Comment on SPICe briefing on GM crops
Comment on “SPICe science briefing: GM crops in Scotland”, Scottish Parliament Science Information Service, December 2003
by Claire Robinson, managing editor of Spinprofiles and co-editor of GM Watch
The SPICe briefing on GM crops is extraordinarily one-sided. SPICe claims to provide “independent, expert viewpoints” and “rapid, reliable and factual information on science, engineering and technology-related issues” to Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs). But its briefing reads as if it were written by a GM industry lobbyist. It is not possible to check the credentials and affiliations of the authors, however, as they choose to remain anonymous.
Dr Sue Mayer, director of campaign group Genewatch and a member of the UK Government's Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission, describes the SPICe briefing as “highly biased and pro-GM”.
The tone of the SPICe paper is set by its Introduction. SPICe calls GM “the latest in a long series of technological developments for producing higher yielding, more easily managed cultivars”. In one hype-laden sentence, SPICe
1) fudges the truth about the nature of genetic engineering and
2) makes extravagant and scientifically unsupported claims for the benefits of GM. (see below)
- 1 What’s wrong with the Introduction?
- 2 Framing the debate
- 3 Scientists raise the alarm over genetic engineering
- 4 Playing Russian Roulette with our health
- 5 What is known about the effects of GM foods on human health?
- 6 Environmental problems
- 7 Bt cotton problems
- 8 Exodus of genetic engineering scientists?
- 9 Conclusion
What’s wrong with the Introduction?
1) The implication that GM is just an extension of natural plant breeding is false and unscientific. Natural reproduction or breeding can only occur between closely related forms of life (e.g. cats with cats, NOT cats with dogs; wheat with wheat, NOT wheat with tomatoes or fish). In this way, the genes that we inherit from our parents, which carry information for all parts of the body, are passed down the generations in an orderly way.
GM is totally different. It is a laboratory technique that inserts foreign artificial gene units from any organism – viruses, bacteria, and other plants and animals – into the DNA blueprint (plan) of a plant. This re-programmes the plant with completely new properties.
The GM transformation process is crude, imprecise and causes widespread mutations resulting in major changes to the plant’s DNA blueprint. This process unnaturally alters the plant’s functioning in unpredictable and potentially harmful ways.
2) The claim that GM can produce “higher yielding” crops is often repeated unquestioningly by GM proponents and their friends in government and the media. But the claim is not borne out by evidence – in fact, the opposite is true. GM soya beans have given consistently lower yields for more than a decade.
A report from the pro-GM US Department of Agriculture confirms the poor yield performance of GM crops, saying, “GE [GM] crops available for commercial use do not increase the yield potential of a variety. In fact, yield may even decrease.... Perhaps the biggest issue raised by these results is how to explain the rapid adoption of GE crops when farm financial impacts appear to be mixed or even negative.”
The failure of GM to increase yield potential was emphasised in 2008 by the United Nations International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) report on the future of agriculture for developing countries. This 2500-page report, authored by over 400 international scientists and experts, and based on peer reviewed publications, concluded that the yield gains in GM crops "were highly variable" and in some cases, "yields declined". It added that uncertainty about GM's "possible benefits and damage is unavoidable". Instead, the report champions “agroecological” methods as the best route to food security.
Framing the debate
The pervading impression given by the SPICe paper’s authors is that the pro-GM side of the argument is owned by scientists, whereas the anti-GM side is owned by “GM protestors” and “the public”.
One way that the paper tries to frame the debate is by selective use of language. Those who oppose GM are described as “certain vocal groups” and the “anti-GM lobby”. These phrases attempt to marginalize anti-GM people by implying that their views are not representative of the general, less vocal population. This is in spite of the fact that polls over many years in different countries consistently show that the majority of people do not want to eat GM foods.
What is more, anti-GM views cannot be equated with ignorance. A 2005 Gallup poll showing that 54% of Britons oppose the use of GM in food production also found that people who follow the GM issue closely are more opposed to it than those who do not. This contradicts repeated claims by pro-GM UK Members of Parliament (MPs) that ignorance and Luddism are to blame for anti-GM views.
Words and phrases used in the SPICe paper to describe the anti-GM public include “concern”, “outcry”, “worried”, “confusion”, “fear”, and “fears”. These people, we are told, “invoke phrases such as ‘Frankenstein crops’”. The accumulation of such terms suggests that those who oppose GM are irrational, neurotic, and given to primitive superstitions and wild fantasy.
The pro-GM lobby, on the other hand, is described as comprising “scientists” who depend on “substantiated evidence”. The practice of releasing GM crops into Scotland’s environment is described as “a very precautionary approach”, with crops “considered” by regulators “on a case-by-case basis, with very strict controls on their management”.
The impression given is that GM technology is carefully controlled, precise, and well-managed by cool-headed scientists. This ignores the tradition of regulators in many countries of rubber-stamping GMO release applications in spite of scientific objections. It also ignores the catastrophic and expensive history of GM contamination events, which shows clearly that GM genes, once released, cannot be recalled. The Genewatch/Greenpeace “GM Contamination Register” has recorded 216 contamination events in 57 countries since GM crops were first grown commercially on a large scale in 1996.
Thus SPICe, in common with government and industry sources on the GM issue, frames the GM debate as being between pro-GM rational scientists on one side, and an irrational, fearful and ignorant public, inflamed by “vocal” activists, on the other. SPICe ignores the fact that scientists were among the very first people to raise the alarm over the genetic engineering of our food supply.
Scientists raise the alarm over genetic engineering
As long ago as the late 1970s, scientists' concerns about the safety of the new technology of genetic engineering led to the so-called “recombinant DNA debate”. Robert Pollack, a virologist at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, raised his concerns with his colleagues, and this led to a letter of warning in Science magazine from a group of scientists central to the field in 1974.
In 1979, George Wald, professor of biology at Harvard and a Nobel Laureate, warned about the dangers of genetic engineering in words that directly contradict the Introduction of the SPICe paper:
- Recombinant DNA technology [genetic engineering] faces our society with problems unprecedented not only the history of science, but of life on the Earth. It places in human hands the capacity to redesign living organisms, the products of some three billion years of evolution.
- Such intervention must not be confused with previous intrusions upon the natural order of living organisms; animal and plant breeding, for example; or the artificial induction of mutations, as with X-rays. All such earlier procedures worked within single or closely related species. The nub of the new technology is to move genes back and forth, not only across species lines, but across any boundaries that now divide living organisms. The results will be essentially new organisms. Self-perpetuating and hence permanent. Once created, they cannot be recalled...
- Up to now living organisms have evolved very slowly, and new forms have had plenty of time to settle in. Now whole proteins will be transposed overnight into wholly new associations, with consequences no one can foretell, either for the host organism or their neighbors.
- It is all too big and is happening too fast. So this, the central problem, remains almost unconsidered. It presents probably the largest ethical problem that science has ever had to face. Our morality up to now has been to go ahead without restriction to learn all that we can about nature. Restructuring nature was not part of the bargain. For going ahead in this direction may be not only unwise but dangerous. Potentially, it could breed new animal and plant diseases, new sources of cancer, novel epidemics."
Fifteen years later, in 1994, an American molecular biologist involved in genetic engineering research, Dr John Fagan, shocked the scientific community by returning nearly $614,000 in grant money from the National Institutes of Health. Dr Fagan intended the action, according to The Washington Post, “to protest what he sees as rampant and unwise genetic tinkering with plants and animals and the release of these novel organisms into the environment”.
Scientists have continued to speak out about the dangers of GMOs in our food and environment. In addition, independent scientists have found many unexpected and harmful effects of GM foods and crops on the health of laboratory animals in a number of studies, some of which predate the SPICe paper and should have been considered by its authors. While SPICe is keen to point out the “concerns”, “fears” and “worries” of the public, it is strangely deaf to the concerns that originate from scientists.
Playing Russian Roulette with our health
Perhaps it is not surprising that the scientifically documented ill effects of GM foods on lab animals have bypassed SPICe, as its advisors seem ignorant of (or willfully blind to) the most basic scientific methodology. When considering the vexed question of the effects of GM foods on human health, the SPICe paper states:
- anyone who has been to the USA in the last 7 years will almost certainly have eaten GM soybean products and there is no substantiated evidence that there have been any adverse effects of these on human health.
A person with the most elementary grasp of scientific principles and methodology will recognize this statement as scientifically baseless. GM foods are not labeled in the US and Canada, the countries where they are most widely eaten. So no one can monitor the effects of eating such foods on consumers.
Even if someone were looking (which they are not), ill effects would have to fulfill a very unusual set of conditions before they could be attributed to a GM food. The symptoms would have to occur straight after eating a known GM food, rather than being slow in onset, like cancer; they would have to be completely different from common disease symptoms such as allergic reactions; and they would have to be visible to the naked eye, since few people have their internal body tissues examined under a microscope on a routine basis.
To detect more subtle effects on health, or effects that take time to show up (chronic effects), long-term controlled studies on larger populations are required. No such studies have been done.
Even the GM proponent Ben Miflin, former director of the Institute of Arable Crops at Rothamsted, UK, argues that under current monitoring conditions, any unanticipated health impact of such foods would need to be a “monumental disaster” to be detectable.
What is known about the effects of GM foods on human health?
The little that is known about GM foods and human health bears no relation to the fairy tale that SPICe would have us believe. Here are some known facts on the issue, three out of four of which predate SPICe’s paper and should have informed its content.
1) GM foods are not properly tested for human safety before they are released for sale.
2) The only published study directly testing the effects of a GM food on humans found potential problems but was not followed up.
3) Researchers at the US Centers for Disease Control published a paper reporting that food-related illnesses increased 2- to 10-fold in the years between 1994 (just before GM food was commercialised) and 1999. Is there a link with GM food? No one knows, because the studies have not been done.
4) In the late 1980s, a food supplement produced using GM bacteria was toxic, initially killing 37 Americans and making more than 5,000 others seriously ill.
SPICe’s treatment of the research on the environmental effects of GM crops is woefully inadequate. Referring to the UK government’s farm scale trials of GM crops, the paper states, “There is clear evidence that under the management conditions used there were adverse effects in the plots with GM oil seed rape and beet, but not corn.”
What is interesting here is what is left out. SPICe implies that the environmental effects of GM crops are mixed – that sometimes they are beneficial (as with oilseed rape and beet), but at other times they are not (as with maize/corn). The truth of the matter is that the non-GM maize that was used as a control crop to compare with the GM maize was sprayed with the powerful herbicide atrazine, which was withdrawn by the EU soon after the trials because of health risks. The use of atrazine on the non-GM maize, GM opponents said, made the GM maize seem beneficial to the environment in comparison. This, they said, made the maize part of the trials invalid.
Other studies have found that GM crops have led to an increase in pesticide use. While the publication date of the studies is later than the SPICe paper, the data on which they are based is from the US Dept of Agriculture (USDA) and dates back to 1994. It is made public annually on the USDA website, so the SPICe paper’s authors should have been aware of it..
Bt cotton problems
The SPICe paper mentions GM pesticide-producing Bt cotton only in terms of scientists “successfully” incorporating the Bt toxin gene. It ignores the massive controversy surrounding this crop in countries where it has been introduced. Some of these controversies predate the SPICe paper but are not mentioned. For example, in 2001 in Indonesia, where Monsanto’s Bt cotton was introduced on the orders of the government, angry farmers set fire to their fields after Bt cotton succumbed to pest infestation. Two years later, Monsanto withdrew its Bt cotton from Indonesia. In 2005 Monsanto was forced to pay $1.5 million in fines after owning up to spending more than $700,000 on bribes to Indonesian government officials to allow the company to bypass completing an environmental impact assessment.
Subsequent events and research carried out since the SPICe paper was published have confirmed that Bt cotton has caused serious problems. In India, pests have developed resistance to the Bt toxin. In India and China, even when the technology has successfully controlled the target pest, the bollworm, secondary pests have taken over. Farmers have had to apply costly pesticides, leading to a rise in pesticide use.
Failure of the Bt cotton crop in India, and the resulting burden of debt among poor cotton farmers, has been blamed by many, Prince Charles among them, for being a major cause of thousands of farmer suicides.
The link between farmer suicides and Bt cotton has been disputed by a 2008 report from the (consistently pro-GM) International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Washington DC. An article in the (UK) Guardian titled "Indian farmer suicides not GM related, says study" proclaimed, "Suicides among Indian farmers have not increased as a result of the introduction of GM crops, according to a large scientific study."
The Guardian article quotes the report to the effect that "There is no evidence in available data of a 'resurgence' of farmer suicide in India in the last five years" (Monsanto's Bt cotton was introduced into India in 2002).
However, the full report, for those who take the trouble to read it, tells a different story from the one that was spun to the media. The authors admit that the data is simply not available that would allow conclusions as to the numbers of Bt cotton farmers who have committed suicide: "None of the reported data sources on farmer suicide provide information about the concerned farmers' characteristics."
In fact, there are not even numbers on how many of the Indian farmers who have killed themselves grew cotton, let alone Bt cotton, or on how many farmers committed suicide after their crops failed. The IFPRI authors admit their findings do not allow them to "reject the potential role of Bt cotton varieties in the observed discrete increase in farmer suicides in certain states and years".
In the light of this, SPICe's enthusiasm for the crop seems at best premature.
Exodus of genetic engineering scientists?
SPICe laments the departure from the UK of genetic engineering scientists, who, it says, are “relocating to other countries such as Australia where there is a less restrictive approach to the issue”. If Scotland were to go GM-free, the briefing adds, this could “have an adverse effect on our local biotech research (as distinct from major multinational companies), an important component in our economy."
Dr Sue Mayer of Genewatch comments, “I don’t know where the evidence is that scientists are relocating and of course there may be clear advantages in terms of going GM free – allowing the fastest growing sector of agriculture (organic) to flourish and Scottish produce to have the market value of GM-free for a start!”
Even if SPICe's claim about the supposed exodus of scientists were true, it is worth questioning assumptions about the value that investing in biotechnology can bring to Scotland's economy (see Scottish Enterprise).
The authors of the SPICe paper have failed to consider the relevant scientific concerns and related scientific research on GM. They have used spin to undermine valid concerns and to promote GM crops and foods to the Scottish Parliament. The SPICe paper stands as an argument for mandating that all ‘advice’ to politicians must be in writing and immediately made public. The authors of such advice and advisors to the project must be disclosed to establish accountability, and their interests in biotechnology groups and corporations must be declared. The declarations of interest must be comprehensive, including frequently left-out items such as past affiliations, travel funding, monetary and non-monetary benefits, consulting for biotechnology companies, and research relationships with companies or groups that obtain funding from companies.
- “SPICe science briefing: GM crops in Scotland”, Scottish Parliament Science Information Service, December 2003
- ”Greens call for investigation into ‘Impartial’ Science Information Scheme”, press release, Scottish Green Party, 14 April 2006, accessed November 2008
- Detection of Transgenic and Endogenous Plant DNA in Digesta and Tissues of Sheep and Pigs Fed Roundup Ready Canola Meal. Mazza R. et al. J Agric Food Chem. 54: 1699-1709, 2006. The Mutational Consequences of Plant Transformation. Latham J.R. et al. J Biomed Biotech., Volume 2006, Article ID 25376, pp. 1–7.
- The Mutational Consequences of Plant Transformation. Latham J.R. et al. J Biomed Biotech. Volume 2006, Article ID 25376, pp. 1–7
- “The adoption of bioengineered crops”, US Department of Agriculture Report, May 2002; “Glyphosate-resistant soyabean cultivar yields compared with sister lines”, Elmore, R.W. et al., Agronomy Journal, Vol. 93, No. 2, 2001, pp. 408–412
- The Adoption of Bioengineered Crops. US Department of Agriculture Report, May 2002
- International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development: Global Summary for Decision Makers (IAASTD); Beintema, N. et al., 2008. http://www.agassessment.org/index.cfm?Page=IAASTD%20Reports&ItemID=2713
- For example, ”Discovery Channel announces results of global poll revealing what people really think about genetics”, Yahoo News, 31 March 2003, accessed November 2008
- Shelley Mika, “Britons Show Distaste for Biotech Foods”, Gallup Poll, 18 October 2005, accessed November 2008
- For example, see Jon Swaine, “Prince Charles sparks debate over GM crops claims”, The (UK) Telegraph, 13 August 2008, accessed November 2008
- Freese, W. and D. Schubert, “Safety testing and regulation of genetically engineered foods”, Biotechnol Genet Eng Rev., 21: 299-324, 2004
- ”Biotech companies fuel GM contamination spread”, Genewatch and Greenpeace International, 29 February 2008, accessed November 2008
- Stuart Newman, "Australian Mouse Study Confirms CRG Warning", undated article, Council for Responsible Genetics website, accessed November 2008
- George Wald, "The Case Against Genetic Engineering", in The Recombinant DNA Debate, Jackson and Stich, eds. p. 127, 128. (Reprinted from The Sciences, Sept./Oct. 1979
- Rick Weiss, “Genetic Engineering Breeds Costly Protest”, The Washington Post, 17 November 1994 (full article accessed by subscription only)
- See just a few examples of quotes from scientists at “Statements on the dangers of GM by scientists”, Norfolk Genetic Information Network website, accessed November 2008
- Here is just a small selection of these papers: “The effect of glufosinate resistant corn on growth of male broiler chickens”, Leeson, S., Dept of Animal and Poultry Sciences, University of Guelph, Report No. A56379, 12 July 1996; “Genetically modified soya leads to the decrease of weight and high mortality rate of rat pups of the first generation”, Ermakova I.V., EcosInform, Vol. 1, 2006, pp. 4-9; “Fine structural analysis of pancreatic acinar cell nuclei from mice fed on GM soybean”, Malatesta, M. et al., Eur. J. Histochem., Vol. 47, 2003, pp. 385–388; “Ultrastructural morphometrical and immunocytochemical analyses of hepatocyte nuclei from mice fed on genetically modified soybean”, Malatesta, M. et al., Cell Struct Funct., Vol. 27, 2002, pp. 173-180; “Ultrastructural analysis of testes from mice fed on genetically modified soybean”, Vecchio L. et al., Eur. J. Histochem., Vol. 48, pp. 448-454, 2004; “A long-term study on female mice fed on a genetically modified soybean: effects on liver ageing”, Malatesta M. et al., Histochem Cell Biol., Vol. 130, 2008, pp. 967-977; “Effects of diets containing genetically modified potatoes expressing Galanthus nivalis lectin on rat small intestine”, Ewen S.W. and A. Pusztai, The Lancet, Vol. 354, 1999, pp. 1353–1354; “New Analysis of a Rat Feeding Study with a Genetically Modified Maize Reveals Signs of Hepatorenal Toxicity”, Séralini, G.-E. et al., Arch. Environ. Contam. Toxicol., Vol. 52, 2007, pp. 596-602.
- For Miflin’s pro-GM views, see, for example, Ben Miflin, “Arguments in Favour of Genetically-Modified Crops”, Harvard website, undated, archived on AgBioWorld website, accessed November 2008
- Long-term effect of GM crops serves up food for thought. Nature, 398: 651-653, 1999
- Safety testing and regulation of genetically engineered foods. Freese, W. and D. Schubert. Biotechnol Genet Eng Rev., 21: 299-324, 2004
- Assessing the survival of transgenic plant DNA in the human gastrointestinal tract. Netherwood, T. et al. Nat Biotech., 22: 204–209, 2004
- Food related illness and death in the United States. Mead P.S. et al. Emerging Infectious Diseases, 5: 607–625, 1999
- Eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome and tryptophan production: a cautionary tale. Mayeno A.N and Gleich G.J. Tibtech, 12: 346-352, 1994
- ”Q&A: GM farm-scale trials”, BBC News, 9 March 2004, accessed November 2008
- “Genetically engineered crops and pesticide use in the United States: The first nine years”, Benbrook, C., BioTech InfoNet, Technical Paper No. 7, October 2004; “Agricultural Pesticide Use in US Agriculture”, Center for Food Safety, May 2008, using data from US Department of Agriculture
- ”Pests attack genetically modified cotton”, The Jakarta Post, 29 June 2001
- Lim Li Ching, “Broken Promises: Will GM crops really help developing countries?” ISIS press release, 12 May 2004
- This story was widely reported in the global press. See, for example, Bill Guerin, “The seeds of a bribery scandal in Indonesia”, Asia Times Online, 20 January 2005, accessed November 2008
- “Tarnishing silver bullets: Bt technology adoption, bounded rationality and the outbreak of secondary pest infestations in China”, Just, D.R., et al., presented at the American Agricultural Economics Association Annual Meeting, Long Beach, CA, 22–26 July 2006; Insect resistance to Bt crops: evidence versus theory. Tabashnik BE et al. Nat Biotech., 26: 199-202, 2008; “Transgenic cotton drives insect boom”. Pearson H. NatureNews. Published online 25 July 2006. Nature doi:10.1038/news060724-5; “India: Bt cotton devastated by secondary pests”. Bhaskar Goswami. Grain, 01 Sept 2007; “Bt cotton not pest resistant”. Gur Kirpal Singh Ashk. The Times of India, 24 Aug 2007
- Andrew Malone, “The GM genocide: Thousands of Indian farmers are committing suicide after using genetically modified crops” Daily Mail, 3 November 2008, accessed November 2008
- James Randerson, "Indian farmer suicides not GM related, says study", The Guardian, 5 November 2008, accessed November 2008
- Guillaume P. Gruère, Purvi Mehta-Bhatt, Debdatta Sengupta, "Bt Cotton and Farmer Suicides: Reviewing the Evidence", IFPRI Discussion Paper 00808, International Food Policy Research Institute, October 2008, p. 26, accessed November 2008
- ”Greens call for investigation into ‘Impartial’ Science Information Scheme”, press release, Scottish Green Party, 14 April 2006, accessed November 2008