Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

GM: the big sell

In M. Rudland on August 25, 2010 at 12:30 pm

Research by Martin Rudland.

GM foods today are big in America – and indeed in many parts of the world where the big agro-business corporations who own the patents hold sway. But so far Europe hasn’t fallen under their spell. Public opinion has seen to that. But if the GM lobby has its way, it could soon change.

Powerful voices are now pressing for further “trials” of GM crops – like the potato crops mentioned in a recent issue of the Clarion (April/May 2010).

And, of course, we now have a new Government – and a new Minister in charge of agriculture. Caroline Spelman, the afore-mentioned Minister, has made it clear that this government will be the most pro-GM yet, when she told the Guardian that GM “can bring benefits to the marketplace”. However, she failed to mention any benefit to the consumer.


Even the Tory Daily Mail has been moved to question the motives of Ms. Spelman at the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). In a recent article, the paper commented that “the Secretary of State apparently shares the same controversial beliefs as such biotech giants as Monsanto, the world’s leading producer of weedkiller and genetically modified crops.”

Caroline Spelman’s background, it seems, is in sugar beet. Some nine million tonnes of sugar beet are grown in the UK every year, making it one of the most important sectors of British agriculture. So far what we grow here is non-GM, though trials have been carried out in Suffolk. – sponsored by Monsanto. In the USA, incidentally, almost a hundred per cent of the beet crop is genetically modified.


Apart from powerful professional lobbyists (and, of course, Monsanto) there are other significant bodies who favour GM. The Food Standards Agency (FSA), for example,  has been overseeing a public consultation on Genetic Modification. Its claim to impartiality was rather shaken recently when two scientists (Dr. Helen Wallace and Professor Brian Wynne of Lancaster University) resigned, claiming that the consultation was an exercise in state-sponsored “GM propaganda” to which they couldn’t lend their name. Professor Wynne declared that the FSA was “dogmatically entrenched” in favour of GM.


One major concern amongst farmers planting GM crops in the USA is the emergence of “super weeds” as a result of spraying with herbicides.

Apart from its lucrative patent for GM seed, Monsanto also produces weed killer. The general idea is that when GM crops are planted, the fields are sprayed with weed killer, to prevent other plant life invading the crop.

But thanks to the adaptability of nature, weeds are mutating, producing herbicide resistant varieties. In America, more than 130 types of weed have developed some degree of resistance, and it’s estimated that these “super weeds” have infested nearly 11 million acres so far.

One particularly nasty example is pigweed, which grows at a rate of more than an inch a day and can reach a height of nine feet. Monsanto is now advising farmers to use a “cocktail” of herbicides so that weeds would not develop an immunity to any one in particular. How this may work in the long term, one dreads to think!

The threat of cross contamination, where GM crops can affect other crops growing in fields nearby has also been identified by environmentalists. It is for this reason that California has placed a ban on GM alfalfa crops – but Monsanto is seeking to overturn this ban in the US Supreme Court.

The main genetically modified crops grown in the USA are soybean, corn and cotton. GM now accounts for between 85 and 90 per cent of these three crops grown in America. And scientists have warned that the increasing use of ever more powerful doses of herbicide not only kills weeds(or at least those that haven’t developed a resistance) but also kills beneficial fungi and bacteria.

According to Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, speaking at a conference in the UK in July, “planting herbicide tolerant GM crops is the surest way to spread diseases to neighbouring and subsequent crops”.

Considering the mounting level of evidence against genetic modification, one wonders why there is so much pressure on governments and farmers alike to go down the GM route. The only credible explanation is that powerful industrial lobbies see it as being in their interest to promote GM. These lobbies are a formidable foe – as Rachel Carson found when she wrote Silent Spring. But the GM lobby must be resisted, if we really have the wellbeing of ourselves and our children at heart.

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