Will the biotech companies ever give up on trying to sell Europe their genetically modified crops? Their latest PR man is the UK’s Minister for the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), Owen Paterson. His website (very bland and uninformative apart from his list of engagements) says he is “a passionate supporter of localism, free enterprise and less interference in people’s lives”. But he also loudly supports Monsanto et al, and wants all of Europe to grow and eat GM foods. I would say that thoroughly destroys any localism, interferes in the most basic way with our lives, and any enterprise is freely handed to big corporations that already have far too much power over people.
Paterson has had environmentalists tearing their hair out since he became Minister. As I wrote in Unnatural England, he’s promoted the destruction of buzzards and supports the killing of badgers. He’s also greatly in favour of fracking for shale gas regardless of the damage it would do. His statements on environmental matters display strongly-held views that are disastrous for the environment but kind to big business. To that end he will only look at the facts as presented by companies such as Monsanto.
He failed to persuade Europe that neonicitinoid pesticides (as produced by Monsanto et al) are good for bees; he said that the scientific evidence linking the decline in bee numbers to neonicotinoids was faulty; and that Europe should see the results of Defra’s own field trials. The UK Parliament’s environmental audit committee said the government was relying on ‘fundamentally flawed’ studies to push its case for preventing the Europe-wide precautionary ban of these pesticides. It turned out these studies were not peer-reviewed or published in any reputable scientific journal, merely published on Defra’s own website – for which the EU Commission critisised the British government.
Paterson’s online information is remarkably devoid of detail: he went to school and university; his family had a background of farming and leather; he went into the leather business; he is married, with children; he became an MP, and so on. No business interests or links of any kind are listed yet he is acting as cheerleader for the GM companies. And he made a small Freudian slip during his speech. He used the word ‘we’, as in “We have not come up with any evidence of human health being threatened by these products.” Just what Monsanto and Syngenta say.
On more than one occasion he has tried to persuade the public that we should all accept a diet of GM food and we stubbornly refuse to be converted. But his speech last week on the wonders of GM crops topped them all. He said he was ‘certain’ that GM crops are safer than conventional varieties because “These products go through the most rigorous system. It is extraordinarily closely regulated…” Do I hear hollow laughter from all those independent researchers into GM foods?
He went on: “…you have the biggest field trial in human history when you think of the colossal volume of GM material that has been eaten in all those countries growing GM food.” Sorry, Mr Paterson, but the biggest field trial in human history took place over millennia when the world was growing and eating organic food. And perhaps he hadn’t read, or was ignoring, the very recent Friends of the Earth Europe-wide study that found weedkiller residues in over 40% of human urine samples (glyphosate, the biggest producer of which is Monsanto).
Mistake after mistake was recited as fact, and faithfully reported by most of the rightwing media – except for the Daily Mail. Normally great supporters of all things Conservative, the Mail pulled his speech to pieces.
One of his most outrageous claims was this: “Over the last 15 years… every attempt to deploy Golden Rice (modified to boost Vitamin A) has been thwarted and in that time seven million children have gone blind or died.” The Mail struck that down with this riposte: “Earlier this year, the International Rice Research Institute, which is working on the Golden Rice project, denied reports that it was available for commercial planting, saying it has yet to pass safety tests or prove it could reduce vitamin A deficiency.”
The Channel4’s FactCheck Blog had this to say: “(Paterson) can’t claim that by not providing the rice the blindness and deaths have occurred, as we don’t know what would have happened had the rice been provided.” Health experts say the problem is a lack of Vitamin A, not Golden Rice – a problem solved by educating mothers how to feed their children on easily available foods containing Vitamin A.
Paterson claimed GM food was safer; “There is no substantiated case of any adverse impact on human health.” The Mail pointed out that: “In May 2011, independent doctors in Canada reported that toxins implanted into GM crops to kill pests were reaching the bloodstreams of women and unborn babies.”
Paterson claimed that GM was good for the environment. He said: “There is a very strong environmental case for GM. We can farm more efficiently, using new technology and using less land. It gives a wonderful opportunity to free up land for wilderness and forestry.” And presumeably for pheasant shoots as well, that being another of Paterson’s passions.
He said there is no evidence of GM crops harming the environment but ignored, among other problems, ‘superweeds’ that are resistant to the herbicides designed to kill them. Farmers across North America could have told him. Farmers could tell him too of the dangers of feeding GM to their animals, but as the biotech companies dismiss such evidence, so too will their mouthpiece. The Mail said the evidence showed real damage to the environment. Following GM crop trials in the UK, where fields had been heavily sprayed with a powerful weedkiller, the result was that it not only wiped out weeds, but also wild plants and insects.
He insisted that GM crops produce higher yields than conventional crops. He could ask Indian cotton farmers, the ones that haven’t committed suicide that is, after seeing their livelihoods ruined. And the Mail pointed out that recently published research showed that “increases in crop yields have been much greater in countries which have not adopted GM.”
When asked by the Daily Mail he said (with some hesitation) that he would be happy to feed a GM tomato to his family, not that one tomato shared between his wife and three children would go that far. But when the Mail contacted 17 government ministers, none of them would own to being comfortable with GM food. They also found that all the restaurants in the Houses of Parliament have had a ‘no GM food’ policy for quite some years. Customer choice rules, even in Westminster, despite government ministers wanting the public to eat the foods they refuse to.
This constant dishonest pressure on the public from people like Paterson to accept something they do not want must stop. It is dishonest because their ‘facts’ are at the least unproven, and at worst, untrue. Nor do they really care about feeding the world. If they did, they’d stop the waste of so much food and ensure people had equal access to what the earth can provide. This is all about giving the biotech companies control over the world’s food.
Why do I personally care so much about stopping GM food? I live in a rural area of great natural beauty. There is a strong organic presence here, in local growers, producers and shops. The village is full of gardeners. We grow our own vegetables and fruit. And we love our environment. My own garden is full of weeds. I call them wild flowers. They plant themselves, helped by the birds. They grow happily among the ‘cultivated’ plants and they provide a rich environment for bees and all the other pollinating insects. I don’t want this rich celebration of natural life turned into the kind of wasteland that comes from growing GM crops and the accompanying heavy use of pesticides and herbicides.
This garden, this land, is my home. I value every tiny flower and fly. This is their home too, and they are important. If I’m honest, I have to admit they have a more important place in the cycle of natural life than I or any human does. If anything has to disappear from this beloved countryside, it should be Owen Paterson.
Lesley is a lover of animals, campaigns and writes on war/peace, climate change and the environment. She is the former editor of Abolish War. Read other articles by Lesley.
Historians may look back and write about how willing we are to sacrifice our children and jeopardize future generations with a massive experiment that is based on false promises and flawed science just to benefit the bottom line of a commercial enterprise.” So said Don Huber in referring to the use of glyphosate and genetically modified crops. Huber was speaking at Organic Connections conference in Regina, Canada, late 2012.
Huber is an emeritus professor in plant pathology at Purdue University in the US and has worked with the Department of Homeland Security to reduce the impact of plant disease outbreaks. His words are well worth bearing in mind given that a new study commissioned by Friends of the Earth Europe (FoE) and GM Freeze has found that people in 18 countries across Europe have been found to have traces of glyphosate in their urine (1).
Friends of the Earth Europe commissioned laboratory tests on urine samples from volunteers in 18 countries across Europe and found that on average 44 percent of samples contained glyphosate. The proportion of positive samples varied between countries, with Malta, Germany, the UK and Poland having the most positive tests, and lower levels detected in Macedonia and Switzerland. All the volunteers who provided samples live in cities, and none had handled or used glyphosate products in the run-up to the tests.
The Influence of the Biotech Sector on Safety and Regulation
Although ‘weedkiller in urine’ sounds alarming, Tom Sanders, head of the nutritional sciences research division at King’s College London, says the levels found are unlikely to be of any significance to health because they are 300 times lower than the level which might cause concern. Alison Haughton, head of the Pollination Ecology Group at Rothamsted Research, said that if FoE and GM Freeze want their work to have scientific credibility and provide a genuine contribution to the debate on pesticide residues, they should submit their work for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.
Valid points, you might think. But FoE believes that there is sufficient evidence to suggest environmental and health impacts from glyphosate warrant concern. It wants to know how the glyphosate found in human urine samples has entered the body, what the impacts of persistent exposure to low levels of glyphosate might be and what happens to the glyphosate that remains in the body. New research published in the journal Entropy sheds disturbing light on such concerns (discussed later in this article).
In 2011, Earth Open Source said that official approval of glyphosate had been rash, problematic and deeply flawed. A comprehensive review of existing data released in June 2011 by Earth Open Source suggested that industry regulators in Europe had known for years that glyphosate causes birth defects in the embryos of laboratory animals. Questions were raised about the role of the powerful agro-industry in rigging data pertaining to product safety and its undue influence on regulatory bodies (2).
In the same vein, FoE says there is currently very little testing for glyphosate by public authorities, despite its widespread use, and authorities in Europe do not test for glyphosate in humans and tests on food are infrequent. Glyphosate was approved for EU-wide use in 2002, but FoE argues that the European regulatory agencies did not carry out their own safety testing, relying instead on data provided by the manufacturers.
Of course there are certain scientists (usually with links to the agro-industry) who always seem to be strident in calling for peer-reviewed evidence when people are critical of the biotech sector, but then rubbish it and smear or intimidate the scientists involved when that occurs, as has been the case with Dr Arsad Pusztai in the UK or Professor Seralini in France. It is therefore quite revealing that most of the data pertaining to glyphosate safety came from industry studies, not from peer-reviewed science, and the original data are not available for independent scrutiny.
With references to a raft of peer-reviewed studies, FoE also brings attention to the often disturbing health and environmental dangers and impacts of glyphosate-based herbicides throughout the world (1). The FoE study also highlights concerns around the increasing levels of exposure to glyphosate-based weed killers, particularly as the use of glyphosate is predicted to rise further if more genetically modified (GM) crops are grown. It is after all good for business. And the biggest producer of glyphosate is Monsanto, which sells it under the brand name ‘Roundup’.
“The figures don’t lie; GMOs drive glyphosate sales.” (3)
Despite its widespread use, there is currently little monitoring of glyphosate in food, water or the wider environment. The FoE commissioned study is the first time monitoring has been carried out across Europe for the presence of the weed killer in human bodies. FoE Europe’s spokesperson Adrian Bebb argues that there is a serious lack of action by public authorities and indicates that this weed killer is being widely overused.
This certainly needs to be addressed not least because the prediction concerning increasing exposure to glyphosate is not without substance. The introduction of Roundup Ready crops has already resulted in an increase of glyphosate use. Using official US government data, Dr Charles Benbrook, research professor at the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at Washington State University, states that since 1996 the glysophate rate of application per crop year has tripled on cotton farms, doubled in the case of soybeans and risen 39 percent on corn (4). The average annual increase in the pounds of glyphosate applied to cotton, soybeans, and corn has been 18.2 percent, 9.8 percent, and 4.3 percent, respectively, since herbicide tolerant crops were introduced.
Glyphosate is used on many genetically modified crops. 14 new GM crops designed to be cultivated with glyphosate are currently waiting for approval to be grown in Europe. Approval of these crops would inevitably lead to a further increase of glysphosate spraying. In the US, biotech crops, including corn, soybeans, canola and sugarbeets, are planted on millions of acres annually.
Evidence suggests that Roundup could be linked to a range of health problems and diseases, including Parkinson’s, infertility and cancers, according to a new peer-reviewed report, published recently in the scientific journal Entropy (5). The study also concluded that residues of glyphosate have been found in food.
These residues enhance the damaging effects of other food-borne chemical residues and toxins in the environment to disrupt normal body functions and induce disease, according to the report, authored by Stephanie Seneff, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Anthony Samsel, a science consultant. The study says that negative impact on the body is insidious and manifests slowly over time as inflammation damages cellular systems throughout the body.
In 2010, the provincial government of Chaco province in Argentina issued a report on health statistics from the town La Leonesa. The report showed that from 2000 to 2009, following the expansion of genetically-modified soy and rice crops in the region (and the use of glyphosate), the childhood cancer rate tripled in La Leonesa and the rate of birth defects increased nearly fourfold over the entire province (6).
Professor Huber also notes the health risks associated with the (increasing) use of glyphosate. He says a number of plant pathogens are emerging, which when consumed could impact human health. Based on research that he alludes to (he refuses to make his research public or identify his fellow researchers, who he claims could suffer substantial professional backlash from academic employers who received research funding from the biotechnology industry), Huber notes that the use of glyphosate changes the soil ecology, killing many bacteria, while giving other bacteria a competitive advantage. This makes plants highly susceptible to soil borne diseases. At the same time, glyphosate has a negative effect on a number of beneficial soil organisms (7).
Huber’s concerns about the impact of long term use of glyphosate on soil sterility are similar to concerns expressed by Elaine Ingham, a soil ecologist with the Rodale Institute, and also research carried out in by Navdanya in India (8).
As for GM crops, Huber says they have lower water use efficiency, tend to be nutrient deficient, have increased bud and fruit abortion and are predisposed to infectious diseases and insect damage. He suggests that Roundup Ready crops, treated with glyphosate, have higher levels of mycotoxins and lower nutrient levels than conventional crops.
“… you could say that what you’re doing with glyphosate is you’re giving the plant a bad case of AIDS. You’ve shut down the immune system or the defense system.” Professor Ron Huber (7)
He concludes that, when consumed, the GM crops were more likely to cause disease, infertility, birth defects, cancer and allergic reactions than conventional crops.
Huber claims that consumption of food or feed that was genetically modified could bring the altered genes in contact with the microbes in the guts of the livestock or people who eat them. He feels this increases diseases, such as celiac disease, allergies, asthma, chronic fatigue syndrome, diabetes, gluten intolerance, irritable bowel disease, miscarriage, obesity and sudden infant death syndrome.
While none of these findings conclusively prove that plant (or animal) diseases are caused by the glyphosate, Huber feels safety evaluations have been inadequate, suggesting that previous (GM sector) research was substandard and extremely misleading in its interpretation of results – or worse.
With some hugely powerful players involved here, many of whom have successfully infiltrated important government and official bodies (9), much of the science and the ensuing debate surrounding glyphosate is being manipulated and hijacked by vested interests for commercial gain.
“… publishing in this area can also be difficult. I know from the International Symposium on Glyphosate that they had to find a journal publisher outside this country (the US) to publish the research data and symposium proceedings. It’s pretty hard to get it published in the States. There are also some hazards to publishing if you’re a young researcher doing research that runs counter to the current popular concepts. A lot of research on safety of genetic engineering is done outside of this country because it’s difficult to gain access to the materials, or the statements you have to sign to have access to those materials stating that you won’t publish without permission of the supplier. I think the 26 entomologists who sent their letter to EPA in 2009 stated it aptly when they said that objective data wasn’t available to the EPA because the materials haven’t been available to them or that they’re denied the opportunity to publish their data.” Professor Ron Huber (7)