by Michael Antoniou, Claire Robinson and John Fagan
The National Farmer Union represents independent food producers who do not want multi-national chemical agribusinesses bullying them into buying genetically patented seeds, pesticides and herbicide. NFU’s recent Ottawa conference focused on “Growing the Resistance” to the corporate takeover of Canada’s small and medium size family-run farms by the soulless corporations that only care about making money and gaining power. Their corporate marketing disguises their agenda with claims of saving the starving children of the world. The NFU works for development of economic and social policies that will maintain the family farm as the primary food-producing unit in Canada. NFU protects farmers like Percy Schmeiser of Bruno, Saskatchewan who got sued by Monsanto in 2000.
Two top ex-government scientists began a truth telling GMO tour speaking to packed houses. The second leg of their tour is eastern BC and Alberta this December (see map below; let family and friends know to attend). Common Ground broke the silence on GMO in 2000 by hosting NFB’s film The Genetic Takeover followed by a lively debate. We need to push back against this genetic takeover. The time to act is now: grow the awareness, grow the message, and grow the movement to take back control of our food. As the National Farmers Union poster says, it’s “Our communities. Our country. Our world. Our economy.” And it’s our food.
– Common Ground.
About the authors
Michael Antoniou, PhD, is a reader in molecular genetics and head of the Gene Expression and Therapy Group at King’s College London School of Medicine in London, UK. He has 28 years’ experience in the use of genetic engineering technology investigating gene organization and control, with over 40 peer reviewed publications of original work and holds inventor status on a number of gene expression biotechnology patents. Dr. Antoniou has a large network of collaborators in industry and academia who are making use of his discoveries in gene control mechanisms for the production of research, diagnostic and therapeutic products and safe and efficacious human somatic gene therapy for inherited and acquired genetic disorders.
Claire Robinson, MPhil, is research director at Earth Open Source. She has a background in investigative reporting and the communication of topics relating to public health, science and policy and the environment. She is an editor at GMWatch (www.gmwatch.org), a public information service on issues relating to genetic modification, and was formerly managing editor at SpinProfiles (now Powerbase.org).
John Fagan, PhD, is a leading authority on sustainability in the food system, biosafety and GMO testing. He is founder and chief scientific officer of one of the world’s first GMO testing and certification companies, through which he has pioneered the development of innovative tools to verify and advance food purity, safety and sustainability. He co-founded Earth Open Source, which uses open source collaboration to advance sustainable food production. Earlier, he conducted cancer research at the US National Institutes of Health. He holds a PhD in biochemistry and molecular and cell biology from Cornell University.
Earth Open Source
Earth Open Source is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to assuring the sustainability, security and safety of the global food system. It supports agroecological, farmer-based systems that conserve soil, water, and energy and that produce healthy and nutritious food free from unnecessary toxins. It challenges the use of pesticides, artificial fertilizer and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on the grounds of the scientifically proven hazards that they pose to health and the environment and because of the negative social and economic impacts of these technologies. Earth Open Source holds that our crop seeds and food system are common goods that belong in the hands of farmers and citizens, not of the GMO and chemical industry. Earth Open Source has established three lines of action, each of which fulfils a specific aspect of its mission: 1) Science and policy platform 2) Scientific research 3) Sustainable rural development.
Science and policy
Because the quality of our food supply is intimately connected with political and regulatory decisions, for example, on pesticides and GMOs, Earth Open Source functions as a science and policy platform to provide input to decision makers on issues relating to the safety, security and sustainability of our food system.
Earth Open Source has published and co-published several reports that have had impact internationally:
- Roundup and birth defects: Is the public being kept in the dark?
- GM Soy: Sustainable? Responsible?
- Conflicts on the menu: A decade of industry influence at the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA)
- Europe’s pesticide and food safety regulators – Who do they work for?
Scientific research and sustainable rural development
Earth Open Source has laboratory and field research projects under way on several continents. Farmer-led agricultural development projects are ongoing in Asia. Details will be released as these projects come to fruition.
Genetically modified (GM) crops are promoted on the basis of a range of far-reaching claims from the GM crop industry and its supporters. They say that GM crops:
- Are an extension of natural breeding and do not pose different risks from naturally bred crops.
- Are safe to eat and can be more nutritious than naturally bred crops.
- Are strictly regulated for safety.
- Increase crop yields.
- Reduce pesticide use.
- Benefit farmers and make their lives easier.
- Bring economic benefits.
- Benefit the environment.
- Can help solve problems caused by climate change.
- Reduce energy use.
- Will help feed the world.
However, a large and growing body of scientific and other authoritative evidence shows that these claims are not true. On the contrary, evidence presented in this report indicates that GM crops:
- Are laboratory-made, using technology that is totally different from natural breeding methods and pose different risks from non-GM crops.
- Can be toxic, allergenic or less nutritious than their natural counterparts.
- Are not adequately regulated to ensure safety.
- Do not increase yield potential.
- Do not reduce pesticide use but increase it.
- Create serious problems for farmers, including herbicide-tolerant “superweeds,” compromised soil quality and increased disease susceptibility in crops.
- Have mixed economic effects.
- Harm soil quality, disrupt ecosystems, and reduce biodiversity.
- Do not offer effective solutions to climate change.
- Are as energy-hungry as any other chemically-farmed crops.
- Cannot solve the problem of world hunger but distract from its real causes – poverty, lack of access to food and, increasingly, lack of access to land to grow it on.
Based on the evidence presented in this report, there is no need to take risks with GM crops when effective, readily available and sustainable solutions to the problems that GM technology is claimed to address already exist. Conventional plant breeding, in some cases helped by safe modern technologies like gene mapping and marker assisted selection, continues to outperform GM in producing high-yield, drought-tolerant and pest-and disease-resistant crops that can meet our present and future food needs.
Myth of the Month #1
The genetic engineering technique
Myth: Genetic engineering is just an extension of natural breeding.
Truth: Genetic engineering is different from natural breeding and poses special risks.
GM proponents claim that genetic engineering is just an extension of natural plant breeding. They say that GM crops are no different from naturally bred crops, apart from the inserted foreign GM gene (transgene) and its protein product. But this is misleading. GM is completely different from natural breeding and poses different risks. Natural breeding can only take place between closely related forms of life (e.g. cats with cats, not cats with dogs; wheat with wheat, not wheat with tomatoes or fish). In this way, the genes that carry information for all parts of the organism are passed down the generations in an orderly way.
In contrast, GM is a laboratory-based technique that is completely different from natural breeding. The main stages of the genetic modification process are as follows:
1. In a process known as tissue culture or cell culture, tissue from the plant that is to be genetically modified is placed in culture.
2. Millions of the tissue cultured plant cells are subjected to the GM gene insertion process. This results in the GM gene(s) being inserted into the DNA of a few of the plant cells in tissue culture. The inserted DNA is intended to re-programme the cells’ genetic blueprint, conferring completely new properties on the cell. This process is carried out either by using a device known as a gene gun, which shoots the GM gene into the plant cells, or by linking the GM gene to a special piece of DNA present in the soil bacterium, Agrobacterium tumefaciens. When the A. tumefaciens infects a plant, the GM gene is carried into the cells and can insert into the plant cell’s DNA.
3. At this point in the process, the genetic engineers have a tissue culture consisting of hundreds of thousands to millions of plant cells. Some have picked up the GM gene(s), while others have not. The next step is to treat the culture with chemicals to eliminate all except those cells that have successfully incorporated the GM gene into their own DNA.
4. Finally, the few cells that survive the chemical treatment are treated with plant hormones. The hormones stimulate these genetically modified plant cells to proliferate and differentiate into small GM plants that can be transferred to soil and grown on.
5. Once the GM plants are growing, the genetic engineer examines them and eliminates any that do not seem to be growing well. He/she then does tests on the remaining plants to identify one or more that express the GM genes at high levels. These are selected as candidates for commercialization.
6. The resulting population of GM plants all carry and express the GM genes of interest. But they have not been assessed for health and environmental safety or nutritional value…
The fact that the GM transformation process is artificial does not automatically make it undesirable or dangerous. It is the consequences of the procedure that give cause for concern.
Section at a glance
Genetic engineering is completely different from natural breeding and entails different risks. The genetic engineering and associated tissue culture processes are imprecise and highly mutagenic, leading to unpredictable changes in the DNA, proteins and biochemical composition of the resulting GM crop that can lead to unexpected toxic or allergenic effects and nutritional disturbances.
Foods produced by cisgenic or intragenic methods are as hazardous as any other GM crop. It is misleading to compare GM with radiation-induced mutation breeding and to conclude that, as crops bred by the latter method are not tested for safety or regulated, neither should GM crops be tested or regulated. Radiation-induced mutation breeding is potentially even more mutagenic than GM and at least as destructive to gene expression, and crops produced by this method should be regulated at least as strictly as GM crops.
It is unnecessary to take risks with GM when conventional breeding – assisted by safe modern gene mapping technologies – is capable of meeting our crop breeding needs.
Muddying the waters with imprecise terms
GM proponents often use the terminology relating to genetic modification incorrectly to blur the line between genetic modification and conventional breeding.
For example, the claim that conventional plant breeders have been “genetically modifying” crops for centuries by selective breeding and that GM crops are no different is incorrect. The term “genetic modification” is recognized in common usage and in national and international laws to refer to the use of recombinant DNA techniques to transfer genetic material between organisms in a way that would not take place naturally, bringing about alterations in genetic makeup and properties.
The term “genetic modification” is sometimes wrongly used to describe marker-assisted selection (MAS). MAS is a largely uncontroversial branch of biotechnology that can speed up conventional breeding by identifying genes linked to important traits. MAS does not involve the risks and uncertainties of genetic modification and is supported by organic and sustainable agriculture groups worldwide.
Similarly, the term “genetic modification” is sometimes wrongly used to describe tissue culture, a method that is used to select desirable traits or to reproduce whole plants from plant cells in the laboratory. In fact, while genetic modification of plants as carried out today is dependent on the use of tissue culture, tissue culture is not dependent on GM. Tissue culture can be used for many purposes, independent of GM.
Using the term “biotechnology” to mean genetic modification is inaccurate. Biotechnology is an umbrella term that includes a variety of processes in which biological functions are harnessed for various purposes. For instance, fermentation, as used in wine making and baking, marker assisted selection (MAS) and tissue culture, as well as genetic modification, are all biotechnologies. Agriculture itself is a biotechnology, as are commonly used agricultural methods such as the production of compost and silage.
GM proponents’ misleading use of language may be due to unfamiliarity with the field – or may represent deliberate attempts to blur the lines between controversial and uncontroversial technologies in order to win public acceptance of GM.
Excerpted from GMO Myths and Truths, an evidence-based examination of the claims made for the safety and efficacy of genetically modified crops. Version 1.3b by Michael Antoniou, Claire Robinson and John Fagan © Earth Open Source, www.earthopensource.org Earth Open Source functions as a science and policy platform to provide input to decision-makers on issues relating to the safety, security and sustainability of our food system.