OPEN LETTER 28th February 2011
Prof Sir Paul Nurse, President The Royal Society 6-9 Carlton House Terrace London, SW1Y 5AG
Dear Sir Paul,
An open letter Re: Genetically modified crops (BBC Horizon – ‘Science Under Attack’)
Firstly, may I congratulate you on achieving the honour of becoming the new President of the Royal Society.
In your programme on BBC television, ‘Science Under Attack’, you included a short item on genetically engineered crops, leaving the impression that they are beneficial to mankind. Having been involved in the debate over the past 13 years, I should like to call your attention to facts that many would rather hide or dismiss. As an influential scientist, you will undoubtedly be concerned to know the facts about the performance of GM crops, from sources not connected with the GM industry.
How GM crops began Monsanto, by far the biggest GM seed company, originally developed its GM Roundup Ready soya beans to tolerate application of its herbicide Roundup, in order to maintain a commercial need for the latter product. The company’s ambitions were great and included the buying- up of smaller seed companies. Robert Fraley, then co-president of Monsanto's agricultural sector, declared: "What you are seeing is not just a consolidation of seed companies, it’s really a consolidation of the entire food chain". Moreover, “Monsanto executives described a world with 100 percent of all commercial seeds genetically modified and patented.” In the United States, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the US Department of Justice began an investigation last year into corporate control of agriculture and food. American farmers have been rebelling against the control of their crops and even their lives by companies like Monsanto. The former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture at the time of introduction of the first GM crop said that anyone not in favour of rapid approval of GMOs was considered to be ‘anti-science’ and ‘anti-progress’. He was put under a “lot of pressure” not to push the issue of regulation too far. Successive United States presidents and British prime ministers have continued this policy, with the intention of gaining economic benefit.
A false paradigm and insufficient regulation Unfortunately, GM plants do not behave as expected according to the old paradigm that ‘one gene controls one trait’. Given the extreme complexity of gene interactions, it is not surprising that unexpected results of genetic engineering occur. Some of these can be harmful, and the harm may not be detected until after the plants are on the market and in the food- or feed-chain. Regulation continues to be lax, in spite of mounting evidence from independent scientists of damage to the environment and to health; independent investigations are dismissed by those who advise regulators in favour of studies produced by the companies that produce the GM seeds. Although the latter studies are ‘commercially confidential’ and normally unavailable to independent scientists, some of these have (for example, by court order) been made available; and the conclusions of safety have been shown to be unfounded. Poor experimental design and inappropriate analysis have been faults, as well as suppression of ‘wrong’ results; an example is provided in Appendix 1. Outright fraud also occurs.
Non-GM successes attributed to GM GM developers, having spent billions of dollars on producing their seeds, are now determined to sell them as widely as possible. They maintain that GM crops are needed to feed the growing population of the world. Exaggerated and false claims are made. Even the former UK Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir David King, said that “Using GM technology, there are now varieties of major crops, rice, wheat and maize being produced that are drought resistant, flood resistant, saline resistant and disease resistant, which could transform Africa's ability to feed its people ... Some products have emerged, for example, from South Africa. They are now planting drought resistant crops that have increased the yield by 30% ... So you can actually save millions of people from starvation by these techniques … .” In fact, there are no such GM crops on the market, although the seed developers have been talking for years about their intention to produce them. The crops Prof King was talking about are actually non- GM crops. Traditional breeding has much greater potential for producing complex traits: “Even Jeff Cox, of leading GM seed producer Monsanto, has said that MAS [looking at the genome without altering it] can be used to build high output varieties through conventional plant breeding since there is a vast reservoir of genes within any one species. His Monsanto colleague Tom Crosbie has, perhaps surprisingly, noted that ‘ultimately [non-GM] biotech offers the greatest potential.’ ” Syngenta’s drought-resistant maize will have been bred traditionally assisted by MAS, with genes for pesticides added later. Appendix 2 lists recent non-GM successes.
False claims about yields and pesticide use Claims of higher yields are unsubstantiated. Any increase in harvest is due to lower loss to weeds or insects – but in most cases, harvests are smaller or the same with GM crops. Monsanto’s new Roundup Ready soya beans do have higher yields, but this has probably been achieved by traditional breeding to obtain the higher yield, with the later addition of a gene for herbicide-tolerance, making the seeds patentable and more expensive. Claims of reduced pesticide use are also unsubstantiated. Pesticide use has actually been increasing, as shown by data obtained from the US Department of Agriculture:
Changes in the Pounds of Glyphosate Applied per Acre per Crop Year on Corn, Cotton, and Soybeans [for years when data are available]:
change over period
|Average annual percent change|
|Corn (1996-2005)|| 39%
The figures refer to externally applied glyphosate (which is the active ingredient in Roundup, used for a large percentage of GM crops). The relatively low value above for corn is due in part to the shorter time period; but, more importantly, the low application rate hides the fact that much corn is engineered to produce a herbicide continuously within the plant. This toxin cannot be washed off and is eaten.
Resistant weeds and insects Resistance of weeds and insects to pesticides has become a major problem in some places, as has emergence of insects and weeds new to an area, including the devastating superweed Palmer amaranth (pigweed). More highly toxic chemicals or mechanical tillage are being used, although ‘no-tillage’ is claimed as an advantage of GM crops. In America, some farmers have been advised by a GM seed developer that they now need to weed by hand! Some cotton farmers have even had to abandon their land to intractable weeds. ‘Stacked genes’ are being introduced, able to withstand multiple herbicides, rather like anti-anti-anti-missiles for defence.
Soil degradation GM cultivation has more adverse effects on soil than does conventional agriculture, which is itself harmful. Soil fertility is reduced by agrochemicals. Studies indicate that fertility is being further reduced by harmful effects of GM genes that pass from the roots of plants into soil and then into soil micro-organisms. Colonisation by the soil pathogen Fusarium around the roots of GM, glyphosate- resistant soya beans and maize was found to be much higher than around the roots of conventional soya beans and maize. In January, a senior researcher wrote to the USDA to warn about a newly discovered pathogen “that appears to significantly impact the health of plants, animals, and probably human beings. … [I]t is widespread, very serious, and is in much higher concentrations in Roundup Ready (RR) soybeans and corn --- suggesting a link with the RR gene or more likely the presence of Roundup.” It “appears to be a micro-fungus-like organism” that “may explain the escalating frequency of infertility and spontaneous abortions over the past few years in US cattle, dairy, swine, and horse operations.” The author concludes by saying that “I have studied plant pathogens for more than 50 years. We are now seeing an unprecedented trend of increasing plant and animal diseases and disorders. This pathogen may be instrumental to understanding and solving this problem. It deserves immediate attention with significant resources to avoid a general collapse of our critical agricultural infrastructure.”
The United Kingdom and the world now urgently need scientists who have influence to act for the welfare of the planet and its people. Much more could be said against GM crops, but I earnestly hope that this brief glimpse will encourage you to acquire more fully a knowledge of the facts to counter the false claims. Your presidency of the prestigious Royal Society places you in a prime position to influence the debate and the authorities who make decisions about these dangerous crops.
(Dr ) Eva Novotny Retired astrophysicist
George Monbiot, 2000, Captive State: the Corporate Takeover of Britain, Macmillan, London, p. 253, quoting from Farm Journal, cited by the Rural Advancement Fund International, September 1996: The Life Industry.
Jeffrey M. Smith, 2004, Seeds of Deception: exposing corporate and government lies about the safety of genetically engineered food, Green Books, Foxhole, Dartington, Totnes, Devon, p.1; originally published in the USA in 2003 by Yes! Books, Fairfield, Iowa.
Pesticide Action Network North America, 19 March 2010, “Monsanto on hot seat”, http://www.panna.org/resources/panups/panup_20100319
Marie-Monique Robin, “The World According to Monsanto” (Film and DVD); see highlights of the DVD summarised in Appendix 3.
(a) Amy Dean and Jennifer Armstrong, 2009, American Academy of Environmental Medicine, “Genetically Modified Foods”,
(b) Gilles-Eric Séralini, Dominique Cellier, and Joël Spiroux de Vendomois, 2007, Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, vol. 52, No. 4, pp. 596-602,
(c) Jeffrey M. Smith, 21 April 2010, GM Watch, “Genetically Modified Soy Linked to Sterility, Infant Mortality”,
(d) Lou M. Gallagher, 14 November 2010, Testbiotech, “Bt Brinjal Event EE1: The Scope and Adequacy of the GEAC Toxicological Risk Assessment”,
(a) See the excerpt in Appendix 1 from Emily Waltz, October 2009, Nature Biotechnology, vol. 27, No. 10, 880-882, “Under Wraps”,
(b) Jeffrey M. Smith, 2004, Seeds of Deception: exposing corporate and government lies about the safety of genetically engineered food, Green Books, Foxhole, Dartington, Totnes, Devon; originally published in the USA in 2003 by Yes! Books, Fairfield, Iowa, pp, 131.
(c) Jeffrey M. Smith, Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods. 2007, Yes! Books, P.O. Box 469, Fairfield, Iowa, USA; available in the UK from Green Books, Foxhole, Dartington, Totnes, Devon; Part 3.
Jeffrey M. Smith, 2004, Seeds of Deception: exposing corporate and government lies about the safety of genetically engineered food, Green Books, Foxhole, Dartington, Totnes, Devon, pp. 178-179; originally published in the USA in 2003 by Yes! Books, Fairfield, Iowa.
Peter Melchett, 9 December 2008, The Guardian, “Who can we trust on GM food?” http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/dec/09/david-king-gm- crops
Legalbrief Environmental, 19 November 2007, “Are GM crops the solution to Africa’s food dilemma?” http://www.legalbrief.co.za/article.php?story=20071115143713877
David Ranii, 21 December 2010, News Observer, “Drought-tough corn seed races to the finish line”, http://www.newsobserver.com/2010/12/21/873577/drought-tough-corn-seed-races.html#ixzz19bnyr2KL
Charles Benbrook, November 2009, The Organic Center, Critical Issue Report, Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use in the United States: The First Thirteen Years, p. 29. In the years following those cited in the table, the USDA dramatically cut back its surveying of pesticide use.
a) Jan Qiu, 13 May 2010, Nature news, “GM crop use makes minor pests major problem”,
b) Ian Sample, 13 May 2010, The Guardian, “Scientists call for GM review after surge in pests around cotton farms in China”
Charles Benbrook, November 2009, The Organic Center, Critical Issue Report, Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use in the United States: The First Thirteen Years, pp. 34-40,
ibid, p. 36-38
ibid, p. 4
ibid, p. 38-39
ibid, p. 4
a) Biao Liu, Qing Zeng, Fengming Yan, Haigen Xu and Chongren Xu, 2005, Plant and Soil, 271, 1-13, “Effects of transgenic plants on soil microorganisms”,
b) Antje Lorch, 2007, Greenpeace Report, “Toxin in GM Maize”, http://www.greenpeace.de/fileadmin/gpd/user_upload/themen/gentechnik/greenpeace_toxin_in_gm_maize.pdf
Robert J. Kremer and Nathan E. Means, 2009, European Journal of Agronomy, vol. 31, 153-161, “Glyphosate and glyphosate-resistant crop interactions with rhizosphere microorganisms”, http://etmd.nal.usda.gov/bitstream/10113/35795/1/IND44260932.pdf
Don M. Huber, 16 January 2011, Letter to US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack; posted on web at Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance,