Science in Society Archive

US Opposition to GMOs Gathers Momentum

Scientists and physicians in the heartland of genetic modification are alerting policy-makers and the public to the dangers of GM crops. Prof. Peter Saunders

Safety and agronomic performance under fire

Great upheavals may be afoot in the United States, the world’s leader in genetic modification (GM), and biggest producer of GM crops. Within the past several months, doctors have issued a strong statement calling for a moratorium on GM foods on grounds of safety, and scientists have declared GM crops an agronomic failure. The evidence they presented is familiar to readers of SiS.

ISIS has submitted close to 60 reports on GMOs (genetically modified organisms, including those used for drugs) to the US’ Department of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency, and the Food and Drugs administration over the past ten years. But this may be the turning point, now that the Obama administration, unlike its predecessor, clearly intends to look at the evidence when taking a decision.

Two key documents issued by the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AEEM) in May [1] and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) in April [2] capture the rising opposition to GMOs from doctors and scientists, who are actively alerting the public.

Traditional breeding outperforms GM

The UCS report, Failure to Yield [2] confirms that after 20 years of research and 13 years of commercialization, GM crops have failed to increase yields. And “traditional breeding outperforms genetic engineering hands down.” It also makes three recommendations

  • The US Department of Agriculture, local agricultural agencies and universities should redirect substantial funding, research and incentives towards approaches that are proven and show more promise than genetic engineering for improving crop yields. These approaches include modern methods of conventional plant breeding as well as organic and other sophisticated low-input farming practices. (see I-SIS report [3] Food Futures Now: *Organic *Sustainable *Fossil Fuel Free )
  • Food aid organisations should work with farmers in developing countries to make these more promising and affordable methods available
  • Regulatory agencies should develop and implement techniques to better identify and evaluate potentially harmful side effects of the newer and more complex genetically engineered crops. Current regulations are too weak to detect them reliably

Oxfam America, which explicitly has no position on GM crops as such, issued a statement broadly supporting the UCS report. They also reiterated their view that governments and citizens receiving food aid should not be forced to accept GM food. [4]

In a separate development, 26 scientists responded to a call for public comment from the Environmental Protection Agency by protesting the “technology/stewardship agreements” they have to sign, which inhibit them from doing research for the public good. And as a result, “no truly independent research can be legally conducted on many critical questions regarding the technology” (see [5] (Corporate Monopoly of Science, SiS 42)

 “Ample evidence of probable harm” from GM food

The AAEM position paper [1] concludes as follows

“With the precautionary principle in mind, because GM foods have not been properly tested for human consumption, and because there is ample evidence of probable harm, the AAEM asks:

  • Physicians to educate their patients, the medical community, and the public to avoid GM foods when possible and provide educational materials concerning GM foods and health risks.
  • Physicians to consider the possible role of GM foods in the disease processes of the patients they treat and to document any changes in patient health when changing from GM food to non-GM food.
  • Our members, the medical community, and the independent scientific community to gather case studies potentially related to GM food consumption and health effects, begin epidemiological research to investigate the role of GM foods on human health, and conduct safe methods of determining the effect of GM foods on human health.
  • For a moratorium on GM food, implementation of immediate long term independent safety testing, and labeling of GM foods, which is necessary for the health and safety of consumers.”

The AAEM is affiliated to Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), a group that has 35 000 members and shared the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. PSR itself has come out against the use of the genetically engineered recombinant bovine somatotrophin (rBST) [6].

Alerted consumers demand labelling

According to the polls, American consumers now want GM foods to be labelled; the US is one of the few developed countries where this is not required. And there is a movement, especially in the dairy industry, to drop GM products owing to customer demand [6].

While there is a great deal to be done before many governments, including the UK, are convinced that GMOs are not the way to feed the world, this will be a lot easier with a US administration that is willing to look at the evidence rather than blindly supporting the big corporations.

Article first published 22/06/09


  1. American Academy of Environmental Medicine. (2009) Genetically Modified Foods. 
  2. Gurian-Sherman, D. Failure to Yield. Union of Concerned Scientists, April 2009.
  3. Ho MW, Burcher S, Lim LC, et al. Food Futures Now, Organic, Sustainable, Fossil Fuel Free, I-SIS TWN, London, 2008.
  4. Pfeifer, K. (2009) Comments on UCS Report “Failure to Yield”, American Oxfam, 14 April.
  5. Pollock, A. Crop scientists say biotechnology seed companies are thwarting research. New York Times, 20 February 2009.
    The original (anonymous) statement is Docket EPA-HQ-OPP-2008-0836.
  6. Health Care Reform: Scrap GMOs. Now Public, 6 June, 2009

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