No Name Calling Please, Give Us Evidence Which Proves GM Crops Are Safe 

Viva Kermani

Mar 22, 2017, 12:19 PM | Updated 12:18 PM IST

A protester tears up a genetically modified (GM) oil seed rape plant at a demonstration against GM crops at a farm in Long Marsden in Warwickshire, England. (Sion Touhig/GettyImages)
A protester tears up a genetically modified (GM) oil seed rape plant at a demonstration against GM crops at a farm in Long Marsden in Warwickshire, England. (Sion Touhig/GettyImages)
  • Transgenic Crops – hazards and uncertainties is a compilation that has put together an unprecedented 750 studies on precisely the problem that Shanthu Shantharam claims does not exist – the risks and hazards of GM seed and crop.
  • These studies provide irrefutable evidence for the lack of consensus among scientists about GM crops.
  • Shanthu Shantharam has called my article on the problems with genetically modified seed and crop "half-baked" and in "total ignorance". While my article, Let’s be honest about GM crops was published by Swarajya on 23 February 2017, Shantharam's ill-tempered rejoinder was appeared titled "Genetically-Modified Crops Are The Future: Here's Why".

    Swarajya and Shantharam, himself, have presented his qualifications as being those of a scientist, however, his marked reluctance to confront the substance of the points I raised in Let’s be honest about GM crops is typical of supporters of the bio-technology industry. Such supporters do science a disservice by refusing to, or side-stepping with name-calling (Shantharam's sorry tactic with my article) the issues. Another tactic, seen in his reply, is to refer vaguely to reports from Europe or the USA and tell the reader that these are all for GM.

    This is misrepresentation, which the bio-technology and genetic engineering industry has become well versed at. While in his article, he has mentioned "two gigantic reports of GM safety research funded by the EU for more than 25 years", the two reports are not named. It is possible that one of these is Research on GM foods, which was commissioned by the European Union (EU) and is often claimed by the bio-tech industry and GM supporters as having concluded that GM foods are safe. Not at all, because most of this research project was not designed to examine the safety of specific GM foods and that is why conclusions about their alleged safety from the report do not arise. Studies show that GM foods can be toxic, allergenic, or have unintended nutritional changes. Prof C Vyvyan Howard, a medically qualified toxicopathologist based at the University of Ulster, and a signatory to the statement, said: “A substantial number of studies suggest that GM crops and foods can be toxic or allergenic.”

    The question of the safety of GM seed and crop has been and continues to be an issue that the Shantharams of the subject shy away from. There is little else they can do, for being 'scientific' does, unfortunately for them, mean taking full cognisance of risks and the likely compromising of human, animal and environmental safety. Early in 2017 this was done by the Ministry of Agrarian Development of the Government of Brazil. What makes this work noteworthy is that every year for the last five years Brazil is the country with the largest acreage of sown genetically modified crops after the USA. The Ministry of Agrarian Development publication is a compilation, titled Transgenic Crops - hazards and uncertainties, by its scientists. The compilation has put together an unprecedented 750 studies on precisely the problem that Shantharam (and others who have written about GM in Swarajya) claims does not exist: the risks and hazards of GM seed and crop.

    These 750 studies, the Brazilian scientists have said, provide "irrefutable evidence" for the lack of consensus among scientists about GM crops. Their compilation has directly called out the falsehood spread by the bio-technology industry - including the producers of GM seeds - that there is no science-based debate about the public health and environmental risks of GM seed and crop. The references presented in the Brazilian compilation correspond to studies published by scientists and independent researchers in journals.

    Close on the heels of this report by the Brazilian government, on 24 January 2017, the UN Special Rapporteur condemned the assertion promoted by the agrochemical industry that the intensification, high input agriculture was needed to feed the world. The report is critical of the oligopoly of the chemical industry and the powers they wield. Three powerful corporations: Monsanto and Bayer, Dow and Dupont, and Syngenta and ChemChina control almost 61 per cent of commercial seed sales . They wield such powers that they influence policy makers, act as obstructionists, influence regulators and often contest scientific evidence of the hazards related to their products. Further they ignore all counter opinions from the scientific world -they are very quick to dismiss any research that is contradictory to their agenda – this is anything but science. To make it worse, scientists who uncover health and environmental risks to the detriment of corporate interests, may face grave threats to their reputations, and even to themselves.

    GM proponents claim that GM crops have been cultivated for 30 years and yet there is not a single instance of any harm to humans or animals. That not a single American has suffered the ill effects of consuming GM food is merely anecdotal. It would be good for these proponents to prove this claim. Most GM crops go into animal feed. Since GM food are not labelled in the US, so there is no way of tracking their consumption and linking any suspected ill effects back to them. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb says, “Doctors most commonly get mixed up between absence of evidence and evidence of absence”.

    The other claim that genetic modification is natural and that for millennia humans have been doing genetic modification in agriculture is contradictory. If indeed this is true, and if this technology occurs naturally why does a company like Monsanto claim patents worldwide? They tell patent offices in countries where they operate that the GM process is totally different from natural breeding and so the generation of a GM crop constitutes a non-obvious “inventive step”, thus making the GM crop patentable. Yet, on the other hand, it tells the public that the GM process is little different from natural breeding and therefore GM food are as safe as non-GM foods.

    In 2014, a report by Food & Watch, exposes in great detail misinterpretation and twisting of research finding to back the claim on the safety of GM food. Those who are part of the Genetically Modified Organism’s (GMO’s) “safe-consensus” campaign like to refer to the Royal Society of Medicine and the Royal Society of London as part of the scientific “consensus”. However, this safe-consensus is based on quotes from individuals who are not formal representatives of these groups. The Royal Society of London is said to be part of the “consensus” group, when in fact the society called for tougher regulations before GM food is passed as safe for human consumption. There is growing pressure that the testing standards for GM food must be improved. "The battery of tests should be spelt out much more clearly," says Eric Brunner at University College London and one of the authors of the report. Some animal testing may also be required, he says. The testing regime must be independently scrutinised, recommends the report, so that companies cannot submit selective data about their new GM products.”

    It is all of the above and more, that Professor Shanthu Shantharam represents. His past association with Syngenta, his ties with biotechnology industry blinds him to the fact that it is the farmer that has been cultivating food crops since ancient times. For example, from a wild aquatic grass, the Indian farmer over centuries, have selected and cultivated thousands of varieties of rice – rice that can be cultivated in different agro ecological zones – from the high hills of the Himalayas to the salt marshes of coastal Indian, creating almost 200,000 varieties of rice, where myths are not needed to be created to say that they are safe for human consumption.

    As I write this today, the California Court dismissed Monsanto from seeking to bar the state from adding glyphosate, the lead ingredient in the company's Roundup herbicide, to a list of cancer-causing chemicals.

    Safe for human consumption did you say Professor Shanthu Shantharam?

    This article is part of a debate on genetically modified (GM) crops. Swarajya has been hosting both pro and anti-GM views on its platform to foster a healthy debate. You can follow the arguments here.

    Viva Kermani has a post-graduation certificate in Environmental Management from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London, UK. Her areas of study for this qualification were ecology, environment economics and policy, climate change and development.

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