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Why GM Free

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The Independent Science Panel on GM Final Report

by the Institute of Science in Society

Dozens of prominent scientists from seven countries, spanning the disciplines of agroecology, agronomy, biomathematics, botany, chemical medicine, ecology, histopathology, microbial ecology, molecular genetics, nutritional biochemistry, physiology, toxicology and virology, joined forces to launch themselves as an Independent Science Panel on GM at a public conference, attended by UK environment minister Michael Meacher and 200 other participants, in London on May 10, 2003.

The conference coincided with the publication of a draft report, “The Case for a GM-free Sustainable World,” calling for a ban on GM crops to make way for all forms of sustainable agriculture. This authoritative report, billed as “the strongest, most complete dossier of evidence” ever compiled on the problems and hazards of GM crops as well as the manifold benefits of sustainable agriculture, was released on June 15, 2003.

This summary is a challenge to the proponents of GM to answer the case presented, rather than having to argue against the case for GM crops, which has yet to be made.

Why GM-free?

GM crops have failed to deliver promised benefits. There has been neither an increase in yields nor any significant reduction in herbicide and pesticide use. Losses in the US resulting from GM crops are estimated at $12 billion amid worldwide rejection. Overseas, massive crop failures of up to 100% have been reported in India.

GM crops are posing escalating problems on farms. Transgenic lines are unstable but most cases of transgene inactivation never reach the literature. Triple-herbicide-tolerant volunteers and weeds have emerged in North America. Glyphosate-tolerant weeds plague GM cotton and soya fields. As a result, atrazine is back in use. Bt biopesticide traits are threatening to create superweeds and bt-resistant pests.


…there can be no co-existence of GM and non-GM crops.


Extensive transgenic contamination unavoidable

Transgenic contamination has been found in maize landraces in remote regions of Mexico. In Canada, 32 out of 33 commercial seed stocks have been found to be contaminated. Pollen remains airborne for hours, and a 35 mile-per-hour wind speed is unexceptional. As a result, there can be no co-existence of GM and non-GM crops.

GM crops not proven safe

Their regulation has been fatally flawed from the start. The principle of “substantial equivalence,” vague and ill defined, gave companies complete license in claiming GM products “substantially equivalent” to non-GM, and hence “safe.”

Despite the paucity of credible studies, existing findings raise serious safety concerns. “Growth-factor-like” effects in the stomach and small intestine of young rats were attributed to the transgenic process or the transgenic construct, and may be general to all GM food.

Dangerous gene products incorporated into food crops

Bt proteins, incorporated into 25% of all GM crops worldwide, are harmful to many non-target insects, and some are potent immunogens and allergens for humans and other mammals. Food crops are increasingly used to produce pharmaceuticals, including cytokines known to suppress the immune system or linked to dementia, neurotoxicity, mood, and cognitive side effects. Vaccines and viral sequences, such as the “spike” protein gene of the pig coronavirus, are in the same family as the SARS virus and linked to the current epidemic. Glycoprotein gene gp120 of the AIDS virus, incorporated into GM maize, can interfere with the immune system and recombine with viruses and bacteria to generate new and unpredictable pathogens.

Crops engineered with “suicide” genes for male sterility, promoted as a means of preventing the spread of transgenes, actually spread both male sterility and herbicide tolerance traits via pollen.

Broad-spectrum herbicides highly toxic to humans and other species

Glufosinate ammonium and glyphosate, used with herbicide tolerant GM crops that currently account for 75% of all GM crops worldwide, are both systemic metabolic poisons. Glufosinate ammonium is linked to neurological, respiratory, gastrointestinal and haematological toxicities, and birth defects in humans and mammals. It is also toxic to butterflies and a number of beneficial insects, to larvae of clams and oysters, Daphnia and some freshwater fish, especially the rainbow trout. Glufosinate ammonium also inhibits beneficial soil bacteria and fungi, especially those that fix nitrogen.

Glyphosate is the most frequent cause of complaints and poisoning in the UK, and disturbances to many body functions have been reported after exposures at normal use levels. Glyphosate exposure nearly doubled the risk of late spontaneous abortion, and children born to users of glyphosate had elevated neurobehavioral defects. Glyphosate also retards development of the fetal skeleton in laboratory rats, inhibits the synthesis of steroids, and is genotoxic in mammals, fish and frogs. Field dose exposure of earthworms caused at least 50% mortality and significant intestinal damage among surviving worms. Roundup (Monsanto’s formulation of glyphosate) caused cell division dysfunction that may be linked to human cancers.


There has been a history of misrepresentation and suppression of scientific evidence, especially on horizontal gene transfer.


Genetic engineering creates super-viruses

The most insidious dangers of genetic engineering are inherent to the process; it greatly enhances the scope and probability of horizontal gene transfer and recombination, the main route to creating viruses and bacteria that could cause epidemics. Newer techniques, such as DNA shuffling, allow geneticists to create in a matter of minutes in the laboratory millions of recombinant viruses that have never existed in billions of years of evolution. Disease-causing viruses and bacteria and their genetic material are the predominant materials and tools of genetic engineering, as well as for the intentional creation of bio-weapons.

Transgenic DNA in food taken up by bacteria in human gut

Transgenic DNA from plants has been taken up by bacteria both in the soil and in the gut of human volunteers. Antibiotic resistance marker genes can spread from transgenic food to pathogenic bacteria, making infections very difficult to treat.

Transgenic DNA is known to survive digestion in the gut and to jump into the genome of mammalian cells, raising the possibility for triggering cancer. Feeding GM products such as maize to animals may carry risks, not just for the animals but also for human beings consuming the animal products.

CaMV 35S promoter increases horizontal gene transfer

Evidence suggests that transgenic constructs with the CaMV 35S promoter could be especially unstable and prone to horizontal gene transfer and recombination, with all the attendant hazards: gene mutations due to random insertion, cancer, re-activation of dormant viruses and generation of new viruses.

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 to be performed, or were performed badly and then misrepresented. Many experiments were not followed up, including investigations on whether the CaMV 35S promoter is responsible for the “growth-factor-like” effects observed in young rats fed GM potatoes.

GM crops have failed to deliver the promised benefits and are posing escalating problems on the farm. Transgenic contamination is now widely 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 safe. On the contrary, sufficient evidence has emerged to raise serious safety concerns, that if ignored could result in irreversible damage to health and the environment. GM crops should therefore be firmly rejected now.

Why sustainable agriculture?

There is higher productivity and greater yields from sustainable agriculture, especially in the Developing World. Approximately 8.98 million farmers have adopted sustainable agriculture practices on 28.92 million hectares in Asia, Latin America and Africa. Reliable data from 89 projects show higher productivity and yields: 50–100% increase in yield for rain-fed 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 surplus of 153 kg; Ethiopia, where 12,500 households enjoyed 60% increase in crop yields; and Honduras and Guatemala, where 45,000 families increased yields from 400–600 kg/ha to 2,000–2,500 kg/ha.

Long-term studies in industrialized countries show yields for organic comparable to conventional agriculture, and often higher.

Sustainable agricultural practices reduce soil erosion, improve soil physical structure and water-holding capacity, which are crucial in averting crop failures during periods of drought. Soil fertility is maintained or increased by various sustainable agriculture practices. Biological activity is higher in organic soils: more earthworms, arthropods, mycorrhizal and other fungi, and micro-organisms, all beneficial for nutrient recycling and suppression of disease.

Sustainable agriculture results in a cleaner environment. There is little or no polluting chemical inputs with sustainable agriculture. As a result, less nitrate and phosphorus leaches to groundwater from organic soils. Better water infiltration rates are found in organic systems, which are therefore less prone to erosion and less likely to contribute to water pollution from surface runoff

Reduced pesticides and no increase in pests are another benefit of sustainable agriculture. Integrated pest management cut the number of pesticide sprays in Vietnam from 3.4 to 1 per season, in Sri Lanka from 2.9 to 0.5 per season, and in Indonesia from 2.9 to 1.1 per season. No increase in crop losses due to pest damage resulted from withdrawal of synthetic insecticides in Californian tomato production. Pest control is achievable without pesticides, as for example, by using “trap crops” to attract stem borer, a major pest in East Africa.


Sustainable agricultural practices have proven beneficial in all aspects relevant to health and the environment.


Sustainable agriculture promotes agricultural biodiversity, which is crucial for food security; organic farming can support much greater biodiversity, benefiting species that have significantly declined. Integrated farming systems in Cuba are 1.45 to 2.82 times more productive than monocultures. Thousands of Chinese rice farmers doubled yields and nearly eliminated the most devastating disease simply by mixed planting of two varieties. Soil biodiversity is enhanced by organic practices, bringing beneficial effects such as recovery and rehabilitation of degraded soils, improved soil structure and water infiltration.

Research on apple production systems ranked the organic system first in environmental and economic sustainability, the integrated system second and the 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 review by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) concluded that well-managed organic agriculture leads to more favorable conditions at all environmental levels

Another benefit is ameliorating climate change by reducing direct and indirect energy use. Organic agriculture uses energy much more efficiently and greatly reduces CO2 emissions compared with conventional agriculture, both with respect to direct energy consumption in fuel and oil and indirect consumption in synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Sustainable agriculture restores soil organic matter content, increasing carbon sequestration below ground, thereby recovering an important carbon sink. Organic agriculture is likely to emit less nitrous dioxide (N2O), another important greenhouse gas and also a cause of stratospheric ozone depletion

Any yield reduction in organic agriculture is more than offset by ecological and efficiency gains. Smaller farms produce far more per unit area than larger farms characteristic of conventional farming. Production costs for organic farming are often lower than conventional farming, bringing equivalent or higher net returns even without organic price premiums; when price premiums are factored in, organic systems are almost always more profitable

There are also improved food security and benefits to local communities. A review of sustainable agriculture projects showed that average food production per household increased by 1.71 tonnes per year (up 73%) for 4.42 million farmers on 3.58 million hectares, bringing food security and health benefits to local communities. Increasing productivity increases food supplies and raises incomes, thereby reducing poverty, increasing access to food, 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, thereby improving their status and autonomy, enhancing social and cultural relations within local communities. For every Ł1 spent at an organic box scheme from Cusgarne Organics (UK), Ł2.59 is generated for the local economy; but for every Ł1 spent at a supermarket, only Ł1.40 is generated for the local economy.

Organic food is safer, as organic farming prohibits pesticide use, so harmful chemical residues are rarely found. Organic production bans the use of artificial food additives, such as hydrogenated fats, phosphoric acid, aspartame and monosodium glutamate, which have been linked to health problems as diverse as heart disease, osteoporosis, migraines and hyperactivity. Studies have shown that on average, organic food has higher vitamin C, higher mineral levels and higher plant phenolics—plant compounds that can fight cancer and heart disease, and combat age-related neurological dysfunction—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 security 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 agriculture.

The Institute of Science in Society, PO Box 32097, London NW1 OXR telephone: [44 20 8643 0681] [44 20 7383 3376] [44 20 7272 5636] General Enquiries sam@i-sis.org.uk Website/Mailing List press-release@i-sis.org.uk ISIS Director m.w.ho@i-sis.org.uk

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