Outdated GM science makes farming unfair, risky & unsustainable
Peter Melchett of the Soil Association calls for GM crops to be banned because they are making farming less fair, more risky and less sustainable.
Despite UK government claims, such as those announced few weeks ago from the Environment Secretary Owen Paterson, there is no scientific evidence that eating GM food is safe. Word-wide, there have only been around 30 scientific animal trials looking at the potential human health impacts of eating GM food.
The trials were reviewed in a scientific paper published in 2011. Around half found grounds for concern about the health impact of eating GM food. Half did not, and the scientists who carried out this review stated that all of these were funded by the GM industry. The negative studies consistently showed clear signs of toxicity affecting the liver and kidney, the two major detoxification organs, with ill effects on the heart, adrenal glands, spleen, and blood cells.
In fact, since the introduction of GM crops in America, and GM ingredients (mainly soya) into US processed food, American rates of diet-related illnesses have soared. But that does not prove eating GM causes ill-health, and astonishingly, no studies have been done to investigate this. Although there is currently no evidence that eating GM food has caused human ill-health, this lack of scientific research (no evidence of harm), is not, of course, the same as positive evidence of no harm. However, probably the most frequent of the many abuses of science by the pro-GM lobby is using this absence of research spuriously to claim that ‘no one has come to any harm eating GM food’.
Until very recently, it was thought that farm animals fed on GM crops are killed well before any possible ill-effects might develop. There have been many commercial GM feeding trials with animals like chickens and pigs, usually carried out by the GM companies, showing no adverse effects of GM animal feed.
Despite this, anecdotal stories have persisted, for example from US and Danish pig farmers, and from farmers in India, about negative impacts of GM feed on their livestock. Now a detailed study, just published in the scientific literature, has found that severe inflammation in stomachs is significantly higher in pigs fed on the GM diet. Also, females had on average a 25% heavier uterus than non-GM-fed pigs, a possible indicator of disease that requires further investigation.
Contrary to UK Government claims, there is no evidence that GM crops can help feed the world - another 20 year-old myth constantly repeated over the last two decades. Commercially there are currently four main GM crops that are grown widely, usually used for animal feed and fibre. GM varieties of these four crops are either engineered to contain an insecticide or be resistant to a total weed-killer.
The GM crops that have been introduced to the commercial market have never claimed to have been engineered to deliver increased yields. In fact, there is some evidence of ‘yield drag’ in GM crops – engineering a plant to do extra in one area, resisting a herbicide for example, may reduce the plant’s capacity to produce grains. In addition, almost all crop varieties lose effectiveness after a few years, so GM farmers are finding that newer, non-GM varieties are out-yielding older GM versions, and of course new non-GM varieties can be produced much more quickly, and cheaply. The failure of GM to spread to more than these four initial crops (for example, GM wheat has been available but never used in North America for over a decade) is partly due to the increasingly negative experiences of farmers growing GM crops.
GM crops lock farmers into buying sprays and seeds which rapidly rise in cost. GM seeds are patented and cannot be saved. Just three giant chemical companies – Monsanto, Syngenta, and Bayer – are responsible for virtually all commercially released genetically modified crops. Some seeds from GM crops will remain on farmers’ fields after each harvest, and to avoid contamination of a non-GM crop, and being sued by a chemical company for unauthorised use of GM seed, farmers have to continue to buy GM seeds. This locks them into a cycle of dependency on GM seed companies.
GM crops modified to be resistant to a total weed-killer like glyphosate have rapidly encouraged the spread of glyphosate-resistant weeds. The speed of the spread of weeds, now frequently resistant to several weed killers, has taken even GM opponents by surprise. Insects took longer to develop resistance to the GM crops, but that is now being reported, along with new insect pest problems. These developments, super weeds and new insect pests, explain why after initial drops in the use of herbicides and insecticides, use is now up. Overall pesticide use on GM crops in the USA is now higher than on non-GM, according to US government data.
The environmental damage done by GM crops is of real concern to many. We now have scientific evidence that GM traits can be passed by crossing to wild relatives of the crop, and the insecticide in GM crops can destroy beneficial soil fungi. In the UK, GM crops would have negative impacts on farm wildlife, as a UK Government, five year, multi-million pound, scientific research programme found.
GM has failed to deliver any of the benefits promised in the 1990s, like more nutrients and higher yields, and newer crop breeding technologies are now delivering more benefits, faster. GM supporters have been promising higher yielding varieties for over 20 years, without a single commercial example of this actually happening. On the other hand, UK scientists have just announced that they have achieved a 30 per cent increase in wheat yield without using GM. This shows that opponents of GM were right - there is more potential in modern non-GM crop breeding technologies than there is in GM crops.
GM crops should be banned because they are making farming less fair, more risky and less sustainable. Public money spent on GM research has not led to a single hectare of a commercial GM crop in the UK, not a single job in GM farming, not a single person fed. In the 1990s, we were told all farming and food would be GM by 2000. Now pro-GM campaigners, in a desperate attempt to keep the ailing technology alive, claim GM crops are simply ‘one tool in the tool box’.
But GM crops are the cuckoo in the nest – bloated, sucking resources from and ultimately destroying other farming systems. GM crops have locked farmers further into depending on costly inputs from a handful of powerful chemical companies, and have been sold on false promises. GM is a 20th-century technology. The UK and Europe need to lead in the 21st century technologies of obtaining good yields of crops with far lower inputs of fossil fuel-based and mined fertilisers, growing crops with 80% lower greenhouse gas emissions, and producing food with higher animal welfare, lower pollution, and with more wildlife and more jobs on farms.
Peter Melchett has been Policy Director of the Soil Association, the UK’s main organic food and farming organisation, working on campaigns, standards and policy, since 2001. He runs an 890-acre organic farm in Norfolk, with beef cattle and arable seed crops. He is a member of the BBC’s Rural Affairs Committee, and was a member of the Government’s Rural Climate Change Forum and Organic Action Plan Group, and the Department of Education’s School Lunches Review Panel.
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