Science in Society Archive

GM Food: Angel or Devil?


Author: Yimin
Publisher: Renmin University Press (May 2010)
Language: Chinese
165 pages

By Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

It has been 16 years since the first genetically modified (GM) crop - Flavr Savr tomato for delayed ripening - was approved for commercial growing in the USA. It was also the year that I became a ‘science activist', on realising how science itself was falling prey to corporate manipulation. Flavr Savr was soon withdrawn as a failure; but it was only a decoy, as agbiotech corporations like Monsanto were after much bigger game.

Genetic modification actually focussed on three major crops and two main traits: herbicide-tolerance (HT) due to glyphosate-insensitive form of the enzyme targeted by the herbicide - 5-enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase (EPSPS) - derived from the soil bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens , and insect-resistance due to one or more toxins derived from another soil bacterium Bt ( Bacillus thuringiensis ).

Commercial planting of these crops began around 1997 in the USA, the heartland of GM crops, and increased rapidly thereafter. Though, thanks to strong resistance from informed citizens in Europe and other parts of the world, GM crops have remained confined, to this day, to less than 3 percent of global agricultural land, with 79 percent of the area planted concentrated in the USA, Argentina and Brazil [1].

In the USA, GM crops now occupy 85-91 percent of the area planted with the three major crops, soybean, corn and cotton. And it is the USA that's now facing an ecological meltdown due to GM crops [2].

HT crops encouraged the use of herbicides sold as a package with the crop, resulting in herbicide-resistant weeds that demand yet more herbicides. But the increasing use of deadly herbicide and herbicide mixtures has failed to stall the advance of the dreaded palmer superweed that stops combine harvesters and break hand tools. At the same time, secondary pests such as the tarnished plant bug, against which Bt toxin is powerless, became the single most damaging insect for US cotton. The US corn belt, meanwhile, has been ravaged by yet another secondary pest, the western bean cutworm ( Striacosta albicosta ) [3]. Farmers are at a loss to deal with the crisis. They are being advised by misguided academics to use an armoury of more deadly herbicides and insecticides that accomplishes little else than make bigger profits for the same agbiotech companies that sell them the offending GM crops. Those farmers that have held out against planting GM crops, or want to stop planting them, are finding it increasingly difficult, if not impossible to buy non-GM seeds, as corporations like Monsanto have been consolidating their monopoly on seeds in the mean time [4]. In addition, they are offering new GM varieties with up to eight ‘stacked' traits to keep farmers on the transgenic treadmill [5].

The situation is bad enough for farmers in the United States; but it has been deadly in India, where farmers do not have any state subsidies, unlike their counterparts in the USA, and many are already caught in a cycle of indebtedness from the ‘green revolution' agriculture that depends on high chemical inputs.

Bt cotton was approved for commercial planting in India in 2003, and spread rapidly throughout the country despite strenuous protests from farmers and consumers. Bt cotton accelerated farm suicides by increasing farmers' burden of debt. Crop failures or bad harvests for two successive seasons on top of the exorbitant cost of GM seeds would be enough to build up debt to a level that drives farmers to take their own lives. As in the USA, Bt cotton soon created secondary and new pests, as well as resistant pests, new diseases, and above all, soils so depleted in nutrients and beneficial microorganisms that they may cease to support the growth of any crop in a decade [6, 7].

The Bt cotton crisis in India has galvanised the entire nation to oppose the introduction of Monsanto's Bt brinjal (egg-plant). In response, Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh carried out a nation-wide consultation, at the end of which, he announced a moratorium on commercial planting until further health and environmental safety tests can be conducted [8]. Ramesh achieved the status of a national hero for standing up to intense pressure from the USA and its agents that had already manipulated India's national Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) to approve commercial planting of Bt brinjal [9]. Ramesh pointedly renamed GEAC to Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee on announcing the moratorium.

Along with the unfolding ecological disasters is accumulating evidence of adverse health impacts, both of which have been predicted by critics right from the start, as described in my book, Genetic Engineering Dream or Nightmare , first published in 1997 [10]. The health hazards, both inherent to the genetic modification technology and specific to transgenes involved, have been corroborated both by the limited number of experiments independent scientists are able to conduct in the laboratory with inadequate support, and by experiences of farm and other workers in the fields, as documented in a dossier of reports from the Institute of Science in Society [11]. Sicknesses and deaths have occurred in fields where people and livestock were exposed to GM crops. In the laboratory, whenever and wherever independent scientists perform feeding trials, they find increased deaths, sterility, stunting, and a range of organ dysfunction, regardless of the transgenic crop or transgenes involved, and in a variety of animal species. The same disturbing findings emerge when independent scientists have been able to reanalyse raw data submitted by companies for transgenic varieties that have been approved as ‘substantially equivalent' to and hence as safe as the non-GM counterparts. This applies to the data submitted for Bt brinjal that gained commercial approval [12] before the moratorium was imposed.

In his detailed report announcing the Bt brinjal moratorium [7], Ramesh highlighted organic non-pesticide management as superior to the Bt technology, for it eliminates the use of pesticides altogether. It is clear that for India, as for the United States, the only rational exit from the ecological crisis is to switch comprehensively to organic, non-GM agriculture.

Why would China want to accept the GM ecological time bomb at a time when national surveys have identified her agriculture as the major source of environmental pollution worse than industry [13], and her soils are so acidified from the overuse of fertilizers that it is compromising productivity [14]? GM crops have all the worst features of industrial green revolution varieties exaggerated, and more besides, which make them especially vulnerable to climate change.

Wen Tiejun, dean of the School of Agriculture and rural Development at Renmin University is right when he says China should use this opportunity as a turning point. He said: “For almost all of China's 5 000-year history, agriculture had given our country a carbon-absorbing economy but in the past 40 years, agriculture has become one of the top pollution sources. Experience shows that we don't have to rely on chemical farming to resolve the food security issue. The government needs to foster low-pollution agriculture.”

The turning point is now, as climate change is already happening, and the depletion of oil and especially water is making industrial chemical agriculture increasingly unsustainable. This volume is extremely timely. It will help steer the turning point away from GM crops to a carbon-absorbing agriculture and a truly green circular economy that can deliver health, wealth and prosperity to the nation in this auspicious year of the tiger.

Mae-Wan Ho

Institute of Science in Society


  1. Who benefits from GM crops? Friends of the Earth International, February 2010,
  2. Ho MW. GM Crops Facing Meltdown in the USA . Science in Society 46.
  3. Then C. New plant pest caused by genetically engineered corn. Agr4o-Biotechnology, Testbiotech Report March 2010
  4. Novotny E. US farmers opposed ‘Big Ag' in anti-trust hearing. Science in Society 46.
  5. Cummins J. SmartStax maize a medley of transgenes with problems. Science in Society 46.
  6. Ho MW. Farmer Suicides and Bt Cotton Nightmare Unfolding in India . Science in Society 45 , 32-39, 2010.
  7. Ho MW. Mealy Bug Plagues Bt Cotton in India and Pakistan . Science in Society 45 , 40-43, 2010.
  8. “Reasons for the Bt brinjal moratorium”, India Together, 12 February 2010,
  9. “How Bt brinjal was cleared, Anti-GM groups say expert panel acted under pressure”, Savvy Soumya Misra. Down to Earth, accessed 4 April 2010,
  10. Ho MW. Genetic Engineering Dream of Nightmare? The Brave New World of Bad Science and Big Business, Research Foundation for Science Technology & Ecology & Third World Network, Third World Network (TWN), Gateway Books, MacMillan, Continuum, New Delhi, Penang, Malaysia, Bath, UK, Dublin, Ireland, New York, USA, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2007 (reprint with extended Introduction TWN).
  11. GM Science Exposed: Hazards Ignored, Fraud, Regulatory Sham and Violation of Farmers' Rights , I-SIS CD book, 2007.
  12. Burcher S. Bt Brinjal Unfit for Human Consumption . Science in Society 41 , 50-51, 2009.
  13. Ho MW. China's Pollution Census Triggers Green Five-Year Plan . Science in Society 46.
  14. Ho MW. Sustainable Agriculture, Green Energies and the Circular Economy . Science in Society 46.

Chapter I Harmless or A Risk Burden

The safety of GM food:

Does GM food essentially the same as traditional food? Is GM food more safe than water?

Chapter II The Only Choice or Proceed with Caution

GM food, food security and ecological security:

Is GM food the only means to solve China's food problem ? How will GM food planting impact the environment?

Chapter III The Story of Monsanto

Biological multinational corporations:

Who is the biggest promoter and beneficiary of GM food commercialization?

Chapter IV Prosperity or Decline

The consequences of GM crop planting:

Can GM crops really reduce the use of pesticide? Are GM crops more and more planted in the developed countries, or the converse to? Do other countries all rush after them or evade them?

Chapter V Independent Innovation or Control by Others

The patent of GM food:

Have we truly mastered all the core technologies of genetic modification? Do we have to lead the technology by commercialization and opening markets?

Chapter VI Covert Execution or Active Participation

The approval of GM food security certificate:

Is the introduction of GM food important for people's livelihood? Should common people be clearly informed of the situation and participate in policy-decisions on GMOs? What roles should citizens play during their participation in the formulation of public policies?

Article first published 04/05/10

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There are 3 comments on this article so far. Add your comment above.

Todd Millions Comment left 12th May 2010 05:05:11
This is a sound anaylisis-But while the wide spread official approval was in the mid 1990's, Several 'accidental'contaminations had already in fact occured.Canadian flax is a glaring recently detected example-boy was ag tox Canada and health pharma Canada really on top of those inspection files eh! As well as these,there was an apparent contamination of american soy in the early to mid 1980's.Glyphosate resistance it seems-wonder whose experiments those were? What we knew at the time was-orphan calfs that couldn't be matched to foster cows,could be raised on defatted soy meal milk replacer,with a survival rate of about 50-60%. After 1983,they All died and the practice stopped.Years later we learned that this was when the experimental gm soy had 'escaped'-'accidentally' of course and wasn't a problem as official approval was pending. Those who approved,were as I recall shocked and unbeleving when the Erakova trials became public-funny they never did such simple trials themselves though.

Rory Short Comment left 11th May 2010 01:01:03
The pursuit of money at any cost rather than the pursuit of true wealth lies at the root of much that is done, by corporations such as Monsanto, that is bad for the health of society.

Santhanam Ramasubramanyam Comment left 6th May 2010 16:04:45
It is unfortunate that India despite having a large number of educated citizens, is allowing the MNCs like Monsanto to dictate what Indian agricultural policy should follow. Indian farmers showed their innovativeness by spraying country liquor on brinjal (aubergine) crops and reaping bumper harvests. Similarly Swami Valmiki Sreenivasa Ayyangarya has developed his own Keshava Krishi formulations out of toxic sludges, and common wastes, weeds. They work like a dream in tea, coffee, pepper, amla (Indian version of gooseberry), chillies, kiwi fruit to name a few. The agro climatic zones where these are cultivated range from the cold Himalayan tracts, hot, dustry planis of Rajasthan, temperate areas in Kanataka, Kerala. Plant diseases show regression, pest attacks get minimized, crops show zero toxic residues. Even the devils land of US agriculture's flat prairies can be tamed and the super weeds brought under control with this methodology. Can the US citizens and Uncle Sam shrug off the corrupting vested interests of US Agribusiness MNCS?