Michael Meacher: Science backs consumers' rejection of GM food
Are you listening Tony?
19 October 2003
Last week's scientific study into genetically modified crops was a serious setback for those who want this science introduced to Britain. There were five aspects to the Government's testing of GM crops. Four have been complete, and not one has helped to advance the case. The only one still to come, a study into whether GM crops can coexist with organic farming and who is liable if organic farmers are driven out of business, could be the most difficult yet.
The Government has boxed itself into a corner. It set up these trials in order to check whether GM crops had any adverse effects on the network of life (insects, worms, butterflies, etc) in the fields. If they did not - and it was assumed that no significant harm would be found - then the go-ahead could be given to the commercial cultivation of GM crops in the UK.
This strategy is unravelling fast. The independent research work, overseen by the Government's Scientific Steering Committee, looked at three GM crops - oilseed rape, sugar beet and forage maize - and compared the effects of the chemical weedkillers used with those used on the same non-GM crops. It found that in the case of oilseed rape and beet the effects of using broad-spectrum weedkillers (glyphosate or glufosinate ammonium) on GM crops were significantly worse for the environment than the conventional weedkillers used on non-GM crops. It therefore recommended that GM oilseed rape and beet should not be grown in Britain.
In the case of maize, the opposite was found. The main chemical used to kill weeds in non-GM maize was so toxic that it had even nastier effects than the GM maize weedkiller. That chemical is atrazine. But the EU has now decided to ban it. So fresh trials need to be undertaken using an alternative non-GM weedkiller. Until that is done, there is no environmental case for allowing GM maize, let alone GM oilseed rape and beet, to be commercially grown in Britain.
But these weedkiller tests are just one limited dimension for assessing the impact of GM crops on the environment. Other dimensions would involve looking at the effects, for example, on soil residues and bacteria, transgene flows and bird populations. Above all, it would be necessary to test what would happen to the environment if farmers were trying to maximise commercial yields and not, as in these trials, to limit adverse effects on wildlife.
But even that is only a small part of the research that is needed. There are at least three other areas of uncertainty. The most important is whether there are any long-term adverse effects of eating GM foods on human health, specifically on the immune or reproductive systems, organ development, metabolism and gut flora. Astonishingly, this has never been systematically investigated, either in North America or in the EU. On the highly dubious so-called principle of "substantial equivalence" it has been assumed that a GM product is safe if it is broadly similar to its non-GM counterpart. In the very rare cases where research has been carried out on animals or humans of the effects of eating GM foods, the results have been worryingly negative.
Another area where answers are needed is how non-GM crops can be protected from cross-contamination. This issue, known as the problem of co-existence, can be solved only either by substantially extending the very short separation distances between GM and non-GM crops or by setting up GM-free exclusion zones. On a very windy day GM pollen can blow very considerable distances, sometimes miles, and bees are also known to transport pollen up to several miles. The EU Commission considered this problem, washed its hands of it as being insoluble, and passed the buck to member states. It would be irresponsible for any member state to allow commercial growing of GM crops before a framework has been spelt out which would guarantee to protect other farmers and provide compensation if their livelihood were damaged or destroyed by GM contamination.
A third area which needs to be resolved is labelling. Even when the new EU rules on labelling are introduced, they will only operate above a 0.9 per cent threshold.
Where does this all leave us? Most of the testing needed has never been done, and where some has been - in the case of the environment - that highly restricted element has been wholly negative. So not only does the GM case fail the test of public acceptability, it also fails the scientific test.
That should settle the matter. If the public and the science are against, who is for? Only, it seems (unless they have changed their minds), the Prime Minister, ministers on the relevant cabinet sub-committee, Defra officials, and the Government's chief scientific advisers. But we are told the Government is listening. We await evidence that it has heard.