SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 83 - May 2004

Behind Blair’s GM drive

THIS MARCH environment minister, Margaret Beckett, announced the go ahead for the first commercial growing of genetically modified (GM) crops in Britain. This followed the findings of a four-year crop trial of GM maize, oilseed rape and sugar beet, which had been genetically modified to tolerate the use of extra-powerful weedkillers.

Incredibly, this trial of only three GM crops is the world’s largest so far. It showed that the use of herbicides designed on GM oilseed rape and sugar beet had a worse impact on farmland wildlife than those used on conventional crops. For maize, however, the opposite appeared to be true. But the herbicide used on the conventional maize crop is about to be banned by the European Union (EU). If another herbicide had been used, the results may have been different. The government ignored this and announced that GM maize was now cleared to be grown commercially.

The British government was all set to start commercial growing in 1998, but a public outcry and pressure from environmental groups forced it to stall. In 1999, the Local Government Association (LGA) banned the use of GM food for four years in local authority schools and elderly people’s homes after a report showed that scientists were unsure of its long-term effects on human health. Not surprisingly, parents and carers lobbied the LGA for a ban. As a result of all this, New Labour has been forced to wait before authorising wider use of GM crops.

For the profit-hungry biotech industry not enough had been done. In April, German-based Bayer CropScience, the only company eligible to grow GM maize in the UK, pulled out. It blamed EU regulations that would delay the start of commercial growing, making it uneconomic. Due to public fears over health risks, the EU was pressurised into imposing a five-year ban on the importation of GM foodstuffs. This did not prevent the EU giving Bayer permission to cultivate GM crops in 1999. Both the UK and EU want to encourage the biotech industries but are being forced to go at a slower pace because of public concerns. US agribusiness is desperate to break the ban, as almost the entire $300 million annual US maize exports to the EU have been lost.

Beckett announced ‘a genuinely open and balanced discussion on GM’ in June 2003. However, the debate lasted only six weeks, took place in only six regions, and was held before the results of the crop trials were known. Even this limited debate produced 90% public opposition to GM food. The Food Standards Agency (FSA), a food safety watchdog set up by the government in 2001, also set up a public consultation. Critics, including the Women’s Institute and the UNISON trade union, have called it a pro-GM exercise, with Sir John Krebs (FSA chair) known as ‘GM Joe’.

Michael Meacher was environment minister for six years until losing his job last June. Since then he has voiced doubts about the impartiality of the government towards the biotech industry. It’s a pity he didn’t do this when he was in office. He claims the government ignored evidence that GM crops could be hazardous to human health. The only government-backed panel to look at human health risks, the Science Review Panel, was stacked in favour of the biotech industry; only three of its 25 members could be said to be sceptical towards GM food.

There is enormous international pressure to allow GM crops and seeds in Britain. In New Labour’s first two years in office, GM firms met government officials 81 times. The reason is clear. In a speech to the Royal Society in 2002, Blair praised the biotech industry, and noted that the "market in Europe alone is expected to be worth $100 billion by 2005". Monsanto, one of the four major biotech companies (with sales of $5.2bn in 2003), has a PR company, ‘Good Relations’, in Britain. Its director, David Hill, was chief media spokesperson for New Labour from 1993-98 and ran the media operations for the 1997 and 2001 general elections. Hill’s successor has links to Syngenta, another of the biotech big four. GM advocates within the government include Lord Sainsbury, the supermarket baron. He is New Labour’s science minister and the party’s biggest donor, giving £8 million between 1997-2003. He owned shares in biotech companies Diatech and Innotech. Not surprisingly, government reassurances over GM food safety are treated by many with scepticism.

In the US there has not been the same public outcry over GM safety. Monsanto director Phil Angell put it bluntly: ‘Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the FDA’s [Food and Drug Administration] job’. The FDA is responsible for assessing food safety in the US but is far from impartial. For instance, a report on the safety of growth hormones produced by Monsanto was compiled by Monsanto employee Margaret Miller. Soon after, she was hired by the FDA. One of her first jobs was approving her own report! There are a thousand ties between the US government and the biotech industry. Anne Veneman, US agriculture secretary, and Donald Rumsfeld, defence secretary, were both Monsanto directors. Health secretary, Tommy Thompson, received $50,000 for his election campaign. The list goes on.

Ninety percent of commercially-grown GM crops have been modified to allow them to tolerate more powerful herbicides and insecticides. The main biotech companies link their seeds to their own agrochemicals. In 2001, the top four companies had a combined turnover from seeds and agrochemicals of $21.6 billion. During the 1990s these firms consolidated their chemical, seed and technology empires and are desperate to protect their markets.

These companies claim GM crops can help alleviate malnutrition in the neo-colonial world, through higher yields, resistance to disease, and genetically added vitamins. The ‘protato’ has one third more protein than a conventional potato. The Indian government has suggested using it in free school meals. But lentils, beans and peas have ten times the protein of the ‘protato’.

If GM food is being developed to tackle world hunger, why is less than 1% of all GM research and development directed towards poor farmers? GM crops are almost exclusively developed for the processed food, textile and animal feed industries. Farmers are forced to sign contracts making them legally bound to buy expensive new seeds annually from the biotech companies, increasing seed costs by 40%. Also there is the cost of expensive herbicides. Sterile ‘terminator’ genes are engineered into many GM seeds. So up to two billion small-scale farmers in the neo-colonial world who traditionally reuse seeds are being ruined.

Increased yields are far from certain. The University of Nebraska found Monsanto’s Round Up Ready GM maize 6-11% less productive than non-GM varieties. Indian farmers found that GM cotton seeds produced yields five times lower than from conventional seeds.

Hunger in the neo-colonial world is not due to food shortages. In 1994, food production could have supplied 6.4 billion people (more than the world population) with adequate calories. Yet more than one billion people do not get enough to eat. It is the capitalist system, where profits come first, that produces malnutrition.

Scientists are not sure of the long-term effects on humans and the environment. GM technology is not a precise science: it involves bombarding plants with new DNA and seeing if any has been accepted. Once released into the environment its results can be unpredictable. Cows fed GM soya produced unexpected increases in milk yields. Never examined further, the soya was passed fit to use.

Genetic modification is suspected of causing an increase in allergic reactions. Genes are often inserted that have never before been in the human food chain, or unexpected DNA can appear in food. Some soya has a brazil nut gene inserted. In 2000, GM Starlink maize, approved only for animal feed, was found in taco shells. GM Starlink contains toxins which could create allergies in humans.

Antibiotic-resistant genes are used in the GM process. An FSA study found these genes could get into the human gut after one meal. There is an increased risk that bacteria may become more resistant to antibiotics so creating uncontrollable epidemics.

GM crops are likely to lead to the increased use of ever more powerful herbicides and insecticides. Crops modified to produce the insecticide, Bacillus thuringiensis, created insects that were immune to it. Pollen can travel three to four kilometres. So when GM crops modified to resist powerful weedkillers mix with the environment, ‘super-weeds’ with similar resistance can result. This is already a major problem in Argentina.

Because of the vast profits to be made, and the links between government and the biotech industry, many of these risks are not being thoroughly investigated. To be able to come to a balanced judgement on the benefits and risks of GM food, agribusiness, the chemical industry, research establishments and land need to be owned and run democratically by workers, consumers, small farmers, scientists and health workers. Only this could ensure that instead of commercial interests dominating research, health and the environment were the main priorities.

Chris Moore


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