Behind the Headlines: GM Food
By Steve Dube
Wales on Sunday (walesonline.co.uk)
August 17, 2008
Prince Charles caused a stir this week with his strongest comments yet on GM food. But why? Farming editor Steve Dube investigates
What's it all about?
Prince Charles doesn't like genetically modified (GM) food. It gives him nightmares.
As a passionate organic farmer, Prince Charles is worried that the GM genie might wreak havoc once it's out of the bottle. There have been food scares before -- look at Mad Cow Disease.
What does he think might happen?
He thinks GM could be the biggest environmental disaster of all time and says "millions of small farmers all over the world face being driven off their land into unsustainable, unmanageable, degraded and dysfunctional conurbations of unmentionable awfulness".
How does he work that one out?
Well, he knows that farmers and plant breeders have been improving plants for thousands of years by carefully selecting the best ones. And there's nothing wrong with that. Long live the Brussels Sprout.
But genetic modification is different because scientists extract one or more genes from one species and add it to another.
What's wrong with that?
Well, no one can control what happens when genetic material from different species is mixed -- like putting a gene from, say, a fish into a plant. It might do what you want it to do, or it might change the plant in unexpected ways and even make it poisonous. For example, when scientists tried to increase the starch content of potatoes with yeast genes, they found the starch content actually fell, and there were other undesirable effects.
It can't all be bad?
Some of it is very good, according to the biotechnology companies. But they would say that, wouldn't they, because they are investing heavily in GM technology. There are 30 million kinds of plants in the world and just four -- rice, wheat, maize and soya -- provide 60% of our food. The biotech companies are concentrating on these.
One particular gene, which provides resistance to a type of weedkiller called glyphosate, has been inserted into at least nine different crop plants now on the market in the EU and the United States.
Sounds like there's a lot being grown?
Too right. The Agriculture Biotechnology Council, the umbrella body for the huge multi-nationals that produce GM seed, says 12 million farmers in 23 countries plant GM crops. And Americans have been eating GM food for a decade or more.
So the gene genie is already out of the bottle then, isn't it?
Yes. It's been in our shopping baskets since 1996 when Sainsbury's and Safeway put the first tin of American-grown GM tomatoes on sale.
So what's the problem?
Those tomatoes were clearly labelled as being genetically modified. And hardly anybody bought them. European consumers don't like GM.
So how come it's in our shopping baskets then?
Any processed food containing maize or soya -- and that's a lot of food -- is likely to contain GM material. And it only has to be labelled in Europe if the GM content exceeds 0.9%. But animal feed does not have to be labelled, and nor does food produced from animals that are fed GM -- and that's just about all cattle, pigs and poultry, except those produced organically. There is no GM labelling at all in the United States.
It's not done the Americans any harm, has it?
Strangely enough, nobody knows because nobody is asking that question, although we do know that American life expectancy is getting shorter and more Americans are dying early from food-related problems. But some scientists have tried to ask questions. Take the mysterious case of Arpad Pusztai.
Dr Pusztai is a Hungarian-born scientist who worked in the Rowett Research Institute at the University of Aberdeen.
He was a world expert on plant lectins. These are proteins in plants that kill insects and other invaders. Pusztai had published more than 300 scientific papers, when, at the age of 69 in 1998, he spoke about GM potatoes in a World in Action TV programme. He said he had compared rats fed ordinary potatoes with others fed potatoes that had been genetically modified with a lectin from snowdrops.
The rats on the GM diet suffered damage to their intestines and immune systems. That's when all hell broke loose.
The Institute's director Philip James phoned to congratulate him after the programme. But the following morning his attitude mysteriously changed. Professor Robert Orskov OBE, who worked at the Rowett for 33 years and is one of Britain's leading nutrition experts, claims the sudden change followed a series of phone calls that started with the US biotech multinational Monsanto, which produces most of the world's GM food. This first call went to then US President Bill Clinton, who phoned then British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who in turn phonedJames.
Pusztai was suspended and later dismissed, his data seized and he was banned from speaking publicly. So he had to stay silent when he read newspapers saying his GM potatoes contained a lectin gene that is poisonous to mammals.
No. The misinformation was included in a press release issued by the Rowett Institute. James says Pusztai approved the press release but Pusztai says he knew nothing about it. Even today pro-GM scientists dismiss his research as muddled and based on a schoolboy error.
Does everyone share that point of view?
No. Pusztai is a hero to anti-GM campaigners, who regard him as someone who stuck his neck out for the public good. And they're not alone. In 2005 he was honoured with a whistleblower award from the Federation of German Scientists.
What happened to his research?
A paper was published by Pusztai and a colleague in the prestigious medical journal the Lancet in October 1999.
Because of all the controversy the paper was reviewed by six scientists -- three times the usual number -- and five approved it. The paper used data held by Pusztai's colleague Dr Stanley Ewen, so it was not covered by the ban. It showed that rats fed on the GM potatoes with the snowdrop lectin developed unusual changes to their gut tissue.
No doubt there has been other research, if so, what has it found?
There has actually been very little independent research. The first known human trial of GM food was carried out by scientists at Newcastle University and published in the journal Nature Biotechnology in 2004. It showed that DNA material transfers from GM food into the human gut -- disproving the claims of the biotech industry. The Food Standards Agency, which commissioned the research in response to public pressure, said the results were not significant.
It sounds as though more research is needed. Is anyone doing it?
Unfortunately no, and for a simple reason. GM seeds are owned by the company that manufactures them and scientists can study them only if the company agrees.
Is the only research into the safety of GM food done by the companies that produce it?
That's right. And since 99.9% of GM varieties are designed to resist or absorb pesticides or to produce a toxin that kills any insect that bites it, it's the first time in history that what amounts to a drug or pesticide is not tested before release by anyone other than the company that makes it.
And the stakes are high. Farmers who sign up for the promise of GM crops have to agree to use fertiliser and pesticides from the seed supplier and not to save any seed. Some are even "terminator" seeds that are infertile. Meanwhile GM corporations are systematically buying up seed companies and taking varieties off the market. Control the seeds that feed the world you become 100 times richer than Bill Gates, because you can say which country has which seed, and you get paid every time someone uses your seed. And once you add green oil - bio-fuel -- into the equation you become master of the world -- richer than any country. The eight biggest drugs companies are the biggest producers of GM, and the biggest pesticide manufacturers. They began with maize and soya, they had the patent last year for wheat in the US and now they're working on rice.
What about insulin for diabetics? I heard that's now nearly all GM material.
It is, but there's a case in point: some people have an adverse reaction to it and can't use it.
But won't GM crops help us to feed the world by making stronger plants with bigger yields?
You've heard the propaganda put out by the GM companies, who have a permanent presence at European Commission and easy access to ministers and civil servants that for some reason believe what they're told. The United National International Assessment of Agriculture, carried out by 400 leading scientists, found no evidence that GM crops increase yields or that they could feed a hungry world. And the US Department of Agriculture reported earlier this year that some GM crop yields are actually lower. GM is not about feeding starving children. People are hungry not because there's not enough food in the world, but because they haven't got the money to buy it. GM won't make their pockets any heavier, and they won't be able to afford to buy the seed.
Is that why Prince Charles is worried?
Partly. There's also the environmental impact -- the effects of increased pesticide use on insects, birds and other wildlife. And the Prince thinks GM systems and the agribusiness and globalisation promoted by the world's Big 8 nations such as the US and UK, are behind a worldwide decrease in the number of small farms. And as people leave the land they end up unemployed and disaffected in Third World slums.
Is there any evidence for this?
The UN says globalisation is the biggest underlying reason for the growth in slums -- the Prince's "unsustainable, unmanageable, degraded and dysfunctional conurbations of unmentionable awfulness".
OK, we know he doesn't like GM. But surely it's worth giving it a go?
Perhaps, but maybe not like it's being done now. Professor Barry Commoner, a distinguished biologist and philosopher of science at Queens College, New York, sums it up like this: "The genetically engineered crops now being grown represent a massive uncontrolled experiment whose outcome is inherently unpredictable. The results could be catastrophic."
So what's the answer?
At the moment, it IS the stuff of nightmares. History has shown that we need scientists with the public good in mind to study new technologies and give honest answers about its effects on nature and humans. That way we may avoid disasters like thalidomide and Mad Cow Disease. But while science is powered by the pursuit of money, people like Prince Charles are right to put up their hands and ask why.