Growing GM Crops is an Irreversible Act of Ecological Folly

01 April 2003
The European Commission is failing to protect Europe against determined pressure from the United States to accept genetically modified organisms, preferably without any rules on their traceability or labelling.

Opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is based on the argument that the damage they do to the environment may be irreversible; that a few big businesses are set on controlling potentially enormous markets; that US political and economic interests, with active support from the European Commission, are trying to get a stranglehold on the world.

Commercial cultivation of GMOs is expanding fast. In 2000 GM crops covered about 45m hectares worldwide, 68% in the United States, 23% in Argentina, 7% in Canada and 1% in China. (1) Maize and soya accounted for four-fifths of this, with rape, cotton and potatoes a long way behind. Annual turnover in the world seed market is more than $45bn but 80% of farmers, particularly in the South, keep seed from one year to the next and trade it with neighbours rather than buy. The seed transnationals are looking to expand in three ways: more countries, more trade, more varieties.

Their activities are not confined to seed. They also produce and market herbicides, pesticides and pharmaceutical products. Monsanto, Syngenta, Aventis, Dupont, Dow and a few other dominant companies in the sector are products of mergers and acquisitions breeding internal synergies. They claim to be in the life sciences business but the idea is to patent genes, seed and all associated technologies, with the ultimate aim of effectively controlling farming around the world.

In the US, firms have to get permission from the US Department of Agriculture to put a new GM variety on the market. Of the 87 applications for new varieties submitted since 1992, 45, more than half, were filed by Monsanto (now merged with Upjohn, Calgene, DeKalb and Asgrow). Next came Aventis (now including AgrEvo and Plant Genetic Systems), with 18%, and Syngenta (now including Ciba, Novartis, Northrup and Zeneca), with 9%. Then came Dupont and Dow. In the US, five firms led by Monsanto control almost 90% of GM seed, together with associated pesticides and herbicides. And they will stop at nothing to silence their opponents.

Two research scientists from the University of California at Berkeley, David Quist and Ignacio Chapela, learned this the hard way. In November 2001 they published an article in the journal Nature (2), reporting that traces of GM maize had been found in indigenous varieties of Mexican maize. This was very serious because Mexico is the original home of all the maize in the world. Its government had declared a moratorium on the cultivation of GM maize in 1998, to protect this genetically irreplaceable heritage, although biotechnology firms are still running field trials all over the country. The authors also reported that GM DNA had fragmented and was moving unpredictably within the genome of the local maize. Their first finding - contamination - could not be challenged, but the second was a real shock. It undermined the biotech industry's claim that genes never move from the precise place where they have been introduced into the genome.

In 1997 Monsanto's campaign for GMOs brought it to the brink of ruin. To avoid making the same mistake again, it hired the Bivings Group, a public affairs firm specialising in internet strategies. This agency organised a campaign on the net to discredit the Berkeley research team. It got scientists with connections in the industry to challenge their conclusions and, it is alleged, even invented fictitious characters to lend a sharper edge to the debate. (3) This campaign was a success. Nature took the unprecedented step of issuing a disclaimer and it has still not published the findings of Mexican scientists confirming those of their colleagues at Berkeley.

Unlike the French scientific and medical establishment, the British Medical Association, the Royal Society, and many independent research scientists in the United Kingdom have investigated the dangers of growing GM crops in open fields. (4) It is now known that pollen is regularly passed between GMOs and cultivated or wild plants. Depending on the crop and the type of pollination, the pollution may spread far beyond the official limits laid down to protect neighbouring fields. And other species, as well as closely related ones, are contaminated. If GMO field trials become widespread, we know that biological farming will soon become impossible, an economically promising path for development will be closed, and farmers will no longer be free to choose. We also know that GMOs, although designed to resist herbicides and pesticides, generate super-weeds and super-predators and that these may invade the genetic heritage on which farming depends and reduce its variety. Growing GMOs, except in a confined space, is an irreversible act of ecological folly.

In Canada, where commercial production of GM oilseed rape started barely six years ago, the Agriculture Canada Research Centre in Saskatoon reports that "stray pollen and seed is now so widespread that it is difficult to grow conventional or organic strains without them being contaminated". In an attempt to deflect criticism from Canadian farmers, Monsanto has had to send in teams to weed out GM oilseed rape by hand in fields where it was never sown. Specially selected to resist herbicides, it has become "impossible to control" according to a scientist from the University of Manitoba. (5) The life sciences businesses are carrying on as if Darwin had never existed; as if resistance to pesticides and herbicides was not increasing, generation by generation; as if the disastrous DDT experiment had never happened. Their biological time-bomb will produce Chernobyl-type catastrophes.

Is the introduction of GMOs justified by the profits, if only in the short term? Not even that. Despite subsidies of billions of dollars, US farmers who eagerly joined in the venture have lost a lot of money. And they have also had to cope with ultra-resistant plant diseases. (6) The only ones to benefit from GM crops are big biotech firms and their political supporters in the US and Europe.

Can starving people afford not to use GMOs? The media were shocked when Zambia refused consignments of maize containing GMOs provided under the US food aid programme. They failed to point out that the aid came as grain and Zambian peasants would have kept part of it for seed. The problem would not have happened if the maize had been ground into flour. The Zambians wanted to avoid irreversible damage to their crops, which would have stopped them exporting to the European Union. US food aid rarely comes without commercial strings.

A small African country is not to be neglected, but Europe is still the prime market for GM products, especially maize and soya. In 1999 the EU declared a moratorium on imports of GMOs (7) and the US threatened to lodge a complaint against it with the dispute settlement body (DSB) of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), as a deterrent to countries like Brazil and Mexico, which had taken similar steps. The problem was played down to avoid giving the Greens ammunition in last year's French and German elections but it has now been taken up to the Oval Office in the White House. (8)

In January US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick described the European measures as immoral and announced his intention of referring the matter to the DSB. But he has had to backtrack because the State Department and the Bush team did not want such a problem in Europe in the middle of the diplomatic crisis over Iraq. These considerations did not influence Congress. At the beginning of March, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Charles Grassley, senator for the farming state of Iowa, complained that $300m had been lost in sales to Europe: the situation was unacceptable and the government must do something, and do it fast. (9)

Disagreements within the US executive are only about ways and means. The goal is clear: no moratorium, no rules on traceability or labelling. However, Washington detects encouraging signs in the European Commission. It is known that the trade commissioner, Pascal Lamy, is strongly in favour of ending the moratorium. In Europe, he says, it could be replaced by rules on traceability and labelling which the WTO could accept.

Once these rules were adopted, the commission could bring a case before the Court of Justice in Luxembourg against any member state that refused to end the moratorium. That was the subtext of this statement by EU farm commissioner Franz Fischler to his US partners: "We will do all that we can to demonstrate it is true when we say we are in favour of biotechnology". (10)

Fischler will indeed do all he can: witness the ideas on GM crops coexisting with traditional and biological farming methods, which he put to commission colleagues on 6 March and which are to form the basis for a round table discussion with all interested parties this month. Despite all the evidence from independent sources, particularly those cited earlier, he considers that coexistence is not an environmental problem, it merely raises legal and economic questions. He believes that it is up to non-GMO farmers to take the necessary measures to guard against the risk of contamination from GM crops. The polluter pays: but not in this case. On the principle of subsidiarity, he rules out any possibility of introducing binding Community legislation. Such determination to defend US transnationals, by what is supposed to be the European Commission, is staggering. The struggle against this political-genetic- industrial juggernaut is a public health issue.

Translated by Barbara Wilson


1. Deborah B Whitman, "Genetically Modified Foods: Harmful or Helpful?" Cambridge Science Abstracts, April 2000.
2. David Quist and Ignacio Chapela , "Transgenic DNA introgressed into traditional maize landraces in Oaxaca, Mexico", Nature, vol 4141, London, 29 November 2001.
3. See the investigation by George Monbiot, "The Fake Persuaders", The Guardian, London, 29 May 2002.
4. "Genetically Modified Plants for Food Use", The Royal Society, London, September 1998; "The Impact of Genetic Modification on Agriculture, Food and Health: an Interim Statement", British Medical Association, London, 1999; "The Health Impact of GM Crop Trials", BMA, November 2002.
5. "Genetically modified canola becoming a weed", Canadian Broadcasting Company, CBC News site, 22 June 2002.
6. This is the gist of a Soil Association report of 16 September 2002, quoted in a series of papers, "OGM: Opinion Grossièrement Manipulée", InfOGM, Fondation Charles Léopold Meyer pour le progrès de l'homme, Paris, October 2002.
7. 19 import permits for GMOs were issued before that date.
8. See "The bulldozer war", Le Monde diplomatique, English language edition, May 2002.
9. Financial Times, London, 6 March 2003.
10. "US postpones biotech case against EU, enlists allies in WTO", Inside US Trade, Arlington, 7 February 2003.