GM Free Cymru

GM crops promote superweeds, food insecurity and pesticides, say NGOs

(GM-Free Cymru comment: two pieces here, published this week in The Guardian. They are both by John Vidal, and are both highly critical of the GM industry. Interestingly, the Guardian has been a perverse supporter of GM for quite a few years, publishing many pieces designed to promote GM technology, food and crops. Does this mark a change in the newspaper's policy?)

Report finds genetically modified crops fail to increase yields let alone solve hunger, soil erosion and chemical-use issues

John Vidal, environment editor, Wednesday 19 October 2011

GM crops promote superweeds, food insecurity and pesticides, say NGOs

Genetic engineering has failed to increase the yield of any food crop but has vastly increased the use of chemicals and the growth of "superweeds", according to a report by 20 Indian, south-east Asian, African and Latin American food and conservation groups representing millions of people.

The so-called miracle crops, which were first sold in the US about 20 years ago and which are now grown in 29 countries on about 1.5bn hectares (3.7bn acres) of land, have been billed as potential solutions to food crises, climate change and soil erosion, but the assessment finds that they have not lived up to their promises.

The report claims that hunger has reached "epic proportions" since the technology was developed. Besides this, only two GM "traits" have been developed on any significant scale, despite investments of tens of billions of dollars, and benefits such as drought resistance and salt tolerance have yet to materialise on any scale.

Most worrisome, say the authors of the Global Citizens' Report on the State of GMOs, is the greatly increased use of synthetic chemicals, used to control pests despite biotech companies' justification that GM-engineered crops would reduce insecticide use.

In China, where insect-resistant Bt cotton is widely planted, populations of pests that previously posed only minor problems have increased 12-fold since 1997. A 2008 study in the International Journal of Biotechnology found that any benefits of planting Bt cotton have been eroded by the increasing use of pesticides needed to combat them.

Additionally, soya growers in Argentina and Brazil have been found to use twice as much herbicide on their GM as they do on conventional crops, and a survey by Navdanya International, in India, showed that pesticide use increased 13-fold since Bt cotton was introduced.

The report, which draws on empirical research and companies' own statements, also says weeds are now developing resistance to the GM firms' herbicides and pesticides that are designed to be used with their crops, and that this has led to growing infestations of "superweeds", especially in the US.

Ten common weeds have now developed resistance in at least 22 US states, with about 6m hectares (15m acres) of soya, cotton and corn now affected.

Consequently, farmers are being forced to use more herbicides to combat the resistant weeds, says the report. GM companies are paying farmers to use other, stronger, chemicals, they say. "The genetic engineering miracle is quite clearly faltering in farmers' fields," add the authors.

The companies have succeeded in marketing their crops to more than 15 million farmers, largely by heavy lobbying of governments, buying up local seed companies, and withdrawing conventional seeds from the market, the report claims. Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta, the world's three largest GM companies, now control nearly 70% of global seed sales. This allows them to "own" and sell GM seeds through patents and intellectual property rights and to charge farmers extra, claims the report.

The study accuses Monsanto of gaining control of over 95% of the Indian cotton seed market and of massively pushing up prices. High levels of indebtedness among farmers is thought to be behind many of the 250,000 deaths by suicide of Indian farmers over the past 15 years.

The report, which is backed by Friends of the Earth International, the Center for Food Safety in the US, Confédération Paysanne, and the Gaia foundation among others, also questions the safety of GM crops, citing studies and reports which indicate that people and animals have experienced apparent allergic reactions.

But it suggests scientists are loath to question the safety aspects for fear of being attacked by establishment bodies, which often receive large grants from the companies who control the technology.

Monsanto disputes the report's findings: "In our view the safety and benefits of GM are well established. Hundreds of millions of meals containing food from GM crops have been consumed and there has not been a single substantiated instance of illness or harm associated with GM crops."

It added: "Last year the National Research Council, of the US National Academy of Sciences, issued a report, The Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States, which concludes that US farmers growing biotech crops 'are realising substantial economic and environmental benefits – such as lower production costs, fewer pest problems, reduced use of pesticides, and better yields – compared with conventional crops'."

David King, the former UK chief scientist who is now director of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at Oxford University, has blamed food shortages in Africa partly on anti-GM campaigns in rich countries.

But, the report's authors claim, GM crops are adding to food insecurity because most are now being grown for biofuels, which take away land from local food production.

Vandana Shiva, director of the Indian organisation Navdanya International, which co-ordinated the report, said: "The GM model of farming undermines farmers trying to farm ecologically. Co-existence between GM and conventional crops is not possible because genetic pollution and contamination of conventional crops is impossible to control.

"Choice is being undermined as food systems are increasingly controlled by giant corporations and as chemical and genetic pollution spread. GM companies have put a noose round the neck of farmers. They are destroying alternatives in the pursuit of profit."

GM foods: a 'biotech revolution'?

Biotech plants now cover 10% of global cropland, but opponents of the technology say it is far from game over

John Vidal, Wednesday 19 October 2011

Critics of the technology say the GM revolution is stuttering.

The commercial acreage of biotech crops, from a starting point less than 15 years ago, has grown to about 1.5bn hectares (3.7bn acres) or 10% of global cropland. The number of countries planting biotech crops has increased to 29, up from 25 in 2009; nearly one in three countries have granted regulatory import approval; and developing countries' share of global biotech crops rose to almost 48% in 2010.

Clive James, head of the industry-funded the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, points to GM crops being taken up faster than any agricultural technology since the plough 8,000 or more years ago; 14 million farmers cannot be wrong. Game over? Not at all, say the technology's many opponents.

Examine the figures closely, and the revolution appears slim. This has primarily been a story about cotton, and soya, maize and oilseed rape – three food crops that have been protected by patents and industrialised by a handful of corporations not for human food but increasingly as global commodities.

GM maize is now mainly grown to provide biodiesel for cars, and more than half of all the GM plantings are now of soya, most of which is for animal feed.

This is also primarily a farming revolution, by and for US companies. Just four countries – Canada, the US, Brazil and Argentina – now grow more than 90% of the crops, and more than 80% of the GM seeds sold each year are owned and sold by one company, Monsanto, which dominates the GM and global seed industries.

Nnimmo Bassey, head of Friends of the Earth International dismisses the biotech industry's claims that GM crops require fewer pesticides and produce higher yields Link to this video Critics of the technology say the GM revolution is stuttering. Europe is actually growing 23% less GM than it did in 2008. China, reportedly, will not now commercialise GM staple crops, such as rice and wheat, for up to 10 years. The promises of drought-resistant, flood-resistant and salt-tolerant crops for farmers in developing countries, made more than 10 years ago, have not materialised.

Only two traits, that of herbicide tolerance and insect resistance, have been successfully developed and marketed, and the companies admit these traits are now leading to "superpests" and "superweeds".

What few people have been able to understand is how a few corporations, working together, have persuaded so many farmers and senior scientists and politicians to back a new technology that promised to protect the environment and increase yields but which can still not conclusively be proved to have worked or be completely safe.

Questions over yields, pesticide use and human and animal health have not been fully resolved, and the crops' suitability for small farmers is questioned.

But as the debate over GM flies back and forth, no one disputes that it has been a tawdry revolution, marked in many countries by illegal planting, corruption of politicians, lawsuits, the discrediting of scientists, and arm-twisting of governments by companies and US diplomats.

According to the Global Citizenship Report, leading food and biotech firms spent more than $547m lobbying Congress between 1999 and 2009, and the biotech food industry alone has spent more than $22m in political campaign contributions since 2009.

WikiLeaks has shown US diplomats around the world pressing governments to accept GM. Former employees of the industry now work routinely in government posts, or as advisers to governments, and it is now standard practice for biotech firms to employ former Congress and White House staff.

Far from disappearing, opposition to the crops appears to be solidifying, with powerful farm movements in Latin America, south-east Asia, India and elsewhere strongly opposing GM introduction. They argue for "agro-ecology", a system of farming that embraces traditional and local knowledge as well as modern science, and which has been shown to increase crop yields, lower farm costs, enhance soils, and combat deforestation – the very promises made by GM firms when they started the "biotech revolution".