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  • Former head of Novartis - quote
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  • Tewolde - quote

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are some of the questions that are commonly asked about GM. Follow the links to find out more.

 

Will GM feed the world?

Quick answer: No.

In 20 years GM hasn't managed to increase yields. More to the point, GM doesn't deal with the real reasons why people are going hungry - which are poverty and the expansion of industrial agriculture for export. In fact GM is taking us further down this route. Campaigners have been saying for decades that the solution isn't GM, it is small scale sustainable agriculture. In 2008 a UN sponsored report endorsed by 58 countries, (the IAASTD gave expert confirmation of this view. Essentially, GM is not, and never has been, about feeding the world: it is about increasing profits for industry. The alternatives, on the other hand, are safer, more effective, and already available.

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Related questions

  • "Fears about GM are an exaggerated hysteria whipped up by the media and adopted by spoilt westerners with nothing better to do than worry about minuscule health risks, but if they really cared about the hungry people in the world than they would be embracing GM with open arms, wouldn't they?"

No. The health risks attached to GM are by no means the only reason to distrust the technology. For twenty years the biotech industry has been promising GM miracle crops, but none of these have ever been commercialised and 81% of GM crops are engineered to be resistant to herbicide.1 GM crops have already swallowed up billions of pounds that could have been spent on researching alternative methods of agriculture than do provide a more secure food supply for hungry people. Most importantly, GM does not tackle the root causes of hunger - people are not currently hungry because of a lack of food in the world but because of inequalities in who has access to it. Commercial GM crops are all patented products for which farmers have to pay license fees, and as such they are never going to help poor people.

  • "GM is claimed to be more productive than non-GM crops. If that was the case, couldn't we feed more people and preserve more valuable eco-systems?"

None of the GM products currently on the market are bred for increases in yields2 and a major UN funded study has shown that in some cases GM crops show decreases in productivity when compared to their conventional counterparts.3 By contrast, evidence suggests that a switch to organic agriculture will over time produce significantly higher yields under stress, and in many cases higher yields in good years as well.4 5 6

  • "Sir David King, (former chief scientific advisor to the UK government) said "The only reason why India is currently managing to feed their population is precisely because they include modern biotechnology in their agricultural process."7 Isn't this evidence that GM provides food for hungry people?"

100% of the commercial GM crops grown in India are cotton.8 Cotton is not a food crop, and GM cotton in India has not brought increased profits for farmers.9 India has 200 million hungry people, more than any other country in the world.10 The facts speak for themselves.

  • There are always news items about how GM is going to protect us from cancer, or give us more nutritional food, or remove allergens from nuts. Surely it would be stupid to throw all these things away just for a few exaggerated safety concerns?

Firstly, none of these miracle crops are actually on the market, none of them have passed all the tests to show that they work and are safe. In fact, GM has been known to make things allergenic when they weren't before11 12; some nutritionally enhanced GM foods turned out to be deficient in other nutrients 13 14, and there are fears that others could have unintended side effects that might even be lethal.15 Secondly, it not necessary to have GM to do this kind of 'miracle breeding', in fact just the same research is going on in conventional breeding, but it simply doesn't get reported. In 2007, for instance, scientists reported breakthroughs in creating allergen-free peanuts, salt-resistant wheat, beta-carotene rich sweet potato, and virus-resistant cassava, all without use of GM.16

 

Will GM solve climate change?

 Quick answer: No.

None of the miracle crops promised by the GM industry have actually worked well enough to get past the research stage. Additionally, GM is not needed because the solutions are already here: changing our farming methods to ones that are more sustainable could both reduce greenhouse gas emissions and make our food supplies more resilient in the face of major upheavals of the weather system. Most importantly, GM is under the control of corporations who patent any new discoveries for their own profit. By contrast, more sustainable options are also much cheaper putting them in the reach of the poorest farmers who will need them most.

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Related questions

  • "The problem of climate change is so desperate that we will need all the tools we can get to feed the world's population. Why shoot ourselves in the foot by stopping GM research now?"

It is the very urgency of the climate change problem that means we can't waste our time and money on GM. Already in the UK GM research consumes 30 times more public money than research into organic agriculture,17 in spite of the fact that GM has brought us no real benefits and organic agriculture is growing in popularity, and has been proved to have the capacity to massively reduce greenhouse gas emissions and produce more and better food in times of stress.18 19 20 3 4 See Why GM won't solve climate change.

  • "BASF and Monsanto have got a GM drought-tolerant maize variety that's going to be on the market in the next couple of years. Doesn't that mean that GM has got some of the answers to climate change?"

1 - There are also conventionally bred drought tolerant plants which are already being grown.21

2 - The BASF/ Monsanto maize does show slightly higher yields in dry years, with an increase in productivity of 6-10%. However, on good years it is far outstripped by its non-GM counterparts.22

3 - Several comprehensive studies taking place over long periods of time have shown that organic agriculture can match non-organically-grown plants in good years, and show yield increases of 26-34% in dry years.23

  • "Monsanto claims that herbicide resistant crops prevent the need for farmers to till the soil to get rid of the weeds, and so reduces the greenhouse gases that escape into the atmosphere. There are claiming carbon credits on this basis. Doesn't this mean that herbicide resistant crops are good for the environment?"

No. Firstly, herbicide resistant weeds have developed which means that farmers are having to plough their fields anyway.24 25 Secondly, while no-till agriculture can effectively reduce carbon emissions when used in conjunction with cover crops and organic practices, when used as part of a conventional, fertiliser-dependent system it does not have the same effect.26

 

Is GM safe to eat?

Quick answer: Probably not.

The industry likes to describe GM as 'the most tested food in history', but in fact GM foods have undergone little rigorous and no long term safety testing. The only human feeding trial showed cause for concern, but was not followed up, while tests done on animals have shown some worrying results. A GM food is approved for consumption if the company that wants to sell it can show that it is 'grossly similar' it's non-GM counterpart: if it is shown to be similar then no feeding trials are done at all.

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Indian farmers marching with banner reading 'stop bt brinjal'

Related questions

  • People in America have been eating GM for thirteen years, and people in the UK have eaten it too through animal feed and so on. If it caused health risks wouldn't we know about them by now?

Releasing something into the food chain, without any labelling to tell whether someone has eaten any, and then waiting to see what happens, is not how to conduct a scientific experiment. If GM food caused a disease or allergenic reaction that already existed, and especially if it was one that took a long time to develop, it would be extremely difficult to trace it back to the unlabelled food.27 There have been no long term scientific studies which compare the effects on humans of eating GM food and its non GM equivalent, and tests that have been done on animals are distinctly worrying. For more detail, see GM health risks.

  • The GM companies and the NGOs just contradict everything the other one says, but surely we can trust public sector scientists to tell us the truth?

Not necessarily. Since 1997 it has been the policy of the GM industry to use apparently neutral scientists to speak for their products. For example, in the UK the Public Research and Regulation Initiative was set up to involve the public research sector in regulation on GM. It has been an influential body, lobbying for lax legislation, and against a ban on terminator technology and research into GM trees. It's funders include the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA, a pro-GM lobby organisation sponsored by all major biotech corporations including Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta and Du Pont) and the US and Canadian governments. Many of it's members have previously worked for Syngenta and Monsanto or GM lobby groups such as EuropeBio.28 Recently, the British Biochemical Society received a £113, 000 grant from the Monsanto Foundation to "provide new resources in support of secondary school science" that teachers will be able to download in order to educate young people on the benefits, risks and ethical issues surrounding genetics.29

  • 'Conventional' breeding involves many practices that aren't 'natural', so why the fuss about GM?

It is true that non-GM techniques such as marker assisted selection and mutagenesis do not occur naturally, and it may well be that there are problems with them that have not yet come to light. GM involves introducing genes from a different species, usually by means of a bacteria or a virus, this is an extremely haphazard process and one that can have unpredictable consequences.

 

Is GM safe for the environment?

Quick answer: No.

GM crops are not 'green'. No plants with benefits to consumers or the environment have materialized, despite repeated promises by biotech corporations. Evidence has been accumulating over the years that GMO crops often have a negative impact on the environment. They have contaminated non-GM crops and wild plants30, increased the use of toxic chemicals31, created 'superweeds'32, and reduced biodiversity33. GM crops can never be recalled after their release nor can they "co-exist" with conventional and organic crops without contaminating them, denying people they right to choose GM free food.

Related questions

  • Don't GM crops reduce the need for toxic pesticides and so protect the environment, and save farmers money in the long run?

No. The two GM traits that account for almost 100% of the GM crops on the market are herbicide resistance and insect resistance. Both of these are claimed to lead to reduced pesticide use, but in fact, over time, the opposite has been true.34

  • If we don't allow experiments to happen then surely we'll never know whether GM is safe or not?

1 The risk of cross-contamination is such that it is simply not worth undertaking GM trials. We already know that GM is unwanted, we already know that we have other, better options, and we probably know enough to decide that GM is not safe. The GM contamination register35 lists instances of GM from trial sites being found in food supplies all over the world, and GM at the trial stage usually hasn't undergone even the most basic testing.

2 GM trials are a waste of money. The solutions which have already been proven to work need all the support they can get, and the millions of pounds that are spent on GM could be much better spent elsewhere.36

  • Can't we have organic crops and GM crops? Does it have to be either / or?

There are now so many instances of cross-contamination from GM crops that co-existence is not an option. The GM contamination register holds a record of all instances that have been discovered and verified, but we can extrapolate from this extensive list and assume that there are others that have so far gone undetected.37

 

Do we need GM?

Quick answer: No.

In 20 years GM has not delivered on its promises, but we already have the answers in the form of conventional breeding and ecological farming methods. 'Miracle' crops can often be bred more effectively in other ways, but in fact, miracles are not what we need. We need low-tech, environmentally friendly farming methods that will be available to anyone, and that will reduce our dependency on fossil fuels and that will provide reliable yields in a climate of extremes. Small-scale, mixed crop organic farms can provide all of these things, GM can provide none.

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Is GM good for farmers?

Quick answer: Not in the long run. Farmers' tractors on demo in London

Some saw initial benefits: herbicide-resistant crops meant that whole fields could be treated indiscriminately instead of single plants being singled out, which meant that in big farms more work could be done by machinery and less people could be employed.38 However, there is increasing evidence that even these benefits were temporary - in the US and Argentina 'superweeds' are developing that mean even more pesticides have to be used39 40, or even in some cases that farm land has been abandoned,41 and there are reports in China showing how insect-resistant cotton has only worked for a few years.42 Additionally, GM poses the major threat of contamination: even in the US guaranteed non-GM crops fetch a premium43, and in many places in the world farmers whose fields are cross-pollinated with GM risk losing their market entirely, whether they have organic small-holdings or large-scale commercial agri-businesses.

Related questions

  • Why would farmers choose to buy GM seeds if the technology isn't working?

The first point to be made is that most farmers aren't choosing to buy GM seeds. The proportion of land planted with GM remains at 2.4% of the world's arable land44. Secondly, GM has been aggressively, in some cases dishonestly, marketed, and it is hardly surprising that some farmers have fallen for the hype. The false advertising of GM cotton in India by Monsanto's subsidiary Mahyco has been widely documented45. In Brazil, farmers were keen to buy the seeds when they were smuggled in from Argentina(and they didn't have to pay licence fees), but gradually became disillusioned as the problems, such as uncontrollable, herbicide resistant weeds built up. In the US, which is still home to over 50% of the world's GM crops, farmers and plant breeders are increasingly turning against it. GM wheat, rice and alfalfa were rejected entirely by US farmers, and premiums are available for non GM products,46 while breeders are turning to non-GM techniques to produce higher yielding varieties of soya.47

 

Who benefits from GM?

Quick answer: biotech companies.

GM crops can be patented, and the fact that the genetic make-up is completely known makes it very easy for companies to tell if someone is breaking their patent laws, for instance by saving their seed to use the following year, or borrowing some seeds from a friend. Monsanto, who owns over 80% of the GM crops world wide, devotes an annual budget of $10 million to policing patent law,48 and there have been several occasions where they have sued farmers whose fields were accidentally contaminated. Additionally the fact that a vast majority of GM plants are engineered to be resistant to branded weedkiller has led to a vast increase in profits from herbicide sales ('coincidentally' produced by the same company selling the GM seed to go with it).

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Related questions

  • Many people agree that the actions of some of the big GM companies can be unscrupulous, but surely that is a reason to give GM more public funds so it can be used for the right things?

Not really. The only unique benefit of GM is that it can easily be patented, and that is only a benefit for companies. Directing funds towards GM only takes money away from other things. GM science is complex and risky, this prevents farmers from conducting their own experiments to see what will work in the conditions they are farming in.

 

What are the alternatives?

Quick answer: Small-scale sustainable farming. This is what anti-GM campaigners have been saying for years, and now their view has been corroborated by a major UN / World Bank funded report, endorsed by 58 governments, including that of the UK.49 Sustainable farming options are cheap, and so easily accessed by the world's poorest farmers, and they provide the best option for providing a reliable food supply in a context of climate change.

Related questions:

  • If organic agriculture is so effective, then why is organic food so expensive?

One reason why organic food seems expensive is that historically, agro-chemicals have been heavily subsidised, while organic food didn't receive any government support at all.50 Other hidden costs of chemical farming include cleaning up the pesticides in the water supply, dealing with the health problems attributed to chemical-dependent food, all of which come back to 'the tax-payer'.51 There is also an extent to which the price of organic food is inflated by artificial premiums added by supermarkets who know that richer people will be prepared to pay over the odds for food they trust and that tastes better.52 In local markets in the global south uncertified organic produce can often be no more expensive than those farmed using chemicals,53 and in many cases can be cheaper,54 and as the price of oil rises this could quickly become the case throughout the world.

 

Footnotes

1Friends of the Earth International, February 2008, 'Who benefits from GM crops? Questions and Answers.' available at www.foe.co.uk/resource/briefings/who_benefits_questions.pdf, last viewed 29.04.10

2'Who benefits from gm crops? The rise in pesticide use', Friends of the Earth International, Executive Summary, January 2008, p4

3IAASTD, Executive summary, p8

4Organic Agriculture and Food Security in Africa, United Nations report 2008,

5Niles, Meredith, 'Organic farming beats genetically engineered corn as response to rising global temperatures', available at http://www.grist.org/article/Food-security-and-global-warming-Monsanto-versus-organic, last viewed 05.05.10

6Pretty, Jules, 'Feeding the world?' taken from 'SPLICE', August/September 1998 Volume 4 Issue 6, available at http://ngin.tripod.com/article2.htm, last viewed 28.04.10

7European Molecular Biology 'Farmers worldwide divided over GM crops', http://www.embo.org/news/emboencounters/farmers-worldwide-divided-over-gm-crops.html, last viewed 10.05.10

8'India has 4th largest area under GM crops', 19.02.09, http://greenbio.checkbiotech.org/news/india_has_4th_largest_area_under_gm_crops, last viewed 08.05.10

9Friends of the Earth International, February 2008, 'Who benefits from GM crops? Questions and Answers.' available at www.foe.co.uk/resource/briefings/who_benefits_questions.pdf, last viewed 29.04.10

10BBC website, Hunger in India states 'alarming', 19.02.09, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/7669152.stm, last viewed 06.05.10

11 Transgenic expression of bean alpha-amylase inhibitor in peas results in altered structure and immunogenicity. Prescott V.E. et al. J Agric Food Chem., 53: 9023-9030, 2005.

12Ashish Gupta, "Impact of Bt Cotton on Farmers' Health (in Barwani and Dhar District of Madhya Predesh)," Investigation Report, October-December 2005.

13Alterations in clinically important phytoestrogens in genetically modified, herbicide-tolerant soybeans. Lappe M.A. et al. J Med Food, 1: 241-245, 1999.

14Seed-specific over expression of phytoene synthase: increase in carotenoids and other metabolic effects. Shewmaker CK et al. Plant J, 20: 401-412, 1999.

15Schubert, Professor David 'Pharmed Food: consume with caution', The Ecologist, Volume 38, Issue 9, November 2008, p34

16'Non-GM breakthroughs leave GM behind', 27.02.08, http://www.i-sis.org.uk/NonGMLeaveGMBehind.php, last viewed 10.05.10

17Lean, Geoffrey, 'GM: the Secret Files', The Independent, available at http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/green-living/gm-the-secret-files-395453.html, last viewed 26.04.10

18Organic Agriculture and Food Security in Africa, United Nations report 2008,

19Niles, Meredith, 'Organic farming beats genetically engineered corn as response to rising global temperatures', available at http://www.grist.org/article/Food-security-and-global-warming-Monsanto-versus-organic, last viewed 05.05.10

20Pretty, Jules, 'Feeding the world?' taken from 'SPLICE', August/September 1998 Volume 4 Issue 6, available at http://ngin.tripod.com/article2.htm, last viewed 28.04.10

21ETC group communique, May/June 2008, 'Patenting the "climate genes" ... and capturing the climate agenda', p10

22Niles, Meredith, 'Organic farming beats genetically engineered corn as response to rising global temperatures', available at http://www.grist.org/article/Food-security-and-global-warming-Monsanto-versus-organic, last viewed 05.05.10

23Research quoted by Niles, Meredith, 'Organic farming beats genetically engineered corn as response to rising global temperatures', available at http://www.grist.org/article/Food-security-and-global-warming-Monsanto-versus-organic, last viewed 05.05.10

24'Twelve years of GM soya in Argentina - a disaster for people and the environment', January 2009, http://www.grain.org/seedling/?id=578, last viewed 30.04.10

25'Who benefits from gm crops? The rise in pesticide use', Friends of the Earth International, Executive Summary, January 2008, p4

26'Environmental benefits of Organic Agriculture', undated, http://www.beyondpesticides.org/organicfood/environment/index.htm, last viewed 17.05.10

27Schubert, Professor David 'Pharmed Food: consume with caution', The Ecologist, Volume 38, Issue 9, November 2008, p34

28Lorch, Antje, 'Public sector scientists: a smoke screen?', The Ecologist, Volume 38, Issue 9, November 2008, p33

29Vidal, John, 'Seed funding', the Guardian, 20.05.09, http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/blog/2009/may/19/monsanto-philanthrophy-education, last viewed 21.05.10

30http://www.gmcontaminationregister.org/, last viewed 23.05.10

31'Who benefits from gm crops? The rise in pesticide use', Friends of the Earth International, Executive Summary, January 2008, p4

32 Friends of the Earth (2004). GM Contamination Briefing 3: Gene Escape. http://www.foe.co.uk/resource/briefing_notes/gene_escape.pdf, last viewed 23.05.10

33http://www.foei.org/publications/pdfs/gmcrops2006execsummary.pdf

34'Who benefits from gm crops? The rise in pesticide use', Friends of the Earth International, Executive Summary, January 2008, p4

35http://www.gmcontaminationregister.org/index.php?content=nw_detail2, last viewed 23.05.10

36Lean, Geoffrey, 'GM: the Secret Files', The Independent, available at http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/green-living/gm-the-secret-files-395453.html, last viewed 26.04.10

37http://www.gmcontaminationregister.org/, last viewed 23.05.10

38'Twelve years of GM soya in Argentina - a disaster for people and the environment', Seedling,January 2009, available at http://www.grain.org/seedling/?id=578, last viewed 30.04.10

39'Twelve years of GM soya in Argentina - a disaster for people and the environment', January 2009, http://www.grain.org/seedling/?id=578, last viewed 30.04.10

40Who benefits?

41Robinson, Elton 'Designing the perfect weed - Palmer amaranth', Delta Farm Press, 24.12.08, available at http://deltafarmpress.com/cotton/palmer-amaranth-1226/, last viewed 29.04.10

42'Monsanto's crops spawning superweed epidemic in the US', 19.04.09, http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_17602.cfm, last viewed 29.04.10

43'More US farmers planting non-GMO soybeans this year', The Organic and Non-GMO Report, http://www.non-gmoreport.com/articles/mar09/farmers_planting_non-gmo_soybeans.php, last viewed 10.05.10

44'Who Benefits from GM crops?: Feeding the biotech giants, not the world's poor', Friends of the Earth International (2009), http://www.foeeurope.org/GMOs/Who_Benefits/Exec_summary_2009.pdf, last viewed 10.05.10

45 e.g. 'Marketing of bt cotton in India: aggressive, unscrupulous and false.'

46'More US farmers planting non-GMO soybeans this year', The Organic and Non-GMO Report, http://www.non-gmoreport.com/articles/mar09/farmers_planting_non-gmo_soybeans.php, last viewed 10.05.10

47'Land of the GM Free? How the American public are starting to turn against GM food,' Soil Association, 2008

48'Monsanto vs US farmers', The Center for Food Safety, 2005

http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/pubs/CFSMOnsantovsFarmerReport1.13.05.pdf, p23

49International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), 2008, http://www.agassessment-watch.org/

50'Criticisms and Frequent Misconceptions about Organic Agriculture: Misconception Number 16: Organic food is too expensive', undated, www.ifoam.org/growing_organic/1_arguments_for_oa/ criticisms_misconceptions/misconceptions_no16.html, last viewed 23.05.10

51Pretty, Jules, 'The Real Cost of Modern Farming', Resurgence, Issue 205, March/April 2001

52 'Criticisms and Frequent Misconceptions about Organic Agriculture: Misconception Number 16: Organic food is too expensive', undated, http://www.ifoam.org/growing_organic/ 1_arguments_for_oa/criticisms_misconceptions/misconceptions_no16.html, last viewed 23.05.10

53 Organic Agriculture and Food Security in Africa, United Nations report 2008

54'Organic Production for Ethiopia', 25.06.04, http://www.i-sis.org.uk/OPFE.php, last viewed 10.05.10