Heath hits out at 'international hypocrisy' on GM

FARMING Minister David Heath has hit out at the ‘international hypocrisy’ he claims exists over the rules surrounding genetically modified (GM) crops.

Mr Heath said he had always been ‘extremely cautious’ about GM technology because of the ‘need to be clear about the human health and environmental implications’.

But, speaking at the International Food Exhibition, in London, this week he said the evidence was there that GM crops had been grown over a ‘very large part of the world for a very long time without those effects being manifest’. Specific GM applications therefore ought to be considered on their own merit,” he said. 

“There is a moral duty to look at every possibility to see if there are things we can do safely and better than we do now to meet the challenge of feeding a hugely increased population with sustainable techniques,” he said. 

He contrasted the level of GM feed currently imported into the EU with the restrictive rules on growing GM crops in Europe.

“We have an international hypocrisy at the moment about the huge amount of GM soya which is grown and fed to animals around the world and imported into European countries. I just don’t believe it is sustainable just to close our eyes to that,” he said.

“We have a science and technology base in this country capable of doing something excellent in this area. If we can do so safely, we ought to be at the forefront of that technology, not stifled by rules which frankly may not make any logical sense.”

Mr Heath went on to accuse the national media of being ‘very poor at understanding science’. This had resulted in the perpetuation ‘scare stories’ depicting GM as a ‘disaster waiting to happen’, based on the possibility of even the smallest risk of negative effects. He said the media and legislators both needed to improve their understanding of risk.

Former newspaper editor Rosie Boycott acknowledged that the media was partly to blame in misrepresenting the risks associated with GM crops.

But she said her concern when it comes to GM technology was the power held by one company, Monsanto, which ‘rightly made people very suspicious of the technology’. She said there were examples where Monsanto had behaved ‘incredibly badly’ towards farmers in the past.

“That said we have been practising types of GM throughout history and to turn our back on it is crazy,” she said.

Readers' comments (5)

  • David Health makes several inaccurate statements about GM crops. Firstly, they are not being grown over a "very large part of the world". Only 10% of global arable land is under GM crop cultivation and more than 90% of this is in two regions-North and South America. So, most of the world has chosen to remain GM free. Secondly, that there is no evidence of negative environmental or health outcomes is also grossly inaccurate. Broad spectrum herbicide use, such as Roundup, used with GM herbicide tolerant crops has increased disproportionally over the years rather than decreased due to now rampant presence of resistant weeds. The latest official figures show more than 60 million acres of farmland in the USA are now infested with Roundup resistant weeds and that in a couple more years this will rise to more than 90% of the arable land. In other words weed control using GM crops tolerant to glyphosate based herbicides such as Roundup has now failed with farmers having to spray multiple herbicides or mechanically remove weeds. Since there is no labelling or population monitoring in regions where GM food is consumed; that is, North America, it is simply not scientifically accurate to claim that there have been ill-effects from eating these products. The truth is we don’t know. What we do know is that an increasing body of well-conducted, controlled laboratory animal GM crop feeding studies have shown clear toxic effects to multiple organ systems, especially with respect liver and kidney function. Unfortunately, regulators have ignored the warnings highlighted by these findings and there is still no evaluation of possible negative effects in the farm animal and human population. Lastly, as a molecular geneticist and user of GM technology I must point out that Rosie Boycott’s likening of GM to natural breeding and selection that has been practised by peoples for millennia is technically far from accurate. The two practises could not be more different. Generation of a GM crop involves no natural breeding, the artificial transfer of genes between usually totally unrelated organisms (e.g. genetic components from bacteria, a plant virus and petunia has gone into GM Roundup tolerant soya beans), and the GM process is highly damaging generally of the plant’s DNA. The cumulative effects of this procedure are a disturbance of plant biochemistry that can lead to an impediment of crop performance (“yield drag”) and risk of producing novel toxins, allergens and reduced nutritional value. Finally, if David Heath looked closely at actually what GM crops have done for the world since their introduction and what this technology can deliver he would not be making statement such as “There is a moral duty to look at every possibility to see if there are things we can do safely and better than we do now to meet the challenge of feeding a hugely increased population with sustainable techniques,”. GM is linked with unsustainable use of agrochemicals and as Rosie Boycott rightly points out puts control of our food supply in the hands multinational companies, which totally disempowers farmers especially in the developing world. The fact that we produce enough food today to feed 14 billion people, twice the current population, has nothing to do with the introduction of GM crops in the mid-90’s but rather better naturally bred crop varieties and better farming practise, especially agroecological methods in the developing world as acknowledged by the UN report International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development published in 2008.

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  • Rosie Boycott is right that Monsanto has behaved badly towards farmers. However this is not a thing of the past, as she implies. Please read Monsanto vs US Farmers, a Center for Food Safety report, which shows that Monsanto is still suing numerous farmers for 'stealing' their patented GM genes, when often the farmer had no intention of planting GM crops. And Monsanto is not the only or even the chief reason to be suspicious of GM. The technique itself is imprecise and has given rise to unexpected toxicity, which has only been revealed in animal tests. I should point out that many of these tests are NOT done by Monsanto but by independent scientists AFTER the GM crop has been commercialised. Some such studies are summarised in this report, available free: http://earthopensource.org/index.php/executive-summary

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  • I have to respond to the first commenter, who claims to be a molecular geneticist. That claim is completely implausible given the misinformation in the comment. If you're really a molecular geneticist, how about stating your name and affiliation. Basically everything you've said is wrong.

    Firstly, use of some types of herbicides has increased with the growth of herbicide-tolerant GM crops in North America, but they are replacing much worse, more harmful herbicides that were previously used. Glyphosate is essentially harmless compared to the previous alternatives.

    Secondly, the system has not 'failed' simply because weeds evolve resistance - this is a known factor and happens with or without GM crops, it's just a feature of modern intensive agriculture and is well understood.

    Thirdly, saying that "an increasing body of well-conducted, controlled laboratory animal GM crop feeding studies have shown clear toxic effects to multiple organ systems" is very inaccurate. There are fewer than 5 papers making such claims, and they are among the most discredited papers in the history of science. They are so poor that recently the EFSA (an organisation not known for being friendly towards GMOs) had to make a public statement saying how badly conducted the studies were (http://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/faqs/faqseralini.htm#17).

    Finally, you've completely misstated how GM technologies work. They *do* involve conventional breeding, genes don't necessarily come from different species, and all the deleterious effects you describe are much more likely with conventionally bred crops.

    The article itself is very good :)

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  • Richard Smith's comments are incorrect and betray a total lack of familiarity with the scientific knowledge in this field. The only authority to claim glyphosate is "essentially harmless" is Monsanto and its allies who either don't read the literature or are trying to mislead the public and regulators. Try putting "glyphosate" and "Roundup" into PubMed. You will see that these substances are found to cause endocrine disruption, birth defects, some types of cancer, and DNA damage. Some of these effects are found at very low realistic doses such as we could be exposed to.
    Smith claims that EFSA "had to make a public statement saying how badly conducted" the studies finding toxic effects from GMOs are. EFSA did no such thing; the statement he refers to is about one study, the Seralini 2012 study, which however remains the most detailed and thorough study on the long term effects of a GMO ever done. If Smith thinks it's a bad study, just have a look at the ones Monsanto submits to regulators including EFSA to get approval of its GMOs! They are weak by any standards.
    Since EFSA is the very same body that decided in 2003 that the Monsanto maize Seralini found unsafe was in fact safe, of course they had to dismiss Seralini's study! I recommend people to visit the site gmoseralini.org, which addresses the sillier claims about this study and goes into EFSA's compromised position.
    It's plain that Smith is not a European, otherwise he would know that EFSA is consistently criticised by MEPs, the public, scientists, and even the European Court of Auditors for its conflicts of interest with the GM industry.
    In fact there are plenty of studies that find toxic effects and signs of toxicity from GMOs and these include Monsanto's own:
    (see section 3).
    The original commenter was right in saying that the generation of a GM crop doesn't involve conventional breeding. The conventional breeding comes in subsequently to the initial generation of the GM crop; they have to cross-breed it with non-GM plants many times over to get the desirable agronomic characteristics, which the GM process in itself is not good at producing.

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  • There are many other wrong statements in Richard Smith's comment. It is widely recognised by weed scientists that the biggest driver of glyphosate resistance in weeds is GM glyphosate-resistant crops. Stands to reason. You use massive amounts of glyphosate, you will get selection pressure for resistant weeds.
    Also there is no data showing, as Smith claims, that more deleterious effects are found in conventionally bred crops than GM crops. He is probably (as many GM fans do) misrepresenting a paper by Batista and colleagues showing that in one single rice type, MUTATION BREEDING caused more mutations than GM in the same crop. Mutation breeding is another pretty risky type of breeding and is very wasteful for this reason. You get a lot of deformed and sick plants that have to be thrown out. Similar problems are found with GM. While Richard Smith would like to think that conventional crops can be as toxic or more toxic than GM crops, this is not the experience in animal feeding trials comparing the two. Consistently, GM crops are found to be more toxic. We can put this down to the imprecision of the technique, which causes a lot of collateral damage in the host plant genome.

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