“Should we advocate the use of GM crops?” is the question that was put to a debate at Sussex University near Brighton, UK, last night. The organisers convened four experts to input to the debate, two arguing for the motion, two against.

Arguing for the motion was Professor Vivian Moses, biotech advisor to Sense About Science, and Dr Johnjoe McFadden, Professor of Molecular Genetics at the University of Surrey and author of the book, Quantum Evolution.

Against the motion was our founder and executive director, Rob Verkerk PhD and University of Sussex social scientist Dr Adrian Ely.

In an apparent reflection of the result of voting in Washington’s and California’s recent polls on GM labelling in the USA, the pro-GM advocates won by a slim majority. While disappointing, it was positive to see that when pro-GM advocate Dr McFadden asked the audience at the start of the debate how many would eat GM, the vast majority said they would. The final poll of the audience yielded 49% voting for the motion, 41% against and 10% abstaining. Given a couple of the questions, it was clear there was a contingent of molecular biology students present who were essentially pro-biotechnology and pro-GM, also hoping to get jobs in the industry.

Eight reasons for a GM crop moratorium

Summarised below, are some of the key arguments used by Rob Verkerk during the debate.

  • There is no absolute black or white on this issue – scientific uncertainty is the only thing that can be guaranteed. But are we prepared to take the risks, considering these might affect subsequent generations even more than ourselves?
  • The new-to-nature model of pharmaceuticals is crumbling in front of our eyes, based on failed promises and unacceptable side effects. Might it not just be a matter of time before GM crops suffer the same fate?
  • The pro- and anti-GM crop camps may be equally guilty of using facts selectively to support their respective belief systems. We must be very aware of when information is conclusive, biased or uncertain
  • 10% of the world’s agricultural area is now cultivated with GM crops, and of the 28 countries that plant it, only eight are industrialised. Are we not moving to another form of global imperialism, dumping GM crops that much of the West doesn’t knowingly want and offering false promises that it will alleviate hunger and poverty in developing countries?
  • As we understand more about the interaction between the human genome and the natural environment, especially at the level of gene expression, the more concerned we should be about exchanging genes in manners that override the rules of nature
  • Effects on human health are likely to be masked when one looks at national statistics. These are loaded with data showing widespread chronic diseases, all related to inflammation, the very process that exposure to GM crops is likely to exacerbate. The notion put forward by the pro-GM lobby that there is no evidence of harm or risk from GM crops is simply wrong
  • The IASSTD and Agrimonde reports provide a powerful scientific consensus that is directly contrary to what we often hear in the media. They both conclude that GM crops are either not necessary or counterproductive to the goal of food security for the world’s expected 9 billion-plus population in 2050
  • Observational evidence and clinicians’ reports reveal that humans who stop eating GM crops can experience profound health improvements, as shown in Geoffrey Smith’s film Genetic Roulette. Danish pig farmer Ib Pedersen found a similar effect when he transferred his pigs to non-GM feed.

Memorable quotes made by the pro-GM advocates

Among the most memorable statements made by the two speakers supporting the motion were:

Prof Moses appears convinced there is no evidence anywhere suggesting that GM crops can potentially harm humans. He said, “Trillions of meals have been consumed with GM foods, there hasn’t been a single confirmed case…not a sneeze, not a cough, not an itch, so for the moment we have to say that for human beings GM is safe.”

He was particularly emphatic that evidence from farm animals demonstrated a similar absence of harm, commenting: “No trace of health effect on the cattle…that are eating GM soya and maize all the time”.

He of course omitted to discuss Pedersen’s pigs and dismissed Seralini’s rat study as another piece of bad science.

Responding to Rob Verkerk’s concerns about human supremacy over nature, particularly in relation to inserting genes into plants in ways that do not abide by the rules of nature, Dr McFadden said, “We already have supremacy over nature – take a look around you.”

Over and over again, both GM protagonists said that it was the anti-GM lobby, particularly Greepeace and Friends of the Earth, that was responsible for confusing the public and creating the regulatory hurdles that made GM crops the exclusive domain of Big Biotech.

But Dr Moses also pointed out that Monsanto wasn’t such a big company, so we shouldn’t feel too badly about it. He used the relative global turnovers of Tesco and Monsanto to make his point, saying that Monsanto’s turnover was just one-seventh that of Tesco’s. He then asked the audience, “You don’t have a problem with Tesco, do you?” and he was clearly surprised when there was an almost unanimous, “Yes we do.”

But, crucially, the impact is different. Many of us are not fans of Tesco. But they sell a huge diversity of foods in 12 countries. Monsanto sells GM seeds, non-GM seeds and agrochemicals. It controls the global supply of key staples, such as maize and soya. It’s therefore more about impact and control than it is about turnover.

We, of course, couldn’t help ourselves, and checked the figures. If one can believe the published public accounts, Tesco’s GB£72 billion global sales are over eight times greater than Monsanto’s US$13.5 billion. So Prof Moses was right on this point, misleading as it might have been.

With people like Prof Moses being paid to push the interests of the biotech industry, it’s desperately important that the pressure is maintained to counter the pro-GM spin. And are university students being given a balanced education on these issues? What had the Sussex University students heard about GM that made them throw up their hands when asked if they’d eat GM crops at the start of the meeting? If Leeds University biology student Charlie Maitland’s experiences are anything to go by, their education may have been skewed strongly in the pro-GM direction. That’s exactly what Sense About Science’s junior partner, Voice of Young Scientists, seeks to do.

So let’s keep the pressure up and the information flowing. It’s more important than ever, given the resources being thrown at the pro-GM campaign. This appears to be the very factor behind the likely failure of Washington state’s ballot for mandatory GM labelling. Giving up is simply not an option!

 

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