We've just put a full TRANSCRIPT on the ngin website of a PUBLIC MEETING on FARM-SCALE TRIALS of GENETICALLY MODIFIED CROPS held at BRISLEY VILLAGE HALL, NORFOLK in September at: http://members.tripod.com/~ngin/brisley.htm
It's a good read. The speakers were:
Luke Anderson, author and lecturer
Dr Jeremy Bartlett, background in plant genetics
Richard Powell, Novartis Seeds
Dr Mike May, Institute of Arable Crops Research
We previously excerpted some pointed exchanges between Drs May and Bartlett about science and spin. Below are some of Luke Anderson's very well-received contributions to the meeting.
Also to be found in the transcript is some interesting discussion of the winter use of glufosinate-ammonium (Liberty).
Many thanks to Karly Graham for the transcript.
L Anderson: I was just reflecting on that last comment - yes we do share a lot of our DNA with other plants, animals or whatever, but it’s only 2% of DNA which makes us different from a chimpanzee, so small amounts of DNA can be rather significant. I just want to put this into its perspective a bit. I was reading through the 1993 Coca Cola annual report, and I came across one paragraph and it said: "All of us in the Coca Cola family wake up each morning knowing that every single one of the world’s 5.6 billion people will get thirsty that day. If we make it impossible for these 5.6 billion people to escape Coca Cola then we assure our future success for years to come. Doing anything else is not an option". Well, it may not have escaped your attention that the biotech industry share the same philosophy. Almost overnight in 1996 when the first shipments of soy arrived from the United States, more than 60% of all our processed food contained one or more genetically engineered ingredients. It was presented to us as a fait accompli - it’s here, it’s arrived, it’s going to be here to stay and you can do nothing about it. No public consultation whatsoever. In fact, in the United States the biotechnology industry organisation said they hoped that within 5-10 years some 90-95% of all plant-derived food will be genetically engineered.
We heard in May this year that Advanta Seeds had - there’d been a contamination of their supposedly non-genetically engineered oilseed rape crop and that last year and this year it had been planted on thousands of hectares across Europe and in the United Kingdom. And not only that, but contrast to the 50 metre barrier distances which our government requires around these farmscale trials, they were actually growing this non-genetically engineered seed 4000 metres, according to their records, 4000 metres away from the nearest genetically engineered crop, and still there were quite high levels of contamination. So it just shows how readily the cross pollination, the gene transfer can occur. And these so-called mistakes have been occurring not just in Europe and in the United Kingdom but all around the world - countries such as Thailand and Australia, in Canada and the United States etc.
So here we are. We’re being told first of all - by the way, cross-pollination, it doesn’t really happen you know, the seed industry established these barrier distances, they’ve known for years and years; they’ve got it down to a T; it’s incredibly pure, there’s almost nothing can happen - and then the government’s own tests show that actually a great deal of pollination can happen at these distances. I mean, just down the road from where I live, the government had the wisdom to plant a test site of genetically engineered maize right next-door to the country’s largest organic vegetable farm, growing organic sweetcorn, and he was told that if there was any evidence of cross-pollination that he would lose his organic status.
And so we asked the Government to stop this planting from going ahead, and they consulted with the Advisory Committee on Releases into the Environment, and ACRE said that they thought that at 275 metres the likelihood of cross-pollination was probably about one in thirty thousand kernels of the organic sweetcorn might have been cross-pollinated. Well, we thought that this was an extraordinary figure for them to have come up with. In fact, according to their Minutes, many of their members thought that this estimate was too high. And so we asked Jean Emberlin from the National Pollen Research Institute at the University of Worcester to just trawl the scientific databases, you know, something that was readily accessible and that the Advisory Committee could easily have done and see what she thought the estimates would’ve been. And she said that in a moderate to high wind speed, she thought it was more in the order of one in ninety three kernels (as compared to one in thirty thousand). So little wonder that people have not a great deal of faith in the supposedly independent Advisory Committee.
We hear that genetically engineered food is exactly the same as any other. And in fact this is the basis for international risk assessment of genetically engineered food. It was announced in the United States by the then Vice President Dan Quayle as quote "regulatory relief for the industry". The US Congress was anxious that over-regulation would suffocate the young industry so they decided that unless a genetically engineered food were nutritionally different in a very major way, unless it contained genes from things like peanuts, which are already known to cause allergic reactions, there would actually be no need for safety testing. The theory was - genetically engineered food is ‘substantially equivalent’ to non-genetically engineered food - therefore it’s safe, therefore it doesn’t need to be safety tested.
Well one of the interesting things about this is that when it comes to safety testing, the biotech industry is very quick to say it’s exactly the same, it’s no different from its conventional counterpart. And yet when it comes to the field of intellectual property rights however, they say ‘Well actually it’s unique, it’s different, it’s never existed before - therefore we deserve the right to patent it as a new invention’. And so thousands of years of plant breeding by countless generations of farmers have been hijacked in a very short period of time by the biotech industry, because with these patents they can demand exclusive monopoly rights to these genetically engineered crops.
We’re not just talking about single varieties, we’re talking about whole - for example, Monsanto in fact, first of all it was a company called Agracetus has a patent on all genetically engineered cotton - the whole lot in one block - that was quite a win, and Monsanto was actually one of the companies to complain the loudest that this patent lacked obviously an inventive step and it was too broad. But in the end the solution for Monsanto was to buy Agracetus and to drop the complaint. And in fact this consolidation ? buying up seed companies, buying up biotech companies, is one of the key features of this whole debate. The five companies ? Monsanto, Novartis, AstraZeneca, Aventis and Dupont that control pretty much 100% of the trade in genetically engineered seed also control 60% of the global pesticide market. Interesting to note when we’re told that this is being done to reduce the amount of chemicals being used. These companies don’t want to see you using no chemicals - they want to see you using their chemicals.
And so Aventis, the company behind the glufosinate resistant crops have actually increased their production facilities for glufosinate ammonium, production facilities in Germany and the United States and they expect increased sales of £560m over the next 5-7 years, in conjunction with the sale of these herbicide resistant crops. So they control 60% of the global pesticide market, and they also control 23% of the commercial seed market because they’ve been buying so many seed companies recently, which I think presents another interesting discussion in the, sort of, whole realm of choice. What choice are farmers going to have if there are fewer and fewer options for them to buy seed?
And this was articulated by one person from the Philippines who are was talking to, who was saying ‘Well, you know we hear a lot about choice from you in the West, and we hear all these comments like, well surely if these farmers in the third world don’t want to plant these crops then they just won’t choose to.’ Well the fact is that in countries under International Monetary Fund economic austerity policies, what you’ve frequently got is joint public/private partnerships between governments and multi-national corporations, so that if you’re a poor farmer in the Philippines, for example, and you run out of cash, or you haven’t got enough money to buy seed or whatever it is you need, yes you might get a loan from the government but you’ll only get a loan if you buy a certain kind of seed that grows with a certain kind of fertiliser and a certain kind of pesticide. So that’s very important to note.
Speeding through, because I’ve only got a couple of minutes, you know, this Feed the World argument, which the industry churns out again and again, is clearly disingenuous. According the United Nations World Food Programme, we are already producing enough food to feed one and a half times the world’s population. Clearly if there was the political will to feed people, we already could. And Monsanto articulated the sort of the industry position in their 1998 advertising campaign when they came to the UK. You might remember it in the weekend newspapers when they said "slowing the acceptance of biotechnology is a luxury that the hungry world cannot afford". Well, it so happened that there was a meeting of the United Nations Food and Agricultural organisation as these adverts were coming out, and the delegates representing the African countries there were so outraged at the statements being made on their behalf that they decided to issue a formal statement of their own to the press, in which I think they made their position fairly clear. And this was signed by 24 delegates from 18 African countries. They said, I quote: "We strongly object to the image of the poor and hungry from our countries being used by giant multi-national corporations to push a technology that we believe is neither safe, environmentally friendly nor economically beneficial to us". And they went on to say: "We do not believe that such companies or such gene technologies will help us to provide the food needed in the 21st century. On the contrary, we believe that they will destroy the diversity, the local knowledge systems and the sustainable agricultural practices that we’ve been developing for millennia and that they will thus undermine our capacity to feed ourselves".
So coming to these farmscale trials, these are being presented to us as the be all and end all, as Jeremy already described. And they’re not so much a scientific experiment, I would suggest, as a social experiment. Can we convince a sceptical public, through conducting some rather short-term trials that are going to tell us not very much about long term incremental effects on biodiversity, that this is going to answer all their questions and all their concerns. And in fact, as soon as anyone raises an object to these trials, we are shouted down by the Government and industry as being unscientific. Well”¦ My time’s out. I would just like to pose one question because I frequently come to these meetings - these meetings, as they appear around the country, have been characterised by fierce local opposition. Would people representing the Government or Novartis seed, agree or accept some kind of provision whereby the local people could actually veto or allow the trials based on their decision, based on the information they’re able to access, and their considerations as to the economic impact on their crops or their livelihoods, be they farmers or just local concerned people? Is that something that you would welcome? [long applause]
L Anderson: Can I just clarify something that was said was that if the Government was presented with new evidence, then this would be stopped. Well actually the onus is on us to provide evidence of harm, in fact that’s the way the European regulatory system is set up. You’re only allowed to stop something going ahead if you can provide scientific evidence of harm, which is kind of counter-intuitive, given our experience over this century with DDT etc etc and that’s what I believe people are really calling for ? is rather more humility, and acceptance that we don’t know all the answers to all the questions. In fact we might not even be asking the right questions and that was, I think, highlighted by the fact that Michael Meacher and our government and other governments have accepted that the 92/20 Directive, which is the EEC directive under which thousands and thousands of releases of genetically engineering crops have taken place was actually deficient, because it wasn’t asking certain questions about secondary effects on biodiversity, which is why it’s now being revised. So what’s going to tell us that in five years time we won’t suddenly say "Whoops, we forgot to include horizontal gene transfer" or "we forgot to include this that or the other because we didn’t know which questions to ask? And sorry it’s too late because we’ve already got 100 million hectares planted around the world."
L Anderson: Now, we’re being asked to believe that everything’s fine because we haven’t seen any dead bodies yet. Well, you know, it took us 60 years to realise that DDT might have its oestrogenic activities and affect humans. The reality is that, you know, we hear this said again and again - no-one’s even caught a cough from eating a genetically engineer soy bean. Ah god, what a load of nonsense. For a start, there’s no monitoring going on, so how would we know even if anything was taking place if it’s in the majority of most people’s diet.
Secondly, in terms of the environmental effects, similarly very little, if any, actual ecological monitoring is taking place. If you look at the trials that are taking place in this country, the National Seed List trials for example, they don’t really ask ecological questions. They’re very basic questions, such as, you know, is it maintaining it’s stability etc. And even then we’re seeing that in many cases it’s not. That’s part of the problem with genetic engineering is there can be a range of unpredictable effects as Professor Richard Lewontin, who’s Professor of Genetics at Harvard University, quote: ‘We have such a miserably poor understanding of how an organism develops from it’s DNA that I would be surprised if we don’t get one rude shock after another’. While the latest edition of Nature Biotechnology explained what one of these effects of unpredictability might be. They found that when the genetically engineered oilseed rape, herbicide resistant oilseed rape which has got a promoter ? that’s a kind of a switch that helps the new gene to be switched on inside the new crop, that comes actually from the Cauliflower Mosaic virus - when that crop, the genetically engineered crop, was infected by the Cauliflower Mosaic virus, it affected the herbicide resistance gene so that it wasn’t expressed any more. And the crop was no longer resistant to herbicide. That’s one effect of something that can happen.
And similarly we’ve heard about these tens of thousands of acres of genetically engineered cotton which failed and Monsanto had to pay millions and millions of dollars in compensation payments - something which we‘re not told very often. And yet we’re also hearing that, OK so in a period of climatic stress for example when it’s hot, the genetically engineered crop might not function, you know, might be affected. And yet we’re seeing trees, which have a lifetime of about you know, say for example about a hundred years, potentially being commercialised in about two years time. So how do we know what kind of range of different temperature extremes or other kinds of stresses that tree might be subject to and therefore the way that it could express the new genetically modified, you know whatever, construct over the life-span of that tree? There’s so many questions that aren’t being asked. These insect resistant crops for example which are being planted on millions of acres ? we’re already seeing insect resistance developing in the target insect populations so, is this really a sustainable long-term solution when you’re seeing insect resistance building up after just two to three years?
L Anderson: I’d just like to make a couple of points in response to that if I may. First is that this has been done the wrong way round. You’re being told that this is taking place whether you like it or not, and then meetings are being called to let you know what’s happening. Actually, under article 7 of the 92/20 Directive it says explicitly, quote: ‘where a member state considers it appropriate, it may provide that groups or the public shall be consulted on any aspect of the proposed deliberate release’. And our government has specifically chosen not to consult the public as to whether these trials go ahead because they know that if they did, in most cases the public would say no. In fact, they’re already having difficulty finding enough farmers willing to conduct these trials. In fact they only managed to get enough trials this year for one of the crops by forcing one to take place in Wales, after the Welsh Assembly had actually voted unanimously 54-0 against the farmscale trial going ahead. So that’s one aspect. Second thing is that I think people are already volunteering to take part in the trials, and we’re seeing them being pulled up all around the country, and the third thing is that we’ve got a winter oilseed rape that’s going to be planted here, with a chemical being used, glufosinate, which hasn’t actually received approval from the Pesticides Safety Directorate to be used in this time frame. Between September and May it’s actually prohibited to use this chemical because it leaches into groundwater and because it’s toxic. And so what is the point in going ahead with taxpayers money with farmscale trials of a crop resistant to a chemical that’s not actually been allowed to be used in that time frame? [applause]
L Anderson: I’d like to make two comments: the first one about yields. We’ve heard a lot from the biotech industry about increases in yields and yet most of the studies don’t actually support these assertions. Monsanto in 1998, for example, said that their soy beans averaged - I think it was, what is it, I’ve got it written down - 43.1 bushels per hectare or per acre, which is up 4.5 bushels. And yet another study by Ed Oplinger, who’s the agronomist at the University of Wisconsin who’s been conducting performance trials on soy beans for the past 25 years, he in that year conducted trials on - in 12 of the States that grow 80% of the soy beans, and he found that on average they were 4% down in yield.
Second point is one ? you mentioned that it would be the farmers that would get it in the neck. It’s interesting that despite the biotech company and indeed the Government’s assurances that this is all absolutely safe, these assurances are not matched by a willingness to enter into any kind of liability arrangement whereby they would accept liability for any damage. In fact, there was an attempt to set a liability regime within the European parliament that was knocked down recently. And as Tewolde Egziabher said, who was leading the African group in the international negotiations called The Biosafety Protocol, which was an attempt to set an international regulatory framework governing GMOs. Basically, you have a situation there where over a 100 countries, pretty much every country in the Third World, were only opposed by six countries, led by the United States and Canada we’re told, who were saying that the Third World countries’ desire for stricter regulation and all the rest, was a barrier to free trade. And what Tewolde Egziabher said to me was, you know, why should we, the poorest countries of the world, be expected to bear the risks of the experimentation of the richest? So I’ll ask now, why, why if you’re so sure that this is safe will you not accept a liability regime? Why will none of the insurance companies insure you? [applause]
R Powell Liability is an interesting one. Personally, I can’t comment as I am but one small cog in a very large wheel. But there is a belief in the safety of our products. I come from a company based in Switzerland and where we produce baby food, primary care drugs, more than 60% of our products are primary health care and we own the likes of Gerber baby food and”¦
L Anderson: Who have gone GM free.
R Powell Yes exactly”¦
[laughter & talking]
”¦no, no question of that. Novartis, Novartis products are GM free. Ovaltine ? GM free.
L Anderson: OK, a few points. Firstly, the assumption that the companies won’t go ahead even if they do actually discover that according to their, whatever, references they’re making, it’s damaging to the environment - the Government’s actually allowed the commercial approval process to continue ahead while these farmscale trials are going ahead. So even if the Government was to say - yes, they’re really damaging to the environment, they could actually be challenged legally. And they - the companies, would probably actually win because they’ve already got approval for commercial release and there’s nothing the Government can do about it. That’s one point.
The second point is the feeding the world stuff. I mentioned earlier the United Nations World Food Programme says we’re already producing enough food to feed one and a half times the world population, yet we’ve got one in seven people in the world suffering from hunger. Now the causes of hunger are, of course, like I said before as well, political. They are fact that Third World Countries are crippled by Third World debt, for example. According to the World Bank and OECD statistics, from 1997, for every dollar that was given in aid to Third World countries, they paid back $6.32. Which works out at $836.2 million every day, just over a third of which was servicing their interest, as Louis da Silva, head of the Brazilian Workers Party said: the third world war’s already started ? it’s got as its main weapon interest, more deadly than the atom bomb, more shattering than the laser beam.
And so under the International Monetary Fund, these countries, in order to service their debt, have to gear their agricultural systems towards growing export crops so that we can have luxury vegetables all year round. So you’ve got the appalling situation where countries like Brazil by the mid 90s for example was the world’s third largest food exporter - and yet 70 million Brazilians can’t afford enough to eat. In Ethiopia during the 1984 famine, you’ll remember the images, Live Aid, all the rest of it, all the starving people, well actually some of their best agricultural land that year was being used to grow linseed, cotton seed and canola to feed livestock in Europe, as well as exporting fruit, meat and vegetables. So that’s something that needs to be tackled if we’re going to feed people. We also need to tackle landlessness. The fact that 8 out of 10 farmers in central America don’t have access to enough land on which to feed their families and yet you’ve got huge areas of land going unused either because commodity prices are too low or held for land speculation. And yet, all of these solutions to hunger are not politically very savoury in a global corporate capitalist economy because it’s all about power relationships. And, you know, it’s in our interest to maintain power relationships through economic systems which keep the Third World at their knees so that we can support our totally unsustainable lifestyles. So, yes we could feed the world if we wanted to. The argument that some kind of biotechnological panacea is the best or even a necessary way to solve this just diverts attention from the real causes of hunger. And I think that this is actually criminal.
Yes, the second thing is it’s not surprising that the industry and governments aren’t willing to accept the value of truly sustainable agriculture systems because they empower communities to feed themselves and it’s very difficult to make money out of that. And yet they’re incredibly successful. 223,000 farmers in Brazil, for example ? they’ve doubled their yields of corn and wheat with sustainable agricultural techniques. 45,000 in Guatamala and Honduras ? they’ve tripled their yields of corn. It’s encouraged re-migration back out of the cities. I could go on, example after example. And yet what we see actually being promoted by Government, for example the United States government jointly together with Delta & Pine Land, a company which already controls more that 70% of the cotton seed market in the United States, is a development of the Terminator technology which has not, contrary to public rumour, been dropped. The only thing that happened is that Monsanto couldn’t afford to buy Delta & Pine Land and then made a lot of publicity out of it. The United States Dept of Agriculture is still going ahead with this technology. It’s prime target ? it genetically disables the plant so it’s incapable of producing fertile seed ? and USDA freely admits the prime target is second and third world countries - 1.4 billion farming households depend on farm-saved seed ? and the prime purpose, to increase the competitiveness of US based seed corporations. So if we look at what’s actually going on, it’s not about feeding people, it’s about profit. [applause]
R Powell Well, there’s nothing wrong with profit. If the village shop doesn’t make a profit, it’s not there”¦
Anon I don’t think he was talking about profit, he was talking about greed.
L Anderson: So what is the purpose of these trials then? If the Government’s not actually, according to the seed companies, going to have the power to stop it from going ahead anyway? what is it? Is it just window-dressing for the slippery slope towards full scale commercialisation? Is there any real, genuine desire to see whether or not, you know, these crops are safe? What’s the truth?
R Powell There is a DETR leaflet at the back which will explain precisely what these trials are for.
L Anderson: Well the Government have yet to actually tell us what they’re going to define as unacceptable damage. I heard in Inverness last week, Geoffrey Squire saying that they have actually come up with some kind of definition but no-one’s been told. You know, what is unacceptable damage?
R Powell If these trials proved that there is a problem, three years is not a finite time. They would extend it for as long as they need to evaluate it, and the Government can do that.
L Anderson: Who would extend what?
R Powell The Government could extend the trial programme so that there is no commercialisation whilst the trials go ahead. You know full well that France has banned any commercialisation at the moment. They’ve just put a hold on everything. OK ? the French are different from us. They have a means of, they have a cunning means”¦
L Anderson: Yes, they’re willing to take direct action to make social changes.
L Anderson: But the problem is that the companies have pushed, and the US government has pushed for a 1% tolerance threshold, so what they call ‘adventitious contamination’, ie if you’re a farmer growing a conventional crop and it gets contaminated by a GM crop, as long as that’s only up to 1% - remember that’s about 3 kernels in every cob could be GM ? as long as that’s only up to 1%, well actually nothing’s really happened and it can be sold without having to be labelled. In fact, when I contacted the Government’s GM Unit, which is their sort of PR unit, to ask a question for an article I was writing for The Guardian about this, I was also asking about bee-keepers, so I said - so what about honey? If honey contains pollen from a GM oilseed rape crop, will that honey need to be labelled, because I’m being told by bee farmers that they weren’t actually going to market if their honey needs to be labelled as GM. And the GM unit’s response was, oh well, bees don’t actually go to oilseed rape. [laughter] Oilseed rape is the major crop for many of the honey bees in this country. And then they went on to say ? and in fact any pollen content in honey would be accidental because honey’s made from nectar. Well, you know, every spoonful of honey contains tens of thousands of pollen grains, so they’re just really digging their hole deeper and deeper with this. And that’s not really the point that supermarkets can test for it. The fact is that these crops could, you know for example, they could be de-tassled before pollen is being released. Male, sterile varieties could be being used. Are they taking these precautions? No they’re not. They’re using varieties which do produce pollen, which are cross-pollinating other crops. And then you’ve already let the cat out of the bag, you know, these are living organisms. What are you going to say ? whoops I’m sorry? You know, that’s what Advanta are saying ? whoops I’m sorry. Monsanto are saying with the cotton ? we are just hearing in Greece they are destroying, what 9,000 hectares or acres of cotton because that was ‘accidentally’ mixed up. And everywhere around the world it’s being ‘accidentally’mixed up. And then people are just going to be told, well I’m sorry ? it’s too late now, you’re just going to have to accept it because it’s everywhere and it’s inevitable. So what’s really going on here? The fact is that people aren’t getting any choice.
L Anderson: Well, I would still like an answer to the question from anyone on the panel as to whether they would welcome public participation in the decision making process as to whether these trials should go ahead, because we’re supposed to live in a democracy and there seems to be a huge democratic deficiency in this whole process. And as the saying goes, you don’t have a democracy , you practice it. And clearly it’s not being practiced. I would just give one example. In 1997, a variety of maize, actually genetically engineered by Novartis was approved by the European Commission, in spite of the fact that 13 out of 15 member states actually voted against it. And the European Parliament actually voted a resoundingly 407 for, and only 2 against, for a resolution condemning the European Commission for a lack of responsibility for approving this maize, despite serious doubts as to it’s safety. So right the way through, whether it’s at European level, at the government level in this country, or indeed in our local communities, it seems there is very little regard for what people actually think. And there’s a great deal of complacency in those companies that are behind the trial because they’ve already ? they’re already sitting in the positions of power. They already know that this is going ahead. GeneWatch produced a report just a couple of days ago about how Monsanto’s actually placing people, or helping to place people, on key international regulatory bodies. So they’ve got the whole thing stitched up. And the last thing they want is this minor irritation called The Public to stand in their way. Well I would encourage you to certainly stand in their way if you so choose. And just to remember as well, we hear a lot of talk about direct action and about, you know, eco-terrorists and all the rest of it. Well the biotech companies are certainly taking direct action by planting these genetically engineered crops, and releasing them into the environment. [applause]