Farmers resist GM food contamination

Sunday, July 31, 2011

The debate over genetically modified (GM) food has flared up again recently, after Greenpeace destroyed an experimental CSIRO wheat crop in Canberra on July 14.
 
The Australian Federal Police is now investigating Greenpeace over the incident, which CSIRO scientists claim has set their research back by up to a year.
 
Greenpeace argued the crop posed a threat to the environment and human health. Plans are underway for human trials of the GM wheat before tests are conducted on animals.
 
Greenpeace also accused the CSIRO of a conflict of interest for its closeness to several biotech companies, including agribusiness giant Monsanto, NuFarm (the exclusive Australian distributor for Monsanto), and Arcadia Biosciences (a US company with close ties to Monsanto).
 
It also criticised Australia’s weak regulation of GM crops.
 
The CSIRO rejected the claim that the wheat posed a threat, arguing that the modified wheat contained no genes from other organisms, and was designed to improve the crop’s nutritional value.
 
GM crops have become the source of increasing contention recently, in Australia and overseas.
 
Last year, Western Australian grain and meat farmer Steve Marsh had his organic certification revoked after “Monsanto Round-Up Ready” GM canola from a neighbouring farm spread into 70% of his farm.
 
Rather than supporting Marsh, the state government argued instead that organics standards be loosened to allow for GM contamination.
 
On July 27, Marsh told The Australian he had retained lawyers, and intended to begin legal action against his neighbour shortly, despite the conflict it might cause in the local community.
 
“The last thing that I want to do is to do this to a neighbour that I grew up with and went to school with … but this is a real serious problem we’ve got,” he said.
 
This is not the first time GM crops have escaped into the Australian environment. In 2009, GM canola seeds spilled from trucks near an experimental farm in southern NSW and spread rapidly in the wild.
 
An Office of the Gene Technology Regulator decision in 2003 that GM canola was “as safe as conventional canola” means that there are no transport restrictions on the GM seeds.
 
Geoffrey Carracher, from the Network of Concerned Farmers, has similar concerns about GM wheat.
 
He told the Truefood Network on July 22: “As a farmer, I am concerned about the long history of contamination by GM crops in Australia. I don’t want to see my crops contaminated by GM wheat, as so many farmers are experiencing right now with GM canola.”






Among other dangers linked with GM crops is horizontal gene transfer — when genes from one species “jump” to other species. Another problem is the high levels of weedkillers such as RoundUp that are used on the crops, which have been linked to health problems — including birth defects — in humans and livestock.
 
Recent evidence also indicates heavy chemical use has led to the appearance of new “superweeds” and a new highly resistant plant disease.
 
GM food has never officially been found “safe” to consume, and is coming under stricter regulation internationally.
 
All of the world’s other large wheat exporters — Canada, the United States, the European Union (EU) and Russia — have rejected GM wheat as unsafe and refuse to allow its cultivation.
 
GM seeds are banned in many parts of the EU, and in late July, the Hungarian government destroyed more than 400 hectares of GM corn that had slipped through its ban.
 
Despite this, Australia appears to be heading in the opposite direction, a fact that could have serious implications for the wheat industry if key export destinations or markets decide to restrict or avoid GM products.
 
The President of the Canadian Farmers’ Union warned in 2004: “People do not want GM in their daily bread and those countries that grow it will find markets closed or discounted because of GM wheat.”
 
The only GM crops now grown in Australia are cotton and canola, but both are under widespread cultivation in several states. Australian non-GM canola sells for about $50 more than the GM variety.
http://www.abc.net.au/rural/news/content/201105/s3227954.htm 

There is another, more sinister aspect to the GM industry, which is dominated by corporate biotechnology giants such as Monsanto.
 
The intellectual property rights attached to GM crops pose a threat to farmers’ livelihoods and to countries’ food security, as the right to use GM “products” such as seed can be restricted to those who have bought a licence.
 
To ensure profits are maximised, biotech companies have modified many GM crops to produce sterile seeds — so-called terminator seeds. This prevents farmers from storing a part of their harvest for re-planting, instead forcing them to buy more GM seeds at market price.
 
Growing food shortages have induced a number of African countries — most recently Kenya — to allow the importation of GM grains, despite local outcry.
 
Proponents of GM crops point to such cases as evidence of the need for GM to feed the planet’s growing population. This argument ignores the fact sufficient food can be grown by conventional, and more sustainable, methods.
 
The World Health Organisation says up to one-third of the world’s food — especially grain crops — is spoiled by poor storage.
 
Farmers around the word are beginning to campaign against GM crops and the companies that produce them. On June 23, a petition carrying 5000 signatures was tabled in the Western Australian parliament, calling for an inquiry into the 2010 lifting of a moratorium on GM canola.

 
In the US, more than 270,000 organic farmers have filed a pre-emptive lawsuit against Monsanto for the inevitable harm that GM contamination will cause their livelihood.

From GLW issue 889

Comments

I always thought GM food has

I always thought GM food has been around since the dawn of civilisation. I mean, ever since agriculture started, farmers have unwittingly modified their crops by choosing the variety they prefer and planting only those. These crops generally are chosen because they are palatable and don’t spoil so easily in storage, thus allowing the human race to be nourished in the bitter cold of winter or wars. I suppose if GM food can be made to be more resistant against diseases and produce a bigger yield for the growing population of the world and be in storage much longer, I don’t see why not.

Re Terminator seeds. They do

Re Terminator seeds. They do indeed exist, although it is correct that they are not currently commercially available. This is only really because of the existence of the Monsanto Technology/Stewardship Agreement, however, which stipulates that farmers using Monsanto seed "will not save or sell the seeds from their harvest for further planting, breeding or cultivation".

Despite the public outcry leading to a moratorium being imposed by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity there is nothing to suggest that Monsanto is itself opposed to their commercialisation, only that the political conditions currently preclude their being able to do so. The development of such a technology itself indicates the potential negative impacts and incentives of the GM industry, and the need for tight regulation.

More importantly, Monsanto's regular GM crops are already contaminating the wider industry and environment, and Monsanto's lawyers are following the breeze-blown GM pollen like vultures.

Contamination of non-GM crops is an ongoing and significant problem, with perhaps more immediate implications than the potential environmental or health impacts that GM may or may not pose. It means that organic farmers risk losing their certification, that wild and commercial non-GM species in the broader environment may be infected (with unknowable long-term impacts), and that customers may be forced to consume GM crops without their knowledge (actually already happening in Australia as highly processed food products containing GM, or products of animals fed on GM are exempt from labeling laws).

It also means that many farmers will increasingly face legal battles with the likes of Monsanto because if they continue to use an infected crop without a Stewardship Agreement they may be in breach of intellectual property law. A large number and variety of cases have been launched on this basis (as Nikolas has already pointed out).

The impact of both approaches to GM use and ownership have particularly significant impacts on farmers in the developing world, who are much more reliant upon saved seeds for replanting then their western counterparts (who are more likely to use purchased hybrid seeds). Widespread contamination of crops in countries such as India, Pakistan, Brazil or many African nations could leave those countries' food crops at the mercy of Monsanto's legal department and undermine national food sovereignty in times of growing climate uncertainty.

Just on the question of food lost in storage, etc, I ought to point out that GM crops really *aren't* required to bring about an increase in yield (and it's contestable whether they do). Other methods - more sustainable, less dependent on chemical fertiliser and pesticide, and more nuanced in their understanding of the relationship of crops to their surrounding ecosystems - exist, and research and development is continuing to plow these methods a productive furrow well ahead of the GM rut.

And global social inequality - the key problem underlying world hunger and malnutrition - is likely to worsen as a result of GM crops, not improve. The GM "answer" is little more than a profitable technofix that will function - at best - as a bandaid, not a cure.

Regarding the "safety" or otherwise of GM food crops, there are simply no published peer-reviewed studies showing the safety of GM foods for human consumption. What research has been done with animals is far from conclusive, not always reliably conducted, and sometimes indicates serious negative health effects.

What there *is* a lot of is opinion and corporate spin, and the very dodgy mechanism used to allow GM food to be sold commercially by declaring it to be "substantially equivalent" to regular food - a largely unscientific concept, that is imprecisely defined and lacks binding oversight and regulation.

Basically, it presumes GM food to be safe until proven otherwise - effectively making society as a whole one large, unwitting, guinea pig - and makes a mockery of the scientific method.

*Arguably* the CSIRO was in fact doing more or less what should be done - proper scientific research, human testing, minimal genetic modification, etc - and that Greenpeace's actions undermining an example of applied science of just the kind I am bemoaning the lack of.

I'd counter that Greenpeace's actions represented an example of the precautionary principle in action. There is a significant public interest in the impacts of GM crop development that ought to override any corporate interests (Greenpeace's FOI request regarding these trial crops was refused on the grounds of "commercial in confidence" two weeks before they destroyed the crop).

From their statements, Greenpeace denies being anti-science - highlighting the potential risks of GM crops, and the concerns around corporate influence and control over food safety regulations and future agricultural developments - rather than a total rejection of gene science. To my mind - given the currently uncertain nature of GM impacts - these are valid defences (moral, if not legal).

They have also placed the question of GM crops in the public eye, where hopefully a truly honest, open and scientific discussion can be had. That this has not been the case thus far is a matter for concern in itself.

I have no doubt that it is *possible* (if perhaps not currently necessary or desirable) to produce GM crops that do not pose any risks. It is also useful to distinguish in public discussion between transgenic and non-transgenic modifications, the various mechanisms used in genetic modification, the risks that may exist, and the possible benefits GM foods might pose.

But such a debate needs to follow the peer-reviewed science and the scientific method, while actual GM crop cultivation needs to be tightly regulated firmly in line with the precautionary principle.

On this, I also recommend this recent piece by John Hepburn. http://blogs.crikey.com.au/rooted/2011/08/02/genetic-engineering-science...

- Duroyan Fertl

Errors with both parties

To Jason and Duroyan,

Based upon information Monsanto has released, terminator genes have been developed or are near the end of their development process, but as of right now they should not be out of the lab, though nobody is regulating Monsanto, so who knows.

As for the farmer's livelihood, it is certainly at risk. What you aren't considering, is the fact that nearly every North American farmer growing soy who re-used their own seed instead of buying it, has had their crop contaminated by nearby farms with Monsanto's GM soy, and soon thereafter has been sued by Monsanto for violating their copyright, even if they have proven that it was a result of contamination. Monsanto has even sued and put out of business almost every individual who help farmers re-use their own seed by cleaning it for them since there is almost guaranteed to be some GM plants in every field, and therefore those individuals are aiding in the violation of their copyright. If Australia follows down the path of the US and Canada, all Australian farmers will eventually face the same problem.

In regards to food safety, Monsanto regulates itself, and therefore are the only individuals with the responsibility to verify that their GMO's are safe. Nobody else has done the research to verify what effects might or might not actually occur, so nobody can say whether GMO's are safe or not. Some would reasonably argue that we should verify the safety of something before releasing it into the environment. Want evidence, look up StarLink, a variety of GMO corn patented by Aventis Crop Sciences (a subdivision of Aventis, acquired by Bayer AG in 2002) that ended showing signs of adverse health effects in humans, but was supposedly only being fed to animals, that ended up in Taco Bell Tacos and Kellog's Corn Flakes. Our own health is at stake, and the only thing GMO's provide are more profit to large corporations, so I don't see any good argument against doing the research before releasing the product. (On a side note, if you decide to argue this point by saying GMO's are essential in feeding the poor and hungry of the world, you might want to look into that topic a bit further, because studies done by anyone not funded by Monsanto have shown that GMO's actually produce roughly 10% less than conventional crops.)

The fact of the matter is most arguments against GMO's do stack up. They shouldn't be banned altogether for no reason, but they should certainly be looked into thoroughly before they end up in the food system.

-Nickolas Poulin

GM wheat

RE: the terminators genes mentioned in your story. There is no such thing, at least not in any commercial crop. The concept is being investigated in public and private research institutions worldwide for a variety of applications, one is to prevent the spread of genes into other crops. And yes Monsanto did initially begin researching the concept with the notion that it would prevent people replanting their seed. But there has been an industry-imposed moratorium on the use of such technology for year. So even if the research did make it to some stage where it was commercially useful, it would nlt be released.

As for the farmer's livilhoods being corrupted or manipulated by Monsanto, the decision to grow a GM crop is an economic one. They sign a contract, pay extra for the seed, but they weigh that up against the cost of production, sustainability, pricce for the crop, etc. If it doesn't work out a sound economical decision a farmer is not going to grow it.

As for GM food never been officially found safe. How do you define safe? You could actually apply the same sentence to conventional-bred food. It too has never officially been found safe. Each year we bring out new varieties of cereals, vegetables, etc that have been bred in ways that scramble their DNA in weird an unpredictable ways and they can be released onto the market without any testing. How do you know they are safe?

One things I do agree with you on it that considerable differences could be made by sorting the problems with wastage via insect and fungal damage in storage (as you highlight) and the mountain of perfectly good food we in the western world send to landfill

There are many reasons to be concerned about the use of the technologies behind GM, but some of your arguments do not stack up.

Jason Major
Manager TechNyou (www.technyou.edu.au )