SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 79, November 2003

GM food on trial

Can genetically modified food put an end to famine? Is it even safe to eat? Is it an uncontrollable environmental disaster waiting to happen? While most people are deeply suspicious, the scientific jury is still out. What is certain is that powerful multinationals are striving to force GM products down our throats. JON DALE reports on recent findings from field trials in Britain while MANNY THAIN looks at GM politics and trade.

A guilty verdict?

"THE PRIME minister is very strongly of the view that this product is safe. He has no hesitation at all about saying that. He does have a sense of frustration that the debate is not being conducted in as fully informed a manner as it could be". (Downing Street spokesman, 15 February 1999)

Fortunately, massive public opposition forced the government to concede a ‘debate’ and period of research before new genetically modified (GM) plant technology was given the go-ahead. Farm trials were set up on a bigger scale than has taken place anywhere else. This in itself shows the reckless dash for cash of the corporations, which have pressured farmers in 16 countries to use GM crops before any careful research into their long-term effects has been carried out.

The government’s sympathies were clear from the start. The trials were designed to produce a favourable result for the industry by narrowly concentrating on the immediate environmental effects in the fields. These were not expected to show much difference with conventionally grown crops.

Wider issues were not considered, such as the consequences of GM pollen spreading and cross-pollinating with wild plants or other crops. Health effects were not examined. This would have been far more costly and time-consuming to research. So it is an enormous blow to the government and industry’s plans that even this limited research, published on 16 October, has shown much greater environmental damage than anyone had predicted.

In different parts of England and Scotland, 273 fields were planted half-and-half with GM and conventional crops. Four were tested – beet, maize, spring and winter oil-seed rape (the latter results will be ready next year). GM maize and rape were treated with the weedkiller ‘Liberty’, made by BayerCropScience. GM beet was sprayed with Monsanto’s ‘Roundup’. These weedkillers destroy all plants except the crops, which are genetically changed to withstand them. Conventional weedkillers were used on the non-GM crops.

Scientists measured the numbers of weeds growing in the fields and the number of seeds they produced. These weeds and seeds provide food for insects – beetles, butterflies, bumblebees – and birds such as skylarks and yellow hammers. The insects then provide food for other insects and spiders, as well as birds.

Among the alarming findings were: a six-fold reduction in the weight of weeds in GM beet fields sprayed with Roundup; 70% less weed seeds in GM beet fields; 80% fewer broad-leaved weed seeds in GM spring oil-seed rape (although there were more springtails feeding on the destroyed weeds, and spiders feeding on the springtails); and one third fewer butterflies in GM beet and half fewer in GM spring rape – although it is true that not many butterflies are found around conventionally grown beet.

The number of bees did not differ, but they can travel for food. Most of the trial sites involved half of just one or two fields sown with GM crops. And if GM agriculture were to spread across the countryside there would be a sharp decline in the flowering plants bees feed on.

The bird population was not measured, but these big falls in weed seeds and insects would inevitably affect their numbers. They have already suffered a more dramatic decline than anywhere else in Europe due to intensive conventional agriculture. The effects would accumulate each year with GM farming as the number of weed seeds in the soil fell.

On the other hand, there were three times as many weeds in the GM maize, producing twice as much seed, as in the conventional crop. There were similar numbers of insects, apart from three times as many honeybees around the GM field boundaries. Much has been made of the maize results by the industry, media and government. What the maize findings showed, however, were the limitations of the whole experiment.

In reality, the field trials compared the effects of different weedkillers, rather than any changes from the different genetic make-up of the crops, which would be very much more difficult to study. The conventional maize was treated with atrazine, but this has just been banned by the European Union because of its cancer-causing and gender-changing effects. Because the use of atrazine is to be stopped, the maize results are meaningless for future farming practice.

Three other studies published in October provide further reasons for opposing the introduction of commercial GM farming. One has shown that oil-seed rape cross-pollinates with a related wild plant, Bargeman’s cabbage or wild turnip. Cross-pollination occurred up to two miles from the crop. Some of the plants grown as a result of cross-pollination would be capable of reproducing. Although this study looked at conventional oil-seed rape, the effects would be the same with a GM crop. If Liberty-resistant oil-seed rape cross-pollinated with Bargeman’s cabbage, some offspring would be resistant to BayerCropScience’s weedkiller. Like antibiotic-resistant bacteria, they would spread and could eventually need more concentrated and frequent applications of Liberty, or additional spraying with another chemical.

Another study has shown that it would take five years of annual spraying with weedkiller before the level of GM oil-seed rape fell to the point that contamination of a new non-GM crop in the same field was less than 1%. If no spraying took place, it would take 16 years.

The third study found evidence of bees transferring pollen over a distance of 26 kilometres by flying back to their hives and mixing with other bees. It had previously been assumed that bees could carry pollen four kilometres. This means that there are no safe quarantine distances around GM crops that could prevent the contamination of non-GM farming. An exception may be maize, which has no wild relatives in Britain with which to cross-pollinate and which bees do not feed on. A separation of 80 metres would keep cross-pollination with non-GM maize below 0.3%.

While these findings add to the growing body of knowledge about possible consequences of GM farming, a key question remains – do genetically changed crops have any different nutritional properties? If they do, this could affect humans, animals, insects and birds in unforeseen and unpredictable ways. The biotechnology corporations airily dismiss this issue, saying that GM food is ‘broadly equivalent’ to non-GM. They would sound more convincing if they had conducted serious research in this area, but they have not.

‘Conventional’ farming is enormously damaging to the ecosystem. Large farmers, agrochemical and food processing companies, together with the supermarkets, aim to maximise their short-term profits. The long-term consequences to the land and water, where many of these chemicals end up, are incalculable. Public spending cuts have meant universities and public research institutes are increasingly dependent on private industry funding. Farming methods that cannot be patented or marketed and which do not produce fat profits get low, if any, priority.

The huge sums spent on GM technology should be spent on research and development into sustainable farming. Although GM technology could theoretically produce benefits, workers, consumers and small farmers can have no confidence that these will outweigh the risks so long as capitalism controls scientific research, development and application.

The government’s public consultation exercise, published in September, found only 8% were happy to eat GM food. The Cabinet Office’s July economic review warned of "a risk of civil unrest if there is a rush to grow GM crops". New Labour’s enthusiasm for the biotechnology corporations is running into big obstacles. It looks as though Blair’s ‘sense of frustration’ will grow.

Global assault

FOLLOWING TONY Blair’s stance on the invasion of Iraq, GM crops have exposed his sycophantic support for George W Bush on two further fronts. Firstly, Blair’s ringing endorsement of US biotech corporations and GM science without any hard evidence, like some vegetable WMD. Secondly, distancing his government from the trade dispute blowing up between the US and Europe over GM food. To Blair, big-business backing and his so-called ‘special relationship’ with the Bush regime matter more than the environment or health of people in Britain or elsewhere in the world.

Intense debate provoked by the crop trials also highlighted the overwhelming domination by big business of the ‘world market’. Most of the biotech industry is in the hands of US corporations, backed to the hilt by the US administration. Monsanto and a handful of other companies have spent millions developing genetically modified organisms. Their aim is to sell GM seed to farmers throughout the world. The seeds are resistant to chemical pesticides produced by the same companies which developed them. The seeds are sterile. So every year farmers have to buy more.

Unfortunately for them, people around the world are suspicious of their motives, question whether the food is safe, and fear the environmental consequences. It was pressure from below that compelled the New Labour government to conduct its biased crop trials.

Now the biotech companies are trying to force countries to accept their products. They want the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to rule that the European Union (EU) moratorium on GM produce, and its rules on labelling and contamination tolerance, are barriers to ‘free trade’. They understand how unpopular their products have become, protesting that clearly labelling foods containing GM ingredients is like putting a skull and crossbones on the packaging. They claim that EU restrictions have cost them $30 billion (£18bn) in ‘lost’ export revenue. In other words, US corporations are demanding compensation for people not buying what they do not want to buy.

It would be wrong, however, to think that the EU is acting on behalf of Europe’s people. On 2 July the European Parliament approved a regulation that food must be labelled if it has more than 0.9% of detectable GM content. It also stated that there had to be a ‘paper trail’ allowing derivatives to be traced. This affects products such as corn oil or beet sugar. However, the rule does not apply to products made with GM ‘processing aids’, such as enzymes or yeast. Therefore, cheese, wine and beer are exempt, and the EU exports large quantities of these. So it turns out to be a thinly-disguised protectionist ploy, this time in the interests of European big business. It is one more example of accumulating transatlantic trade tensions. And it further divides Blair from the EU.

Monsanto bosses are celebrating the decision of the Workers’ Party government in Brazil to allow the cultivation of GM soya beans for the first time. This is one of a series of neo-liberal policies implemented by president Lula on behalf of US big business. All the benefits will accrue to the large landowners. Poor peasant farmers and landless workers will suffer. According to The Economist magazine (4 October), Monsanto’s target is for its seeds to account for 70% of soya bean production within a decade, and Brazil could become the world’s biggest soya producer in five years. Soya products already account for 5% of Brazil’s total exports.

Every aspect of the GM industry is tightly controlled by a handful of powerful corporations based in the G7 richest countries, especially the US. An editorial in the New York Times makes this explicit: "There are two methods of transferring genes, for example. Both were developed by universities, but industry giants now hold the licenses. The companies permit others to do research with the technologies but want control over any product commercialised as a result. Several poor nations are trying to develop improved versions of local crops, but these efforts have been crippled by the biotech companies’ control over the technology". (13 October)

Bill Gates, the billionaire head of Microsoft, recently donated $25 million to GM research through his Gates Foundation. He claims it is to help the world’s poor, but it’s hard not to be sceptical. John Vidal, the Guardian’s environment editor, wrote that international charities, farmers’ groups and academics "accused [Gates] of being captured by an industry now using the hungry as a ‘Trojan horse’ to get its biotech into poor countries". (16 October) The Gates Foundation has appointed an ex-Monsanto scientist to one of its boards, alongside representatives from the Syngenta corporation. Last year it linked up with GM-dealing Kraft foods, a subsidiary of Philip Morris (the world’s most profitable tobacco corporation).

The research being funded by Gates will be done mainly by the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture, and the International Food Policy Research Institute. Both are part of the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research (Cgiar), which holds more than 600,000 types of unpatented seed in a genetic bank of immense potential wealth to food and pharmaceutical companies. Its two major financial backers are the US administration and the World Bank. Finance equals influence. Vidal reported: "Cgiar’s public research, say NGOs in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe, is being quietly corporatised, centralised in Washington and becoming remote from farmers in the developing world. They argue that having promoted the ‘green revolution’ of the 1960s – which introduced high-yielding, chemically dependent crops – Cgiar is now using large amounts of public money to develop GM foods, once again without consulting the people who the technology will most affect".

The link between governments and big business is not only visible in the US. The main body allocating funding to the life science industries in Britain is the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. Its executives are drawn from biotech and pharmaceutical giants Syngenta, GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals, Merck Sharp & Dohme, Pfizer, Genetix plc, Millennium Pharmaceuticals, Celltech and Unilever. Under Clare Short, the Department for International Development gave £13 million to researchers developing GM crops. That policy continues.

The application of genetically modified organisms opens up hitherto unexplored roads for humanity. New Scientist magazine reported on 30 August that the Pest Animal Control-Cooperative Research Centre (PAC-CRC) in Canberra, Australia, is developing a disease which renders female mice infertile. This is to stop mice infestation of grain regions. Clearly, there is the potential for great benefits from this. But could the disease be controlled? Would it spread to other countries? Could it mutate or recombine with other viruses? Could it jump species?

The problem is not science itself. It is the issue of who controls the research and development, the production and distribution of the goods produced, and in whose interests. It is particularly important when we are dealing with technologies with the potential of such far-reaching health and environmental impact.

With regard to GM food, the most seductive argument in favour is that it could be a major weapon against famine in neo-colonial countries. And maybe it could. But multi-national corporations are not driven by altruistic motives. They are driven by an insatiable thirst for profits. The capitalist system is based on minority, ruling class ownership and control of the productive forces and distribution.

In reality, the biggest cause of starvation is poverty. The majority of the world’s population cannot afford the food produced – which actually exceeds need. The working class internationally has to resist the plans of big business, and fight to impose as many controls as possible on its operations.

We can only have confidence that science is being harnessed in the interests of humanity when the working class is in control of the productive forces, including scientific research and development. A democratic socialist society run with the active participation of the vast majority of its people would not be motivated by short-term profit. It would be based on human cooperation and solidarity. That would mean that the decisions taken on how to plan the economy would incorporate a long-term view of the needs of all the peoples of the world and of the planet’s environment.


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