ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network
21 June 2002


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.

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A new Consumers' Association poll found that 94% want all products containing any GM to be labelled. 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. 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, 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.

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 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. This move is unprecedented, for a paper that was neither wrong nor fraudulent. The main results of the paper have since been amply confirmed; despite vicious attacks by pro-biotech scientists, which turned out to be orchestrated by Monsanto's PR company.
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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. This, too, was orchestrated from within the heart of the scientific establishment. 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.

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. 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. 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. 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 GM cotton was a great success for small farmers. 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) reveals that the GM 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 GM 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". 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. 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.

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