(Ensuring your Broccoli isn't genetically altered to watch you)
David McConnell Professor of Genetics at TCD and also head of the Irish Times Trust spoke yesterday (31/3/05) on Primetime. On which, he defended the introduction of genetically modified crops into Ireland on several grounds. Firstly, because they have better resistance to pests etc. Secondly, that they were essential to food supply in the developing world and lastly that when introduced in the US they were held to be publically accountable and still went ahead, "proving" the legitimacy of these claims.
Due to the fact that a handful of corporations (Monsanto, Syngenta, Aventis, Dow, Dupont) control agricultural biotechnology and inturn the patent monopolies over GM seeds and plants, farmers who "choose" to use GM seeds and subsequently those consumers sold the resulting crops become, in essense, controlled by those corporations.
The arguments presented for defense would be admirable, if they stood up to the facts. In relation to feeding the developing world, there are several problems that make this argument more than suspicious. One of these problems is that seeds provided to farmers will produce only one crop. The seeds produced in this season cannot be re-used, forcing the farmer to purchase more seeds. The so called "suicide seeds" were greeted by public outrage in 1988 when Monsanto, the company which developed the technology, was forced to back down when activists and scientists around the world warned of possible wild crop sterilisation through contamination.
However, recently a document leaked to the ETC Group (an international research and advocacy organisation) reveals that Canada is going to the UN to promote "terminator" technology. A fancy new term for "suicide seeds" which was formed I suspect to identify with "the kids", bascially genetically engineered seeds designed to grow crops which can't reproduce. These "suicide seeds," designed solely to protect the patents and profits of multinational corporations, are currently forbidden from being planted outside the lab. (4)
Those that are attempting to foward the use of GM seeds and plants in Europe and Ireland more often than not use the tatic of demanding evidence of any detrimental effects to the environment from those who oppose it. That GM seeds maybe harmful or, in the event of their use, cause an irreversible effect on the environment is beside the point.
This is possibly the most confusing argument one could offer. "I have something that may be very harmful to you, I plan to use it, unless you can prove it to scientifically and categorically dangerous." It has been made the reposibility of those opposed to GM seeds being used in their country, due the possible risks to the environment and therefore humans, to produce evidence that the seeds are unsafe. The usual, although not universal, law of companies producing evidence proving the safety of their products, before government approval, apparently does not apply.
If this logic were to follow, any pharmacutical company could demand the right to test their drugs on a public, unless said public can produce evidence that those drugs will affect them adversely. Hence, GM companies wish to study the general public, with little opposition from the media, in an experiment that may be impossible to end.
'We were told it was progress,' Arnold Taylor, a 60-year-old Canadian farmer, told me. 'And now we're trapped in a giant experiment over which we have no control. The British government should look to Canada. Once you open the door to GM, you may never be able to close it.' (6)
Recent study's report that approximately 58% of American's claim to have never eaten GM food, however the fact is that almost all American's have at some time or regularly eat GM food. Obviously unbeknownst to them.
GM crops are being marketed as a cure for world hunger due to their resistance to pest infection and their higher yeilds.
Most of the current acreage under GM crops is planted with first generation GM crops based on herbicide resistance or the introduction of Bt. toxin genes for pest control. Herbicide resistant genes allow higher tolerance to herbicides, therefore increased herbicide is needed. This does not increase crop yields.
Increased yield from genetically engineered crops is the most important argument used by the genetic engineering industry. However, genetic engineering has actually led to a decline in yields. Yield trials carried out at the University of Wiscousin on soya bean. Found that genetically engineered soya beans had 4 percent lower yields than conventional varieties. Based on data collected in the 12 states that grow 80 percent of U.S. soya.
As the world's third largest producer of cotton, the Indian government bowed to the interests of multinational companies and allowed the introduction of GM crops. The cotton yields resulting from this venture have been dramatically less than promised in the first year of planting. With several major effects, one being that India's vital textile industry could suffer if the prices of locally-grown cotton prove uncompetitive. (8)
"In the first few months the farmers were delighted with the crop since it grew fast and looked healthy. Most satisfying was that the leaves were not being eaten by worms.
Unfortunately, in the fourth month, the Bt cotton stopped growing and producing new buds while the existing cotton bolls did not get any bigger. The crop then wilted and dried up at the peak bolling stage. This was accompanied by leaf-drooping and shedding."
Subsequently, about 200 farmers committed suicide.
The cotton failure has cost the farming industry a total loss of approximately twenty million euro. The law states that any company that provides poor quality seeds, the performance of which does not match the claims made by the company, is to be held liable for the failure of the variety. Despite this, Monsanto has refused to acknowledge the failure or provide any compensation to the farmers. (1)
GM crops are not giving increased yields in farmers fields. Yields have declined by 50 to 60 percent. The higher yields only exist in falsified corporate generated data.
Second generation crops are being sold as the future for increasing nutrition, these have also failed in to stand up to scientific scrutiny in this regard.
Under the Indo-Swiss Technology Transfer agreement for vitamin A rice (golden rice), genetically engineered rice produces 70 times less vitamin A than other sources of food.
Vitamin A is essential to human good health.
"Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is the leading cause of preventable blindness in children and raises the risk of disease and death from severe infections. In pregnant women VAD causes night blindness and may increase the risk of maternal mortality. Vitamin A deficiency is a public health problem in 118 countries, especially in Africa and South-East Asia, once again hitting hardest young children and pregnant women in low-income countries." (3)
If genetically engineered crops were aimed at feeding the hungry, the Monsanto and the others would be developing seeds with certain predictable characteristics:
(a) ability to grow on substandard or marginal soils;
(b) plants able to produce more high-quality protein, with increased per-acre yield, without increasing the need for expensive machinery, chemicals, fertilisers, or water;
(c) they would aim to favour small farms over larger farms;
(d)the seeds would be cheap and freely available without restrictive licensing; and
(e) they would be for crops that feed people, not meat animals. (5)
Vandana Shiva, an environmental campaigner, described why the GM cotton is a bad idea for India: "In the US, cotton growers only choose GM varieties under duress. Farmers are not totally free. In the US they are totally under corporate control."
In 1992, the FDA (The US Food and Drug Administration) ruled that GM crops are “substantially equivalent” to crops obtained with traditional breeding techniques and therefore do not need to be approved (unless the transferred genes are known to induce a human allergen). This ruling of “substantial equivalence” is highly contested by many prominent biologists, including professors at MIT and Harvard, as well as scientists within the FDA itself. In 1992, for example, Dr. Louis J. Pribyl of the FDA’s Microbiology Group warned (in an internal memo uncovered in a lawsuit filed) that there is “a profound difference between the types of expected effects from traditional breeding and genetic engineering.”
Under this ruling the FDA does not require any mandatory pre-market safety testing of the GM crops. Prominent biologists argue that the genetic alteration of food should at least go through the same safety and toxicological tests required of all “food additives.” This would require testing for such things as unknown allergens, novel toxins and changes in nutritional content. In favor of the bio-tech industry, though, the FDA continues to refuse to make these basic tests mandatory.
The FDA also does not require that GM crops are labeled denying consumers the freedom of choice in the market place. Opinion poll after opinion poll, including one performed by the FDA itself, has consistently shown that the American public overwhelmingly (by 70-90%) wants GM crops to be labeled. (7)
The fact that many Americans believe they are GM free is not so unbelievable.