5 reasons to keep Britain [and the rest of the world] GM-free

The Ecologist spells out the five overriding reasons why the commercialisation of GM crops should never be allowed in the UK [and Mendocino County]


The UK government's official adviser on GM, the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission (AEBC), has said it would `be difficult and in some places impossible to guarantee' that any British food was GM-free if commercial growing of GM crops went ahead. In North America, farmers can no longer be certain the seed they plant does not contain GM genes.


Cross pollination

GM genes are often `dominant' - ie, they are inherited at the expense of non-GM genes when cross-pollination occurs between GM and conventional species. With the first GM crops considered for commercialisation - oilseed rape and sugar beet and maize - the `gene flow' (ability to contaminate non-GM varieties) is `high' and `medium to high', respectively.

To prevent cross-pollination, the official advice in the UK is that there should be a separation distance of just 50 metres between GM oilseed rape and non-GM varieties. But pollen can travel a lot further than that. Bees, for example, regularly fly for up to 10 kilometres; hence, oilseed rape pollen has been found in hives 4.5 kilometres from the nearest GM crop field. Tree pollen grains have been recorded in the essentially treeless Shetland Isles, which are 250 kilometres from the nearest mainland. And the University of Adelaide has published research into wind pollination distances that shows oilseed rape pollen can travel for up to 3 kilometres.


GM seed, or parts of GM root crops like sugar beet, may be shed and left in a field where they may grow later.

Combine harvesters move from field to field, and leftover GM seed may be spilt if equipment is not cleaned properly.

Lorries removing a harvested crop from a farm may spill seed near fields where non-GM or organic crops are grown.

For crops with very small seeds like oilseed rape spillage can be high.In May 2002 the European Commission's Joint Research Centre (JRC) echoed the AEBC almost verbatim when it warned that if GM crops were widely adopted, preventing contamination of organic food would be `very difficult and connected to high costs, or virtually impossible'.

The biotech industry is fully aware of this. As Don Westfall, vice president of US food industry consultancy Promar International, says: `The hope of the [GM] industry is that over time the market is so flooded [with GM] that there's nothing you can do about it. You just surrender.'

Likewise, the Soil Association's investigation into the impact of GM in the US concludes: `All non-GM farmers in North America are finding it very hard or impossible to grow GM-free crops. Seeds have become almost completely contaminated with GM organisms (GMOs), good non-GM varieties have become hard to buy, and there is a high risk of crop contamination.'


Pro-GM voices claim that after six years there have been no adverse health effects from eating GM foods in the US. But then, there has been no effort by the US authorities to look for health impacts either.


Safety data comes from the biotech firms themselves. Independent, peer-reviewed research showing that GM food poses no danger to human health is not required. One Monsanto director said: `[We] should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food. Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible.'

`Substantial equivalence'

The common methodology for government food-safety requirements in North America and Europe has traditionally been a comparison between a food and a conventional counterpart. The assumption is that existing foods have a long history of safe use. So, if a GM crop is found to be `the same' as a non-GM counterpart, it can claim this history. This is called `substantial equivalence'. But GM crops are not the same, because of the random nature and uncertain consequences of modification. Biotech firms acknowledge this when it suits them - stating, for example, that their GM varieties are distinctive enough to warrant their own patents.

There have been no properly controlled clinical trials looking at the effects of short- or long-term ingestion of GM foods by humans. Moreover, as Dr Arpad Pusztai (who was sacked when he printed research about the effects of GM potatoes on lab rats) warns: `There is increasing research to show they may actually be very unsafe.'


Allergic reactions

Genetic modification frequently uses proteins from organisms that have never before been an integral part of the human food chain. Hence, GM food may cause unforeseen allergic reactions - particularly among children. Allergens could be transferred from foods to which people are allergic to foods they think are safe. When a new food is introduced, it takes five to six years before any allergies are recognised.

In 2000 GM `StarLink' maize was found in taco shells being sold for human consumption in the US - even though the maize had only been approved for animal feed. StarLink is modified to contain a toxin that could be a human allergen; it is heat stable and does not break down in gastric acid - characteristics shared by many allergens.

Antibiotic resistance

Genetic modification could also make disease-causing bacteria resistant to antibiotics. This could lead to potentially uncontrollable epidemics. Antibiotic-resistance genes are used as `markers' in GM crops to identify which plant cells have successfully incorporated the desired foreign genes during modification.

A 2002 study commissioned by the UK's Food Standards Agency (FSA) showed that antibiotic-resistance marker genes from GM foods can make their way into human gut bacteria after just one meal (see box below). Two years previously, the British Medical Association had warned: `The risk to human health from antibiotic resistance developing in micro-organisms is one of the major public health threats that will be faced in the 21st century.'

Industrial and pharmaceutical crops

Since 1991 over 300 open-field trials of `pharma' crops have taken place around the world. In California, for example, GM rice containing human genes has been grown for drug production. Pharmaceutical wheat, corn and barley are also being developed in the US, France and Canada.

Last year in Texas 500,000 bushels of soya destined for human consumption were contaminated with genes from maize genetically modified by the US firm Prodigene so as to create a vaccine for a stomach disease afflicting pigs. A major concern is that GM firms are using commodity food crops for pharm-aceutical production. If there were such thing as a responsible path with `pharma' GM it would be to use non-food crops.


Within a few years of the introduction of GM crops in North America the following occurred:

Almost all of the US's $300m annual maize exports and Canada's $300m annual rape exports to the EU disappeared;

The trade for Canadian honey was almost completely destroyed because of GM contamination;

Asian countries, including Japan and South Korea - the biggest foreign buyers of US maize, stopped importing North American maize;

Just like domestic consumers, food companies - including Heinz, Gerber and Frito-Lay - started to reject the use of GMOs in their products.

Former White House agriculture expert Dr Charles Benbrook calculates that the lost export trade and fall in farm prices caused by GM commercialisation led to an increase in annual government subsidies of an estimated $3-5 billion.

In December 2000 the president of Canada's National Farmers Union, Cory Ollikka, said: `Farmers are really starting to question the profit-enhancing ability of products that seem to be shutting them out of markets worldwide.'

Farm, which represents UK farmers, has said: `Farmers are being asked by the agro-biotech companies to shoulder the economic and public-image risks of their new technology, for which there appear to be few or no compensating benefits. The claimed cost savings are either non-existent or exaggerated. The long-term health and environmental impacts are still uncertain. And consumers don't want to eat GM food. So why would farmers sow something they can't sell?'


The Soil Association's US investigations found that GM crops have increased the cost of farming and reduced farmers' profits for the following reasons:

1- GM varieties increase farmer seed costs by up to 40 per cent an acre; GM soya and maize, which make up 83 per cent of the GM crops grown worldwide, `deliver less income on average to farmers than non-GM crops';

2- GM varieties require farmers to pay biotech firms a `technology fee';

3- The GM companies forbid farmers to save their seeds for replanting; contrary to traditional practice, farmers have to buy new seed each year; and

4- GM herbicide-tolerant crops increase farmers' use of expensive herbicides, especially as new weed problems have emerged - rogue herbicide-resistant oilseed rape plants being a widespread problem; contrary to the claim that only one application would be needed, farmers are applying herbicides several times.

Even a 2002 report by the US Department of Agriculture, a key ally of the biotech industry, admitted that the economic benefits of cultivating GM crops were `variable' and that farmers growing GM Bt corn were actually `losing money.'


The University of Nebraska recorded yields for Monsanto's Roundup Ready GM maize that were 6-11 per cent less than those for non-GM soya varieties. A 1998 study of over 8,000 field trials found that Roundup Ready soya seeds produced between 6.7 and 10 per cent fewer bushels of soya than conventional varieties.

Trials by the UK's National Institute of Agricultural Botany showed yields of GM oilseed rape and sugar beet that were 5-8 per cent less than conventional varieties.


Adopting GM crops would place farmers and the food chain itself under the control of a handful of multinational corporations such as Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer and DuPont. For US farmers this has meant:

1- Legally-binding agreements that force farmers to purchase expensive new seeds from the biotech corporations each season;

2- Having to buy these corporations' herbicides (at a cost considerably above that of a generic equivalent) for herbicide-tolerant crops;

3- Paying the biotech firms a technology fee based on the acreage of land under GM;

4- The development of so-called `traitor technology' crops on which particular chemicals will have to be applied if the crops' GM characteristics (such as their time of flowering or disease resistance) are to show;

5- The invention of `terminator technology' that stops GM plants producing fertile seeds; thus farmers are physically prevented from sowing saved seed and have to buy new seed from the biotech firms instead; and

6- Biotech firms buying up seed companies. This creates monopolies and limits farmers' choices still further. DuPont and Monsanto are now the two largest seed companies in the world. As a result of their control of the seed industry, farmers are reporting that the availability of good non-GM seed varieties is rapidly disappearing.


US farmers are obliged by their contracts to allow biotech company inspectors onto their farms. As with all crops, leftover seed from GM plants can germinate in fields since used to grow different crops; the seeds produce so-called `volunteers'. If biotech company inspectors find any such plants, they can claim - and have repeatedly done so - that the farmers are growing unlicensed crops and infringing patent rights. For example, David Chaney, who farms in Kentucky, had to pay Monsanto $35,000; another Kentucky farmer agreed to pay the firm $25,000; and three Iowa farmers are on record as having paid it $40,000 each. These and other farmers have also had to sign gagging orders and agree to allow Monsanto complete access to their land in subsequent years. Crops have also been destroyed and seed confiscated. The biotech industry currently has legal actions pending against 550 farmers in North America.


Internationally, the organic movement has rejected GM because of its potential for genetic contamination and its continued reliance on artificial chemicals.
The Soil Association reports that in North America `many organic farmers have been unable to sell their produce as organic due to contamination'. Contamination has already:

1- meant the loss, at a potential cost of millions of dollars, of almost the entire organic oilseed rape sector of Saskatchewan;

2- cost US organic maize growers $90m in annual income (the losses were calculated by the Union of Concerned Scientists in an analysis for the US Environmental Protection Agency); and

3- forced many organic farmers to give up trying to grow certain crops altogether. Last month a survey by the Organic Farming Research Foundation found that one in 12 US organic farmers had already suffered direct costs or damage because of GM contamination.

4- If commercial planting of GM crops took place in Britain, the UK's burgeoning organic sector - now worth £900m, and set to increase with (supposed) government support - would perish. If, by some miracle, contamination could be avoided the costs involved would inevitably lead to organic farmers going bust. A study published by the JRC in May predicted that efforts to protect conventional and organic crops from contamination would add 41 per cent to the cost of producing non-GM oilseed rape and up to 9 per cent to the cost of producing non-GM maize and potatoes.



The proponents of GM argue that the technology will lead to a reduction in the use of chemical weedkillers. But for the majority of GM crops grown so far, the evidence does not bear this out.

Four years worth of data from the US Department of Agriculture shows herbicide use on Roundup Ready soya beans is increasing.

In 1998 total herbicide use on GM soya beans in six US states was 30 per cent greater on average than on conventional varieties.

The Soil Association's US investigation found that `the use of GM crops is resulting in a reversion to the use of older, more toxic compounds' such as the herbicide paraquat.


Genes modified to make crops herbicide-resistant can be transferred to related weeds, which would then also become herbicide-resistant.

Crops can themselves act like weeds. Because GM crops are designed to have a greater ability to survive, leftover seeds can germinate in later years when a different crop is growing in the same field. The leftover volunteer plants would then contaminate the new crop. In Canada, where GM herbicide-tolerant oilseed rape has been grown since 1998, oilseed rape weeds resistant to three different herbicides have been created. These oilseed rape weeds are an example of `gene-stacking' - the occurrence of several genetically-engineered traits in a single plant. Gene-stacking was found in all 11 GM sites investigated in a Canadian ministry of agriculture study. As professor Martin Entz of Winnipeg's University of Manitoba observes, `GM oilseed rape is absolutely impossible to control'.

Following a review of the Canadian experience, English Nature - the UK government's advisory body on biodiversity - predicted: `Herbicide-tolerant gene-stacked volunteers of oilseed rape would be inevitable in practical agriculture in the UK.'


There has also been an increase in pesticide use by farmers attempting to cope with pest resistance created by GM Bt crops. Bt crops are modified to produce the insecticidal toxin Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) in all their tissues.

However, the World Bank says insects can adapt to Bt within `one or two years'. And scientists at China's Nanjing Institute of Environmental Sciences have concluded that if it was planted continuously Bt cotton would probably lose all its resistance to bollworm - the pest it is designed to control - within eight to 10 years.

Meanwhile, pests' adaptability to pest-resistant GM crops could force farmers onto a `genetic treadmill' of ever more technical biotech fixes (including new varieties of pest-resistant crops) and more frequent spraying, and more toxic doses, of chemical pesticides. It could also destroy the effectiveness of Bt as a natural insecticide in organic agriculture.

Perversely, GM pest-resistant crops could make agriculture more vulnerable to pests and disease; they could end up harming beneficial soil micro-organisms and insects like ladybirds and lacewings that keep certain pest populations in check.

The Delhi-based Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology found in a study of four Indian states that `not only did Monsanto's Bt cotton not protect plants from the American bollworm, but there was an increase of 250-300 per cent in attacks by non-target pests like jassids, aphids, white fly and thrips'. And researchers at Cornell University in the US found that the pollen from Bt corn was poisonous to the larvae of monarch butterflies.

As GM `pest-resistant' crops fail to deliver, Australian farmers have been advised to spray additional insecticide on Monsanto's Bt cotton by the Transgenic and Insect Management Strategy Committee of the Australian Cotton Growers Research Association. Overall insecticide applications on Bt maize have also increased in the US.


GM crops may also reduce the diversity of plant life by contaminating their wild relatives and indigenous crop varieties in areas where the crops evolved. Widespread GM contamination of conventional maize has already been detected in Mexico. In Europe, contamination of wild relatives of oilseed rape and sugar beet is considered inevitable if GM commercialisation goes ahead. The same applies to wild relatives of rice in Asia.

If wildlife is harmed `unexpectedly' (ie, without that harm having officially been predicted), and an official risk assessment had not previously decided that GM crops were safe, it is the state and society that will have to pay for putting things right - if this is possible.


The idea that GM will end global poverty is probably the biggest of all the GM apologists' lies - the one used to accuse anti-GM campaigners in rich countries of not caring about the Third World. The truth is that the introduction of GM crops into the developing world will result in decreased yields, crop failures and the impoverishment of literally billions of small farmers.


As already statedon page 36, there is no evidence that genetic modification increases yields. But, just to make the point, consider the following:

1- a US Department of Agriculture report published in May 2002 concluded that net yields of herbicide-tolerant soya bean were no higher than those of non-GM soya, and that yields of pest-resistant corn were actually lower than those of non-GM corn;

2- in September 2001, the state court of Mississippi ruled that a Monsanto subsidiary's `high-yielding' GM soya seeds were responsible for reduced yields obtained by Mississippi farmer Newell Simrall; the farmer was awarded damages of $165,742.

But then, no commercial GM crop has ever been specifically engineered to have a higher yield.


Crop failures (and, therefore, drastically reduced yields) have already occurred with GM soya and cotton plants in the developing world. This is largely due to the unpredictable behaviour of these crops. GM soya's brittleness, for example, has made it incapable of surviving heat waves. And in 2002 `massive failure' of Bt cotton was reported in the southern states of India; consequently, in April the Indian government denied Monsanto clearance for the cultivation of its Bt cotton in India's northern states.


GM would force the two billion people who manage the developing world's small family farms to stop their age-old practice of saving seeds. Each year they will have to buy expensive seeds and chemicals instead. The experience of North American farmers shows that GM seeds cost up to 40 per cent more than non-GM varieties.


Inadequate yields are not the cause of hunger today. As Sergey Vasnetsov, a biotech industry analyst with investment bank Lehman Brothers, says: `Let's stop pretending we face food shortages. There is hunger, but not food shortages.' In 1994, food production could have supplied 6.4 billion people (more than the world's actual population) with an adequate 2,350 calories per day. Yet more than 1 billion people do not get enough to eat.

Furthermore, the types of GM crops being produced are almost exclusively for the processed-food, textiles and animal-feed markets of the West. Instead of being used to grow staple foods for local consumption, millions of hectares of land in the developing world are being set aside to grow GM corn, for example, to supply grain for pigs, chicken and cattle. In May, ActionAid published a report called GM Crops: going against the grain, which revealed that `only 1 per cent of GM research is aimed at [developing] crops [to be] used by poor farmers in poor countries'. And ActionAid calculates that those crops `stand only a one in 250 chance of making it into farmers' fields'. As the UN Development Programme points out, `technology is created in response to market pressures - not the needs of poor people, who have little purchasing power'.


Sustainable agriculture projects have led to millet yields rising by up to 154 per cent in India, millet and sorghum yields rising by 275 per cent in Burkina Faso and maize yields increasing by 300 per cent in Honduras. Combined with reforms aimed at achieving more equitable land ownership, protection from subsidised food imports and the re-orientation of production away from export crops to staple foods for local consumption, sustainable farming could feed the world.

In 1998 a delegation representing every African country except South Africa submitted a joint statement to a UN conference on genetic research. The delegates had been inspired by a Monsanto campaign that used images of starving African children to plug its technology. The statement read: `We strongly object that the image of the poor and hungry from our countries is being used by giant multinational corporations to push a technology that is neither safe, environmentally-friendly nor economically beneficial to us. We do not believe that such companies or gene technologies will help our farmers to produce the food that is needed in the 21st century. On the contrary, we think it will destroy the diversity, the local knowledge and the sustainable agricultural systems that our farmers have developed for millennia, and that it will undermine our capacity to feed ourselves.'

Sources: Briefing papers by Genewatch, Friends of the Earth, the Soil Association, GM Free Wales, Farm