This week has seen a number of big GM-related news stories in the press. Developments in the EU’s policy on GM, the announcement of a new three-year study into the long-term health effects of Monsanto’s GM maize and a ‘Letter From America‘ warning British citizens of the dangers of growing GM crops is delivered to Downing Street.

European Parliament strengthen GMO opt-outs for member states

Following a vote in June of this year to allow EU member countries to grow GM crops on a devolved basis, the European Parliament’s Environment Committee voted again yesterday to amend the proposed rules on the approval of genetically modified (GM) crops in Europe.

Under the prospective new system, EU member states will be able to opt-out completely from GMOs, even if those varieties have already been approved for cultivation by the European Commission and the European Food Safety Authority.

This opt-out is generally considered an improvement on original devolution proposals. It was feared these would have obliged national governments to consult with biotech/agrochemical companies to negotiate bans- opening those who refused GMOs up to legal action from a handful of vastly wealthy agrochemical corporations. However many campaigners see even the opt-out as a weakening of barriers to GM within the EU.

Until now, political stalemate amongst EU member states has meant that the vast majority of applications to grow GM crops in the EU have been blocked. Environmental groups have warned that by granting member states the final say on GMOs, the EU is potentially paving the way for the corporate lobbying of governments by the likes of Monsanto and other leading biotech companies.

Founder of GM Education and seasoned anti-GM campaigner, Lawrence Woodward says that we can expect to see an increase in GMO cropping in the EU overall, as pro GM governments such as the UK, will seize the opportunity to allow cultivation of GM crops in order toencourage investment and ensure European farming remains competitive’.

In a briefing prepared at the time of the original vote in June, GM Freeze made the point that ‘proposals for “national opt-outs” appear to allow individual countries to make their own decisions about whether or not to grow GM, but past experience shows that the risk of cross-border contamination is likely to make a nonsense of national bans’.

It remains the conviction of many that an EU-wide ban on GM crops is the only effective way to avoid the negative effects of GM technology observed in the USA and the handful of other countries worldwide that grow GM.

New Mega-Study on GM impacts on Human Health

A new $25million, three-year study will begin in 2015 to investigate the long-term health effects of a diet including Monsanto’s GM maize treated with its trademark pesticide, Roundup.

The experiment is being coordinated by Russian national association for genetic safety (Nags) alongside a group of independent scientists who will try to establish whether the GM maize and its associated herbicide cause cancers, reduce fertility or cause birth defects. 

The study will attempt to fill gaps that have been criticized in previous studies on the effect of GMOs on human health, including choice of animal, insufficient statistics, duration of tests, research parameters, and researchers’ connections to the anti-GMO movement or the biotech industry.

The study is to have no input from either the biotech industry of anti-GM campaigners to avoid biases that have been shown to exist, especially when research is funded by private interests. Persistent claims from the pro-biotech lobby that there is scientific consensus that GM is safe to consume have been repeatedly refuted. Detailed research has shown that scientists working on industry-funded investigations are more likely to return results favourable to the argument that GM is safe to consume.

However, with the sponsors of the study yet to be revealed, suspicion has been sparked amongst pro-biotech groups, who have already questioned whether the study will be truly scientific.

The scientific debate around the safety of GM food for human consumption has become deeply politicized in the Global North, especially given the EU and USA’s largely divergent approaches to GM technology.  This new study may make an important and clear contribution to this debate, however it should not distract from the plurality and complexities of the wider GM debate.

Whilst uncertainty remains over GM effects on human health, the role of GM technology- and those who own it- in the economic, social and political domination of global food and seed systems is well documented, as are its impacts. 

The long-term environmental impacts of high-input GM monocultures include loss of agricultural biodiversity and resilience, increased pest/herbicide use and high CO2 emissions. 

The social impacts inflicted by those pushing GM crops into new ‘markets’ and onto the peasant communities that produce 70% of the world’s food are similarly grave. These farmers often find themselves unable to use or save seeds, trapped into buying cycles that make them indebted to GM companies and, as a result, transformed into waged labourers, dispossessed of their lands and made more, not less, food insecure.

Letter from America

An open letter, highlighting the problems and challenges which American farmers, consumers and others have faced over nearly two decades of growing and eating GM crops, was delivered to Downing Street last week by a delegation including fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, actor Jeremy Irons, chef Val Warner and MPs, Zac Goldsmith and Michael Meacher. 

The letter (also published in The Times), is signed by groups and individuals representing some 57 million members and supporters, including American celebrities, Susan Sarandon, Daryl Hannah and Robert Kennedy Jr and US NGOs, trade groups and businesses such as Food & Water Watch, the Sierra Club, the Rachel Carson Council, Friends of the Earth, the Organic Consumers Association, Dr Bronner’s and NYR Organic. It warns British citizens of the dangers of growing GM crops and urges them to speak out before it’s too late.

The American signatories believe their experience of using what they call a “failing agricultural technology” serves as a warning to other countries about to journey down the same road.   They conclude that GM food “has never really been about public good, or feeding the hungry, or supporting farmers.  Nor is it about consumer choice. Instead it’s about private, corporate control of the food system.”

Pat Thomas, the campaign director for Beyond GM who coordinated the Letter From America effort in the UK says: “The American experience of GMOs shines a light on how our own food future will unfold if we continue to race pell-mell down the road to a genetically modified Britain. It also can teach us about the importance and effectiveness of public engagement. Biotech companies have spent a lot of time and money sidelining public opinion, and turning the GM debate into an abstract and academic affair.  It’s time the public was brought back into the ‘public debate’ about what they eat, and what they feed their children, and it’s time politicians and regulators started listening.”