice and whether they can contribute to the profitability of their farms.”
The research was actually done in 2005 , and involved interviewing just 30 commodity farmers. Half of the farmers, selected by SCIMAC (the Supply Chain Initiative on Modified Agricultural Crops), the industry group that supports GM crops, were among those who had hosted the three-year Farm Scale Evaluation of GM crops that SCIMAC had got the UK government to fund in 2000. And even this small, restricted group of farmers, expected to be most favourably inclined towards GM crops, have adopted a wait-and-see attitude.
But the ESRC press release quoted the lead researcher Prof. Andy Lane saying: “New technology such as GM is attractive to farmers. They want to produce high-quality food profitably and they want to farm in an environmentally sensitive way. GM may allow them to reconcile this conundrum by doing both of these things at once….A particular advantage of GM is its potential to allow farmers to grow crops with high yields while using less herbicide.”
Lane’s statements are not based on any evidence provided by the Open University research team, the ESRC or anywhere else, and have been contradicted again and again by data from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and studies carried out in universities (see below).
Predictably, the misleading message from the ESRC was widely repeated, often with embellishment, in the popular press. One headline went as far as saying: “UK farmers want to grow GM crops” . Julian Little, Chair of the Agricultural Biotechnology Council, a GM industry group, wrote that : “A study into the attitude of farmers by the Open University this week, announced that farmers recognise the clear economic and environmental benefits of GM crops to themselves and the wider public. It demonstrated that new technologies are seen as a way to achieve high quality produce at a low cost for consumers, while being socially responsible.” He added: “Scientific trials of GM crops must go ahead unmolested.” Biotech giant Monsanto, too, lost little time in posting one such article on its website : “Shhhh…Farmers Love Frankenfoods. British farmers are ready to throw in the organic cotton towel and start growing biotech crops just like their American cousins, finds a new study from Open University.”
GM crops are neither profitable for farmers nor do they result in less herbicide use. Data from the USDA and US universities have consistently shown that GM crops gave no increase in crops yields or profitability, and more often a reduction in both, while increasing rather than decreasing the use of pesticides (reviewed in The Case for A GM-Free Sustainable World . Both the two major GM traits that make up nearly 100 percent of all GM crops, Bt and glyphosate tolerance, have decisively failed at least as far back as 2005 [7, 8] (Scientists Confirm Failures of Bt-Crops and Roundup Ready Sudden Death, Superweeds, Allergens..., SiS 28), and promoting them can be a recipe for ecological and agronomic disaster.
The Friends of the Earth report  released January 2008 confirms those findings. It highlights the more than 15-fold increase in the use of glyphosate herbicide on the major crops - soybeans, corn and cotton - from 1994 (when GM crops were first introduced) to 2005, based on data from the USDA. The increase in glyphosate is not compensated by a decrease in other herbicides. While farmers growing glyphosate tolerant Roundup Ready crops initially used lower quantities of herbicides other than glyphosate, that trend soon reversed. Increasingly, farmers have found it necessary to apply larger amounts of both glyphosate and other herbicides to kill weeds that have become resistant to glypohsate. From 2002 to 2006, the use of the second leading soya herbicide 2,3-D more than doubled from 1.39 to 3.67 million lbs, while glyphosate use on soybeans increased by 29 million lbs (a 43 percent rise). Similarly, glyphosate on corn increased 5-fold from 2002 to 2005 simultaneously with a rise of atrazine by nearly 7 million lbs (12 percent up). Atrazine, the most heavily used herbicide on corn in the US, is banned in Europe because of its links to serious health problems such as endocrine disruption, breast and prostate cancer.
Finally, a 4-year study just completed by researchers at the University of Georgia and the USDA concluded that the use of transgenic cotton does not provide increased returns to the farmer . They found that no transgenic technology system produced significantly greater returns than a non-transgenic system in any year or location.
ESRC spokesperson Astrid Wissenburg stated in a reply to Dr. Brian John of GM-Free Cymru  that while accepting “the phrasing of the opening line of the press release could have been more precise, … the facts as stated in the press release are accurate and stand as written [though obviously the quotes attributed to Andy Lane are not accurate]…The purpose of the research was never to undertake a survey of views on GM, but to undertake an in-depth study of farmers’ views on GM crops as a new technology and investigating the major influences on their views and decisions.” The original proposal was to interview 60 farmers, but for “both funding and scientific reasons” the total number was scaled back to thirty.
Why was such a research project undertaken at all? It cost the taxpayer at least £131 000 to interview a select group of 30 farmers and it did not tell us anything remarkable or new. Wissenburg explained: “Given the very limited extent of GM trials in the UK, and the decision not to proceed with licensed GM varieties, the pool of those who could have participated is quite small, so the project could not draw upon a random sample from the whole UK farming population.”
That makes it clear why this research was carried out and why no conclusions about UK farmers can be drawn from it. A representative sample of the whole UK farming population would indeed have included only a very few farmers who have grown GM crop, simply because only a small proportion of UK farmers have grown GM crops. A survey based on such a sample could have provided a basis for determining the views of UK farmers about GM, which is what is claimed in the title of the project, in the press release, and in subsequent articles in the media.
The next sentence in Wissenburg’s reply confirms the real purpose of the research: “The group involved in the research was therefore relatively small, but not 'unrepresentative' of farmers with experience of GM crops. Because of the sensitive nature of the project, access to GM farmers was facilitated by SCIMAC.” (italics added).
The project was intended to target “farmers with experience of GM crops”. In reality, it was little more than a marketing exercise aimed at promoting GM crops to commodity farmers  (see Marketing Exercise Masquerading as Scientific Research, SiS 38). SCIMAC and the biotech industry had more than a facilitating role. The nine project advisors included Bob Fiddaman and Daniel Pearsall, respectively chair and secretary of SCIMAC, Helen Ferrier, NFU Food Science Advisor, responsible for assembling and distributing the GM propaganda newsletter called Agbiotech News Roundup; and Richard Powell and Karen Holt from Syngenta Seeds Ltd.
The ESRC later told Times Higher Education that the report had been “subject to peer review”  but as recently as 17 March 2008, the ESRC specifically said on its own website that the final report had not been peer reviewed . It had certainly not appeared in a peer-reviewed journal.
What Wissenburg said of the GM crop trials was also inaccurate. The UK government had agreed to fund the 3-year Farm Scale Evaluations for SCIMAC to the tune of £3 million of taxpayer’s money, which critics generally regarded as commercialisation via the backdoor.
The trials were rigged in favour of GM crops right from the start, and crucial aspects such as safety or crop yields were not investigated  ('Cynical & Dishonest Science' in GM Maize Trials, SiS 20) because it would have revealed GM in a bad light, as exposed by citizens monitoring their local trials, who provided photographic evidence that the GM maize was severely stunted with fewer and much smaller cobs compared to the conventional maize variety  Bogus Comparison in GM Maize Trial, SiS 22). Despite all attempts to manipulate the trials and conceal unfavourable data, the official findings went against GM crops. But the UK government gave the go ahead to grow GM maize without a debate in Parliament, a move condemned by the influential all party Environment Audit Committee. In the event, gene giant Bayer withdrew, saying it was “economically non-viable” .
So it was against such a background of failures that this ‘research project’ was funded, presumably in the hope of resuscitating GM crops for Britain. It would actually have been interesting to find out what UK farmers in general think about GM crops, but perhaps the researchers and their funders were as sure as we are about what the outcome would have been and would rather not ask the question.
Article first published 26/03/08
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