Planting lies: agricultural biotechnology

June 2003

by Steve McGiffen



The agricultural biotechnology industry likes to portray itself as the future, a future under threat from superstitious opponents who are anti-science. In fact, what genetic engineering is based on is barely worthy of the name "science". It is a hit and miss process based on a discredited scientific paradigm. The industry upon which it is based is in deep financial trouble. Only a ruthless propaganda machine lies between the dead-end of genetic engineering and oblivion.


A week ago, the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly to approve changes in the European Union laws which govern the export of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The changes are necessary to enable the EU to ratify the Cartagena Convention on Biosafety, the international agreement governing trade in GMOs. Next month, two further measures will complete, for the time being, the EU’s new legislative framework for products of agricultural biotechnology. We will still lack effective legal requirements to guard against contamination of conventional or organic crops by GMOs, and any real system for tracking the effects of GMO consumption on human health. EU member states will not have the right, moreover, to exclude GMOs from their territory, either to prevent their cultivation or to keep them off supermarket shelves, whatever their citizens may want. Nevertheless, provided these measures are passed in Strasbourg at the beginning of July, the EU and its member states will have the strictest system of control of agricultural biotechnology of any country or bloc in the world.

This will have been achieved in the face of perhaps the most sustained, ruthless and  unscrupulous propaganda campaign which even the European Parliament, an institution which works in the face of relentless harassment from corporate lobbyists, has ever witnessed. This campaign, moreover, is not content with spreading lies and confusion amongst legislators in Brussels and other European capitals, it has also kept up a disinformation campaign which has led large numbers of people to believe the exact opposite of a  number of clear truths related to GMOs and their dangers.

The industry claims, firstly, that if the EU does not jump headlong into GMO cultivation then Europe will be left behind, deliberately excluding itself from an exciting, expanding, cutting edge technology and the dynamic industry which has grown up around it. The truth, however, is that after over a decade of attempts by American multinationals to foist this novel and dangerous technology on the world, hardly anyone is using it. Around 70% of land devoted to genetically engineered crops is in the United States, with almost all of the rest in Argentina. Of other countries, only Canada has a really significant GM agriculture sector, with China and South Africa leading a pack of only ten other, minor participants. Everyone else has been put off by the potential risks, the absence of clear benefits and the consequent difficulty of marketing GM products. Worse still, to allow GMOs to be cultivated means putting all of a country's agriculture at risk of contamination, contamination which can make vital exports unsaleable.

This brings me to the second strand to the industry and US-backed campaign of disinformation, the claim that there is no evidence that GMOs are potentially harmful to human health and the environment.  300 million Americans, we are told, have consumed GM products for years without harmful effects. In fact, no-one knows what effects the introduction of GMOs into the American diet has had. Not a single epidemiological study of the consumption of GM foods has been conducted. In other words, no-one has looked for health differences between people who eat them and people who don’t. In the States, foods do not have to be labelled as containing GM products. The fact that consumers have no way of knowing whether what they are buying contains GM, makes absurd the idea that no health ill effects have been uncovered. Go to the doctor in the States with, say, a liver problem, and the doctor will ask you if you drink alcohol, if you eat a lot of red meat or dairy products, whether you smoke. She will not say a word about GMOs, and even if she did, you would be unable to answer, because you have no way of knowing whether you are eating them – unless you grow your own food and regularly test it for contamination. Moreover, only seven peer reviewed studies on the health effects of individual GMOs have been carried out, and four of these have shown negative results as follows: Flavr Savr tomatoes resulted in lesions and gastritis in rats; GM potatoes caused gut lesions in rats, representing damage to the immune system of their digestive tracts. (The industry routinely describes Dr Pustzai, who conducted this research and was sacked for publishing its results, as “discredited”, but this is simply part of their propaganda. The paper in question was peer reviewed six times and has been defended by many scientists since); and GM rapeseed fed to chickens led to increased mortality.  Finally, BST milk-enhancing hormone derived from GMOs is used widely in the US but banned in the EU because of the clear threat it presents to human health and animal welfare.

At the end of 2002, the British Medical Association (BMA) went so far as to call for an end to GM crop trials, arguing that not enough had been done to ensure that they did not pose a threat to public health and that there should have been more public consultation. The BMA, whose membership embraces more than 80% of British doctors, declared in a submission to the health committee of the Scottish Parliament, that “Safety is a relative matter and is generally based on the results of a robust and thorough search for possible harm. There has not yet been a robust and thorough search into the potentially harmful effects of GM foodstuffs on human health.” The submission mentioned in particular the possibility that antibiotic resistance markers, which are used to help identify when an introduced gene has been successfully taken up, might find their way “into pathogenic organisms causing human disease”, and the danger of introduced genes provoking allergic reactions.

The industry claims that GM techniques are no different to traditional cross-breeding methods in use for at least 10,000 years. The reality, however, is that whereas traditional cross-breeding involves selection from within the existing genome of an organism or a very close relative, in GM technology genes can be introduced which come not only from another species but from another “kingdom” – the highest and broadest taxonomic category: bacterial genes into animals, animal genes into plants, plant genes into fungi: there are simply no limits. The artificial insertion of a gene, in contrast with traditional cross-breeding methods, disrupts the orderly, heritable sequence of instructions contained in the parent organisms’ genomes, resulting in a loss of the control and balance which characterise their hereditary substance. The results are therefore  difficult to predict, and the fact that the process involves poorly understood mechanisms makes what would in any case be difficult into an impossibility.

The industry claims that GMOs are good for the environment. In fact, although GMOs sometimes permit a temporary reduction in pesticide spraying, such reductions are short-lived and come at a cost. Farmers must abandon, for example, the accepted good practice of varying which pesticides they use. The result is that pests develop resistance and pesticides stop working. On the other hand, the environmental dangers are clear. They include the threat of genetic contamination of wild plants (and, eventually, fish and other animals), the danger of introducing alien species, which has always been a problem but which is compounded by GMOs, and the fact that GMOs can only encourage monoculture, with all its disastrous consequences for the environment.

The US government claims to believes that GM foods and their non-GM counterparts are “substantially equivalent”, and that there is therefore no reason why GM foods should have to be labelled as such. Whenever the matter is raised, the industry spends massively on ensuring that this status quo remains, helped by the ease with which US politicians’ support can be bought and a supposedly free press bullied by the threat of lost advertising revenue. Even the legality of labelling foods as “GM free” is in question, because to allow it would be to admit that there may be a difference, after all. The labelling and traceability regime currently before the European Parliament and Council of Ministers will ensure that all foods containing GM ingredients, or produced from them, whether imported or from EU sources, will be labelled as such. This will be the case even if they contain no DNA or proteins from the GMO used, so that oils and refined sugars will for the first time have to be labelled. Because of the difficulty of ensuring absolute purity, the presence of very small amounts of detectable GM residue in a product not labelled as containing GMOs will not be an offence. (This level is still under debate, with Parliament seeking a lower limit than the Council is prepared to accept, but the hope is that as detection techniques improve, it will be possible to lower it to close to zero.)

The insistence that foods such as oils and sugars, where no GM protein or DNA is present in the final product, must be labelled as derived from GMOs has been ridiculed in some quarters, seen as proof that opposition to GMOs is “unscientific”. This assumes that the only legitimate concern consumers may have is with their own health. This is not, of course, the case. Consumers often refrain from buying things because they believe them to be environmentally harmful, for example, or because of exploitative methods used in their production. The aim of companies such as Monsanto is to sell seeds which can be used only in conjunction with their own product. So Roundup Ready seeds can  be used only with glyphosate, the pesticide branded as Roundup. Moreover, farmers wishing to use these seeds must enter into a contract which forbids them to reuse seed from plants grown from Monsanto’s. They must buy fresh ones each year, undermining millennia of good farming practice. This is part of the drive to dominate the world’s food supply by bringing farmers into a closed loop, where all inputs must be bought from a multi-national corporation. After the abolition of slavery in the US, farmers black and white were newly enslaved by the “crop lien system”, where all inputs had to be bought from the same “furnishing man” – who was consequently able to charge exorbitant prices. GMOs make possible a new version of this kind of bondage, one which would be bad enough in a relatively prosperous part of the world such as the EU but which, when applied to the Third World, will reinforce the subordinate relationship of poor farmers and the countries in which they live. Together with fears for their own and their families’ health, as well as the environment, consumers thus have every reason to boycott GMOs as a protest against exploitation.

The industry and the US government like to portray all opponents of genetic engineering as ignorant, superstitious people who fear and despise science. They like to portray biotechnology as cutting-edge science, giving the impression that its application is the future, the engine of prosperity which will dominate the next few decades. The truth, however, is that this is an industry in crisis, basing itself on a dangerous, untried technology which is in turn rooted in a discredited scientific paradigm. Predictable, safe genetic engineering might indeed be possible if the relationship between an organism’s genes and the organism itself were as simple as was believed before the Human Genome Project and subsequent studies discredited the idea that genes are stable entities, each of which performs a single function. We now know that this is not the case, that the genome is in fact a dynamic, complex mechanism whose exact workings depend on the interaction of thousands of components and in which an individual gene can perform very different tasks under differing circumstances.  Whatever the genetic engineers may claim to continue to believe, genes cannot be removed or introduced like building blocks in a child’s toy. The process of genetic engineering is unpredictable and this fraught with risk. Perhaps, given further work, it may offer something useful to humanity. Clearly, however, given the current state of understanding the place for any such work is the laboratory.

The only reason that anyone thinks otherwise is that billions of dollars have been invested in what is turning to be a dead end, and at a time when the American economy is entering what with every day that passes seems more and more certain to turn out to be a major crisis. Even Nature Biotechnology – something of an industry house journal - was obliged to report, at the end of 2002, that “the clock is ticking for many small (biotech) companies; their funds are drying up and although venture capital is abundant, it is currently available only at valuations that are highly depressed compared with those at which some companies raised their last lot of money.” (1)

Agricultural biotechnology in its present form is a vast scientific and commercial error. The people who have invested their money, time an reputations in it cannot afford to admit this. Unfortunately, they will not be the ones that end up paying the heaviest price for their incompetence, greed and hubris. As usual, the bill will be met by those least able to afford it, and the currency in which it will be denominated will not be dollars or euros alone, but the health and livelihoods of human beings and the environment in which we live.

The author, Steve McGiffen, is editor of Spectre and an environmental adviser to the European Parliament United Left Group, the GUE-NGL. He is currently writing a book for Pluto Press on the regulation of biotechnology in the EU and beyond.

(1) “Pride comes before a fall (and a bloodbath)”, Nature Biotechnology, Vol.20, p.1173, Dec. 2002]

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