Science in Society Archive

I-SIS Condemns Prime Minister's Scoping Note

British Prime Minister's Strategy Unit's Scoping Note on "The Costs and Benefits of Genetically Modified (GM) crops" suffers from two fatal flaws, says Dr. Mae-Wan Ho. The first is the omission of the non-GM option from the scope of the study. The second is the failure to take account of the abundant evidence indicating that the entire GM enterprise is sinking because it is not working.

The Scoping Note is supposed to set the scope for the Strategy Unit's study on the costs and benefits associated with the growing of GM crops in Britain. This study is to accompany a review of the "scientific issues relating to GM crops", which is being led by the Government's chief Scientific Adviser and the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

Both studies are to feed into a public debate being organised by an "independent steering board" whose members are drawn from the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission (AEBC) which was set up to oversee the Farm Scale Evaluations (FSEs) of GM crops due to end next year.

The Scoping Note suffers from two fatal flaws. The first is the omission of the non-GM option from the scope of the study. The second is the failure to take account of the abundant evidence indicating that the entire GM enterprise (GM crops & gene medicines both) is sinking because it is not working. The many costs of GM technology are thus inadequately reflected in the Scoping Note, but are highlighted below.

The predicted 'biotech boom' never happened. Biotech market shares peaked in 2000, but have been failing sharply since, and performing well below the industrial average on both sides of the Atlantic. Thousands have lost their jobs in mass layoffs from the genomics and pharmaceutical sector. Most companies are reporting double-digit losses, including many of the 199 spin-off companies in the UK that Lord Sainsbury is so proud of. Venture capital has dried to less than a tenth of what it was 2 years ago.

The UK Soil Association study released in September found GM crops an economic disaster. They have cost the United States an estimated $12billion in farm subsidies, lost sales and product recalls due to transgenic contamination.

Catastrophic failures of GM cotton, up to 100%, have been reported in several Indian states, including failures of germination, root-rot and attacks by the American bollworm, for which the crops are supposed to be resistant. A university-based study has confirmed that the Bt-cotton was heavily infested (up to 80%) with the bollworm.

Monsanto has been teetering on the brink of collapse since the beginning of 2002 as one company after another spun off their agricultural biotechnology. It has suffered a series of setbacks: drastic reductions in profits, problems in selling GM seeds in the US and Argentina.

Biotech giant Syngenta is deserting Britain's top plant biotech research institute, John Innes Centre, even as the latter's publicly funded Genomics Centre is being unveiled.

At the same time, evidence of the hazards inherent to GM is accumulating. The latest to hit the headlines are the following.

GM soya flour eaten in a milk shake and hamburger meal was found to transfer GM DNA to gut bacteria of human subject, confirming fears that antibiotic resistance genes might spread to pathogens, and new viruses and bacteria that cause diseases might be created by such horizontal gene transfer.

Gene therapy has claimed its first cancer victim. I-SIS has warned of this possibility, not only from gene therapy, but also from other exposures to transgenic DNA, as from GM food including honey, pollen and dust. The artificial GM constructs used are similar in both cases.

Multi-herbicide tolerant GM canola appeared rapidly in Canada and the United States, constituting serious weeds.

Roundup-tolerant super-weeds are plaguing GM soya and cotton fields in the US.

Transgenic contamination of both established seed stocks and indigenous landraces is widespread, threatening both agricultural and natural biodiversity.

Hazards associated with gene drugs may be generic. The body often treats those proteins as foreign, producing antibodies against them that compromise their effectiveness, and in a minority of cases result in serious illnesses and death. Quality control is impossible.

Not surprisingly, there is worldwide rejection of GM crops. Zambia made headlines when it rejected GM-food aid, and has galvanised African countries to unite towards self-sufficiency and sustainability. The last thing they want now is for Britain to join the US in forcing surplus GM food on them, an act widely condemned by aid agencies, NGOs and even by UK's Chief Scientific Officer.

There will be no market whatsoever for GM produce and the UK would be foolish to invest into an unwanted technology. The latest news of countries rejecting GM include the following.

One hundred percent of the wheat buyers in China, Korea and Japan have announced they will not buy GM wheat. The rejection rates from Taiwan and South East Asia are 82% and 78% respectively.

Farmers and retailers in Switzerland have agreed never to produce or sell GM food.

European Union member states have refused to reconsider lifting their GM moratorium, and UK may be a minority of one in wanting to introduce GM into Europe.

Brazil's front-running presidential candidate wants to keep Brazil GM-free.

The elite French three-star chefs have launched a 'crusade' for a Europe-wide ban on GM crops and livestocks.

Meanwhile governments all over the world have legislated or are in the process of legislating tough biosafety laws to exclude GM crops and products.

That's not all. The evidence in favour of a non-GM, organic, sustainable option is now firmly documented. There is little or no reduction in yields in developed countries, with yields improving in successive years. It is in developing countries that low-input, organic, or agro-ecological approaches are working miracles. Three to four fold increases in yield are frequent. There are many additional benefits: improvements to soil fertility, increased sequestration of carbon in the soil, health, cleaner environment, reduction in food miles, self-sufficiency for farmers and both financial and social enrichments of local communities.

ISIS has compiled the evidence of the biotech sector failing in a special briefing for the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit, "Biotech debacle in four parts", which we are enclosing with this communication.

In addition, we are delivering, under separate cover, copies of the latest issue of our magazine, Science in Society 16, which contains in-depth analyses of the failures of the biotech sector in both agriculture and medicine, the hazards of GM, and the successes of organic, agro-ecological approaches to agriculture.

Please do not waste yet more billions of our tax money to prop up the sinking industry, to force GM crops on the nation that is overwhelmingly rejecting it.

Invest, instead in sustainable, non-GM agriculture, in holistic health and renewable energies. These are the first steps to revive the rural economy and the ailing National Health Service.

Article first published 28/10/02

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