Science in Society Archive

Approving GM Crops is Abusing Science

Scientific evidence has gone decisively against GM crops. So why is commercial growing allowed? Scientists from the Independent Science Panel are calling for an enquiry. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho reports.

Prominent scientists representing more than a thousand colleagues around the world voiced their deep concerns at the lack of social accountability of publicly funded science, especially in genetically modified (GM) crops.

They spoke out at a Briefing to an audience of 120 at the Greater London Assembly on Monday, 19 January 2003, organised jointly by Green Party member of the Assembly Noel Lynch and the Institute of Science in Society (ISIS).

The scientists are particularly incensed at the persistent denial and dismissal by the government’s scientific advisors of the now extensive scientific evidence on the hazards of GM crops to health and the environment, in total disregard for the precautionary principle.

The scientists belong to the London-based Institute of Science in Society, representing more than 670 scientists from 76 countries, and Scientists for Global Responsibility, with a membership of 600. All are also members of the Independent Science Panel (ISP) on GM, launched 10 May 2003 at a public conference in London attended by the then environment minister Michael Meacher and 200 other participants.

The 24 scientists on the ISP published their report, The Case for a GM-Free Sustainable World on the ISP website 15 June 2003, billed as "a complete dossier of evidence on the problems and hazards of GM crops as well as the proven successes of all forms of non-GM sustainable agriculture".

By July 3, the Report was downloaded 12 000 times in the United States alone. It has since been published by ISIS and the Third World Network, republished by a commercial publisher in the US, and widely translated. Spanish, French and German translations have been done, and Indonesian and Portuguese translations are on the way.

The evidence reviewed in this authoritative report, containing more than 200 references to primary and secondary sources, received ample corroboration from new data released recently. The US Department of Agriculture confirmed that GM crops increased herbicide and pesticide use by more than 50 million pounds since 1996.

UK’s Farm Scale Evaluations (FSEs), much criticised for being limited in scope and biased in methodology, nevertheless confirmed that two of the three GM crops harmed wildlife.

The third, GM maize tolerant to the herbicide glufosinate, appeared to do better only because the conventional maize crop was sprayed with the deadly herbicide atrazine that Europe banned a week before the FSEs Report was released. This was exposed and universally condemned by public interest organisations. A spokesperson of GM-Free Cymru – a group campaigning to ban GM crops from Wales - called it a "cynical and dishonest" manipulation of the scientific process.

Despite all that, the Advisory Committee on Release to the Environment gave the green light to growing the GM maize in Britain.

"Scientific evidence has gone decisively against GM crops," said Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, Director of the Institute of Science in Society. "But that’s only scratching the surface."

She revealed how twelve dairy cows died in a farm in Hesse, Germany, after being fed GM maize. "That is by no means an isolated incident." She said, and reminded her audience of research by Arpad Pusztai and his collaborators, by other scientists, plus a host of anecdotal evidence showing that different GM feed also harmed other livestock and lab animals (see "GM food safe?" series, Science in Society 21). "This suggests there may be something seriously wrong with GM food and feed in general."

It has to do with the overwhelming instability of GM varieties, she said. Practically every GM variety analysed by French and Belgian scientists recently, including the T25 GM maize that the UK government is authorising for growing in Britain, turned out to be unstable, and in some cases, non-uniform. "This would make them illegal under European legislation." She pointed out.

"We all want to benefit from what new technologies have to offer, but history shows that, all too often, we have failed to heed well-founded warnings and made very expensive mistakes, and GM could be one of these;" says Professor Peter Saunders, bio-mathematician, King’s College, London, "Precaution is the key, and precaution is inseparable from good science." He also insisted it was up to companies to prove "beyond reasonable doubt" that their products are safe, in analogy to a court of law. The current practice is anti-precautionary, for the burden on proof is misplaced, as it is left up to the public to prove something "harmful" before it could be withdrawn.

He demolished all the objections of critics, including the one that says the precautionary principle would prevent any innovation in society. "On the contrary," he said, "It would not have prevented Sir Walter Raleigh from introducing cigarettes to the world as there was no evidence suggesting cigarettes were harmful; but it would surely have prevented tens of millions of deaths had the precautionary principle been applied when evidence linking smoking to lung cancer became available."

Dr. Vyvyan Howard, medical toxi-pathologist, Liverpool University, showed how so-called risk assessment is based on fictitious, simplistic models that are a travesty of nature’s complexity. That’s what he called "fact-free" risk assessment. "The £1.6 million given by the UK Government to Dr. Pusztai was to develop hazard assessment techniques for novel foods. That tells us the regulators recognized that the methods in use then were not adequate to protect human health. Not much has changed, and it seems that line of research is no longer seriously pursued. Consequently, the current risk assessments are still totally inadequate."

Dr. Arpad Pusztai, formerly of Rowett Institute, Aberdeen, Scotland, concurred. "Science is able to provide the tools for conducting thorough risk assessments on GM foods, yet this is not being done adequately. It leads one to ask, ‘Who is responsible for not ensuring that GM foods are properly assessed, and why?’"

The risk assessment process is a sham, said Joe Cummins, Emeritus Professor of Plant Genetics from University of Western Ontario, Canada. For example, there are many toxins isolated from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis –Bt toxins - incorporated into crops. Many are synthetic versions of the natural toxins, and they are also processed differently in plants, with different carbohydrate added to the protein. "But companies are allowed to test the natural toxins instead of the toxins from the GM plants, as they would be eaten by animals and human beings." Said Joe Cummins.

Joe Cummins is also very critical of his own government: "The Canadian government pumped millions of dollars into developing GM crops, especially GM wheat, owned by the corporations. In return, the corporations agreed to enhance the salaries of agricultural bureaucrats. The cosy relationship between the corporations and government has resulted in lax regulation and widespread pollution of non-GM crops. Worse still, scientists are intimidated into silence; they are afraid to speak out, let alone do experiments on the risks and hazards of GM."

Many scientists deplore the pervasive commercial and political conflicts of interests in both research and development and regulation of GM. Dr. Eva Novotny, astrophysicist, formerly from Cambridge University, and spokesperson for Scientists for Global Responsibility sums it up: "Vested interests must not override science, economics and what the public want."

Who are the winners and the losers in this GM debate? The environment, farmers and consumers are all losers if GM crops are to be grown. Companies may appear to be winners, but consumers have roundly rejected their offerings, farmers who grew GM crops elsewhere have lost their markets. A report released last April by Innovest Strategic Value Advisors signalled that agricultural biotechnology is a high-risk industry not worth investing in. The Economics Review commissioned by the UK Government last summer confirmed that there is no market for GM crops. "GM companies might do best to cut their losses and begin producing something their potential customers will actually want." Said Eva Novotny.

The scientists are keen to work in partnership with farmers in research and development of sustainable agriculture. John Turner, organic farmer from FARM, a group set up in 2002 to represent independent and family farmers in the wake of the foot and mouth epidemic, confirms that farmers in his organisation overwhelmingly reject the commercial growing of GM crops. He is very enthusiastic about the possibility of forming a scientists-farmers coalition. He says: "This will ensure that science can respond to the present needs of agriculture, and anticipate future aspirations and needs of farmers and consumers."

"The problem with our government’s scientific advisors is that they not only refuse to look at evidence in their own field of molecular genetics, they refuse to look at evidence from other fields, such as the documented successes of non-GM sustainable agriculture." Mae-Wan Ho pointed out.

She just returned from visiting Ethiopia, which has a Green as president. The head of its Environment Protection Authority, Dr. Tewolde Egziabher, and Sue Edwards, Director of the Institute of Sustainable Development, started a small project in sustainable agriculture in the state of Tigray at the very north of the country in 1996.

Mae-Wan Ho summarised the work with great enthusiasm: "The results were so good that the project rapidly spread, and now 2 000 families are involved. Over a range of agricultural land from wet to very dry, from rich soils to very poor thin soils, farmers found that just by adopting pit composting, the traditional way in Ethiopia, they were able to increase yields up to 4-fold, and do better than chemical fertilizers in the overwhelming majority of farms. That is something Londoners can do in their garden while they keep London and Britain GM-Free."

The Briefing itself was webcast. To see this, go to

Article first published 01/02/04

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