Science in Society Archive

The Independent Science Panel on GM Final Report

Dozens of prominent scientists from seven countries, spanning the disciplines of agroecology, agronomy, biomathematics, botany, chemical medicine, ecology, histopathology, microbial ecology, molecular genetics, nutritional biochemistry, physiology, toxicology and virology, joined forces to launch themselves as an Independent Science Panel on GM at a public conference, attended by UK environment minister Michael Meacher and 200 other participants, in London on 10 May 2003.

The conference coincided with the publication of a draft report, The Case for a GM-free Sustainable World, calling for a ban on GM crops to make way for all forms of sustainable agriculture. This authoritative report, billed as "the strongest, most complete dossier of evidence" ever compiled on the problems and hazards of GM crops as well as the manifold benefits of sustainable agriculture, is being finalised for release 15 June 2003.

Ahead of the release of the 120-page final report, the Independent Science Panel is pleased to provide a four-page summary as its contribution to the National GM Debate in the UK.

It is a challenge to the proponents of GM to answer the case presented, rather than having to argue against the case for GM crops, which has yet to be made.

Members of the Independent Science Panel on GM

Prof. Miguel Altieri
Professor of Agroecology, University of California, Berkeley, USA

Dr. Michael Antoniou
Senior Lecturer in Molecular Genetics, GKT School of Medicine, King's College, London.

Dr. Susan Bardocz
Biochemist, formerly Rowett Research Institute, Scotland

Prof. David Bellamy OBE
Internationally renowned botanist, environmentalist, broadcaster, author and campaigner; recipient of number awards; President & Vice President of many conservation and environmental organisations.

Dr. Elizabeth Bravo V.
Biologist, researcher and campaigner on biodiversity and GMO issues; co-founder of Acción Ecológica; part-time lecturer at Universidad Politécnica Salesiana, Ecuador.

Prof. Joe Cummins
Professor Emeritus of Genetics, University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, Canada.

Dr. Stanley Ewen
Consultant Histopathologist at Grampian University Hospitals Trust; formerly Senior Lecturer in Pathology, University of Aberdeen; lead histopathologist for the Grampian arm of the Scottish Colorectal Cancer Screening Pilot Project.

Edward Goldsmith
Recipient of the Right Livelihood and numerous awards, environmentalist, scholar, author and Founding Editor of The Ecologist.

Dr. Brian Goodwin
Scholar in Residence, Schumacher College, England.

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho
Co-founder and Director of the Institute of Science in Society; Editor of Science in Society; Science Advisor to the Third World Network and on the Roster of Experts for the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety; Visiting Reader, Open University, UK and Visiting Professor of Organic Physics, Catania University, Sicily, Italy.

Prof. Malcolm Hooper
Emeritus Professor at the University of Sunderland; previously, Professor of Medicinal Chemistry, Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Sunderland Polytechnic; Chief Scientific Advisor to the Gulf War Veterans.

Dr. Vyvyan Howard
Medically qualified toxico-pathologist, Developmental Toxico-Pathology Group, Department of Human Anatomy and Cell Biology, The University of Liverpool; Member of the UK Government's Advisory Committee on Pesticides.

Dr. Brian John
Geomorphologist and environmental scientist; Founder and long-time Chairman of the West Wales Eco Centre; one of the coordinating group of GM Free Cymru

Prof. Marijan Jošt
Professor of Plant Breeding and Seed Production, Agricultural College Križevci, Croatia.

Lim Li Ching
Researcher, Institute of Science in Society and Third World Network; deputy-editor of Science in Society.

Dr. Eva Novotny
Astronomer and campaigner on GM issues for Scientists for Global Responsibility, SGR

Prof. Bob Orskov OBE
Head of the International Feed Resource Unit in Macaulay Institute, Aberdeen, Scotland; Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, FRSE; Fellow of the Polish Academy of Science.

Dr. Michel Pimbert
Agricultural ecologist and Principal Associate, International Institute for Environment and Development.

Dr. Arpad Pusztai
Private consultant; formerly Senior Research Fellow at the Rowett Research Institute, Aberdeen, Scotland.

David Quist
Microbial ecologist, Ecosystem Science Division, Environmental Science, Policy and Management, University of California, Berkeley, USA.

Dr. Peter Rosset
Agricultural ecologist and rural development specialist; Co-director of the Institute for Food and Development Policy (Food First), Oakland, California, USA.

Prof. Peter Saunders
Professor of Applied Mathematics at King's College, London.

Dr. Veljko Veljkovic
AIDS virologist, Center for Multidisciplinary Research and Engineering, Institute of Nuclear Sciences, VINCA, Belgrade, Yugoslavia.

Roberto Verzola
Secretary-General, Philippine Greens, Member of the Board of Trustees, PABINHI (a sustainable agriculture network), Coordinator, SRI-Pilipinas (network of advocates for the System of Rice Intensification).

Prof. Oscar B. Zamora
Professor of Agronomy, Department of Agronomy, University of the Philippines Los Banos-College of Agriculture (UPLB-CA), College, Laguna, The Philippines.

Independent Science Panel Report released 15 June 2003

The Case for a GM-Free Sustainable World – A Summary

Why GM-Free?

  1. GM crops failed to deliver promised benefits
    • No increase in yields or significant reduction in herbicide and pesticide use
    • United States lost an estimated $12 billion over GM crops amid worldwide rejection
    • Massive crop failures of up to 100% reported in India
    • High risk future for agbiotech: "Monsanto could be another disaster waiting to happen for investors"
  2. GM crops posing escalating problems on the farm
    • Transgenic lines unstable: "most cases of transgene inactivation never reach the literature"
    • Triple herbicide-tolerant volunteers and weeds emerged in North America
    • Glyphosate-tolerant weeds plague GM cotton and soya fields, atrazine back in use
    • Bt biopesticide traits threatening to create superweeds and bt-resistant pests
  3. Extensive transgenic contamination unavoidable
    • Extensive transgenic contamination found in maize landraces in remote regions of Mexico
    • 32 out of 33 commercial seed stocks found contaminated in Canada
    • Pollen remains airborne for hours, and a 35 mile per hour wind speed is unexceptional
    • There can be no co-existence of GM and non-GM crops
  4. GM crops not safe
    • GM crops have not been proven safe: regulation was fatally flawed from the start
    • The principle of ‘substantial equivalence’, vague and ill defined, gave companies complete licence in claiming GM products ‘substantially equivalent’ to non-GM, and hence ‘safe’
  5. GM food raises serious safety concerns
    • Despite the paucity of credible studies, existing findings raise serious safety concerns
    • ‘Growth-factor-like’ effects in the stomach and small intestine of young rats were attributed to the transgenic process or the transgenic construct, and may hence be general to all GM food
  6. Dangerous gene products are incorporated into food crops
    • Bt proteins, incorporated into 25% of all GM crops worldwide, are harmful to many non-target insects, and some are potent immunogens and allergens for humans and other mammals
    • Food crops are increasingly used to produce pharmaceuticals and drugs, including cytokines known to suppress the immune system, or linked to dementia, neurotoxicity and mood and cognitive side effects; vaccines and viral sequences such as the ‘spike’ protein gene of the pig coronavirus, in the same family as the SARS virus linked to the current epidemic; and glycoprotein gene gp120 of the AIDS virus that could interfere with the immune system and recombine with viruses and bacteria to generate new and unpredictable pathogens.
  7. Terminator crops spread male sterility
    • Crops engineered with ‘suicide’ genes for male sterility, promoted as a means of preventing the spread of transgenes, actually spread both male sterility and herbicide tolerance traits via pollen.
  8. Broad-spectrum herbicides highly toxic to humans and other species
    • Glufosinate ammonium and glyphosate, used with herbicide tolerant GM crops that currently account for 75% of all GM crops worldwide, are both systemic metabolic poisons
    • Glufosinate ammonium is linked to neurological, respiratory, gastrointestinal and haematological toxicities, and birth defects in humans and mammals; also toxic to butterflies and a number of beneficial insects, to larvae of clams and oysters, Daphnia and some freshwater fish, especially the rainbow trout; it inhibits beneficial soil bacteria and fungi, especially those that fix nitrogen.
    • Glyphosate is the most frequent cause of complaints and poisoning in the UK, and disturbances to many body functions have been reported after exposures at normal use levels; glyphosate exposure nearly doubled the risk of late spontaneous abortion, and children born to users of glyphosate had elevated neurobehavioral defects; glyphosate retards development of the foetal skeleton in laboratory rats, inhibits the synthesis of steroids, and is genotoxic in mammals, fish and frogs; field dose exposure of earthworms caused at least 50 percent mortality and significant intestinal damage among surviving worms; Roundup (Monsanto’s formulation of glyphosate) caused cell division dysfunction that may be linked to human cancers.
  9. Genetic engineering creates super-viruses
    • The most insidious dangers of genetic engineering are inherent to the process; it greatly enhances the scope and probability of horizontal gene transfer and recombination, the main route to creating viruses and bacteria that cause disease epidemics.
    • Newer techniques, such as DNA shuffling, allow geneticists to create in a matter of minutes in the laboratory millions of recombinant viruses that have never existed in billions of years of evolution
    • Disease-causing viruses and bacteria and their genetic material are the predominant materials and tools of genetic engineering, as much as for the intentional creation of bio-weapons.
  10. Transgenic DNA in food taken up by bacteria in human gut
    • Transgenic DNA from plants has been taken up by bacteria both in the soil and in the gut of human volunteers; antibiotic resistance marker genes can spread from transgenic food to pathogenic bacteria, making infections very difficult to treat.
  11. Transgenic DNA and cancer
    • Transgenic DNA known to survive digestion in the gut and to jump into the genome of mammalian cells, raising the possibility for triggering cancer
    • Feeding GM products such as maize to animals may carry risks, not just for the animals but also for human beings consuming the animal products
  12. CaMV 35S promoter increases horizontal gene transfer
    • Evidence suggests that transgenic constructs with the CaMV 35S promoter could be especially unstable and prone to horizontal gene transfer and recombination, with all the attendant hazards: gene mutations due to random insertion, cancer, re-activation of dormant viruses and generation of new viruses.
  13. A history of misrepresentation and suppression of scientific evidence
    • There has been a history of misrepresentation and suppression of scientific evidence, especially on horizontal gene transfer. Key experiments failed to be performed, or were performed badly and then misrepresented. Many experiments were not followed up, including investigations on whether the CaMV 35S promoter is responsible for the ‘growth-factor-like’ effects observed in young rats fed GM potatoes.
GM crops have failed to deliver the promised benefits and are posing escalating problems on the farm. Transgenic contamination is now widely acknowledged to be unavoidable, and hence there can be no co-existence of GM and non-GM agriculture. Most important of all, GM crops have not been proven safe. On the contrary, sufficient evidence has emerged to raise serious safety concerns, that if ignored could result in irreversible damage to health and the environment. GM crops should therefore be firmly rejected now.

Why Sustainable Agriculture?

  1. Higher productivity and yields especially in the Third World
    • 8.98 million farmers adopted sustainable agriculture practices on 28.92 million hectares in Asia, Latin America and Africa; reliable data from 89 projects show higher productivity and yields: 50-100% increase in yield for rainfed crops, and 5-10% for irrigated crops; top successes include Burkina Faso, which turned a cereal deficit of 644 kg per year to an annual surplus of 153 kg, Ethiopia, where 12 500 households enjoyed 60% increase in crop yields, and Honduras and Guatemala, where 45 000 families increased yields from 400-600 kg/ha to 2,000-2,500 kg/ha
    • Long-term studies in industrialised countries show yields for organic comparable to conventional agriculture, and often higher
  2. Better soils
    • Sustainable agricultural practices reduce soil erosion, improve soil physical structure and water-holding capacity, which are crucial in averting crop failures during periods of drought
    • Soil fertility maintained or increased by various sustainable agriculture practices
    • Biological activity higher in organic soils: more earthworms, arthropods, mycorrhizal and other fungi, and micro-organisms, all beneficial for nutrient recycling and suppression of disease
  3. Cleaner environment
    • Little or no polluting chemical inputs with sustainable agriculture
    • Less nitrate and phosphorus leached to groundwater from organic soils
    • Better water infiltration rates in organic systems, therefore less prone to erosion and less likely to contribute to water pollution from surface runoff
  4. Reduced pesticides and no increase in pests
    • Integrated pest management cut the number of pesticide sprays in Vietnam from 3.4 to one per season, in Sri Lanka from 2.9 to 0.5 per season, and in Indonesia from 2.9 to 1.1 per season
    • No increase in crop losses due to pest damage resulted from withdrawal of synthetic insecticides in Californian tomato production
    • Pest control achievable without pesticides, reversing crop losses, as for example, by using ‘trap crops’ to attract stem borer, a major pest in East Africa
  5. Supporting biodiversity and using diversity
    • Sustainable agriculture promotes agricultural biodiversity, which is crucial for food security; organic farming can support much greater biodiversity, benefiting species that have significantly declined
    • Integrated farming systems in Cuba are 1.45 to 2.82 times more productive than monocultures
    • Thousands of Chinese rice farmers doubled yields and nearly eliminated the most devastating disease simply by mixed planting of two varieties
    • Soil biodiversity enhanced by organic practices, bringing beneficial effects such as recovery and rehabilitation of degraded soils, improved soil structure and water infiltration.
  6. Environmentally and economically sustainable
    • Research on apple production systems ranked the organic system first in environmental and economic sustainability, the integrated system second and the conventional system last; organic apples were most profitable due to price premiums, quicker investment return, and fast recovery of costs
    • A Europe-wide study showed that organic farming performs better than conventional farming in the majority of environmental indicators
    • A review by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) concluded that well-managed organic agriculture leads to more favourable conditions at all environmental levels
  7. Ameliorating climate change by reducing direct & indirect energy use
    • Organic agriculture uses energy much more efficiently and greatly reduces CO2 emissions compared with conventional agriculture, both with respect to direct energy consumption in fuel and oil and indirect consumption in synthetic fertilizers and pesticides
    • Sustainable agriculture restores soil organic matter content, increasing carbon sequestration below ground, thereby recovering an important carbon sink
    • Organic agriculture is likely to emit less nitrous dioxide (N2O), another important greenhouse gas and also a cause of stratospheric ozone depletion
  8. Efficient, profitable production
    • Any yield reduction in organic agriculture more than offset by ecological and efficiency gains
    • Smaller farms produce far more per unit area than larger farms characteristic of conventional farming
    • Production costs for organic farming are often lower than conventional farming, bringing equivalent or higher net returns even without organic price premiums; when price premiums are factored in, organic systems are almost always more profitable
  9. Improved food security and benefits to local communities
    • A review of sustainable agriculture projects showed that average food production per household increased by 1.71 tonnes per year (up 73%) for 4.42 million farmers on 3.58 million hectares, bringing food security and health benefits to local communities
    • Increasing productivity increases food supplies and raises incomes, thereby reducing poverty, increasing access to food, reducing malnutrition and improving health and livelihoods
    • Sustainable agricultural approaches draw extensively on traditional and indigenous knowledge, and place emphasis on the farmers’ experience and innovation, thereby improving their status and autonomy, enhancing social and cultural relations within local communities
    • For every £1 spent at an organic box scheme from Cusgarne Organics (UK), £2.59 is generated for the local economy; but for every £1 spent at a supermarket, only £1.40 is generated for the local economy
  10. Better food quality for health
    • Organic food is safer, as organic farming prohibits pesticide use, so harmful chemical residues are rarely found
    • Organic production bans the use of artificial food additives, such as hydrogenated fats, phosphoric acid, aspartame and monosodium glutamate, which have been linked to health problems as diverse as heart disease, osteoporosis, migraines and hyperactivity
    • Studies have shown that on average, organic food has higher vitamin C, higher mineral levels and higher plant phenolics – plant compounds that can fight cancer and heart disease, and combat age-related neurological dysfunctions – and significantly less nitrates, a toxic compound.
Sustainable agricultural practices have proven beneficial in all aspects relevant to health and the environment. In addition, they bring food security and social and cultural well being to local communities everywhere. There is an urgent need for a comprehensive global shift to all forms of sustainable agriculture.

Article first published 02/06/03

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