Sunday

20th Jan 2019

Opinion

GMO industry is playing Russian roulette with our food

  • 'There is no scientific consensus to support the assertion that GMOs are safe' (Photo: swerz)

Multinational biotech companies and several scientists are playing Russian roulette with our food and farming systems. They claim that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are a safe bet, just because the bullet is still in the chamber.

Some commentators – including in this publication – have fallen for the myth of a scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs. They accuse anti-GMO campaigners of sowing doubt. This accusation is a gross misrepresentation of the scientific debate in Europe and elsewhere.

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Regulators are sometimes also taken in. The European Commission maintains that there is no evidence of harm and that any disagreement with EU countries is not about the science. In reality, over a period of 15 years, many countries have expressed scientific concerns about the safety of GMOs and EU risk assessment procedures.

The myth of consensus

Already in 2008, EU countries unanimously raised concerns about the EU risk assessment process. In 2009, EU countries formally confronted the Commission with unresolved scientific questions about GM crops. Several governments also raised scientific concerns to justify bans on the cultivation of GM crops on their territories.

There is no scientific consensus to support the assertion that GMOs are safe.

Genetic engineering radically alters the characteristics of organisms in ways that do not occur in nature. This is why the UN established a convention on biosafety, the Cartagena Protocol, to protect biological diversity from the effects of GMOs.

Studies purporting the safety of GM crops often omit critical scientific concerns. One such review did not detect significant hazards, but omitted the potential impact of insect resistant crops on non-target butterfly species. Furthermore, nearly 400 incidents of GM contamination have been reported to date. These include experimental GM crops which have entered the food chain even though no food safety assessment has been performed.

The regulatory approach lacks rigour. Studies have identified chemical and biological differences between GMOs and conventional crops, but these have not been investigated further. Of most concern, long-term health studies of GM crops are simply not carried out.

In the EU, conclusions on long-term risks to health are based on short 90-day feeding trials.

To date, the vast majority of commercial GM crops display only two traits: herbicide-tolerance and insecticide production. There is much hype surrounding new GM traits, such as altered nutrient composition. These GM traits have not yet materialised into applications for commercialisation, but if they did they would require closer scrutiny and greater rigour by regulators.

This is because, unlike current GM crops, the chemical profile in these GM plants would be deliberately altered. Plant chemistry is complex, and the alteration of one chemical aspect, can lead to other unintended chemical changes.

Copyright on science

One of the main problems with claims about the health and environmental safety of GM crops is that independent scientists are often denied access to research material and the freedom to assess it. Even more worryingly, independent scientists have expressed fears about persecution by pro-GMO industry groups when they publish findings that show negative environmental impacts.

In a recent report, Late lessons from early warnings, the European Environment Agency (EEA) addresses some of the obstacles to independent evaluation of GMOs. It said: “Researchers who have published scientific evidence unfavourable to the interests of GM crop developers have experienced personal and professional attacks on their work, and in some cases leading to threats or loss of research funding and dismissal.”

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence of harm

GMO supporters often conflate “lack of evidence of harm” with “evidence of no harm”. The evidence we do have is sufficient to warrant concern. Independent studies show adverse effects on living organisms, including toxicity to pollinating insects, contribution to the development of super-weeds, and contamination of other plant species.

A global report on agriculture, conducted by over 400 scientists under the auspices of the FAO, UNDP, UNEP, UNESCO, WHO and the World Bank, supported by 58 governments, concludes that: “Assessment of modern biotechnology is lagging behind development; information can be anecdotal and contradictory, and uncertainty on benefits and harms is unavoidable. There is a wide range of perspectives on the environmental, human health and economic risks and benefits of modern biotechnology; many of these risks are as yet unknown.”

It also stresses that: “There are a limited number of properly designed and independently peer-reviewed studies on human health. […] Among the studies that have been published, some have provided evidence for potential undesirable effects.”

The argument is only strengthened by the fact that GMOs are not necessary in the first place. Other plant breeding technologies, such as marker-assisted selection, are already delivering non-GM crops with traits that farmers desire. Combined with ecological farming, these new techniques can transform the way we produce our food and banish risks associated with GMOs and industrial farming.

As long as scientific evidence is not conclusive and there are reasons to fear negative and irreversible effects from the use of GMOs, the EU must apply the precautionary principle enshrined in law. It is time to quit this game of Russian roulette before it is too late.

Marco Contiero Greenpeace EU agriculture policy director

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