Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
Britain’s field trials of the environmental impact of GM crops – dubbed unsexily by Whitehall Farm-Scale Evaluations (FSEs) – have proved a watershed. Back in 1999, when the trials were first mooted, the plant breeders and biotech industry (represented by Scimac – the Supply Chain Initiative on Modified Agricultural Crops) thought the trials would be a useful means of buying time until popular feeling against GM technology died down a bit. If the trials were designed within sufficiently narrow parameters, their “success” could be virtually guaranteed. It has not turned out like that.
Throughout the four-year trials the government repeatedly asserted that if GM crops were found to cause harm to the environment, it would not license those crops. With oilseed rape and beet it has been convincingly demonstrated that GM varieties cause significantly greater harm to the environment than conventionally farmed crops. That settles the matter. No GM oilseed rape or beet in Britain.
With maize the opposite appeared to be the case. But this was due to three factors that make such a conclusion mischievous and misleading. First, the chemical herbicide used in the trials for non-GM maize was atrazine, an extremely toxic chemical already banned in the Netherlands and Germany and now being banned throughout the rest of the EU. So the claim that GM maize is better for the environment than the conventional alternative is invalid, because it is based on a comparison involving a chemical no longer in use.
Second, Bayer Crop Science, the biotech company that oversaw the trials, advised the farmers to carry out only one spraying of the GM crops with their herbicide (glufosinate ammonium). Subsequently, weeds were able to grow again and there was more food for the invertebrates and other wildlife in the GM-trial fields. But farmers in real life would almost certainly spray their fields two or even three times, because that would increase yields. The environmental impacts would very likely be that much worse.
And third, glufosinate ammonium (brand name Liberty) was used on its own for the GM trials – even though Scimac knew that it has been found to be an ineffective weedkiller when it is applied in isolation. This again distorted the environmental impact of the GM maize trials.
For both GM and non-GM maize, therefore, the trials were artificial and manipulated to bring about the desired outcome. If the maize trials had reflected genuine market conditions, they would almost certainly have produced the opposite results.
So, the GM field trials were performed in accordance with the biotech industry’s own very narrow parameters and still science gives GM a decisive thumbs-down. But even were that not so, it would be quite wrong to assume that the FSEs constitute an adequate test of the impact of GM crops on the environment. They are, in fact, simply a test of herbicide management; that is, of the differential impact on wildlife in the fields (beetles, butterflies, worms, bees, etc) of using one herbicide for GM plants and another for non-GM plants. They do not test safety or risks to human health. They do not test the effects of GM on soil residues and bacteria, transgene flows or bird populations. Most crucially of all, they do not measure what would happen to the environment if farmers tried to maximise their yields (which is undoubtedly what they would do in real life), rather than trying to minimise environmental impacts for the sake of a trial. Nor do they bring organic crops into the equation; a comparison was made only with conventionally grown crops. Organically farmed crops would have shown much more favourable environmental results.
So a lot more work is needed before anyone can claim to know the full effects of GM even on the environment alone. That still leaves other crucial areas still uninvestigated. The most important is undoubtedly the effects of GM on human health.
It is scandalous that no systematic testing of the impact on human health of eating GM foods has ever been carried out. There are several reasons why this is now urgently needed.
First, GM genes are inserted randomly, out of the sequence that nature has evolved over hundreds of millions of years, and without knowing how the network of genes into which they are injected functions. Unpredicted and undesired effects are likely to be triggered as a result. Second, the vectors used to insert the GM material are viruses or bacteria, which often move (this is called horizontal gene transfer) into other organisms such as gut bacteria. This could compromise antibiotic resistance. Third, because GM organisms are novel products allergic reactions to them are common. Fourth, the herbicides used on GM are potentially hazardous; glufosinate ammonium, for example, is a neurotoxin and a teratogen (ie, it harms embryos). And fifth, the government-funded Medical Research Council and other medical institutions have acknowledged that we need to know more about the effects of GM on metabolism, organ development, immune and endocrine systems and gut flora.
In the face of all this risk and uncertainty, it is a scandal that the regulatory authorities, first in the US since 1992 and subsequently elsewhere (including the UK), have allowed the biotech companies to get away with the pseudo-concept of “substantial equivalence” as a way of avoiding proper testing. When the companies produce a new GM product, they examine whether it is broadly similar to its non-GM counterpart in terms of toxins, allergens (the substances that produce allergies), and nutrients. If there is “substantial equivalence”, the new GM product is deemed to be safe.
This is unacceptable on two grounds. One is that some independent testing has found that GM products are not broadly similar in these respects. And much more importantly, food safety cannot be determined merely from an analogue; it requires independent and systematic testing of the GM product itself.
But, say the biotech apologists, GM food has been eaten in the US for seven years now with no ill effects. So what is the problem? The problem is that no epidemiological studies have been undertaken in the US to support this claim, and since damage to organ systems is not readily detectable and may be cumulative over time, the apparent absence of evidence is not evidence of the absence of harm. More worrying, though, is that the official US Centres for Disease Control believe food-derived illnesses to have doubled in the last seven years.
At least two further issues would need to be settled before there could be any question of introducing GM into the UK. One is co-existence: how can organic and conventional crops be protected from cross-contamination by GM? This may be an impossible problem to solve, because while the vast majority of GM pollen falls within the standard separation distances of 100 to 200 metres, some 1 per cent to 2 per cent appears to travel further, particularly on a windy day. Even that small proportion involves millions of GM pollen grains. And if cross-contamination does occur, as it inevitably would, how would an organic farmer be compensated for partial or total loss of business following loss of organic accreditation? It would require a statutory liability provision, but none is on the statute book and none is planned.
The second issue is labelling. Most people want to continue eating GM-free food, but the EU labelling laws soon to be put in place are based on a 0.9 per cent threshold. Food labelling will not have to indicate any GM content below this level. You wouldn”t know whether food was GM-free or if it had a GM content of almost 1 per cent.
But, incontestable though they are, all these further objections to GM are in one sense academic. The government itself set a criterion for rejecting GM crops; namely, whether they damage the environment. It has now been demonstrated by the government’s own tests that they do. We must press the government to carry through what it unequivocally promised. As someone once said, there is no alternative.
The police spend little of their time making arrests, and most crimes are not solved, writes Alex Vitale – their real purpose is social control
Many important things happened on conference floor, reports Alex Nunns – but you wouldn’t know it from reading the newspapers
Radhika Desai says Capital by Karl Marx is still an essential read on the 150th anniversary of its publication
The Spanish state is seizing ballot papers and raiding meetings, write Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte – but it is being met with united resistance
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain.’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition.
#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny
Universal credit isn’t about saving money – it’s about disciplining unemployed people
The scheme has cost a fortune and done nothing but cause suffering. So why does it exist at all? Tom Walker digs into universal credit’s origins in Tory ideology
Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke
The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana
Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth
Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company
You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild
Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University
This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback
Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein
Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up
Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement
‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic
Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden
There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright
Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones
‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression
Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death
‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum
The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes
Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference
Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki
Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers
Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project
Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power
What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains
The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it