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This should be the end for GM

(Thursday, Oct. 23, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Zac Goldsmith, op-ed in The Guardian, 10/19/03: The GM industry must have been scratching its head on Thursday morning following news that yet another of its key claims had been spectacularly demolished. Far from benefiting the environment, as Monsanto spent millions of pounds telling us it would, we now know that genetically modified crops are bad for diversity. That at least is the conclusion of the Government's long-awaited field trials.

There was a glimmer of hope for the industry when it was announced that one of the crops tested, GM maize, was better for the environment than conventional maize - largely because the latter is grown in conjunction with a highly toxic chemical, Atrazine. But hope evaporated when it emerged that the European Union banned the offending chemical last week, rendering the comparison invalid.

The field test results are only the latest in a series of blows to the industry. The Government's 'public consultation', 'economic review' and 'scientific review', all conducted earlier this year, revealed near unanimous public hostility, little economic advantage, and serious question marks over health and safety of GM crops.

In fact, it is fair to say that virtually every bullet in the industry's gun has been shown to be a dud - not by the green lobby, but by the research of a pro-GM government.

So what now for the industry? Clearly it is not going to engage in self-flagellation. Instead, it has chosen to point to America where GM crops have been 'successfully' grown for years. But have they?

One of the things we are forever being promised by the industry is that GM crops reduce the need for chemicals in agriculture. In theory, that is hard to believe, given that most GM crops have been engineered for resistance to chemicals so they can withstand liberal applications. In practice, the situation in North America has been much worse, with unintended breeding between different GM varieties leading to 'super-weeds' so virulent that powerful chemicals are needed to tackle them. One Canadian government study found super-weeds at every site it examined.

But what of the industry's other claims? Does GM deliver higher yields and profits? The answer is an unambiguous 'no'. In short, and despite industry assurances to the contrary, the North American experience has been thoroughly bad: lower profits, higher costs, reduced yields and greater dependence on chemicals in all but a handful of crops. That is why the US and Canadian National Farmer's Unions, the American Corn Growers Association, the Canadian Wheat Board and two hundred other agricultural organisations, many of which were once enthusiastic supporters of GM, have signed a petition calling for a moratorium on the next generation of GM crops, wheat.

The industry has maintained a brave face throughout, choosing either to ignore the facts or to dismiss them as early-stage hiccups. Risk, it advises, is the key to progress. And besides, millions of people have been consuming the stuff for years with no health consequences. GM food, goes the favourite line, is 'at least as safe' as conventional food.

Well, risk is important. But before taking one, we need to weigh it against the benefits. With GM crops, the benefits are questionable. And given that the insurance industry, whose only mandate is to assess risk, refuses to provide cover for GM farmers in Britain, and has publicly compared GM with thalidomide, asbestos and even terrorism, consumers are right to be cautious.

But in any case, how does the industry know GM consumption is safe? Former Environment Minister Michael Meacher has pointed out that the only reason the industry can make such claims is because it has studiously avoided looking for dangers.

Nevertheless fears exist. The British Medical Association and the General Medical Council have said that we do not know enough to be able to vouch for the safety of GM. Other scientists wonder whether GM plants containing genes that produce antibiotics might trigger antibiotic resistance in gut bacteria, a nightmare scenario that the establishment has yet to investigate. In the US, questions are being raised over a possible link between GM soya-based infant formula, which exhibits heightened levels of oestrogen, and new figures showing that girls are reaching puberty frighteningly early. Equally, incidences of food-related illness in the US have doubled since GM was first introduced. Could there be a link? We don't know because the regulators haven't bothered to find out.

Recent events have at the very least provided consumers with a welcome respite. Environment Minister Elliot Morley has hinted that the Government will be issuing no licenses to grow GM crops in Britain next year, or indeed for 'some time' to come. I personally am not holding my breath.

Tony Blair takes counsel from a Science Minister who is Labour's biggest donor and a man with financial interests in GM, from a Food Standards Agency that spends more time attacking organic food than examining GM, and from a Royal Society that is awash with vested interest. And his new communications chief is a man who until recently handled Monsanto's public relations. But we have to hope he heeds his own advice. It is essential, he once said, that we 'proceed according to the science'. Over the past few weeks, science has confirmed the worst. The question now is whether or not he chooses to hear that science, or vested interest.

Zac Goldsmith is editor of the Ecologist magazine. http://www.theecologist.org