Science in Society Archive

The Case Against GM Crops & for Organic Sustainable Agriculture

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho Invited Workshop Presentation at National Justice and Peace Conference, 16-18 July 2010, Swanick, UK

The talk with complete references and power point presentation is available for download here (33mb download)

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’ inspired by people like Vandana Shiva, whom you shall hear this evening, and realising how science itself was falling prey to corporate manipulation. Flavr Savr was soon withdrawn as a failure, but agbiotech corporations like Monsanto had moved on to much bigger game.

What’s a GMO?

Let’s begin with the basics. The best definition of a GMO that I can think of is an organism with synthetic genetic material inserted into its genome. It is made in the laboratory without sex. The genome is all of the genetic material of an organism, a copy of which is present in practically every cell of its body.

Every organism, as for example, a maize plant, is made of tissues, tissues of cells, and as you go down the scale with an increasingly powerful microscope, you can see that each cell has a nucleus containing a copy of all its genetic material - the genome – packaged in structures called chromosomes. Each chromosome, when unwound is a very long thread, called chromatin, and when you strip away the special proteins from the chromatin, you end up with the double helix DNA, the genetic material. The DNA is what gets chopped and changed in genetic engineering and genetic modification. (For more, see [1] (FAQ on Genetic Engineering, I-SIS Tutorial).

Genetic modification focussed on three major crops, soybean, cotton, and maize, 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 that causes crown gall disease, Agrobacterium tumefaciens; and insect-resistance, due to one or more toxins derived from another soil bacterium Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis). According to the industry-funded group for helping people get the benefit of GM technology, the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), GM crops have been a great success [2]. They now cover 134 million ha worldwide.

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 [3] with 79 percent of the area planted concentrated in the USA, Argentina and Brazil.

Actually the case against GM crops has been there much earlier and made by an Independent Science Panel that I-SIS assembled in 2003 [4] (The Case for A GM-Free Sustainable World, Independent Science Panel Report, ISIS publication). It has grown much stronger since.

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 now facing an ecological meltdown from GM crops [5] (GM Crops Facing Meltdown in the USA, SiS 46).

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) [6].

To compound the ecological crisis, senior US scientists who have researched glyphosate and Roundup (Monsanto’s formulation for glyphosate) tolerant crops for decades have now revealed how the herbicide poisons crops and soil [7, 8] (Scientists Reveal Glyphosate Poisons Crops and Soil, Glyphosate Tolerant Crops Bring Diseases and Death, SiS 47), it has led to a general increase in the number of plant diseases in the past 15 to 18 years, especially since herbicide tolerant crops were first planted and increased the use of glyphosate 15 fold on all major crops. Four fungal pathogens have become more active, especially Fusarium, which causes head blight of cereal crops, and produces a mycotoxin that could enter the food chain. More than 40 diseases have been reported with the use of glyphosate, and the number keeps growing. In the soil, glyphosate ties up mineral nutrients and prevents them from being taken up into the plant, it kills beneficial fungi and bacteria and encourages serious pathogens to grow that causes sudden death and other plant diseases. Planting herbicide tolerant GM crops is the surest way to spread diseases to neighbouring and subsequent crops.

The talk with complete references and power point presentation is available for download here (33mb download)

Article first published 19/07/10

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

Ken Bourne Comment left 22nd September 2010 04:04:11
Man will not progress without research and subsequent scientific discoveries. However, the use of these discoveries should be for the benefit of all, not for the monetary benefit of a few. I am not against any company making a profit if what they do is aids the world in general. If only some of the multinational companies would see that their bottom line would greatly increase if they followed the obviously beneficial approach of transforming our garbage, sewage, etc. into usable soil amendments, carbon dioxide sequestration by the use of carbon sinks, and the creation of renewable energy in the process. I would buy shares in any company that did that!

Rory Short Comment left 20th July 2010 00:12:10
GMO's are a massive problem but the mental paradigm that is happy with the approach to the world that has spawned GMO's is our root problem and whilst a significant portion of humanity is firmly in its embrace the unending mis-use of the discoveries of scientific research can be expected.

susan Comment left 20th July 2010 01:01:21
Rory the same people or mental paradigm you have suggested spawned GMO's is of course the same ambiguous party that has a globalization agenda of war, agriculture, and expansionism through resources.