Science in Society Archive

Science War Intensifies

The Future of GM Crops Hangs in the Balance

The embattled British government-sponsored Farm Scale Evaluations (FSEs) are due to end in 2003. For Britain as for the rest of Europe, the decisive moment has come for GM crops: to commercialise, or to ban. The scientific establishment, the Government and Monsanto join forces in attacking independent scientists and stifling debate. But cracks are developing. Scientists have an obligation to engage in genuinely open debate, says Dr. Mae-Wan Ho.

A new Consumers’ Association poll found that 94% want all products containing any GM to be labelled [1]. This sentiment is more than reflected by the European Parliament’s environment committee which voted at its meeting in June for strict traceability and labelling of all GM food and feed, extending this requirement to meat, eggs and milk from animals fed on GM fodder. A proposal to allow unauthorised GM contamination in non-GM products was deleted, and the threshold of GM contamination of non-GM food was reduced from 1% to 0.5% maximum [2]. But this has yet to get pass the full parliament. The FoE request to contact your MEP on the important parliamentary vote on this issue is pasted at the end of this message.

The stakes in protecting the status of organic produce have become very high, given the sharp rise in both the demand for organic foods and the acreage given over to organic production within the past 5 years. According to a leaked EU report [3], once GM crops are introduced, it will be "extremely difficult" to keep organic crops GM-free. GM crops would add between one and 10% to the cost of food production due to changes to farming practice and the introduction of insurance and monitoring systems. For some crops, including oilseed rape, the increased costs could be as high as 41%.

Europe is under intense pressure from the biggest producer of GM crops, the United States, to break its de facto moratorium since 1999.

The scientific establishment has been redoubling its efforts to promote GM crops and denigrating organic farming at the same time, based on opinions and hearsay and ignoring the large body of evidence documenting the successes of organic and other forms of sustainable agriculture [4].

Pro-biotech scientists are attacking and denying any scientific evidence damaging to the industry, and stifling attempts by the media to widen the scientific debate. The British Prime Minister is on side. He gave a speech at London’s Royal Society (see "Blair’s biotech vision clouded", this series) to condemn anti-GM as anti-Science. Shortly afterwards, a document leaked to The Sunday Times shows Downing Street is considering launching a PR campaign before Britain’s Farm Scale Evaluations officially end.

In February, top British science journal Nature retracted a paper it had published last November reporting GM contamination of Mexican maize landraces [5]. This move is unprecedented, for a paper that was neither wrong nor fraudulent. The main results of the paper have since been amply confirmed [6]; despite vicious attacks by pro-biotech scientists, which turned out to be orchestrated by Monsanto’s pr company [7].

In June, a BBC drama, Fields of Gold, portraying the health risks of GM crops raised a chorus of attacks and vilification from prominent scientists including Bob May, president of the Royal Society [8]. This, too, was orchestrated from within the heart of the scientific establishment [9]. E-mail messages to the press were traced to the Science Media Centre run by Baroness Dr. Susan Greenfield. Greenfield is one of the major architects of a set of ‘guidelines’ for science journalists and scientists, discouraging them from reporting unpublished findings and from questioning the safety of GM. The Royal Society, the House of Lords and a transmogrified PR company known as the Social Issues Research Centre (SIRC) funded by the food industry were the major bodies promoting the guidelines. Other eminent scientists were involved, including Sir John Krebs, head of the Food Standards Agency, well-known for his pro-biotech/anti-organic stance. The guidelines formed part of a concerted campaign to suppress scientific dissent after Dr. Arpad Pusztai alerted the world to possible harmful effects of GM foods [10].

I would not defend the BBC drama either on artistic or scientific merit, as the genetics was garbled at best, and the producer should have sought better scientific advice than from Dr. Mark Tester, who was the first to turn against the drama.

Nevertheless, it was an attempt to alert the public to the most insidious, uncontrollable danger of GM - horizontal gene transfer - the transfer of genetic material to unrelated species. It was that which provoked the unseemly reaction from the scientific establishment [11]. Denial continues while the weight of scientific evidence grows; horizontal gene transfer can and does happen. The crucial question is whether transgenic DNA is more likely to spread by horizontal gene transfer than natural DNA. There are many reasons to believe that is the case, but decisive experiments, that can easily be done, seem to have been avoided so far.

As to the GM crops themselves, numerous independent studies from US universities have documenting their failures to live up to the propaganda. They have cost US farmers some $92 million in lost income [12]. Farmers in Canada have suffered even worse. Percy Schmeiser, who found his fields heavily contaminated by Monsanto’s GM canola volunteers, was ordered to pay fines and costs when taken to court by the company accusing him of stealing their patented seeds [13]. Schmeiser broke down in tears in court, he has built up his own high-yielding canola variety by saving seeds for years, which has now been totally ruined by transgenic contamination.

Top US science magazine Science recently featured a paper painting a rosy picture of agricultural biotechnology and claiming that bt cotton was a great success for small farmers [14]. That paper was jointly written by agronomists in University of California Davies, and the Chinese Academy of Science, and unsurprisingly, concentrated on improved agronomic performance from reduced use of pesticides and labour saving for farmer (though not from improved yield).

Shortly afterwards, another report released by the Nanjing Institute of Environmental Sciences (NIES) [15] reveals that the Bt-cotton was harming natural parasitic enemies of the bollworm and seems to be encouraging other pests. Studies also predict that resistance will develop in the bollworm to make Bt cotton useless in 8 years.

People should always beware of the long-term and underlying impacts on the environment, said Zhu Xinquan, chairman of the Chinese Society of Agro-Biotechnology, who hosted the seminar where the report was released with NIES and Greenpeace China.

There are signs that the scientific establishment is cracking up. Alun Anderson, editor of New Scientist, the leading popular science magazine in Britain, objected on the Blair speech that anti-GM was not anti-science. On the contrary, people are rightly asking, "What’s in it for me?" And in the case of GM crops, the answer is, "not a lot" [16]. He advises Blair to "Be open about the science".

But, just when the British government has promised nation wide public debate on GM crops, Dr. Bridget Olgivie stunned colleagues by announcing her resignation from the Royal Society’s Committee for the Public Understanding of Science (Copus), a body likely to play an important role in the debate [17]. Olgivie accused the Royal Society of blocking her attempts to turn Copus into a "democratic, umbrella organisation for the various UK groups involved in science communication". Not surprising for an organisation that has played such an important role in suppressing scientific dissent, and which has now completely lost public trust as a result.

Pitch battles are being fought over the Farm Scale Evaluations in Britain and elsewhere. More and more citizens are destroying their local field trials as their democratic rights to veto the trials have been flagrantly denied over and over again. Scientists have an obligation to engage in genuinely open debate, rather than slavishly promoting the corporate agenda.


  1. Ecosoundings by John Vidal, Guardian Society, June 12, 2002.
  2. "Euro MPs vote for tougher rules on GM food labels", EU: June 5, 2002, Reuters News Service.
  3. RICS RURAL BRIEFING, 27 May 2002
  4. "Organics enter the science war" by Angela Ryan, ISIS News 2001, 11/12.
  5. "Row over GM crops - Mexican scientist tells Newsnight he was threatened because he wanted to tell the truth" 10th June:
  6. "GM maize war in three episodes" by Mae-Wan Ho, Science in Society 2002, 15.
  7. "Monsanto's PR firm admits involvement in e-mail campaign" 8 June, Norfolk Genetic Information Network (ngin),; see also "Corporate Ghosts, There’s a web of deceit over GM food, says George Monbiot"
    The Guardian, 29 May 2002
  8. "BBC defends upcoming drama about potential dangers of GM crops" by Matt Wells, The Guardian, My 31, 2002.,7493,725193,00.html
  9. Lobby group 'led GM thriller critics'" by Robin McKie, The Observer,,2763,726475,00.html
  10. "The new thought police, suppressing dissent in science" by Mae-Wan Ho and Jonathan Matthews, ISIS News 2001, 7/8.
  11. "Denial continues over horizontal gene transfer" by Mae-Wan Ho, ISIS Report, 7 June 2002
  12. "GM crops failed" by Lim Li Ching, Science in Society 2002, 13/14.
  13. "GM and corporate serfdom official" by Nick Papadimitriou, ISIS News 2001, 11/12.
  14. Huang J, Rozelle S, Pray C and Wang Q. Plant biotechnology in China. Science 2002, 295, 674-7.
  15. "GM cotton damaging the environment" Xinhau News Agency
  16. "Yes, Prime Minister" New Scientist Editorial, 2002, 1 June, 5.
  17. "British science champion quits post" by David Adam, Nature 2002, 417, 577.

Friends of the Earth Request

Dear activists and citizens concerned about GM-food,

In this message I am going to make a very strong appeal to you to take immediate action on the labelling of GM-food and feed products. As you may know, recently the Environment Committee of the European Parliament amended two proposals of the European Commission on the traceability and labelling of GM-food and feed. The Environment Committee voted for full labelling of food products derived from GMO's, including all products (like milk, eggs and meat) derived from animals raised on GM-feed. Obviously this vote is quite positive. However, the majority in the Environment Committee who supported this positive amendments was very tight. The Greens and the vast majority of the Socialists voted in favour, the Conservatives against. The Liberals are split on the issue.

In the first week of July the plenary (full assembly) of the European Parliament will vote on the Commissions proposals and on the amendments adepted in the Environment Committee. As you may understand this is a key event. If this vote is lost, for sure GM labelling will be weak in the future. But if the Parliament endorses the position of the Environment Committee the European Commission will probably introduce a full labelling system for GMO-food and feed. So what we have here is a great opportunity to translate years of passionate campaigning into strict EU-labelling legislation !

Industry understands very well that the future of GMO's in Europe (and beyond!) is at stake. The Members of the European Parliament (MEP's) currently are under a lot of pressure and fiercly lobbied by the biotech-industry not to adopt strict GM-labelling ! For every environmental lobbyist in Brussels there are hundreds of industry-lobbyists. So we definitely und urgently need your help. The vote will be a neck-to-neck race and industry has already announced that it hopes to get some key MEP's on their side. Since the vote was very close in the Environment Committee (with key-amendments being adopted by 28 votes in favour and 27 against) just a few MEP's have to change their position and an important battle will be lost! (For more detailed information: see the attached backgrounder about the vote in the Environment Committee).

What To Do?

Past experience has learnt that MEP's are very sensitive to the opinions of citizens from their Member State. Especially effective are letters that are personalized (with their name on top), written in their own language and send by their constituents (people from the region where the MEP got voted).

So please do the following:

1) Write a short and clear letter in your national language. An example of such letter is attached. Please make some variations and add some of your own points. However, leave the three key-issues in.

2) Go to the website of the European Commission. You will find the names of all 626 MEP there, ranked by political group and country. The website of the Commission is: Go to: Institutions, then go to Parliament, then to Members of the European Parliament, by political group and country. The unique address code of each MEP can be found when you click on their names. The general address of the Parliament is: Rue Wiertz, B-1047 Brussels, Belgium. You can compose the e- mail addresses of the MEP's yourself, by taking the first letter of their first name and attach it (without dot!) to their family name. Then add (so for example d.e. corbey will be

3) Make a list of the MEP's in your country, including postal and e- mail addresses.

4) Distribute the letter and the MEP-names and addresses to as many activists, concerned housewives, familymembers and friends as you can. Make sure that you give all letterwriters a few MEP names and addresses and distribute these evenly, to prevent that everybody will focus on the same MEP's. If you don't have much time, focus on the Liberals (ELDR), because many of the Liberals still have not made up their minds about the vote. Sending hard copy letters by post will be the most effective !

Hopefully soon in the Brussels MEP-offices letters will start flooding in. Friends of the Earth works closely together with other NGO's in Brussels (Greenpeace, consumerorganisations, etc.) and they also have started a letterwriting campaign.

The more letters that are sent, the bigger the chance that we might win this crucial battle in the struggle for a GM-free world. Don't wait. Start to work on this NOW !

Succes and thanks for your help, Kind regards,
Geert Ritsema
European GMO Campaign Coordinator
Friends of the Earth Europe
Phone: +-32-2-542 0182
Mobile: + 31--290 05 908

[MEP name]
European Parliament
Rue Wiertz
B-1047 Brussels


Dear (name),

As a European citizen, I am very concerned about two new laws that could take away my right to choose whether I eat genetically modified food.

I understand that two proposals on labelling and traceability of genetically modified products drafted by the European Commission will be discussed by the European Parliament shortly. Under the current Commission proposals, there are several areas that I feel need to be strengthened. I urge you to use your political power to:

1. ensure that all products derived from GMOs are labelled, including those products from animals fed on GMO

2. ensure that the threshold level for unauthorised GMOs is zero and not 1% as suggested. I do not want unapproved GMOs to be present in my food without knowing.

3. ensure that the amendments that call for the labelling of GMO-free products are rejected. If such amendments would be adopted it would mean that GMO-free producers instead of those responsible for the marketing of food derived from GMO's would carry the costs of labelling.

I understand that recently in the Environment Committee of the European Parliament most of these key-issues were voted in. Therefore I strongly appeal to you to endorse the position taken by the Environment Committee during the vote of the full assembly, which is expected to take place in the first week of July. I'm sure you are aware that both these future Regulations are of crucial importance with regard to both consumers and the environment. Please could you let me know whether you support these suggestions and what you will do to strengthen the proposals?

Yours sincerely,

(Your name)


On 4th June, the European Parliament's Environment Committee backed calls for a substantial strengthening of European Commission proposals on the traceability and labelling of genetically modified (GM) food and animal feed, and products derived therefrom. An amendment extending labelling to meat, eggs and dairy products derived from animals fed on GM feed was also adopted. MEPs also lowered from 1% to 0.5% the threshold beyond which the accidental contamination of produce by GMOs must be labelled, and demanded a ban on products containing GM ingredients not authorised in the EU. It is expected that the full assembly of the European Parliament will decide upon the Environment Committees proposals in the first week of July.

Although several amendments were adopted that extend the scope of the European Commissions proposals, the Environment Committee endorsed in majority the main principle underlying the Commission's proposal, which is labelling based on traceability. In the two proposals from the Commission (Traceability and labelling of genetically modified organisms and traceability of food and feed products produced from genetically modified organisms COM(2001) 182 final) and Genetically modified food and feed COM(2001) 425 final) the traceability principle is laid down in several articles. For example, the Commission defines the traceability principle in the explanatory memorandum to proposal COM(2001) 182 (final) as follows: 93Traceability in the context of this proposal can be defined as the ability to trace GMOs and products produced from GMOs at all stages of the placing on the market throughout the production and distribution chains facilitating quality control and also the possibility to withdraw products94. To make the traceability principle work, the Commission intends to introduce several traceability and labelling requirements for GMO producers. Operators will be obliged to label pre-packaged products and to transmit information to receiving operators about the unique code(s) of the GMO(s) in case the product contains or consists of GMOs (Article 4.2 of the proposal COM(2001) 182 (final)). In case food products are produced from GMOs, the operators should indicate to receiving producers that the products is produced from GMOs, but are not required to give the unique codes of the GMOs. Also no operator-to-operator labelling is required when the products are produced from GMOs. (Article 5). On the other hand, the Commission does propose labelling of these products when they reach the consumer.

The traceability principle is at the heart of the discussions in the European Parliament. A majority of Green, Socialist and Liberal MEPs seems to realise that applying the traceability principle to GMOs is an essential element to secure the freedom of choice for consumers. Also the majority of the MEPs is aware of the fact that traceability is needed to intervene effectively in case unexpected environmental or health problems show up once a GMO has been released into the environment or put on the market. However, the majority in the Parliament for a traceability system is tight. The Conservative Party (EVP-ED), which is the largest party in the Parliament, is opposed to labelling based on the traceability system. They tabled several amendments in the Environment Committee that aim at restricting labelling to only those products in which transgenic DNA or protein can be found through chemical tests. If adopted, these amendments would mean that the majority of the 30,000 food products that can contain GM soya- or maize- derived ingredients would escape from mandatory labelling. For example, no oils made from GM maize would not have to be labelled. Basically it would mean a continuation of the present situation in which consumer have no choice and only a tiny minority of GM-foods have to be labelled.

Although the Conservative amendments were rejected by the Environment Committee, this might change when the full assembly of the European Parliament votes on the labelling and traceability proposals. Parliamentarians like Jules Maaten of the ELDR (Liberals) and David Bowe of the PSE (Socialists) support the Conservative position. However, even if the majority of the full assembly would vote in favour of the Conservative amendments, the case for a better labelling system of GM food and feed is not completely lost. After the vote in the European Parliament, the Council of Ministers will also take a decision on the Commission's proposal and this decision could change the position taken by the full assembly of the EP.

FoEs position

Friends of the Earth's view is that the Commission's proposal for traceability (and especially the consumer labelling) is a positive development and that the Commission has already undertaken many steps in the right direction. However, the traceability and labelling requirements still should be improved substantially. Mandatory operator-to-operator labelling should also be introduced for food products produced from GMOs and the operators should be obliged to transfer the unique codes for these products as well. Moreover, mandatory labelling should also be introduced for animal products (like milk, eggs and meat) derived from animals fed with GM feed, as the EP's Environment Committee has demanded. Furthermore, Friends of the Earth supports the position of the Environment Committee that there should be no threshold (meaning exemption from the labelling obligation) for the adventitious presence of unauthorised GMOs in food and feed- products. Such a threshold is justifiable for authorised GMOs, but should be set at the lowest level possible and not, as the Environment Committee has proposed, at a level of 0.5 %.

Article first published 20/06/02

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