Corn gone wrong

March 30, 2007

Greenpeace has revealed that an independent report into safety testing by genetic engineering giant Monsanto was ignored in the lead-up to a vote on whether the company's new genetically engineered maize would be approved for consumption in the European Union.

The independent review argues that MON863, a pest-resistant genetically modified (GM) version of maize, or corn, should never have been approved for consumption by humans, or as feed for animals that would then be consumed by humans. At the time of the extremely close vote in the European Commission, Monsanto spokespeople argued that MON863 was as safe for consumption as any other maize. They convinced the commission to approve the maize for use as animal feed in 2005 and for human consumption in 2006.

If the independent review by the Committee for Independent Research and Genetic Engineering (CRIIGEN) is correct, a potentially dangerous food product has now entered the food chain in the European Union on the basis of manipulated testing.

Monsanto is one of the biggest genetic engineering companies in the world. Its key focus is to make crops more compatible with fertilisers and pesticides, or more internally resistant to pests.

Over-fertilising or overdoses of pesticide can destroy crops or make them inedible. Through genetic engineering, companies can - according to Monsanto media statements - create new crop species that can take more fertiliser or pesticide before "overdosing", or do away with the need for pesticides.

However, making crops more resistant to the adverse effects of fertilisers and pesticides doesn't necessarily make them safe for humans. Plants that without Monsanto's genetic modifications would normally die from large amounts of pesticide may still absorb enough pesticides to affect human health. These crops, despite appearing "healthy", may have absorbed enough pesticide to harm the human immune system or even poison people.

Animal feed that absorbs poisons in this way can be even more harmful to humans since the concentration of toxins increases the further up the food chain you go. That is, eating meat from animals that have consumed GM feed may be even more toxic than eating vegetables that have toxic levels of pesticides. Changing the genetic structure of the crop for one of these purposes may also reduce its nutritional value.

In addition to the health considerations associated with GM food, there are environmental and social concerns as well.

As a new species, GM crops compete with and can more easily out-produce natural crops because of their resistance to predators or pests, or whatever other advantage corporations like Monsanto program into their genes. As with the introduction of any new species into a particular environment, there is the real possibility that competing species will be wiped out.

Companies can patent GM crops, allowing them greater control over farmers who purchase GM seeds. Farmers can be sued for the ancient farming practice of collecting or saving their own seeds for replanting, with companies arguing that this is a violation of intellectual property law. Some GM crops are even modified to produce no seeds at all, condemning farmers to pay again and again for the seed if they wish to farm that crop.

Like many plants, some GM crops can reproduce through wind-borne seeds or spores. They can therefore easily spread to other fields. Organic farmers who discover that their crops have been infiltrated by GM plants from nearby fields often have to destroy whole fields in order to maintain their organic credentials.

A CRIIGEN review that investigated Monsanto's own research revealed that test rats fed MON863 had lower growth rates and lower body weight than the control rats fed an organic maize. The difference was significant, but instead of revealing that, Monsanto decided to compare the rats that were fed MON863 in laboratory conditions to the average body weight of rats in the wild. This reduced the difference and allowed Monsanto in a 2004 media release to argue that there was no "biologically significant" difference. The MON863 rats also showed higher levels of toxicity in the kidneys and liver, but this was also dismissed as not being "biologically significant".

It takes a great deal of money to research, develop, produce and test GM food. In a capitalist system, investment demands a return and if the science gets in the way, companies like Monsanto are happy to fiddle with the data to ensure they get access to the market. For so long as the responsibility for testing GM products is in private companies' hands, the testing will serve private companies' interests.

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