The European Union (EU) environmental commissioner Stavros Dimas has proposed an EU-wide ban on the planting of Bt corn, a genetically modified form of corn. Bt corn is genetically modified to mimic the toxin made by the naturally occurring bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. This toxin will not only kill the pests that feed on the corn, but other insects too. The airborne pollen produced by the corn will be carried around the local area and contaminate adjoining fields, poisoning other insects that pose no threat to the corn.
There are two types of GM crop at the moment, but I am sure there will be more in the future. One type is modified to be resistant to herbicides, allowing farmers to use more herbicides in their fields without damaging the crops. The other type of GM crop is modified to produce a toxin that can kill insects, like the Bt corn. Environmentalists have concerns about both of these types of GM crops. One concern is that the genes used to modify crops could cross-fertilise with wild plants, creating "superweeds" that are resistant to pests or herbicides. Another concern is that plants could be altered in other ways that might cause damage to the environment. The main worry is what the GM crops themselves might do to the wildlife and people who eat the crops.
An example of cross-fertilisation occurred during a government run 3-year GM oilseed rape trial in the UK. After the trial was completed, the trial’s success was announced with massive media exposure. What was not announced was the fact that after the trial, a type of weed, charlock, was found growing in the field, which contained the modified genes from the GM oilseed rape. This new form of charlock proved to be herbicide resistant. This demonstrated that gene transfer had taken place. A further study was carried out in France, where researchers planted a single herbicide resistant weed in corn fields. After four years there were around 103,000 of these weeds. Farmers in Canada have had problems with herbicide resistant “superweeds” created by the use of GM crops, and have had to turn to the older, more harmful herbicides to eradicate them. Despite these findings, the UK government has never conceded that gene transfer from GM to non-GM crops is a problem. (Guardian)
Bt corn has been tested by the manufacturers in trials they designed and the results have been evaluated. The manufacturers claim the crop is safe for both humans and the environment, which does not surprise me, after all, by financing, designing and setting the parameters for the tests themselves, it would be difficult for any other conclusion. The biotech industry is convinced of the safety of GM crops, and is using every means at its disposal to promote the use of their products. Other scientists are not convinced however. Angelika Hilbeck an ecologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich believes the studies do not look at the ‘ripple effects’ of GM crops, like changes to insect and bird species or the effects to the soil of planting a single crop. Hilbeck has approached the manufacturers of GM seeds with requests for seed samples for independent studies, but they have refused. The European Food Safety Authority has advised Dimas that Bt corn was “unlikely” to cause harm. Is that a strong enough endorsement to allow Bt corn into the EU? The problem is, there is no definitive answer to the question of how safe GM crops are. Scientists on both sides of the debate have access to the same research, yet cannot agree on the conclusions.
The issue will be decided by the European Commission over the coming months. The situation is made more difficult because the EU is coming under intense pressure from the USA and the World Trade Organization (WTO) to open its market to these and other GM products. The EU has so far managed to avoid the introduction of GM crops by using the lack of scientific evidence on the effects of GM crops as a lever to buy more time to review the scientific studies and carry out research. The United States and the WTO contend that there is sufficient research to demonstrate the safety of GM crops, so normal trade rules have to apply, with possible financial penalties and sanctions for failing to open its market. (New York Times)
The EU is the last major market that has been closed to GM crops, and the manufacturers are determined to complete their domination of the world’s agriculture. I know the UK government is in favour of GM crops and is spending millions of pounds to support and promote the GM industry, and is putting pressure on the EU to adopt GM crops.
This is a momentous decision for the EU, with repercussions for all our futures. I am not a scientist, but I am not stupid either, and I have many valid concerns about the wide-spread use of GM crops. I resent the fact that the future of our environment, the wildlife it supports and the health of our species is being decided by biotech firms interested in nothing more than making money and their self-serving political supporters. This is a time for politicians to act with integrity and foresight for the good of all of us.
To get more acquainted with historical known issues with GMOs, be sure to read some of the previous posts we've done on this topic on Celsias:
- The Food Revolution: Genetic Engineering Part I, Pandora's Pantry
- The Food Revolution: Genetic Engineering Part II, Farmageddon
- The Food Revolution: Genetic Engineering Part III, The Emperor's New Foods
- The Health Dangers of Genetically Modified Foods
- Who Benefits from GM Crops?
- Pay Monsanto or Starve