River Wissey Lovell Fuller

GM Nation? The Public Debate

July 2003

Did you know it existed? Here are some facts.

Have you heard about it? I hadn't until the other day when my grandson handed me a copy of The Independent of 2nd June. This informed me as follows:-

'Britons will get their first and perhaps only chance to tell the Government what they think of genetically modified crops and food from tomorrow [June 3] with the start of the national debate.

'The debate has been unadvertised, only modestly funded and, some critics allege, organised with great reluctance by the Government.'

This lack of media coverage is, I think, disgusting, for this concerns the most important environmental decision ever to be taken in Britain! It prodded me into writing this article for the July PUMP - pity I couldn't have made it for the June issue!!

Genetic modification of farm crops raises many questions, including the following:-

1.) How will it affect farmers?

2.) What long-term health effects might it have for consumers?

3.) What will be it's impact on wildlife and the environment?

4.) Who will be liable for compensating

people if there are harmful health effects? or, for compensating non-GM farmers and organic farmers when their crops are contaminated by GM?

Let us take a brief look at the questions raised above:-

1.) How will GM affect farmers?

The claims the of the biotec. industry that its GM seeds give higher yields, lower chemical use and higher profitability must sound rather tempting to some farmers, with farming incomes lower now than they have been for decades. But, do these claims stand up to scrutiny? Before rushing to sign up for growing GM it seems sensible to consider the experiences of those farmers already growing GM, i.e. those in the US and Canada.

The Soil Association commissioned a study to do just that. Under the title Seeds of Doubt - North American farmers' experiences of GM crops, it was published in September last year and shows that the glowing promises of the GM companies are by no means justified. A quotation from the Executive Summary in the report will give a brief idea of the findings:-

"The profitability of growing GM herbicide tolerant soya and insect resistant Bt maize is less than non-GM crops, due to the extra cost of GM seed and because lower market prices are paid for GM crops.

"The claims of increased yields have not been realised overall except for a small increase in Bt maize yields. Moreover, the main GM variety (Roundup Ready soya) yields 6-11 per cent less than non-GM varieties.

"GM herbicide tolerant crops have made farmers more reliant on herbicides and new weed problems have emerged. Farmers are applying herbicides several times, contrary to the claim that only one application would be needed. Rogue GM oilseed rape plants ('volunteers') have become a widespread problem in Canada.

"Farmers have suffered a severe reduction in choice about how they farm as a result of the introduction of GM crops. Some are finding themselves locked into growing GM crops."

The above is only a brief summary of some of the findings; the whole report gives the results of an in-depth study, and is fully referenced. There are chapters covering the following matters:-

Crop Yields; Chemical Use; Farmer Income; Herbicide resistant volunteers; Contamination;

Un-predicted effects; Farmer choice; National farm economy; Legal issues;

Discussion of the Results; Conclusions.

I can recommend the report to any farmer tempted to sign up to growing GM (details and address at the end of this article).

2.) What are the long-term health effects?

The simple answer is: as yet, we do not know. But, there have been numerous warnings that there could be problems from eating GM food!

In the recent past we have witnessed quite a number of scientific 'mistakes' - e.g. BSE etc. etc. - so it seems to me that in the case of GM which is the biggest and most controversial scientific activity ever carried out, that at the very least we should apply the precautionary principle until far more is known about GM's effects!

It is thought that one of the potential health hazards lies in the use of bacteria and viruses in the making of GM seeds. A biology textbook points out that in genetic engineering,

bacteria and viruses are produced with different genes from their usual ones, with the possibility that some of these could be so changed that they become pathogenic, leading to new diseases for which there are no cures.

[ 1.]

Dr. Michael Antoniou, a molecular biologist,

says that genetic engineering gives rise to disturbances in genetic function, which can lead to disruptions in an organism's biochemistry and which, in turn, can result in the production of novel toxins and allergies.

[ 2.]

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, agrees; she says:

'...agricultural biotechnology...is inherently unsustainable, and extremely hazardous to biodiversity, (and to) human and animal health.' [ 3.]

So - will you be happy to have GM food thrust upon you? - bearing in mind that we are currently carrying out No trials to evaluate its affect on human health!

3.) GM Impact on Wildlife & Environment.

The scope of the farm trials of GM crops which have been going on over the past four years is limited to evaluating the effects on wildlife and environment. The trials are due to end this month and the results to be known in September. How the records and observations during the trials can possibly give an accurate picture of the position over such a short time-scale I don't know, nor how they can predict the long-term effects on wildlife. In any case, just how much attention will be paid to the results is by no means clear. Comments by Prof. King, the Government's chief scientific advisor, reported last December, seemed to suggest that these farm trials, as a factor in influencing the decision whether to allow the growing of GM crops, would be quite insignificant. [ 4.]

4.) Liability for Compensation

It is a foregone conclusion, I think, that the geo-tec. corporations would be reluctant to accept any responsibility for harm caused to people's health. Also, with some of these effects possibly being long-term, it could be difficult in the future to prove that the cause of any illness was GM food.

As to the question of compensation for farmers, this has been a big problem for farmers in North America. Far from being compensated for GM contamination of their crops, they have found themselves sued by Monsanto when the unwanted GM crops were found on their land! As one farmer in North Dakota is quoted as saying:

'Farmers are being sued for having GMOs on their property that they did not buy, do not want, will not use and cannot sell.'

Even if the growing of GM crops in the UK were a good thing - which I DO NOT for one minute accept - before the Government even thinks about allowing them it would have a most important obligation to all concerned, to sought out this legal mine-field!

That is about all I have time for at the moment, otherwise I shall miss the PUMP deadline. But for those wishing to get involved in the debate - I assume it's not too late - here are the 'contact' details for enquiries about the debate:-

Dedicated helpline: 020 7261 8616

Fax: 020 7261 8588


[1.] Jones & Jones, Biology, Cambridge 1997

[2.] Antoniou M, Genetic Engineering and Traditional Breeding Methods - a Technical Perspective, Soil Association 1998

[3] Ho M, Genetic Engineering, Gateway 1998

[4] Guardian Weekly - Dec.5-11 2002 p.11.

Cyril Marsters

Copyright remains with independent content providers where specified, including but not limited to Village Pump contributors. All rights reserved.