An INVITED GUEST POST by Myc Riggulsford MCIoJ
This August (2017) saw news of the first genetically modified fish hitting supermarket shelves in Canada, which, if we’re going to be making new trade deals across the world after Brexit, means that we may soon be facing yet another attempt to pass GM crops and foods off on UK consumers.
The fast growing salmon strain was developed at Newfoundland Memorial University in Canada, but has been commercialised by a US company AquaBounty Technologies to exploit the hybrid Atlantic salmon which has had genes inserted from two other species, Chinook salmon and ocean pout. This prompted consumer and environmental groups to call for special labelling after the sales were discovered. GM salmon were passed as safe for sale in Canada in 2016 after US domestic approval by the Food and Drug Administration in 2015.
Back in Britain we have had a long war of attrition with successive governments, our publicly funded research councils, and businesses all repeatedly sounding out public opinion, desperately trying to get the ‘right’ answer in surveys and get GM crops and food into our shops, after holding sham consultations.
I last wrote about this for Devon Association of Smallholders, and for Country Smallholding magazine, when the then Conservative Environment Secretary Owen Paterson tried to sneak out an announcement just before Christmas 2012, saying that GM foods should be grown and sold in Britain.
“In 2011, 16 million farmers in 29 countries grew GM crops on 160 million acres. That’s 11% of the world’s arable land”, said Owen Paterson MP, in his speech to the Women’s Institute, at their food security conference in December 2012. Shortly afterwards he claimed that, “There are real benefits [of GM], and what you’ve got to do is sell the real environmental benefits”.
GM and the Environment
As a science and environment journalist who has watched this issue for many years, I would argue that Owen Paterson’s claims about environmental benefits of GM crops, and other similar ones, are simply untrue. Wildlife suffers so badly from the herbicides used on GM crops that commercial planting of them is currently banned in the UK.
The evidence comes from the largest crop trials ever carried out in the UK, the GM Crop Farm-Scale Evaluation, from 1999-2004 over a four year period. This was funded independently from industry with public money, through two public bodies, the Natural Environment Research Council and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.
The GM Farm-Scale Crop Trials categorically found that compared with conventional crops, GM crops of oil-seed rape and sugar beet were substantially worse for wildlife, especially bees, butterflies and birds. I know because I was covering the British Science Festival at Exeter University in the summer of 2004 as a science journalist when the results were published openly for the first time.
Parliament’s response said that “It is inconceivable that [GM] beet or spring-sown oil seed rape will be given consents to be grown if managed under the same conditions as applied in the Farm-Scale Evaluations”. In other words, using commercial herbicides and GM herbicide resistant crops, because of the harm to biodiversity.
The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee report’s key findings said that: “Biodiversity levels have slipped intolerably over the last fifty years and Government has a duty to try to regain some of that lost ground. Indeed the Government… should establish a benchmark for biodiversity in conventional crops, at the less intrusive end of the spectrum”. The report’s recommendations go on to say: “We therefore recommend that in future trials the biodiversity benchmark against which GM crops should be assessed should be that associated with the less intensive and more biodiversity-friendly end of the spectrum found in UK agriculture, such as organic crops”. So if you’re doing any more trials, don’t just test GM regimes against conventional farming, match the results to organic methods as well.
Strangely, in spite of this being a House of Commons report, and a key recommendation, I have never heard it aired publicly again. It is almost as though our own parliament, as well as British consumers, gave the ‘wrong’ answer, which didn’t suit businesses and money interests, when faced with the overwhelming scientific evidence, and public opinion. I have never heard of any properly conducted tests on GM crops and food since then which fairly matched the GM strains being investigated, the conventional ones, and the organic equivalent, all being tested for their environmental impacts.
Unfortunately for everyone, including the GM industry, mainstream academic scientists, and the public struggling to understand the problem, in October 2012, a scientific study was published in the academic journal Food and Chemical Toxicology, which suggested that Monsanto’s Roundup tolerant GM maize, and Roundup herbicide itself, both cause cancer in rats. This may well be true, but responsible scientists and science journalists pointed out that it was one small study, performed over a short period, on a small number of animals, with a lot of basic flaws in the research design. We need to see these experiments repeated on a much bigger and more rigorous scale, not just accepted at face value.
That French study has been picked up by protest groups and quoted for years as though it was genuine evidence of likely harms to be caused to people eating any GM foods. Which is only a few people, mainly vegetarians in the UK, who eat vegetarian cheese, a GM product. Or people eating animals fed on GM foods, which is almost all of the rest of the British, even if they don’t know it. Though Environment Secretary Owen Paterson obviously did, as he said to the Daily Telegraph at the time, “There isn’t a single piece of meat being served [in a typical London restaurant] where the bullock hasn’t eaten some GM feed”.
I have a lot of respect for environmentalists’ concerns about the harm we are doing to our world, the need for organic farming practices which also sustain wildlife and do not pollute our drinking water, soil and air, and the need for a return to smaller scale agriculture. But GM technology itself is not unnatural, agrobacteria do it all the time. In fact scientists use agrobacteria to insert their foreign genes into GM plants.
Contrast this entirely natural process with ‘traditional’ plant breeding. I have drunk and enjoyed a smooth organic ale called Golden Promise. This beer is made from pure Golden Promise barley, a variety developed in the 1960’s by taking a handful of barley and mutating it by bathing it in nuclear radiation, bombarding it with gamma rays. And one of the mutated strains of barley developed by this traditional breeding process was so sweet and good for brewing that it’s now used in many top whiskies and beers. Including the first organically brewed beer in Britain, Golden Promise, five times winner at the Soil Association’s Organic Food Awards. That’s what we call natural.
Vegetarian cheese is a GM product that we have been testing on people for over 25 years. Yeast or other microrganisms are genetically manipulated to make the rennet extract chymosin which curdles the milk, and which in normal cheese comes from a calf stomach. Vegetarian cheese is not very natural.
So perhaps it’s not the GM manipulation which is the dangerous or unnatural part of the process, it’s the way industrial agri-businesses use the technique, and the way the costs of modern farming are put onto our increasingly fragile environment. Costs that should really be borne by the international companies making a profit from selling us herbicides, pesticides and fertilisers while expecting consumers of cheap foods to pay for the clear-up costs through our taxes, poor health and loss of wildlife. And in particular, it’s the particular genes that they are inserting into some plants and which are spreading out into the wild which worry me.
Is the Government Interested in Smallholders’ Views on GM Crops and Foods?
Devon Association of Small Holder members have said in the past that we should stay out of politics, which I can understand. In 2006 I drafted our DASH response to the Defra consultation on proposals for managing GM crops alongside conventional and organic ones. Many smallholders farm organically. Should we all mobilise now that the threat of unlabelled GM crops and foods on our supermarket shelves is once more becoming likely as a consequence of new international trade agreements forged after Brexit, and before we have more sham consultations?
The last time they tried to convince us that we’d given the wrong answer was in the sham consultation of 2010 when we saw a top government adviser resign from the committee overseeing it. He was concerned that over £500,000 of public money was about to be wasted in a GM public dialogue exercise, planned by the former Labour government.
“If they call it a public dialogue and then they don’t tell us who is going to be the dialoguing party, then it’s not a dialogue”, said Professor Brian Wynne of Lancaster University, who resigned as vice-chairman of the Food Standards Agency’s steering group after former agriculture minister and FSA chairman Lord Rooker said “the public is anti-science”.
Professor Wynne’s concerns ended in his public protest after extensive industry lobbying of the government made it clear that GM feed from maize and soya could not be kept out of the human food chain much longer – way back in 2010.
“The food and feed industry apparently wanted to have another public dialogue about GM food, but in order to browbeat the public with their view, which is basically that soon, all of your steaks will have been fed on GM soya and maize, so why continue to refuse GM food too? So as this is also the FSA’s view, a ‘dialogue’ becomes de-facto a monologue to browbeat the UK public”, says Professor Brian Wynne, who spoke to me as Country Smallholding’s science writer, from his hotel in Vancouver where he was attending a science conference.
Prof Brian Wynne suggested that to have a proper dialogue about GM concerns the exercise should be in two or three phases. First checking public opinion about GM crops and foods, then consideration and a response from government, then further public consultations and a final response from government so that all decisions are taken openly and accountably and people can clearly see why they are being made.
A dialogue has to have two parties, and Prof Wynne said that the government could respond to the public through the existing Senior Officials Group on GM, made up of representatives from Defra, the Food Standards Agency, and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills which has a science brief and an industry brief, and the Department for International Development, because GM is a global issue. But the government was planning to seek public opinion, then make a snap decision, which isn’t a real dialogue.
When asked by me for Country Smallholding for the new government’s position on GM crops and foods, Defra said “Unfortunately we aren’t in a position to comment on this at the moment”. Then four days later Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman, a former biotechnology lobbyist, announced that she backed the commercial growing of GM crops. A trial of blight resistant GM potatoes by the Sainsbury Laboratory had already been given the go-ahead.
A spokesman for the Department for Business Innovation and Skills told me: “Government sets…strategic objectives, such as the need for a future healthy and sustainable food supply in a world faced with a growing population and the real threat of climate change. Research Councils will determine the most appropriate research to achieve that objective and believe that GM approaches should be explored where necessary”.
Previous Defra GM consultations in 2006, in which I responded on behalf of the Devon Association of Small Holders, were branded a sham after officials received 7,000 submissions but gave the go-ahead for German company BASF to plant GM potatoes only two weeks later, and long before the public, academic and pressure group submissions could be considered.
So GM research will continue, assuming there is any public money left to do research with. And GM fed meat will hit your supermarkets shortly, if it hasn’t already. The Labour and Conservative governments have been backing GM crops and foods for years, and we may not even get asked our opinion next time, now that the watchdog’s whistle has been blown.
Superweedgate and Bargeman’s Cabbage
In June 2005 I wrote a piece for Country Smallholding about ‘superweedgate’, the news that GM superweeds were invading our countryside. It was all the fault of some wild charlock, a distant relative of the cabbages (on the mother’s side I think, always a bit of a poor relation) which was found next to a herbicide-resistant oilseed rape field trial area, with the offending gene intact.
We have 20 acres of converted bog in North Devon of the sort technically known as culm, so hardly a case for mass arable panic attacks, but we do try to farm organically, and as a science and environment journalist I do like to keep up with GM science to see what the agri-industry is up to. So I went to the trouble of getting hold of the original scientific paper to find out what the fuss was, and spoke to friends at Oxford University and the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology in Dorset where they carried out the research.
The general message was ‘stop worrying’, and I’ll explain why later. This research was a last bit of Defra funded stuff to complete the results of the Farm Scale GM crop trials which were published in the summer of 2004, the most significant findings of which were completely missed by the pundits: all maize is really bad for wildlife.
Maize is far worse than GM anything, and if the new Single Payment Scheme wonks could have got their tiny minds round one fact and one fact alone in their quest to allow all farmers extra funds for behaving responsibly towards the environment it would be: don’t fund maize or silage.
When I laughably say all farmers can get these new payments, I am of course excepting smallholders (who do qualify, but often don’t actually get any payments) because Defra cannot accurately register our farms. This is strangely because they weren’t expecting more than about ten of us to exist and when over 10,000 of us came out of the woodwork due to the threat of having our land completely devalued, Defra just had a collective hissy fit, melted its phoneline and stopped talking to anyone.
Back to the GM superweeds then, and why we shouldn’t worry. Oilseed rape is a brassica, which to you and me means cabbage, cauliflower, turnip, radish, Brussels sprouts, purple sprouting broccoli, rocket and if we’re being really clever clogs, mustard. To your average Farm Scale boffin, the thing to worry about isn’t your allotment, smallholding, greenhouse, veggie patch or window box, we can all be poisoned to death with impunity, it’s the wild relatives we have to worry about.
If a wild relative of a GM crop strain with which it can successfully crossbreed is living in the British Countryside, within pollinating distance of the GM crop site, then the foreign genes can get themselves out, and once they are out, they are out forever. So any crop trial site needs to be about 4 km or over 2 miles from any wild relatives. Any brassica such as charlock that can crossbreed with oilseed rape may also then crossbreed in turn with other brassicas such as bargeman’s cabbage.
If the new GM seeds are going to be widely planted on farms as commercial scale crops, then every single one of the farms needs to have no wild relatives of the crop within a circle that far from their fields. Which is, for instance, practically impossible if you’re trying to get 4 km from the huge network of canals in England. Especially since bargees used to carry a pocket full of tiny seeds to scatter along the canal banks, so that wherever they stopped for the night to rest their horses they could find some wild weeds of bargeman’s cabbage to go with their hunk of bread and cheese as their evening meal, helping them all to have fresh salads or soup ingredients at no cost, living off the land.
So the wild relatives of oilseed rape living native in the British Isles include wild turnip or bargeman’s cabbage In other words, not only are the wild relatives absolutely everywhere, the one you really need to worry about is charlock because that’s the one found mainly in arable crops, so it could get accidentally harvested and processed into (for instance, and here I’m just speculating wildly) food. Can you guess which one they found the GM gene in yet? If you can’t, go back and read the first paragraph of this part of the story.
So what did our staunch investigators Roger Daniels, Caroline Boffey, Rebecca Mogg, Joanna Bond & Ralph Clarke from Winfrith in Dorset discover? These are the good guys remember, they are the ones checking that we are safe. They undertook a three year study to see how much or how often the gene for herbicide tolerance is passed from oilseed rape crops to wild relatives in the vicinity. Not if the GM gene could be passed, since Defra already knew it certainly would be, but to check the extent of the transfer and the problems this would cause.
So why shouldn’t we worry? The herbicide being investigated was glyfosinate ammonium, which is marketed by Bayer CropScience under the soothing name of Liberty. As herbicides go, it’s not considered particularly nasty. The pro-GM crops and foods theory goes that if Bayer’s herbicide tolerant oilseed rape is grown the field can be treated with Liberty early on, theoretically wiping out everything unwanted and avoiding much nastier chemicals later.
The researchers identified herbicide tolerance in two bargeman’s cabbage seedlings grown in the laboratory greenhouse from seed collected at one of the crop trial sites. And in the following year, one single charlock plant on a field margin was found to contain the herbicide tolerant GM gene.
“This illustrates how hard it is to produce hybrids”, said Dr (now Prof) Rosie Hails of the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology in Oxford. “The science is being misrepresented. They are not ‘superweeds’. There is absolutely no suggestion that possessing the gene increases the invasiveness of these species. Hybrids between these two species (charlock and oilseed rape) have not been shown to be fertile. When hybrids do occur it is an extremely rare event and the consequences are minimal.”
If I understood Prof Rosie Hails correctly, then the reason we don’t need to worry is that being herbicide tolerant is only useful if you are a weed growing in an arable field amongst a commercial crop, in which case you will be able to shrug off herbicide sprays and survive. Being a herbicide tolerant weed on a riverbank is pretty pointless.
Concerns About GM Escapes
Although partially reassured by Rosie’s explanation, it still leaves me with three major concerns. First, what if the oilseed rape hybridises with my cabbages, sprouts and kale on our smallholding? It may not harm me, but I’m not sure I want to eat this unnecessary stuff in my own grown organic food – and of course if we sold our excess veggies on, we might be liable for misrepresentation if anyone checked for GM genes.
Other tests have shown that bees will fly for up to four kilometres, or a couple of miles in old money, and it’s almost impossible to get more than 4 km away from our good old canal system, in England, as the bee flies.
Secondly, if commercial farmers are finding herbicide tolerant stuff springing up all over the place, they are going to have to resort to the particularly nasty chemicals to keep their crops weed free. This makes it pointless having GM crops and foods in the first place, since they won’t have the environmental advantages claimed by their makers.
Thirdly and most importantly, the GM crops and foods agribusiness (face it, this isn’t three chaps with a bathtub building a cottage industry) keeps claiming that it is impossible to separate GM harvest and conventional harvests, so there will inevitably be a degree of mixing and therefore it is unfair on the GM industry to label foods as specifically containing GM grains or products, as it might put consumers off, when all the conventionally grown crops processed into foods will have some of the GM genes too.
Well why is it so hard to separate out GM crops and foods? The organic industry has to pay squillions extra to demonstrate farm to fork traceability, but an organic apple doesn’t look any different from a conventionally grown one, or a GM one for that matter, so it’s all in the monitoring of the supply chain. Well if badly funded organic can do it, large scale GM business can do it too.
That would then give us three types of foodstuffs – ones definitely containing GM genes, ones grown conventionally which may have some in-field contamination, and ones which hopefully don’t because they have been organically grown, theoretically increasing consumer choice – not just two types, organic and conventional, as the farmers claim now. And the GM crops and foods industry could bear the costs of spot testing organic and conventional produce for cross-contamination and establish a compensation fund for any organic farms found to be infested with unwanted GM genes.
Although I’m therefore partially reassured by the science, I’m still not convinced that Defra has the interests of consumers or small farmers at heart. Society should protect the little guys too, and of course, the environment, as the House of Commons parliamentary report suggested in May 2004.
1. It is not LoopyFood.net‘s position that ‘GM is natural’ – LoopyFood.net considers that while horizontal gene transfer by agrobacteria may be a natural phenomenon, this differs from genetic modification techniques developed by biotech companies and scientific manipulation; nature works with a subtlety that is un-matched by materialist-reductionist techniques.
2. The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee’s report GM Foods – Evaluating the Farm-Scale Trials was published by the Government in March 2004, with the committee’s critical response to the Government’s response to the report published that May. See Paragraph 73 of the original report for the recommendation to benchmark GM against organic agriculture for biodiversity impact assessment, rather than against mainstream commercial agriculture which is harmful enough so as to render marginal improvement by GM meaningless.