GMOs: The next asbestos?

March 28, 2008

The European Commission is increasingly annoyed by its inability to foist unwanted, unnecessary and unsafe genetically modified crops onto European consumers and some member-state governments.

The latest example of this comes from Poland, which has announced that it is, after all, going to ban the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in livestock fodder, against the commission's diktat.

The new European Union-friendly Polish government had hinted to its chums in Brussels that it would drop the ban — proposed by the previous government — which is due to come into force in August.

The legality of the proposed ban is open to question, but only because the European Commission chooses to ignore overwhelming and ever-mounting evidence that GM foods and feed are potentially dangerous; that GM crops jeopardise the environment, consumers' health and farmers' livelihoods; and that the spread of GM varieties beyond their original plantings cannot, in most cases, be controlled.

'Safeguard clause'

EU member states have the right to apply what is known as a "safeguard clause" if they have evidence that puts a GM product's safety in question. The European Commission, however, refuses to accept the accumulation of scientific evidence. It consistently echoes the lies told by the industry and the public relations specialists whose disinformation campaigns ensure that the public remains confused.

Opponents of GMOs are constantly accused of being "anti-science", yet nothing could be further from the truth. One of our objections to this kind of agricultural biotechnology is that it diverts funds away from the truly vital research needed if we are to continue to produce enough food to feed the world.

Every year or so there is a hue and cry about a "new generation" of GMOs that won't be like the old ones. They will be drought-resistant, or vitamin-enhanced, or highly productive. Yet the only commercially available GMOs continue to be productive of nothing but enhanced profits for the shareholders of the companies that make them, and health and environmental threats for the rest of us.

The British-based Institute for Science in Society (<>) has been monitoring the scientific literature and other sources of information on GMOs over the past decade, and in the words of one of its leading scientists, Dr Mae-Wan Ho, these "strongly suggest that the process of genetic modification may be inherently hazardous".

At the same time, ISIS has uncovered numerous examples of how national and international regulators have been ignoring this evidence while colluding with industry to manipulate scientific research. The institute recently listed more than 130 examples of health problems uncovered by research into GMOs, their conclusion being that "GM food and feed may be inherently hazardous to health, regardless of the plant species or the genetic modification involved".

Research examples include rats fed on GM soya beans — of an internationally certified variety — giving birth to severely stunted young, with over half dying within three weeks and the rest becoming sterile; farmers exposed to GM cotton and maize suffering serious allergy-like symptoms; and livestock feeding on GM crops becoming ill and dying in large numbers.

One problem with the technology is that it is poorly understood and thus unpredictable. A major difficulty is what is known as "horizontal gene transfer", where DNA is incorporated into the genomes of cells other than the ones targeted. This means that the results of a genetic modification can be quite different to those intended, and that they can vary.

This is particularly dangerous because genetically modified DNA often contains antibiotic resistance marker genes as well as genes from pathogenic micro-organisms. Their incorporation into cells is encouraged by the incorporation of "promoters".

As Mae-Wan Ho explains, however, if the strong promoter jumps into the wrong place in the genome of animal cells, it can boost the expression of oncogenes — cancer-provoking genes — which "cause the cells to multiply out of control".

In addition to these potential health problems, this form of agricultural biotechnology encourages the worst kind of industrial monoculture. GM varieties are more genetically uniform. This means that they are more susceptible to disease and pests. They are more dependent on intensive inputs of pesticides and fertilisers, contrary to claims made on their introduction.

The EU is now legally obliged to follow the precautionary principle in framing regulations to protect public health and the environment. This means that the burden of proof falls on those who wish to introduce any new product or process. They have to show that it is safe. But they have failed to do so.

What they have done instead is conduct a massive PR exercise, confusing the public and buying up scientists, elected legislators and public officials wholesale.


Peter Saunders, professor of applied mathematics at King's College London, has made a study of the precautionary principle. Failure to apply it, he concludes, means that GMO-based food and feed "look like joining asbestos, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), BSE, tobacco and many others as yet another example of the government relying on bad scientific advice and ignoring the precautionary principle, with devastating consequences".

Finally, it has to be said that the safety or otherwise of GMOs is not the only issue at stake here. A recent survey showed that 76% of Polish consumers do not want them on their farms or in their shops. Whether their reasons are scientifically sound or not should, from a democratic point of view, be irrelevant.

As things stand, Poland allows the import of GM foodstuffs, provided, as is required by EU law, that they are clearly labelled. EU law does not, however, require the labelling of meat or other foodstuffs from animals fed on GMOs. The Polish government's view is that the absence of this information undermines the consumer's right to choose.

There are few better examples of the way the EU operates, putting corporate profit before health and environmental concerns, ignoring its own laws and our basic rights as both consumers and citizens, whenever it suits it.

[Steve McGiffen is the editor of Spectrezine, a former adviser on biotechnology to the United European Left/Nordic Green Left Group in the European Parliament, and author of Biotechnology: Corporate Power versus the Public Interest. This article was written for the Morning Star. Visit <>.]

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