GMOs Will Only Make the Global Food Crisis Worse

In 1994, I met some of the most remarkable leaders in the Third World: Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher (Institute of Sustainable Development, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia), Martin Khor (Third World Network, Penang, Malaysia), and Vandana Shiva (Navdanya, New Delhi, India), who persuaded me to look into genetically modified organisms (GMOs), especially GM crops, which they rightly saw as a special threat to small family farmers.

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho warns that further indulgence in GMOs will severely damage our chances of surviving the food crisis and global warming; organic agriculture and localised food systems are the way forward
Invited lecture at conference on TRADITIONAL SEEDS OUR NATIONAL TREASURE AND HERITAGE -Traditional and Organic Agriculture instead of GMO, 17 May 2008, Bewelder, Warsaw, Poland

The Brave New World of GM Science

In 1994, I met some of the most remarkable leaders in the Third World: Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher (Institute of Sustainable Development, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia), Martin Khor (Third World Network, Penang, Malaysia), and Vandana Shiva (Navdanya, New Delhi, India), who persuaded me to look into genetically modified organisms (GMOs), especially GM crops, which they rightly saw as a special threat to small family farmers. The biotech industry was promising miracle GM crops that would boost yield to feed the world, improve nutrition, and clean up and protect the environment. Monsanto’s Flavr Savr tomato, the first GM crop, had just been commercialised, though it turned out to be a complete flop, and was withdrawn several years later..

The biotech industry’s aggressive campaign of disinformation and manipulation of science did nothing to obscure the signs that the dream would soon turn into nightmare; and I said so in my book first published in 1997/1998 [1] Genetic Engineering Dream or Nightmare, the Brave New World of Bad Science and Big Business, which became an international bestseller, translated into many languages, and recently reprinted with an extended introduction to coincide with its translation into Indonesian. Everything predicted in that book has happened. It also explained why the science behind GM is obsolete; a story elaborated further in Living with the Fluid Genome [2] published in 2003.


Genetic modification based on an obsolete theory and hence ineffective and dangerous

Genetic engineering of plants and animals began in the mid 1970s in the belief that the genome (the totality of all the genetic material of a species) is constant and static, and that the characteristics of organism are simply hardwired in their genome. But geneticists soon discovered that the genome is remarkably dynamic and ‘fluid’, and constantly in conversation with the environment. This determines which genes are turned on, when, where, by how much and for how long. Moreover, the genetic material itself could also be marked or changed according to experience, and the influence passed on to the next generation.

The best thing about the human genome project is to finally explode the myth of genetic determinism, revealing the layers of molecular complexity that transmit, interpret and rewrite the genetic texts [3] (Life Beyond the Central Dogma series, SiS 24). These processes are precisely orchestrated and finely tuned by the organism as a whole, in a highly coordinated molecular ‘dance of life’ that’s necessary for survival.

In contrast, genetic engineering in the laboratory is crude, imprecise and invasive. The rogue genes inserted into a genome to make a GMO could land anywhere; typically in a rearranged or defective form, scrambling and mutating the host genome, and have the tendency to move or rearrange further once inserted, basically because they do not know the dance of life. That’s ultimately why genetic modification doesn’t work and is also dangerous.

Independent science against GM

In 1999, I co-founded the Institute of Science in Society (ISIS) with my husband and long-time collaborator Peter Saunders, Professor of Mathematics at King’s College, London, to work for science, society and sustainability and to reclaim science for the public good. We are fortunate to have the support of wonderful fellow scientists, especially Prof. Joe Cummins, who joined ISIS from the start and continues to play the leading role in monitoring GM science. (Joe Cummins has been honoured with the ISIS Distinguished Fellow Award 2008.)

In 2003, dozens of scientists from around the world joined us in ISIS to form the Independent Science Panel, and produced a report, The Case for A GM-Free Sustainable World [4], documenting all the problems and hazards of GM crops as well as the successes and benefits of non-GM sustainable agriculture. The report was republished within a year, translated into many languages and widely circulated. We presented the report to the European Parliament in 2004 [5] (Keep GM Out of Europe, SiS 24), with the help of Jill Evans MEP.

In 2007, we updated the ISP report with a dossier containing more than 160 fully referenced articles from the archives of ISIS’ magazine Science in Society, spelling out the scandals of serious hazards ignored, scientific fraud, the regulatory sham and violation of farmers’ rights [6] (GM Science Exposed: Hazards Ignored, Fraud, Regulatory Sham, Violation of Farmers Rights). Duped farmers in India are driven to suicide in hundreds of thousands. GM science is a crime against humanity.

In a scientific review paper [7] (GM Food Nightmare Unfolding in the Regulatory Sham), we documented how national and international regulators and advisory bodies such as the European Food Safety Authority have been ignoring the precautionary principle (which is accepted by the European Commission), abusing science, sidestepping the law, and helping to promote GM technology in the face of evidence piling up against the safety of GM food and feed.

We presented our dossier and review paper to the European Parliament in June 2007, once again to press for a GM-Free Europe and a GM-free world, thanks to the sponsorship of Polish MEP Mr. Janusz Wojciechowski and his office. Our panel consisted of key scientists from six countries including Poland, and friends of independent scientists, including MEPs Dr. Caroline Lucas and Jill Evans.

The case for a GM-free world has grown much stronger since 2004, not only because so much more evidence has stacked up against GM crops; but especially because accelerating global warming, the depletion of water and fossil fuels, and the current food crisis make it that much more urgent to shift comprehensively to sustainable food and energy systems as proposed in ISIS/TWN’s energy report Which Energy? [8]. There is neither the time nor resources to waste on GM.

We’d had 30 years of GMOs and more than enough damage done, as detailed in the ISP Report [4], in our GM Science dossier [6], and more recent evidence has been piling up.

Thirty years of GMOs are more than enough

· No increase in yields; on the contrary GM soya decreased yields by up to 20 percent compared with non-GM soya [4], and up to 100 percent failures of Bt cotton have been recorded in India [6]. New studies confirmed these findings. Research from the University of Kansas found a 10 percent yield drag for Roundup Ready soya [9] that required extra manganese applied to the soil to make up the yield deficit. A team of scientists from the USDA and the University of Georgia found growing GM cotton in the US could result in a drop in income by up to 40 percent [10, 11] (Transgenic Cotton Offers No Advantage, SiS 38)

· No reduction in pesticides use; on the contrary, USDA data showed that GM crops increase pesticide use by 50 million pounds from 1996 to 2003 in the United States [4]. New data paint an even grimmer picture: the use of glyphosate on major crops went up more than 15-fold between 1994 and 2005, along with increases in other herbicides [12] in order to cope with rising glyphosate resistant superweeds [6]. Roundup tolerant canola volunteers are top among the worries of Canadian farmers [13, 14] (Study Based on Farmers’ Experience Exposes Risks of GM Crops, SiS 38)

· Roundup herbicide is lethal to frogs and toxic to human placental and embryonic cells [6]. Roundup is used in more than 80 percent of all GM crops planted in the world

· GM crops harm wildlife, as revealed by UK’s farm scale evaluations [6], and more recently in a study led by Loyola University, Chicago, Illinois in the United Stated, which found that wastes from Bt corn impaired the growth of a common aquatic insect [15, 16] (Bt Crops Threaten Aquatic Ecosystems, SiS 36)

· Bt resistance pests and Roundup tolerant superweeds render the two major GM crop traits practically useless [6]. A recent review concluded that [17] “evolved glyphosate-resistant weeds are a major risk for the continued success of glyphosate and transgenic glyphosate-resistant crops.” And the evolution of Bt resistant bollworms worldwide have now been confirmed and documented in more than a dozen fields in Mississippi and Arkansas between 2003 and 2006 [18]

· Vast areas of forests, pampas and cerrados lost to GM soya in Latin America, 15 m hectares in Argentina alone [6]; and this has worsened considerably with the demand for biofuels (see later)

· Epidemic of suicides in the cotton belt of India involving 100 000 farmers between 1993-2003, and a further 16 000 farmers a year have died since Bt cotton was introduced [6]

· Transgene contamination unavoidable, scientists find GM pollination of non-GM crops and wild relatives 21 kilometres away [19]

· GM food and feed linked to deaths and sicknesses both in the fields in India and in lab tests around the world (more below)

GM food and feed inherently hazardous to health [7]

Here are some highlights from our GM Science dossier [6] on the hazards of GM food and feed. Dr. Irina Ermakova of the Russian Academy of Sciences showed how GM soya made female rats give birth to severely stunted and abnormal litters, with more than half dying in three weeks, and those remaining are sterile. Hundreds of villagers and cotton handlers in India suffer allergy-like symptoms, thousands of sheep died after grazing on the Bt cotton residues, goat and cows as well were reported in 2007 and 2008 [20] (Mass Protests against GM Crops in India , SiS 38). A harmless bean protein transferred to pea when tested on mice cause severe inflammation in the lungs and provoked generalised food sensitivities. Dozens of villagers in the south of the Philippines fell ill when neighbouring GM maize fields came into flower in 2003, five have died and some remain ill to this day. A dozen cows died having eaten GM maize in Hesse Germany and more in the herd had to be slaughtered from mysterious illnesses. Arpad Pusztai and his colleagues in the UK found GM potatoes with snowdrop lectin damaged every organ system of young rats; the stomach lining grew twice as thick as controls. Chickens fed GM maize Chardon LL were twice as likely to die as controls. And finally, GM maize Mon 863 was claimed to be as safe as non-GM maize by the company, and accepted as such by European Food Safety Authority. But independent scientists of CriiGen in France re-analysed the data and found signs of liver and kidney toxicity.

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