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[SANET-MG] ISP to FAO: GM crops not answer
ISP Press Release 27/05/04
ISP to FAO: GM Crops Not the Answer
The Independent Science Panel (ISP) has criticised the Food and Agriculture
Organization (FAO) of the United Nations for its qualified backing of
genetically modified (GM) crops in the global fight against hunger.
The FAO recently released its annual publication, The State of Food and
Agriculture 2003-2004. This year, the theme was on "Agricultural
Meeting the needs of the poor?" The report touches on the full range of
agricultural biotechnology tools and applications, but focuses largely on
transgenic or GM crops and their impact on poor people in poor countries.
While acknowledging that biotechnology is not a panacea, the FAO
it holds great promise as a new scientific tool for generating applied
agricultural technologies. The report claims that biotechnology is
benefiting small, resource-poor farmers, yet also cautions, "Given that
technologies that are on the shelf today (generated by conventional
methods) have not yet reached the poorest farmers’ fields, there is no
that the new biotechnologies will fare any better."
Thus, the FAO seems to ignore the implicit message of its own study: GM
have thus far delivered negligible benefits to the world’s poor. And
little indication that these trends will change in favour of the poor.
report points out, crops and agronomic traits of importance to developing
countries and marginal production areas have been ignored.
Instead, the focus has been on four crops (soybean, maize, cotton,
suited for industrial agriculture and unlikely to meet the food security
of poor farmers, and two traits (herbicide tolerance and insect
limited relevance; herbicide resistance, in particular, is less relevant
developing countries where farm labour is abundant.
These four crops and two traits have, however, been the mainstay of the GM
industry, controlled largely by transnational corporations that have
of the benefits. This private sector-led investment in agricultural
development depends on strong protection of intellectual property rights
over GM crops.
The FAO is disingenuous when it calls on countries to develop stronger IPR
regimes to promote GM crop research, even as the independent Commission on
Intellectual Property Rights has expressed reservations over patent
for plants and animals. Many developing countries that are World Trade
Organisation (WTO) members, particularly the Africa Group, have also
similar concerns, joining countless non-governmental and civil society
organisations, and some 700 scientists (including ISP members), to call
patents on living organisms.
Is the FAO ignoring these views, much as it seems to be selective in the
evidence it draws on to justify the report’s conclusions? For example,
section on public attitudes, the report relies heavily on a survey that
imbalanced questions. This section concludes that people in developing
are generally likely to support agricultural biotechnology, which is not
surprising, given that the risks are not mentioned in the questions
the potential benefits.
Yet the risks of GM crops are increasingly apparent. The FAO report is
unacceptably silent on the transgenic contamination of traditional
maize in Mexico, a centre of origin and diversity of maize; it doesn’t
biodiversity and food security impacts, let alone the immense
cultural and indigenous practices.
Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, director of the Institute of Science in Society (ISIS) and
member of the ISP, points to further flaws: "The FAO claims that scientists
generally agree that current transgenic crops and the foods derived from
are safe to eat. But there are many scientists - ISP members included -
questioned this premise, and there is increasing evidence that casts
doubt on GM
The ISP’s report, The Case for a GM-Free Sustainable World
<http://www.indsp.org/A%20GM- Free%20Sustainable%20World.pdf>, is an
review of the scientific and other evidence on the problems and hazards
crops and the manifold benefits of all forms of sustainable agriculture
Executive Summary, appended).
It is clear, from the evidence therein, that there are many unanswered
on the safety of GM crops. Very few studies have been conducted,
to the effects of GM foods on human health. There is a dearth of published
scientific papers on which a reliable database of safety can be
the few independent studies that have been carried out raise serious
There is also increasing indication of the environmental and socio-
impacts of GM crops, particularly on smallholder farmers.
The ISP has called for a global ban on environmental release of GM
make way for agroecology, organic farming and other forms of sustainable
agriculture. There is growing evidence that many smallholder farmers in
developing countries already have the knowledge, experience and innovative
spirit that enable them to farm sustainably and productively, without
on GM crops. These traditional farming practices best address
is complex, diverse and risk-prone; GM crops would create many more
these farmers. The FAO should be calling for more research into these
sustainable practices, so as to better them and make them equitably
rather than into GM crops.
If the world is to seriously address hunger, this means rethinking
and associated policy making, and exploring how traditional knowledge and
science can work together, while learning from farmers themselves. World
today is more a consequence of economic and political forces that hamper
distribution, and less one of inadequate food supply. These, and other
including access to land, water, credit and markets, the loss of
biodiversity and the inequities in multilateral policies that affect
and rural development, must be addressed.
The FAO would do better to focus on these issues, rather than on GM
crops, if it
is really serious in "helping build a world without hunger".
Written by Lim Li Ching <mailto:ching@i- sis.org.uk> for the ISP
The Case for A GM-Free Sustainable World - Executive Summary
Why GM Free?
1. GM crops failed to deliver promised benefits
The consistent finding from independent research and on-farm surveys
is that GM crops have failed to deliver the promised benefits of
increasing yields or reducing herbicide and pesticide use. GM crops have
the United States an estimated $12 billion in farm subsidies, lost sales
product recalls due to transgenic contamination. Massive failures in Bt
of up to 100% were reported in India.
Biotech corporations have suffered rapid decline since 2000, and investment
advisors forecast no future for the agricultural sector. Meanwhile
resistance to GM has reached a climax in 2002 when Zambia refused GM
food aid despite the threat of famine.
2. GM crops posing escalating problems on the farm
The instability of transgenic lines has plagued the industry from the
and this may be responsible for a string of major crop failures. A
1994 stated, "While there are some examples of plants which show stable
expression of a transgene these may prove to be the exceptions to the
an informal survey of over 30 companies involved in the
transgenic crop plants….almost all of the respondents indicated that
observed some level of transgene inaction. Many respondents indicated
cases of transgene inactivation never reach the literature."
Triple herbicide-tolerant oilseed rape volunteers that have combined
and non-transgenic traits are now widespread in Canada. Similar multiple
herbicide-tolerant volunteers and weeds have emerged in the United
the United States, glyphosate-tolerant weeds are plaguing GM cotton and
fields, and atrazine, one of the most toxic herbicides, has had to be
glufosinate-tolerant GM maize.
Bt biopesticide traits are simultaneously threatening to create
3. Extensive transgenic contamination unavoidable
Extensive transgenic contamination has occurred in maize landraces
remote regions in Mexico despite an official moratorium that has been in
since 1998. High levels of contamination have since been found in
Canada. In a
test of 33 certified seed stocks, 32 were found contaminated.
New research shows that transgenic pollen, wind-blown and deposited
or fallen directly to the ground, is a major source of transgenic
Contamination is generally acknowledged to be unavoidable, hence there
can be no
co- existence of transgenic and non-transgenic crops.
4. GM crops not safe
Contrary to the claims of proponents, GM crops have not been proven
regulatory framework was fatally flawed from the start. It was based on an
anti-precautionary approach designed to expedite product approval at the
of safety considerations. The principle of ‘substantial equivalence’, on
risk assessment is based, is intended to be vague and ill-defined, thereby
giving companies complete licence in claiming transgenic products
equivalent’ to non-transgenic products, and hence ‘safe’.
5. GM food raises serious safety concerns
There have been very few credible studies on GM food safety.
available findings already give cause for concern. In the still only
investigation on GM food ever carried out in the world, ‘growth
effects were found in the stomach and small intestine of young rats that
not fully accounted for by the transgene product, and were hence
the transgenic process or the transgenic construct, and may hence be
all GM food. There have been at least two other, more limited, studies
raised serious safety concerns.
6. Dangerous gene products are incorporated into crops
Bt proteins, incorporated into 25% of all transgenic crops worldwide,
found harmful to a range of non-target insects. Some of them are also
immunogens and allergens. A team of scientists have cautioned against
Bt crops for human use.
Food crops are increasingly used to produce pharmaceuticals and drugs,
cytokines known to suppress the immune system, induce sickness and central
nervous system toxicity; interferon alpha, reported to cause dementia,
neurotoxicity and mood and cognitive side effects; vaccines; and viral
such as the ‘spike’ protein gene of the pig coronavirus, in the same
the SARS virus linked to the current epidemic. The glycoprotein gene
the AIDS virus HIV-1, incorporated into GM maize as a ‘cheap, edible oral
vaccine’, serves as yet another biological time-bomb, as it can
the immune system and recombine with viruses and bacteria to generate
7. Terminator crops spread male sterility
Crops engineered with ‘suicide’ genes for male sterility have been
promoted as a
means of ‘containing’, i.e., preventing, the spread of transgenes. In
the hybrid crops sold to farmers spread both male sterile suicide genes
herbicide tolerance genes via pollen.
8. Broad-spectrum herbicides highly toxic to humans and other species
Glufosinate ammonium and glyphosate are used with the herbicide-tolerant
transgenic crops that currently account for 75% of all transgenic crops
worldwide. Both are systemic metabolic poisons expected to have a wide
harmful effects, and these have been confirmed.
Glufosinate ammonium is linked to neurological, respiratory,
and haematological toxicities, and birth defects in humans and mammals.
toxic to butterflies and a number of beneficial insects, also to the
clams and oysters, Daphnia and some freshwater fish, especially the rainbow
trout. It inhibits beneficial soil bacteria and fungi, especially those
Glyphosate is the most frequent cause of complaints and poisoning in the
Disturbances of many body functions have been reported after exposures
Glyphosate exposure nearly doubled the risk of late spontaneous
children born to users of glyphosate had elevated neurobehavioral defects.
Glyphosate caused retarded development of the foetal skeleton in laboratory
rats. Glyphosate inhibits the synthesis of steroids, and is genotoxic in
mammals, fish and frogs. Field dose exposure of earthworms caused at
percent mortality and significant intestinal damage among surviving worms.
Roundup caused cell division dysfunction that may be linked to human
The known effects of both glufosinate and glyphosate are sufficiently
for all further uses of the herbicides to be halted.
9. Genetic engineering creates super- viruses
By far the most insidious dangers of genetic engineering are inherent to
process itself, which greatly enhances the scope and probability of
gene transfer and recombination, the main route to creating viruses and
that cause disease epidemics. This was highlighted, in 2001, by the
creation of a killer mouse virus in the course of an apparently innocent
Newer techniques, such as DNA shuffling are allowing geneticists to
create in a
matter of minutes in the laboratory millions of recombinant viruses that
never existed in billions of years of evolution. Disease- causing
bacteria and their genetic material are the predominant materials and
genetic engineering, as much as for the intentional creation of bio-weapons.
10. Transgenic DNA in food taken up by bacteria in human gut
There is already experimental evidence that transgenic DNA from plants
taken up by bacteria in the soil and in the gut of human volunteers.
resistance marker genes can spread from transgenic food to pathogenic
making infections very difficult to treat.
11. Transgenic DNA and cancer
Transgenic DNA is known to survive digestion in the gut and to jump into
genome of mammalian cells, raising the possibility for triggering cancer.
The possibility cannot be excluded that feeding GM products such as
animals also carries risks, not just for the animals but also for human
consuming the animal products.
12. CaMV 35S promoter increases horizontal gene transfer
Evidence suggests that transgenic constructs with the CaMV 35S promoter
especially unstable and prone to horizontal gene transfer and
with all the attendant hazards: gene mutations due to random insertion,
reactivation of dormant viruses and generation of new viruses. This
present in most GM crops being grown commercially today.
13. A history of misrepresentation and suppression of scientific evidence
There has been a history of misrepresentation and suppression of scientific
evidence, especially on horizontal gene transfer. Key experiments failed
performed, or were performed badly and then misrepresented. Many
were not followed up, including investigations on whether the CaMV 35S
is responsible for the ‘growth-factor-like’ effects observed in young
In conclusion, GM crops have failed to deliver the promised benefits and
posing escalating problems on the farm. Transgenic contamination is now
acknowledged to be unavoidable, and hence there can be no co-existence
of GM and
non-GM agriculture. Most important of all, GM crops have not been proven
On the contrary, sufficient evidence has emerged to raise serious safety
concerns, that if ignored could result in irreversible damage to health
environment. GM crops should be firmly rejected now.
Why Sustainable Agriculture?
1. Higher productivity and yields, especially in the Third World
Some 8.98 million farmers have adopted sustainable agriculture practices on
28.92 million hectares in Asia, Latin America and Africa. Reliable data
projects show higher productivity and yields: 50-100% increase in yield for
rainfed crops, and 5-10% for irrigated crops. Top successes include Burkina
Faso, which turned a cereal deficit of 644 kg per year to an annual
153 kg; Ethiopia, where 12 500 households enjoyed 60% increase in crop
and Honduras and Guatemala, where 45,000 families increased yields from
kg/ha to 2 000-2 500 kg/ha.
Long-term studies in industrialised countries show yields for organic
to conventional agriculture, and sometimes higher.
2. Better soils
Sustainable agricultural practices tend to reduce soil erosion, as well as
improve soil physical structure and water-holding capacity, which are
averting crop failures during periods of drought.
Soil fertility is maintained or increased by various sustainable
practices. Studies show that soil organic matter and nitrogen levels are
in organic than in conventional fields.
Biological activity has also been found to be higher in organic soils.
more earthworms, arthropods, mycorrhizal and other fungi, and
all of which are beneficial for nutrient recycling and suppression of
3. Cleaner environment
There is little or no polluting chemical-input with sustainable
Moreover, research suggests that less nitrate and phosphorus are leached to
groundwater from organic soils.
Better water infiltration rates are found in organic systems. Therefore,
are less prone to erosion and less likely to contribute to water
4. Reduced pesticides and no increase in pests
Organic farming prohibits routine pesticide application. Integrated pest
management has cut the number of pesticide sprays in Vietnam from 3.4 to
season, in Sri Lanka from 2.9 to 0.5 per season, and in Indonesia from
1.1 per season.
Research showed no increase in crop losses due to pest damage, despite the
withdrawal of synthetic insecticides in Californian tomato production.
Pest control is achievable without pesticides, reversing crop losses, as
example, by using ‘trap crops’ to attract stem borer, a major pest in East
Africa. Other benefits of avoiding pesticides arise from utilising the
inter-relationships between species in an ecosystem.
5. Supporting biodiversity and using diversity
Sustainable agriculture promotes agricultural biodiversity, which is
food security and rural livelihoods. Organic farming can also support much
greater biodiversity, benefiting species that have significantly declined.
Biodiverse systems are more productive than monocultures. Integrated
systems in Cuba are 1.45 to 2.82 times more productive than monocultures.
Thousands of Chinese rice farmers have doubled yields and nearly
most devastating disease simply by mixed planting of two varieties.
Soil biodiversity is enhanced by organic practices, bringing beneficial
such as recovery and rehabilitation of degraded soils, improved soil
and water infiltration.
6. Environmentally and economically sustainable
Research on apple production systems ranked the organic system first in
environmental and economic sustainability, the integrated system second
conventional system last. Organic apples were most profitable due to price
premiums, quicker investment return and fast recovery of costs.
A Europe-wide study showed that organic farming performs better than
conventional farming in the majority of environmental indicators. A
the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)
well-managed organic agriculture leads to more favourable conditions at all
7. Ameliorating climate change by reducing direct & indirect energy use
Organic agriculture uses energy much more efficiently and greatly
emissions compared with conventional agriculture, both with respect to
energy consumption in fuel and oil and indirect consumption in synthetic
fertilizers and pesticides.
Sustainable agriculture restores soil organic matter content, increasing
sequestration below ground, thereby recovering an important carbon sink.
systems have shown significant ability to absorb and retain carbon,
possibility that sustainable agriculture practices can help reduce the
Organic agriculture is likely to emit less nitrous oxide (N2O), another
important greenhouse gas and also a cause of stratospheric ozone depletion.
8. Efficient, profitable production
Any yield reduction in organic agriculture is more than offset by
efficiency gains. Research has shown that the organic approach can be
commercially viable in the long- term, producing more food per unit of
Data show that smaller farms produce far more per unit area than the larger
farms characteristic of conventional farming. Though the yield per unit
one crop may be lower on a small farm than on a large monoculture, the
output per unit area, often composed of more than a dozen crops and various
animal products, can be far higher.
Production costs for organic farming are often lower than for conventional
farming, bringing equivalent or higher net returns even without organic
premiums. When price premiums are factored in, organic systems are
9. Improved food security and benefits to local communities
A review of sustainable agriculture projects in developing countries
average food production per household increased by 1.71 tonnes per year
for 4.42 million farmers on 3.58 million hectares, bringing food
health benefits to local communities.
Increasing agricultural productivity has been shown to also increase food
supplies and raise incomes, thereby reducing poverty, increasing access
reducing malnutrition and improving health and livelihoods.
Sustainable agricultural approaches draw extensively on traditional and
indigenous knowledge, and place emphasis on the farmers’ experience and
innovation. This thereby utilises appropriate, low-cost and readily
local resources as well as improves farmers’ status and autonomy, enhancing
social and cultural relations within local communities.
Local means of sale and distribution can generate more money for the local
economy. For every £1 spent at an organic box scheme from Cusgarne Organics
(UK), £2.59 is generated for the local economy; but for every £1 spent at a
supermarket, only £1.40 is generated for the local economy.
10. Better food quality for health
Organic food is safer, as organic farming prohibits routine pesticide and
herbicide use, so harmful chemical residues are rarely found.
Organic production also bans the use of artificial food additives such as
hydrogenated fats, phosphoric acid, aspartame and monosodium glutamate,
have been linked to health problems as diverse as heart disease,
migraines and hyperactivity.
Studies have shown that, on average, organic food has higher vitamin C,
mineral levels and higher plant phenolics – plant compounds that can fight
cancer and heart disease, and combat age-related neurological
dysfunctions – and
significantly less nitrates, a toxic compound.
Sustainable agricultural practices have proven beneficial in all aspects
relevant to health and the environment. In addition, they bring food
and social and cultural well-being to local communities everywhere.
There is an
urgent need for a comprehensive global shift to all forms of sustainable
This article can be found on the I-SIS website at http://www.i-
sis.org.uk/ISPtoFAO.php <http://www.i- sis.org.uk/ISPtoFAO.php>
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