Sunday 17 February 2008

GM contamination? It's all God's fault, apparently

(image copyright Greenpeace International)

I don't like to rant too often on my blog, but there's a new fuss kicking up this weekend about genetically modified crops in the UK, with two lots of bad news being reported in yesterday's Guardian. One, which wasn't actually news if you follow the various GM watching websites, but I'm glad the paper decided to highlight it, concerns the resumption of GM crop trials in the UK after several years of absence. The other, which IS news and pissed me off a great deal, is that the government is now thinking about keeping the locations of GM trials secret to thwart protesters. Opposition to GM in the UK is now so widespread that it's almost inevitable that crops will be trashed unless kept under 24-hour guard. It's quite clear that the public don't want them. So what's the natural response of our economy-worshipping government? Yep, let's raise two fingers to democracy and do it behind people's backs. The all-consuming satanic mills of Economy have to be kept grinding at all costs. Heaven forbid that Britain's businesses should miss out on the chance to milk the GM cash cow.

Around 1997 when genetically modified food first came knocking at Britain's door, I did a lot of reading on the science, the social and the environmental issues. And it horrified me. I became an active campaigner and harangued the supermarkets and politicians (including Michael Meacher, who was then Environment Minister and seemed to be a stubborn pig-headed supporter of GM, so it amazed me that he became a high profile anti-GM campaigner as soon as he left office). Tesco's responded to all my efforts by sending a standard letter about "cautiously welcoming" GM foods. When I wrote to them and complained that they were insulting my intelligence by repeatedly sending me their standard letter and not addressing my concerns they responded with ... you've guessed it. It seemed like nobody was listening. But then suddenly a de facto moratorium was put in place which essentially ended the threat of GM crops in the UK, at least for the foreseeable future. That was an amazing outcome. Consumer power, levered via the supermarkets, thwarted the big biotech firms and the government alike.

I remember in the 1990s how Monsanto (that's right, those nice friendly guys who gave us Agent Orange and PCBs) ran huge PR campaigns in the British press. Full-page colour adverts in magazines with pictures of green fields and luscious strawberries, explaining how they were going to save the developing world by introducing drought-resistant crops to the starving. These claims garnered a lot of sympathy, as world hunger was a high profile issue then (as it is now). But it was just propaganda. Most GM crops were (and still are) developed for herbicide-resistance, enabling farmers to blitz their fields with patented chemical poisons (purchased exclusively from the same companies, of course) and wiping out local wildlife and biodiveristy. Only a tiny proportion have been designed for use in developing countries, and as a patented technology it remains way beyond the financial reach of the people who need feeding. Starvation is largely an issue of poverty, not food shortage. Now of course they're jumping on the climate change bandwagon, trying to convince us that GM is the only way to secure our future food supply in a scary and changing world. More callous propaganda. The rush to push GM crops into developing countries has nothing to do with saving the poor, and everything to do with controlling and consolidating markets.

Then there was the rice contamination incident. Despite huge European consumer resistance to GM and the halting of field trials in the UK, an unauthorised and unapproved GM rice found its way onto the supermarket shelves and dinner plates of 15 European countries in 2006, including Britain. And whose fault was it? Well, it was a great example of how smartly the biotech firms squirm out of taking responsibility for the losses they inflict on others.

It's still unclear what happened, but somehow the American rice industry made a serious boo-boo. An experimental GM rice crop called LL601, which had been trialled for a few years but then withdrawn and never approved for use, found its way into 60% of supposedly non-GM rice grown in the US, which had already been exported all over the world before the contamination was discovered. The result was a disaster for the US rice industry. Orders were cancelled, products were rejected, imports of American rice were halted and farmers were left without income.

The company who developed the GM rice in question, Bayer CropScience, were baffled. The field trials of LL601 had ended in 2001, so how could it have caused such a colossal scale of contamination five years later? Unfortunately there was no way of tracing the original source of the problem because the records of the field trials were lost, destroyed, or inadequately kept in the first place. In a staggering act of corporate irresponsibility, Bayer simply declared the contamination an Act of God.

Nothing to do with us guv, the Lord Almighty cross-pollinated 60% of America's rice crops when we weren't looking.

So who is paying for the estimated $1.2 billion losses incurred by the incident? Why, the farmers of course! They're now pursuing class action lawsuits against Bayer CropScience, but there's no guarantee they will ever be compensated for this huge loss of income over something which was entirely not their fault.

In the UK, the official response to the incident was atrocious. Rice contaminated with LL601 was found on sale in Morrisons and elsewhere. The Food Standards Agency, which is supposed to be there to protect the public but enjoys a cosy relationship with big business, failed to issue a Food Alert, failed to identify the contaminated rice batches to the public, and initially (until threatened with legal action) told food retailers there was no need to withdraw the contaminated products from sale. They later had a thorough ticking off at an independent judicial review, but the damage was already done.

Most of my own objections to GM crops are centred on social, environmental and economic factors. I think GM is being used in the wrong way, for the wrong reasons, and will aggravate the already very serious problem of global food supplies being controlled by a small handful of increasingly powerful corporations. But I also have a lot of concerns about the technology itself. The basis for declaring GM food to be safe is the assumption that the crops are "substantially equivalent" to non-GM crops. That's one extremely dubious assumption.

Because of the emphasis on technology and innovation, it would be easy to assume that GM is done by a very precise and high-tech laboratory process. And in a sense it is, in that it's a specialised and expensive process. I'm not going to attempt a thorough explanation ... I'm a folk singer not a molecular biologist. But this is the gist of it. A sequence of genes is constructed in the laboratory, using several components: not just the gene for the desired trait, but also a "promoter" to switch on the gene, and sometimes another one to turn it off again. There will also be a marker gene, which most commonly is a gene for antibiotic resistance (the ethics of releasing antibiotic resistance genes into the environment is a whole topic in itself). This artificially assembled collection of genes, called a construct, then has to be multiplied with the help of a self-replicating bacterium, and then inserted into the host plant's genome. And this is where it gets difficult.

The way industry lobbyists talk about "snipping" a gene from one organism to another makes it sound like it's a precise science. If you had an image of a lab-technician, scalpel and petri-dish in hand, carefully taking a segment of DNA and meticulously slotting it into the host plant, well, it's nothing like that. Nature creates powerful barriers to stop foreign DNA getting in. It's done either with a "gene gun", which bombards the host's cells with charged particles carrying the artificial gene construct, in the hope that through sheer force some of it will bash its way into the cell's DNA. Or, more commonly, it's done by means of bacteria or virus which is used to infect the host plant with the construct DNA. Whichever method is used, it's totally random. There's no way of controlling what part of the host plant's genome the construct is inserted into, or which chromosome it will end up on. It could end up anywhere.

The assumption is that it doesn't really matter where the construct ends up. The technology is based on the principle that every gene is independent and just does one thing, so as long as it's in there somewhere, it will work. This idea goes back to Watson and Crick's dogma on the double helix in the 1950s. However we now know that that's an over-simplistic model. Far from being independent and single-purpose, genes often have more than one function and are often linked in complex and unpredictable ways. Inserting a gene construct randomly into the DNA of another organism can cause some genes to be deleted either side of the insertion site, and may break important linkages and inhibit the expression of other genes. The "gene gun" method often messes up parts of the host's existing DNA and inserts additional damaged fragments of transgenic DNA. GM technology takes no account of the possible effects of any of that.

Of course that doesn't mean that GM plants are inherently harmful. But it does mean they're inherently unpredictable. Random and uncontrolled genetic variability is one of the unresolved problems which GM crops are currently plagued with. For all the marketing hype about new technology and innovation, GM is essentially founded on outdated science.

How is any of this relevant to gardeners? Well, if crop trials and the eventual commercial release of GM varieties goes ahead, as seems likely, the inevitable spectre of contamination of garden vegetables has to be considered. And the government frankly doesn't give a toss. Under proposals drawn up by Defra, all land-owners within a certain distance must be informed when a GM crop is being grown. But that doesn't include domestic crops. Only commercial growers will be forewarned, leaving gardeners and allotment holders at risk of having their sweetcorn and other crops contaminated without their knowledge, and without any means of testing it. That's disgracefully unfair, given that many people choose to grow their own vegetables because they want to take control of what they eat and avoid the contamination associated with industrial food production. There will also be no warning to beekeepers or commercial honey-producers.

It's not too late. Consumer pressure worked a miracle in the late 90s. It can again if enough people believe in it.

There's lots of information about genetic engineering and its many issues on the Greenpeace International website, including some very detailed scientific briefings. UK-specific information can be found at GM Freeze. For a detailed explanation of the science involved in GM, try the Institute of Science in Society, a non-profit organisation which aims to make scientific information freely accessible to the public.

I'll say something for the Grauniad, they do make an effort to highlight and publicise these important issues, and I commend them for that. They have a whole bunch of GM articles and stuff on other related issues, like this FANTASTIC piece by Sue Branford from last week, Homogeneous Horror: A handful of companies now dominate world farming, with profound implications for genetic diversity.


Anonymous said...

When it comes to the farmers suing Bayer for contaminating their rice crops with genes from an unapproved variety, don't forget what the FDA did in response.

After the contamination, after the European recall and after the legal action was brought against Bayer, the FDA retroactively approved the variety for sale. There were no safety or other studies and no public hearings. The FDA said simply this variety was similar enough to other approved varieties that it must be safe. That will make it almost impossible for the farmers to get any compensation.

By the way, nice post!

Anonymous said...


Your point on compensation is simply not true. Among other things, the U.S. farmers suffered substantial market losses as a result of the contamination of the rice supply with Bayer's LLRICE 601 and LLRICE 604.

Joanna said...

The US is the worst-affected by sudden bee colony collapse disorder. Makes you wonder if there's a connection. I'm going to a lecture on Wednesday at my local beekeeping association ... maybe there'll be an answer.

Great post, Rebsie - the occasional rant is a good thing, especially when it's so informative!


Paul and Melanie said...

Fantastic post! I have to admit a certain level of ignorance on the subject, I knew I didn't like the idea of GM crops I just hadn't really learnt why it was a good idea to feel that way, so there was a lot of interesting info in there.. Well done. :)

Also, hello! Just found your blog and it's lovely to find someone else blogging about veg growing from sunny Gloucestershire.

fiona said...

Sometimes a rant is definitely called for, especially when it is as articulate and informative as this one.

Thanks for the links, this is definitely something to take action over :-)

Scyrene said...

It's an old post, but I've been reading your blog chronologically. I love it, and I don't want to seem like I'm spoiling for a fight by posting a disagreement as my first comment - but I just wanted to say one thing. You say "it's quite clear the public don't want [GM crops]". I'd say it's a little more complicated than that. There are minorities who know about the science, some of whom think it's good, and some who think it's bad. The vast majority (like me) have little understanding, and get their values from commentators in the media. Overall, opponents have been most vocal, and those who talk positively tend to be distrusted because they are big business/government, and there's a natural cynicism of what they say, and as you allude to, some of the companies involved have done some terrible stuff in the past. However, I would say the reason crop trials are at risk is that there is a fringe of opponents to GM who will destroy it whenever it is found here - rather like anti-animal testing groups. I'm not sure these are the people who should be setting the agenda. The argument needs to be won by reasoned debate, not by vandalism. Keeping trial locations secret may therefore be the right way to go - although I suppose there's a problem with information leaking out, as I also think local farmers and gardeners should know about it too (I suppose ideally, the trials should be kept totally separate, in glasshouses for example).

Furthermore, no scientific development's consequences can be fully, or even adequately, predicted from the outset. That's life. And therefore, I'd say it's an invalid complaint about this issue in particular.

Anyway, I think a lot of your points are fair, and I love your blog. Sorry to sound a note of dissent!