Genetically Modified Crops and the global Food System
The problems – Part 1

In this Paper we are looking at 2 important environmental problem areas and the issues around testing and licensing of GM crops.

The next Paper will singularly cover the health implications for both animals and humans that consume these crops – directly or indirectly. It is a big question with a big answer’.

7. Can and does the GM genie escape, and if so what harm can it do?

Another easy question at least as far as the first part of it goes. Plants reproduce naturally and cross pollinate within their species, so a rape plant will pollinate another rape plant – or another member of the species which in the case of rape happens to be the brassica family. Wheats can pollinate other wheats; potatoes other potatoes and so on.

This is a hugely important question because, if the genetic alterations couldn’t escape into the wider environment: there may be many bad problems with GM but at least they would be geographically contained. The GM developments could then not contaminate the rest of the world – just the region that decided to grow the crops. The trouble is it can escape and has.

Back in 1998/9 many countries in Europe ordered their non-GM rape seed from a company in Canada. It arrived; was sown across many countries, but months later it was learnt the seed had included GM. One option considered was to plough the lot up, but it was simply impossible to make certain all of it would have been destroyed in so many countries at the same time.

I mentioned above that rape is a member of the brassica family – primarily the cabbages which include the cauliflowers, sprouts, broccolis, swedes and turnips. The big problem though is that there are 8 wild and common brassicas around the UK that can be cross pollinated by rape, so once it had flowered there was no knowing where it had gone. It had escaped from a simple error, but it can never be got back. This means we cannot know that any brassicas we eat are not GM contaminated – including organic veg grown in the EU.

It is a simple fact, not a theory, that GM pollen will travel often huge distances (it is often windy), so as long as there is a plant within that range that can be pollinated – sooner or later it will be. And from there it travels on again. There are a few interesting notes on this problem:

  • I recall the initial plant free margin in the UK around GM crops was 2metres (6’) which I confess infuriated me when I first heard it. How it was possible for our political system to approve that defies belief – but it did. If this alone doesn’t call into question the competence of our political system to manage life for our safety – I don’t know what it will take for people to realise that.
  • GM maize in the southern US was found to have contaminated wild maize in Mexico. As this is the home of the wild species, we have polluted the plants’ origins.
  • The EU banned Canadian honey recently as they could not guarantee it was GM free because of ‘wayward’ pollen from GM crops. Would be good to ask them if they can guarantee brassicas grown across the EU are GM free!!
  • “The crops and their pollen can be carried 25 kilometres on prairie winds” – Prof Peter Phillips, University of Saskatchewan.
  • Monsanto are suing farmers all over the place claiming they are due a 2% royalty on everything produced after the initial GM seeds have been bought. But it seems Monsanto are not quite as cute as we imagined because they are now claiming the royalty from famers accidentally growing some GM plants because of pollen drift onto their land from a neighbouring farmer who is growing GMO’s. They not only know it escapes – they are even charging for the privilege of having your produce contaminated see:
    “The plaintiffs in the suit are led by the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA) and their complaint is aimed at Monsanto’s so-called “seed police,” whose strong-arm tactics include suing farmers for patent infringement any time pollen or seeds from a farm growing GMO plants nearby drifted onto their land, as was featured in the film Food Inc

So yes it can, yes it will and yes it has escaped. It is as inevitable as night follows day. We live in a sick world getting sicker.

Further notes:

  • There are now GM trials on potatoes – and guess where they are? In Bolivia, which is the home of the Potato. An EU research Paper says it is unlikely the GM potato plants will cross contaminate other potatoes as the cross fertilisation usually occurs only with a metre!!!!! Interesting, but then much of what the UN does and says is. Having been there I can assure you there can be some very big winds indeed up on the Andes where the potatoes grow. Having contaminated the wild maize they now want to go at the early potatoes.
  • There are also now GM field trials in the UK with wheat. Yes, here in the UK being conducted by the Rothampstead Institute (John Innes), approved by St Albans Council and our government. They also argue it is “very unlikely” there will be any cross contamination, even though that area has a great deal of land growing wheat. Thank you St Albans City and District Council!

8. Does the effectiveness of a GM plant change or diminish over time, and if so what length of time? What happens then?

A GM crop is the same GM crop after umpteen years, but as the environment around it changes, its effectiveness will change. This is linked to the increased use of the herbicides and pesticides and those dastardly ‘superweeds’.

We have already seen that without any human intervention – life evolves – and that is not new science. Charles Darwin (and Alfred Wallace as it so happens) developed the theory of evolution by natural selection in the 1850’s, and it operates continuously. When a herbicide (Roundup) is applied to a population of a weed, there will be some that have naturally mutated and become resistant to it and survive. As the rest of that population will die, the surviving specimen(s) has (have) a lot of space to multiply into and that is what happens. This was not a possibility or a probability but a certainty. Not a prediction but a fact. The growing resistant weed population is called a ‘Super weed’ and we already have 21 of them just in the US.

Through the US corn growing region they now have ‘super bindweed’ which is so powerful three things are happening:

  1. It is common across the region so is affecting at best many of the farms and soon most of them.
  2. The maize crop is being strangled, significantly reducing the yield and therefore profits. The farmers are now desperate for a solution.
  3. Roundup at 15 times the normal strength has been applied without any effect.

Through the southern US soybean and cotton growing region, there is already a ‘super pigweed’ also now totally resistant to Roundup. It has so overtaken the farmland that millions of acres are being lost to production with the land given up to the pigweed. It rapidly outgrows the crops hugely reducing their yields but there is an even worse problem. It grows so fast and has such strong stems that farm machinery cannot go through it – why the farmers are giving up that land.

While on pigweed (Amaranthus palmeri) there are two interesting facts:

  1. It is edible, highly nutritious and was eaten back through history – the green parts as a vegetable and the seeds as well. Rather than harvesting it as a food – it is left.
  2. It is spread by the wind!!!! The reason for the incredibly rapid spread?

As we can see there isn’t one unfortunate super weed – it is general and will spread to cover every corner of the countries using these products, faster when combined with GM because that is increasing the use of Roundup. The area reported infested as of one year ago (2011) was 11M acres but this is more than 4 times the area in 2007 which was 2.4M. It is an epidemic.

GM crops are already planted on 200,000 sq miles of the US or 130M acres, so the very agricultural production of the US is at stake with super weeds appearing for other herbicides as well. To get these huge figures into perspective the US has 382m acres producing crops, so 1/3rd of it is already GM and liable to yield reduction if not the loss of that land for agriculture.

If we think all this is bad, the herbicidal resistant genes are spreading naturally through the pollen of the resistant weeds – to other plants – which proves item 7 above – the GM Genie can escape and has done so!

What about the GM pest resistant crops? Guess what? We now have pests that have mutated to do the self-same thing – they are resistant to the pesticides so for all the above on ‘super weeds’ add ‘super pests’.

How long has it taken? Given the first approvals were only given in 1995, it has taken just 16 years for super ‘things’ to have reached epidemic proportions. The working life of any GM plant is therefore around just 10 years and mutations occur seemingly at least within about 3 years. If that surprises you, think about this:

  • There are about 1,800,000 wheat plants/ hectare.
  • Each wheat plant has about 450,000 pollen grains. (Each rye plant has 4m and each maize plant – 18m).
  • There are therefore about 800,000,000,000 wheat pollen grains per hectare (800 billion).

Even an incredibly low probability that a mutation will occur that affects the GM crop resistance means it is almost certainly going to happen even in the first year, and mutation rates, while varying hugely are sort of around 1:1,000,000. There are therefore going to be loads of mutations for every hectare planted. Anyway, it has already happened with every crop grown. But I will give you one further demonstration of the reality of mutation resistance to a human ‘compound’.

It is being increasingly publicised that antibiotics are losing their usefulness because the bacteria they fight have ‘mutated’ to be resistant to them. Organisms evolve to best survive.

What happens now? Depends who you ask:

The Biotech Companies: Well, what would you expect? They are working to develop what are called ‘tiered trait’ GM plants resistant to two or more herbicides so the farmers would then have to spray twice as much as now. Interesting? GMOs were going to reduce herbicide use not increase it!

There is currently a ‘stacked trait’ crop being developed with the second herbicide (after Roundup) being 2,4-D, one of the two chemicals in Agent Orange sprayed over Vietnam. Dow have also already developed a soybean resistant to 2,4-D “because of the increasing prevalence of glyphosate resistant weeds”. Note the word ‘prevalence’. It seems the public and the regulators are not well informed about developments in this science or the effects it is having but the biochemical companies understand it very well. They just don’t want anybody to know.

Agent orange was 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T in equal proportions; was manufactured by Monsanto and Dow Chemicals, and it is estimated 400,000 people died in Vietnam from its use; 500,000 were maimed, and the Red Cross estimates 1M people are disabled or have health problems directly related to the use of it. To be fair, it was mostly the 2,4,5-T that was the problem because during manufacture another chemical compound appeared that was an extremely toxic dioxin, but accidents happen.

The biotech industry is trying to move us to a food production system depending on a cocktail of chemicals – all of which they will sell us – but what happens when they run out of options?

Agriculture: It should already be clear that GM technology is attempting to create a world where the solutions to a scientific problem are more scientific products developed and sold by the very companies creating the problems in the first place, with the farmers and consumers paying for the chemical that created the problem; the one they are told will cure it and the damage done. Each super weed and super pest now with us is with us for ever. It is ‘impossible’ to go back to a world where they don’t exist. It is yet another case of Companies creaming the profits from activities but leaving others to pay to clean up their mess.

Reference superweeds there is of course an alternative which is beginning to be discussed involving deep digging the land and probably then burning it, but that will burn much of the organic material in the soils and that is a crucial part of healthy soil and already in very short supply.

There are totally valid comparisons we can make from a different science – medicine. It is widely known penicillin has become ineffective due to the organisms it was designed to fight ‘evolving’ to be resistant to it. Indeed medical science is really worried it is running out of antibiotics as the bugs have been fighting back. Interestingly penicillin only started to be used in the 1950’s but wasn’t in wide use for a decade so became ineffective in around 2 to 3 decades. But here is something particularly interesting:

It only took 4 years after starting production for one of the microbes to evolve a resistance to – Staphylococcus aureus! As I said before, it isn’t just a remote chance organisms will evolve to be resistant to whatever we throw at them – it is a certainty. Only the time taken is debateable.

Clearly the GM crops already planted have had incredibly short functional lives (if they ever were functional), measured in terms of 10 to 15 years but have already left a terrible legacy if not a terrifying one. This alone should prove it is a technology we shouldn’t use, and where already in use it should rapidly be stopped.

9. How thoroughly are GM crops tested before being licensed by the FDA?

There are a few things to understand which you may find surprising or even shocking:

  1. The longest animal feeding safety trials required are just 90 days but many are much shorter, some lasting only 30 days. Problems that don’t occur almost instantly are therefore not going to be found.
  2. In the US, the FDA authorises the planting of GM crops BUT in each licence it stipulates the safety of the crop is the applicant’s responsibility. The FDA has never approved a GM food as safe. It doesn’t do safety tests – these are done by the biotech companies who don’t publish their findings but present what they choose to the FDA. Basically they state it is safe and the FDA buys into that.
    Quote from the FDA “Ultimately it is the food producer who is responsible for assuring food safety”.
    Quote from Monsanto director, Philip Angell “Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food. Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring safety is the FDA’s job”.

    Shocked?? Quite an important miss-match.
  3. The biotech companies can put any GM product on the market but they can be held responsible for harm that results from them being consumed if anybody can prove they are culpable.
  4. There is no labelling required in the US, so it is impossible to link an outbreak of illness to any GM product as nobody can know what they have consumed. As long as this remains the case, it would be difficult to prosecute the Biotech companies for health issues especially as it can be unclear where any pollutant has come from. It is how they like it.
  5. The Biotech companies don’t make product or any of their research available to independent scientists, and those who have done independent research are mostly vilified publicly with their careers damaged and sometimes destroyed after publication.
  6. In 1992, before the first RR crops were approved for planting, the FDA’s own scientists warned there could be serious health issues with them. Early tests on glyphosate resistant crops indicated increased infertility, problems with the liver, kidneys, spleen and gastro intestinal systems as well as disturbance of the immune system and problems with cholesterol and insulin – and this was almost 20 years ago. They said “these could be dangerous and lead to new diseases, allergies, toxins and nutritional problems and should not be on the market”.
  7. From the list of potential problems I can say it would be extremely difficult (not to say impossible) to ever prove cause and effect when it comes to a medical problem and the consumption of food containing GM organisms.
  8. Unfortunately there are many personnel transfers between the Biotech companies, the FDA, the USDA and the regulatory bodies, with senior people in the FDA coming from the biotech industry and vice versa. As an example, Michael Taylor is Deputy Commissioner for Foods in the FDA yet in the 1980’s he had Monsanto as a client; in 1991 he moved to the FDA as Deputy Commissioner for Policy; between 1994 and 1996 he was Administrator of the Food Safety Inspection Service for the USDA; from 1996 to 2000 he was Vice President for Public Policy for Monsanto and in 2009 he returned to the FDA.
    If they wanted to generate distrust they couldn’t do better.

FDA is the US Food and Drugs Administration
USDA is the US Department of Agriculture

That is it. It is difficult not to assume a great deal of ‘leverage’ has been and is applied to the political system(s) and licensing bodies, not just in the US but around the world, which could be in many forms. Tom Vilsack is the US Secretary of Agriculture and it seems he has used Monsanto’s private jet but more on Mr Vilsack in Part 4.

It is frankly astonishing that given each & every item above, but perhaps particularly items II and VI, that authorities around the world have allowed any GM products to be grown let alone sold into either the animal or human food chains. The testing regime is not just lacking but abuses our trust.

Summary for Part 3

The truly sad thing is that in spite of it being certain from the start that the GM genes would escape into the natural environment, where they would do great damage and the Biotech Companies knew this, they were still produced and approved for planting. The genes cannot be recovered though the only reasonable course of action would be for the political systems around the world to demand that the biotech companies do what they can to retrieve the situation. At the very least the total assets of the biotech companies should be taken over by the state. If they are required to recover the escaped genes it will break them anyway. It is yet another case of global corporations dishonestly obtaining profit leaving the population at large to suffer the consequences. Even the product of national taxation isn’t sufficient to make reparations for all the damage done already let alone what is to come if it continues.

It was also certain that a huge amount of everlasting damage would be done to agricultural land by natural mutations reacting to the foreign organisms in the form of those dreadful superweeds and superpests. So it has proved to be.

The regulatory process for approving GM crops is unfit for purpose, as much the responsibility of the regulatory authorities around the world as the politicians – both meant to be there to protect the people.

Mike