Last updated: May 2013
Genetically Modified Food: Picking a future
Leonie Nimmo examines hunger, corporate influence at the heart of Europe and the hidden genetically-modified food on your plate.
The arguments around genetically modified crops are increasingly portrayed as being about ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ science, with those that oppose GM criticised for standing in the way of progress deemed necessary to ensure that the world’s increasing population has enough food in the future.
Whilst this polarisation is useful for supporters of GM technology, it relies heavily on the portrayal of a scientific approach as being about test tubes and laboratories, rather than one based on the analysis of empirical evidence. The facts on the ground portray a starkly different picture to GM as a benign technology.
There are many instances of small-holder producers switching to GM seeds because of incentives offered by corporations or ‘aid’ organisations, the technology failing, and the farmers losing everything. The horrific human impact that this can have has been particularly felt in India, where the introduction of cash crops and GM cotton led to the suicides of over 150,000 farmers.(1)
Even where the introduction of GM has resulted in short-term increases in yields, over time this has been found to reverse, as weeds and bugs develop resistance and become super-weeds and super-bugs. This is in line with the theory of natural selection. Recognising that it will always be a problem in monocultural crop production is not ‘anti-science’.
Furthermore, the theory that hunger and starvation are a consequence of there not being enough food available was discredited decades ago. The Irish potato famine is an often-cited example of food being exported from a region as people starved. From Ethiopia to Bangladesh, the study of famine and food security has demonstrated that access to food is, in reality, about access to the means of acquiring food – whether that is by trade, production or exchange.
The real problems for most people in the world that are hungry are lack of access to money, land, water, adequate support and beneficial markets. As argued comprehensively by the Food Sovereignty movement, which rejects genetic modification in all forms, food security is a political issue. Technology won’t fix the problems, and GM in particular could make them infinitely worse.
Take the Flour Back
In 2012 an open-air trial of genetically modified wheat began at Rothamsted Research Institute, Hertfordshire. Under the banner ‘Take the Flour Back’, over 400 growers, bakers and families protested against the trial. Gathuru Mburu, co-ordinator of the African Biodiversity Network, spoke of the dangers of GM:
“Experimenting with staple crops is a serious threat to food security. Our resilience comes from diversity, not the monocultures of GM. Beneath the rhetoric that GM is the key to feeding a hungry world, there is a very different story – a story of control and profit. The fact is that we need a diversity of genetic traits in food crops in order to survive worsening climates. Above all, people need to have control over their seeds”.(2)
Britain, ‘aid’ and Africa
In Britain in 2013, the coalition government appointed an ex-biotech lobbyist, Caroline Spelman, as its first head of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Spelman promised that the government would be the most pro-biotech yet, a spirit embraced by the current DEFRA Cabinet Minister, Owen Paterson.
This policy agenda stretches far beyond our borders. The British government has proven keen to fast-track genetic modification in Africa, oiling the wheels with access to research institutions. The Department for International Development (DfID) has joined forces with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other supposed philanthropists to push the GM agenda, steadfastly intent on increasing the integration of the peasantry into the global capitalist system. As DfID twists ‘aid’ into ‘investment’, so our government pushes GM crops on the poor.
A proven alternative is agroecology, but this receives very little funding or investment, either in the UK or abroad.
A broken system
For the last two decades, Britain has been largely shielded from the march of US seed and agrochemical companies. But there are serious problems with the European regulatory system, which is looking increasingly broken by the pressure of corporate power, the dictates of the “free market” and corruption.
The European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) is the body which is the gateway for GM crops into Europe. It has been dogged by conflicts of interest with industry: the sign-off of its 2010 budget was delayed by the European Parliament for 6 months as a result.
In May 2012 its Chair, Diana Banati, was told to resign(3) after she announced she was to rejoin the International Life Sciences Institute, a lobbying organisation which represents the interests of some of the most powerful food, chemical and pharmaceutical corporations on the planet, including Monsanto, Nestlé, Pfizer, Cargill and L’Oréal. This was the most blatant and embarrassing case of revolving doors with industry that the organisation has suffered in its long history of such cases.
In December 2012 EFSA rejected a study into the health impacts of genetically modified maize, conducted by Prof Gilles-Eric Séralini et al at the University of Caen, France. This was a wholly inadequate response given the potential implications of the study, which indicated that rats fed Monsanto’s NK603 genetically modified maize and exposed to the herbicide glyphosate (Roundup) were more likely to develop a range of health defects than a control group. Although conducted on rats, Séralini’s study indicates there may be cause for concern for humans also. EFSA refused to disclose the conflicts of interests of the relevant staff members which were involved in its decision.(4)
Séralini said that he would only release his data if EFSA released the data they had earlier used to assess the safety of the maize and herbicide in question, which it had approved in 2009. In January 2013 EFSA released its data on the maize (provided to them by Monsanto) but, at the time of writing, had not released data on glysophate. The stand-off continues. Many organisations have raised concerns about glysophate.(5)
In November 2012 a protest was held at the EFSA headquarters in Italy. Spanish farmer José Manuel Benitez claimed “EFSA is not fulfilling its mandate to ensure European citizens safe food and safe farming environments. European farmers and peasants demand a radical shift in EFSA’s modus operandi.”
Protesters called for EFSA to be fundamentally reformed to prevent conflicts of interest, and for EU laws to be changed so that independent bodies test substances, not industry itself.
The GM on your plate
There are two ways in which genetically modified foods are likely to be entering your diet without you being informed - meat & dairy and cooking oil. In all other cases, the packaging should tell you if the GM content is above 0.9%.
Meat and dairy
Meat and dairy from animals fed GM feed does not need to be labelled as such. A study published by the Food Standards Agency in January 2013 found that the majority of participants “were generally unaware of the use of GM animal feed by farmers”– unsurprising given that labels don’t indicate it. It also found that most people thought labels should state where GM animal feed has been used.
See the Supermarkets product guide to find out the position of your preferred supermarket. More information is available from GM Freeze, which is campaigning to have supermarkets label meat and dairy from animals fed GM food.
Genetically modified cooking oil from soya is widely available in local mini-markets and some supermarkets, such as Asda. This will be labelled on the bottle. When restaurants and takeaways use such oil it is a legal requirement for them to indicate that they do so on menus printed or displayed on walls. If they don’t they could face a fine of up to £20,000 and a criminal record. But surveys have indicated that many eating establishments do not abide by the legislation and that many are ignorant of it.
Grassroots campaigns are springing up across the country, with people engaging with their local restaurants to ensure that the legislation is followed. Louise Croft from GM Free Greater Manchester told Ethical Consumer that of the fourteen places they have so far surveyed, half provided information about the oil they used and all were using GM oil without informing customers. “The first stage is information dissemination”, said Louise. “Places just aren’t aware of the legislation and some people we spoke to did not know what GM is”.
Further down the line the group intends to work with the Trading Standards Agency, which has taken action in other parts of the country when encouraged to do so by consumers.