Photo of genetically modified corn
Pharmaceuticals, as well as biofuels and junk food additives are the big new markets for GM crops

Genetically modified foods – don’t believe the hype

14 February, 2012

Once we open the door to genetically modified crops it can never be shut again.

GM traits are spread from plant to plant by cross-pollination and once this process begins it can never be stopped; and from that moment on, no plant can ever be guaranteed to be free from GM pollution.

Not surprisingly then, the recent news that the giant chemical company BASF is to close its European operations and transfer them to the US has been loudly applauded by anti-GM campaigners.

But it could be that the mood of mild triumph is misplaced? On closer examination this move by the German company looks more like a tactical step back rather than capitulation.

Exploiting new markets

Certainly they have no hesitation in continuing to develop GM products and – with development costs of more than £50 million per product – they are showing a lot of confidence in the technology.

Moving from Europe is no real hardship for a company which sees the massive American and Asian markets as ideal for its new generation of health focused GM products. Europe, they believe, will eventually fall into line.

If you think that the notion of GM and health is a contradiction, you are right. But in the sometimes bizarre world of health claims and the delusional fantasy of GM the two fit together with the logic of a bad dream.

‘Healthy’ GM oils?

Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids (PUFAs) are the magic words in today’s health market. “Abracadabra” is the fact products containing PUFAs – and particularly Omega-3 fatty acids – can be sold in the US with ‘heart healthy’ claims on the labels irrespective of the intrinsic merits of the product.

The food industry has become health conscious; or more accurately conscious that the word health rings positive bells with consumers – especially if no-one has to make real changes in diet and food choices but can carry on eating and drinking stuff that looks, smells and tastes like what they’ve always eaten.

What rings positively for BASF and other biotech companies is the sound of the cash they can generate by a genetically engineered Omega-3 enhanced vegetable oil which in the US they won’t have to label as GM but can label as healthy.

Who says chips and processed foods can’t be a route to good health?

A wave of ill health

What transforms the prospect of GM health claims from the merely bizarre to the obscene is the emergence of evidence of health risks from GM crops and food. The pro-GM lobby delight in saying that American’s have been eating GM foods for years and there is no evidence of adverse health effects.

Amazingly, many scientists have also repeated this most unscientific of statements. As GM is unlabelled in the US how can anyone know? (see the video for the Just Label It campaign on this site)

In fact there has been a significant upswing in allergies and nutritionally related diseases in the US in the decades that GM has been in the diet so it is simply not credible to give GM a clean bill of health.

Coming to a fetus near you

And now in Canada research, published last year in the peer reviewed journal Reproductive Toxicology has found a toxin produced by GM insect resistant crops in the blood of women and clear evidence that it was passed to fetuses. Pesticides used on GM herbicide tolerant crops were also detected (none of the women studied worked with pesticides or lived with anyone who did).

The results show that the toxin was present in blood serum from all sample groups (93% of pregnant women, 80% in umbilical blood and 67% of non-pregnant women). The researchers suggest that the most probable source of the toxin is GM food.

This is significant because GM scientists have always maintained that this kind of transfer of GM DNA could not happen. Other health risks are also emerging.

Another peer reviewed paper, also published in 2011, examined 19 mammalian feeding trails showing significant liver and kidney damage “as an end point of GM diets”.

Other reported feeding trials have found indications of inflammation, allergy, tissue damage, reproductive toxicity, chronic infections and blood cancer.

More GM additives in the pipeline

Nonetheless, the supporters of GM maintain that everything in life is a risk and the risks posed by GM to health and the environment are relatively small compared to the need to feed the world’s burgeoning population which, of course, can only be done by GM.

In fact only four crops make up virtually all of world’s GM production.  These are soya (50%), maize (31%), cotton (14%) and canola (5%).   The three “food” crops are not primarily for human consumption but are used to produce animal feed.

Animals are eventually eaten by humans but it is hard to see how filling western plates is a way to feed sub-Saharan Africa.

An inventory of research projects in the pipeline shows that the vast bulk of “new generation” GM is focused on biofuels, pharmaceuticals and adding polyunsaturated fats to processed products for the developed world market and the animal feed market.

Most of the work on fruit and vegetables is aimed at the developed world’s supply chain for the food processing industry and supermarkets. This is all about preserving affluent western lifestyles. It is hard to see much in the GM repertoire relating to fruit and vegetables for consumption in the developing world.

GM won’t feed the world

The definitive authority on “feeding the world” is The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development or IAASTD which was established by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization  (FAO), the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural organization (UNESCO).

This assessment was undertaken by over 400 scientists from a wide range of disciplines and reported in 2008 after 6 years work. It concluded that GM, as it is being developed and implemented, cannot feed the world.

IAASTD identified that defeating hunger is not about any one technology as issues of access to land, water, power, gender and distribution are also crucial.

However, in technology terms the best way forward, they argued, is what is being broadly called “agro-ecology” – which includes organic farming – implemented by small scale farmers and focused on production for local consumption.

In the last couple of years the GM lobby has had remarkable success in winning over the media and all the major political parties. It seems not to matter to the so-called political elite that GM is a dysfunctional, generally unwanted technology and is damaging to the environment and health.

There is a significant democratic deficit here that can only be corrected by pressure from concerned citizens.


Lawrence Woodward, OBE, is a former Director of the Organic Research Centre – Elm Farm. He advises and speaks about the principles and methods of organic agriculture and the risks of GM to a wide range of organisations. You can view his blog at Whole Organic Plus.