Proponents of genetically modified (GM) crops have enough cash to jump as high or low as they intend, promoting their message, but they¬¥re faced with an increasingly unavoidable barrage of criticism. Recent authoritative studies are undermining the standard claim that engineered crops have higher yields, are better and that they can be used to prevent world hunger. What’s more, various dangerous GM associated problems have been broadly measured out to increasingly skeptical consumers the world over. The regulatory regimes of the US, Canada and the EU are all long overdue an overhaul, so change is in the pipeline. Here’s an overview of recent alarming findings.
A UN sponsored study, the biggest ever review of the use of GM crops, concluded recently that the unintended social and ecological consequences of GM foods have thus far been taken too lightly. The research report, entitled International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development, followed two academic reviews of Monsanto’s GM soybeans which both are extremely damaging for the company.
The first review, conducted by the agronomy department of the University of Kansas late last year, revealed that GM soybeans did not render any better yields than conventional crops but would not grow spontaneously. The research was published in the journal Better Crops by Professor Barney Gordon, who had been tipped off by farmers who had switched over to the GM variety and had been disappointed at the poor results. Gordon carried out experiments of his own, testing the yield of GM soybeans and the conventional type and found that the plants died if he did not include manganese in the soil.
And earlier than that, University of Nebraska researchers found that another Monsanto GM soyabean¬¥s yield was 6% lower than the conventional equivalent. The authorities haven¬¥t neglected these findings. According to a report in the UK Independent newspaper, even the fervently pro-GM US Department of Agriculture, has admitted that GM crops might lead to a decrease in yields. The April 2006 report from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) states that “currently available GM crops do not increase the yield potential of a hybrid variety. […] In fact, yield may even decrease if the varieties used to carry the herbicide tolerant or insect-resistant genes are not the highest yielding cultivars”.
Timing is very important in this whole issue. Nebraska University academics, rigorously dismissing GM crops, say that by the time a plant has been fully modified, conventional plants are being developed that outperform GM plants.
Further damning news for the GM lobby is that Professor Gordon’s finding that he needed to feed what has -poignantly- been branded the ‘Roundup Ready’ soybean crop extra manganese is not an isolated case. According to the UK’s Soil Association, 5 studies between 2001 -2007 show that glyphosate applied to Roundup Ready soybeans inhibits the uptake of important nutrients essential to plant health and performance. The resultant mineral deficiencies have been implicated in various problems, from increased disease susceptibility to inhibition of photosynthesis. Thus, the same factors implicated in the GM soya yield drag may also be responsible for increased susceptibility to disease.
The UK’s Soil Association comments that “GM […] products have never led to overall increases in production, and have sometimes decreased yields or even led to crop failures. As oil becomes scarcer and more expensive, we need to move away from oil dependent GM crops to producing food sustainably, using renewable energy, as is the case with organic farming.”
The official response from Monsanto to the allegations that it’s not helping to combat world hunger? Monsanto bosses told the Independent they were not surprised by the fact that yields had dropped, but that they had admitted they were surprised by the extent of the decline. Perhaps that was an honest reply because the Independent reporter apparently misreported Professor Gordon’s findings, saying that GM soybeans yielded 10% less than conventional equivalents. But Monsanto also shrugged off criticisms saying that the plant had been developed for other purposes than to increase yields. That makes you wonder what they’re up to – after all the plant variety is in commercial use. Is it normal that so long as no living human being dies everything simply goes on unquestioned by authorities?
And, erroneous reporting aside, the claim that GM makes the world of agriculture perform better is very feeble. According to a 2005 study, the only crop that has actually shown a persistent trend of yield increase in recent years has been Bt maize. But guess what; it’s not due to its being engineered at all! The study points out that ‘the rate of increase is no greater after than before biotech varieties were introduced’. The study by independent US scientists, published its findings in Sciencedirect.com, including evidence that Bt maize yields anywhere from 12% less to the same as near-isoline (highly similar) conventional varieties.
Another maize variety, NK603, is troublesome because it’s immune to the very same Monsanto-reared weedkiller that prevents the GM soybean from delivering optimally. It’s one of many blunders of what are known as ‘first generation’ modification try outs. Monsanto is testing the NK603 corn in the Dutch city Lelystad, one of five Dutch locations where GM tests are allowed. But in case this crop is meant to be a high yielding corn variety, the company will have been put back on schedule because Greenpeace activists reportedly dispersed millions of flower seeds in the field. The flower seeds, distributed with two confetti cannons, will grow a lot quicker than the planted GM corn crop, thus preventing the successful pollination process of the maize plants.
Greenpeace is opposed to the Monsanto tests because of what it says are the unpredictable effects of GM for humans and the environment. “Monsanto provokes these tests to gauge whether there is still resistance in Dutch society against GM,” Herman van Bekkem, the campaign manager for Greenpeace Netherlands said. “It is incomprehensible that the Dutch government allows this American company here to experiment with this dangerous crop. Monsanto products have a long history of injury to humans and the environment.”
Industry sources say that globally, GM crops are planted over 102 million hectares but some say that number is an exaggeration. The first GM crop, the Flav Savr tomato, was commercially approved in the US, thirteen years ago and hundreds more GM varieties were granted deregulation status then.
But last year, Federal Courts in the US ruled against the Department of Agriculture (USDA) in three cases for failing to carry out proper environment impact assessment, making the original approvals of GM crops illegal.
The European Commission recently rejected the recommendations by official EU food and health safety experts to allow three GM crops on European soil, signaling strong divisions within European countries over the technology.