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Monsanto Abandons Worldwide GM Wheat Project

Paul Brown, environment correspondent
The Guardian
May 11, 2004

Monsanto has abandoned plans to introduce GM wheat on to the world market despite spending seven years and hundreds of millions of dollars developing the crop.

The decision, announced yesterday, is a major fillip for the anti-GM lobby and follows pressure from US and Canadian farmers who feared the introduction of GM wheat would lead to the collapse of their billion-dollar markets in Europe and Japan.

Monsanto, the world's biggest seller of GM seeds, had looked to the development and introduction of GM wheat to fulfil a dream of dominating the world's bread market.

The company had proved that GM wheat increased yields by 5% to 15% but consumer resistance to the idea of eating GM bread - particularly in Europe - meant the biggest part of the US export market would disappear overnight.

In yesterday's statement, Monsanto acknowledged that there was not a sufficient market to make the introduction of its GM wheat worthwhile and said it was concentrating on corn (maize or sweetcorn), cotton and oilseeds such as rape, where it already has a large seed market.

Carl Casale, the executive vice-president of Monsanto, said: "As a result of our portfolio review and dialogue with wheat industry leaders, we recognise the business opportunities with wheat are less attractive relative to Monsanto's other commercial priorities."

Sue Mayer from Genewatch, a GM pressure group, said: "This is amazing, extraordinary; the company has been bullish about this great new flagship product and insisting it would be marketed across the world. This is a huge step down. They must have feared a terrible backlash from farmers who would have boycotted their other products."

Although wheat is only one of the world's staple food crops, it is the most valuable for a seed seller because it is grown in the richest regions of the world, Europe and America, where profit margins are the greatest.

But after the boycott of GM maize and soya in Europe, wheat farmers have feared that they would also lose markets.

For the past 10 years the EU and Japan have bought about 45% of the wheat that the US exports. About half of the 5.5m tonnes of US wheat exports in 1999-2000 went to these two markets, according to the US department of agriculture.

Most of the wheat for bread in Europe comes from North America, because most European grain is not of high enough quality to make bread.

There has been resistance from US growers for some time to the introduction of GM wheat because of fears that cross-pollination or mixing in stores would render it unsaleable.

North Dakota failed in an attempt to introduce legislation to prevent its introduction in 2001. But the attempt exposed the level of concern among European importers about GM wheat.

One letter came from Julian Watson of Rank Hovis, one of the largest EU millers. It said: "So that you are completely clear on Rank Hovis's policy toward GM wheat: we do not want any level of such grain in our supplies from you.

"To date, we have been able to say to our customers that GM wheat has not yet been brought to the market. This now needs to be backed up with preventative actions.

"You should treat this issue with the utmost gravity and priority, given that the alarm generated by even the perception that spring wheat may contain GM traits could be enough to jeopardise the entire export programme to the EU."

Fearing a massive disruption in supplies and a consumer boycott of bread if the US did introduce GM wheat, millers have been seeking alternative wheat supplies from Australia and eastern Europe.

Pete Riley, the GM campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said: "This is a worldwide victory for consumers and farmers."

But Monsanto made it clear it had not abandoned its dream of GM wheat forever.

With the US World Trade Organisation case against the EU over GM still proceeding, Monsanto is hoping that an EU boycott of GM can be declared illegal. In the long term the company hopes "it could work with regulators" to open doors for GM wheat.


Monsanto Pullout An Opportunity

Media Release
May 12,2004

Monsanto has decided to pull out of GE canola in Australia and GE wheat globally. This is a great opportunity for Australian farmers and the community.

"GeneEthics welcomes Monsanto's decision not to proceed with GE canola in Australia," says GeneEthics Director Bob Phelps.

"It would have been a huge environmental and economic disaster," he says.

"Monsanto influenced Australian governments to pour $100 million of public money each year into gene technology research and development in food and farming, for over a decade," he says.

"Monsanto contributed little except its patented genes, aiming to make huge profits from publicly funded research," he says.

"Scarce public resources were wasted, as gene technology failed to deliver any of the promised benefits and many projects failed," he says.

"Our governments now have a golden opportunity to reallocate the wasted money into halting the degradation of farm environments and making our food production systems sustainable," says Mr Phelps.

"We call for a public review of national research and development priorities," he says.

"GE crops could make no useful contribution to solving the salinity and soil acidity, drought, soil loss and water management problems which threaten Australia's food security for future generations," he says.

"We must heed CSIRO Land and Water's warning, that Australia will soon be unable to feed its population unless we repair farm systems," he says.

"Our governments acted in the public interest by banning commercial GE canola and this can be a new beginning," he concludes.


GE Food & Feed Not Fit for "Man or Beast" - Health Effects & Citations

By Mae-Wan Ho and Joe Cummins
The Institute of Science in Society
May, 10 2004

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho and Prof. Joe Cummins review some of the scientific evidence behind a series of recent scandals involving the safety of GM food and feed. They expose fatal flaws in the regulatory process and highlight how Europe is in danger of approving GM varieties that are genetically unstable and hence illegal as well as unsafe. They demand a full enquiry into the abuse of science that has allowed GM crops not fit for human or animal consumption to enter our food chain.

Based on a paper presented at an ISP Briefing to Parliament, House of Commons, 29 April 2004.

Latest incidents to cast doubt on the safety of GM food

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has given Monsanto's GM maize Mon863, containing the biopesticide Cry3Bb1 against the corn rootworm, a positive assessment. However, French newspaper Le Monde [1] has seen secret documents revealing health impacts of the GM maize, described as "very disturbing" by scientists of the French commission for genetic engineering (CBG), including kidney malformations and increases in white blood cells in male rats and high blood sugar and reduced immature red blood cells in female rats.

Last year, up to 100 villagers in the south of the Philippines living near GM maize plots suffered debilitating illnesses when the GM maize came into flower [2]. Prof. Terje Traavik of the Norwegian Institute of Gene Ecology in Tromsø found antibodies to Cry1Ab produced by the GM maize against the corn borer in the blood of 39 villagers [3]. The maize variety was Dekalb 818 YG, a hybrid between Monsanto's Mon 810 and a locally adapted variety (Dekalb 818). Report has come in of the same illnesses recurring this year [4].

Bt toxins known to be harmful

The Cry proteins, dozens of them, are also called Bt toxins because they are produced by different strains of the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis [5, 6]. Reports in the scientific literature have documented that bacterial spores of B. thuringiensis, containing a mixture of different toxins, can cause allergic reactions in farm workers; that some toxins are immunogenic in animals, Cry1Ac in particular, has been identified as a potent immunogen, as potent as cholera toxin; that cells in the lining of the small intestine in rats have proteins that bind to the toxins [7], and further, Cry1Ab protein is 92% indigestible in pigs [8].

Regulatory sham over Bt crops

The findings on Bt toxins have been completely ignored in a regulatory process that can only be described as a sham [5].

Worse still, Bt genes in crops are synthetic or hybrid constructions, with important changes from the naturally occurring bacterial genes. Yet, toxicity tests are routinely done using the natural toxins, and not the toxin produced in the GM crop plants, with the result that the Bt toxins in GM crops are almost completely unknown and untested for toxicity [5, 6].

There's evidence that the natural toxin is not the same as, or "substantially equivalent" to, the GM toxin. Green lacewings suffer significantly reduced survival and delayed development when fed an insect pest (lepidopteran) that has eaten GM maize containing the Bt toxin Cry1Ab, but not when fed the same pest treated with much higher levels of the natural toxin [9, 10]. This is an extremely important effect passed on through the food chain; and has been documented in several laboratories. Unfortunately, the researchers misrepresented the results to mean that Cry1Ab does not harm beneficial insect predators [11].

All GM genes differ from natural genes

All foreign genes inserted into GM organisms are different from their natural counterparts. The minimum construct consists of a promoter, a gene-switch that says to the cell, "copy the following message (the gene or coding sequence) for making a protein", and another signal, the terminator, to say, "stop here, end of message". All three parts are often from different sources. The gene itself could also be a composite of different DNA, often made artificially in the laboratory [12].

It is generally not easy to get the foreign gene to work, so a very aggressive promoter is needed, literally to force the cell to make the protein. The cauliflower mosaic virus (CaMV) 35S promoter is the most popular one used, and is often accompanied by other 'boosters' from a variety of sources.

For example, Mon 863 maize is described on the AGBIOS Database as follows [13]:

"The introduced DNA contained the modified cry3Bb1 gene from B. thuringiensis subsp. kumamotoensis under the control of the 4-AS1 promoter (CaMV 35S promoter with 4 repeats of an activating sequence), plus the 5' untranslated leader sequence of the wheat chlorophyll a/b binding protein (wt CAB leader) and the rice actin intron. The transcription termination sequence was provided from the 3' untranslated region of the wheat 17.3 kD heat shock protein (tahsp17). The modified cry3Bb1 gene encodes a protein of 653 amino acids whose amino acid sequence differs from that of the wild-type protein by the addition of an alanine residue at position 2 and by seven amino acid changes."

There are thus 9 bits of DNA from different sources including the coding sequence, which has been quite substantially altered from the natural gene.

The GM process is unreliable and uncontrollable

That's not all. The artificial constructs are further spliced into gene carriers or vectors, and introduced into cells by invasive methods that result in random integration into the genome, giving rise to unpredictable, random effects, including gross abnormalities in animals and further unexpected toxins and allergens in food crops [14].

A transgenic line is essentially regenerated from a single cell in which specific GM DNA integration occurred. Each event will give rise to a different line. In other words, there is no possibility for quality control. This problem is compounded by the overwhelming instability of transgenic lines, because the artificial constructs cobbled together from DNA of different sources tend to have weak joints, especially if they include elements like the CaMV 35S promoter, which is known to have a fragmentation or recombination hotspot (see later).

Transgenic lines are overwhelmingly unstable

We have referred to the instability of transgenic lines as the "best kept open secret", because everybody has known about it for years, but agree to say nothing, while regulators turned a blind eye [15].

(Claims of genetic stability based on the failure to depart from Mendelian ratios have been widely accepted as evidence of Mendelian inheritance, i.e., a sign of genetic stability. But such claims are bogus for a number of reasons. First, a 'Mendelian ratio' refers to the proportion of different classes of offspring predicted from a cross involving different lines. It depends on assuming that Mendelian inheritance is true; so in order to depart from a particular ratio, a sufficiently large number of offspring are needed to obtain the required level of significance (at 5%). Consequently, a failure to depart from the predicted Mendelian ratio does not prove Mendelian inheritance. On the contrary, the real inheritance may be non-Mendelian (a sign of genetic instability), but an insufficient number of offspring has been produced for the statistical test to reach the required level of significance.

More importantly, the precise Mendelian ratio to use in each case depends on the genotype of the parents, and this needs to be independently ascertained, but is almost never done. This makes nonsense of the predicted ratio. Indeed, the Mendelian ratio used is always the one that most closely matches the result obtained!

One of us had argued this very point at a public hearing on T25 maize in the UK, and got the representative from the company Aventis to concede that Mendelian ratios are not evidence of stability [16].)

Instead, we have been pressing, both in international biosafety conferences and in print, for "event specific" molecular characterisation of the structure of the insert(s) and their position(s) in the genome in successive generations, as the only legitimate proof that the transgenic line is stable [14, 15]. This requirement was finally written into the 2001 European Directive (2001/18/EC) on the deliberate release of GMOs into the environment.

But it was not until last year that French government scientists checked the transgenic inserts of five transgenic lines: Monsanto's Mon810 maize, Roundup Ready soya, GA21 maize, Bayer's T25 maize and Syngenta's Bt 176 maize; and in every case, the transgenic insert(s) had rearranged, not just from the construct used, but since characterised by the company [17].

The results revealed that,

  • All GM inserts had rearranged from the structure provided by the company
  • Many of the breakpoints for rearrangement involve the CaMV 35S promoter, as can be predicted from its known recombination hotspot
  • Scrambling of the genome occurred at the site of insertion
  • GM inserts appear to show a preference for mobile genetic elements (retrotransposons)

The last feature is particularly important, as retrotransposons contain strong promoters that could alter gene expression, and also increase the chances that the inserts will move again, resulting in further genome scrambling and horizontal gene transfer.

The French scientists presented their results in a poster at a conference with the title: "Characterisation of commercial GMO inserts: a source of useful material to study genome fluidity". Genome fluidity underlies the paradigm shift in genetics that makes genetic modification both futile and hazardous [18].

Belgian government scientists carried out another study, confirming the instability of the transgenic lines analysed by the French, and found that at least one other transgenic line, Syngenta's Bt 11 maize, had also rearranged, and that it was contaminated with Bt176 [19].

In the case of other transgenic lines studied, it was unclear whether the company has been allowed to submit new data since its first application for approval, which would be irregular, to say the least.

For Roundup Ready soya GTS 40-3-2, for example, the French study found clear evidence that the GM insert was unstable and had undergone rearrangement. The Belgian study merely referred to the UK's Advisory Committee for Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP) website, where it appears that the ACNFP had allowed Monsanto to submit new data in 2000, and again in 2002, presumably to 'correct' its 'error' in the original dossier.

Transgenic instability is a key safety issue

There were small and large discrepancies between the French and Belgian studies, which suggest that the transgenic lines were not only unstable but also non-uniform. Either one of those should make the transgenic lines illegal for Europe. There is every sign, however, that the European Commission will fudge this to lift the de facto moratorium, which will be a criminal offence in our opinion, as it will subject all European citizens to serious health risks.

Transgenic instability is a key safety issue. A GM variety that has changed its identity since characterised by the company, invalidates any safety tests or assessments that may have been done. It also makes it impossible to identify the GM variety for post-release monitoring, for implementing remedial action in case of harm and for assigning liability

Event specific characterisation of the GM inserts has only just begun. It is not clear how many of the GM varieties currently pending approval in Europe have been analysed (see Box 1).

It is also not legitimate to draw conclusions about the hybrids from data on parental GM lines. We have pointed out [20], for example, in the case of NK603xMon810, that both parental lines have rearranged, but no analyses were carried out on the hybrid and seeds set by the hybrid, where further recombinations are expected between the constructs, as they possess similar sequences that are recombination hotspots (see later): CaMV 35S promoter with enhancer (e35S) and the hsp70 intron.

There can be no approval of any GM variety or hybrid for import, either for growing or for food and processing unless and until event-specific analysis has been carried out and the GM variety/hybrid proven to be stable.

Some GMOs pending approval in Europe*

Identifier Crop Trait(s) Status
Bt11 sweet corn insect resistance Draft decision to authorise**
NK603 maize glyphosate tolerance EFSA favourable opinion***
GT73 oilseed rape glyphosate tolerance EFSA favourable opinion
Mon863 maize insect resistance EFSA favourable opinion
Mon863xMon810 hybrid maize insect & glyph. res. No decision from EFSA
Ms8xRf3 oilseed rape glufosinate res. Belgian approval (but denied for cultivation)
LLRice62 rice glufosinate tolerance Positive assess. UK ACRE
Bt Cry1F(1507) maize insect & glufo. res. Positive assess. Netherlands
NK603xMon810 maize glyphosate tolerance Consent from UK

* For import and/or use as food and/or feed and/or processing, not for growing.

**Ministers of European countries failed to reach agreement on Bt11 for food use, which is closest to final approval; the European Commission will now have to decide.

***NK603 was rejected for animal feed and food use by EU member states; the dossier now goes to the European Council of Ministers.

Major uncertainties over the safety of the GM process

Let us look at the rest of the evidence in brief; apart from the two incidents mentioned.

  • Between 2001 and 2002, twelve dairy cows died on a farm in Hesse, Germany, after eating Syngenta's Bt176 GM maize, and others in the herd had to be slaughtered on account of mysterious illnesses [21]. To-date, there has been no detailed autopsy reports available, even though the company claims the deaths and illnesses were unrelated to Bt176. Nevertheless the Spanish Food Safety Authority has just withdrawn authorisation for Bt176 cultivation in Spain [22] after it had occupied almost all of the 20 000 hectares of GM maize grown in Spain since 1998 [23]. The decision was taken following an EFSA recommendation that GMOs containing antibiotic resistance marker genes such as that found in Bt 176, be restricted to field trials.
  • Arpad Pusztai and colleagues found that GM potatoes with snowdrop lectin adversely affected every organ system of young rats, and the stomach and small intestine lining grew up to twice the thickness of controls [24].
  • Scientists in Egypt found similar results in the gastrointestinal tract of mice fed GM potato with Bt toxin [25].
  • US Food and Drug Administration had data since the early 1990s showing that rats fed GM tomatoes with antisense gene to delay ripening developed small holes in their stomach [24].
  • Aventis (now Bayer) found 100% increase in deaths of broiler chickens fed glufosinate- tolerant GM maize T25 compared to controls [26].
  • Numerous anecdotes from farmers and others indicating that livestock, wildlife and lab animals avoid GM feed, and fail to thrive or die when forced to eat it [26, 27].

Different species of GM food or feed with different GM genes have caused problems in many species of animals. You don't have to be a scientific genius to suspect that there is something wrong with the GM process itself or the GM insert.

All of the GM inserts involved contain the CaMV35S promoter that we have warned against since 1999 [28-31]. This promoter not only has a fragmentation hotspot making transgenic lines extra unstable, it substitutes for the promoter of a wide range of plant and animal viruses, and is also active in animal cells including human cells.

It is high time we ban all environmental releases of GM crops to make way for non-GM sustainable agriculture [32].

The greatest obstacle to a safe and sustainable future is a corrupt and corrupted science that operates on what can only be described as the anti-precautionary principle. There must now be a thorough enquiry into the safety of GM food and feed, and the systematic abuse of science that has allowed GM food and feed to be approved, which had all the signs of being unsafe.


  1. "French experts very disturbed by health effects of Monsanto GM corn" GMWatch 23 April 2004
  2. "Filipino islanders blame GM crop for mystery sickness. Monsanto denies scientist's claim that maize may have caused 100 villagers to fall ill" John Aglionby in Kalyong, southern Philippines, The Guardian, Wednesday 3 March 3, 2004,2763,1 160789,00.html
  3. Traavik, T. Lecture to Special Biosafety Genok and TWN Seminar, 22 February, Kuala Lumpur, and personal communication.
  4. "Despite ban, agriculturists can't stop farmers from planting Bt corn", Allen Estabillo, Minda News 23 April 2004 btcorn.html
  5. Cummins J. Regulatory sham over Bt-crops. ISIS report 1 December 2003; also Science in Society 2004, 21, 30.
  6. Cummins J. Bt toxins in genetically modified crops: regulation by deceit. Science in Society 2004, 22 (in press).
  7. Vázquez-Padrón RI, Gonzáles-Cabrera J, Garcia-Tovar C, Neri-Bazan L, Lopéz-Revilla R, Hernández M, Moreno-Fierro L and de la Riva GA. CrylAc protoxin from Bacillus thringiensis sp. kurstaki HD73 binds to surface proteins in the mouse small intestine. Biochem Biophys Res Commun 2000, 271, 54-8; Ho MW. Bt toxin binds to mouse intestine. Science in Society 2004, 21, 7.
  8. Ho MW. Transgenic DNA & Bt toxin survive digestion. Science in Society 2004, 21, 11; Chowdhury EH, Kuribara H, Hino A, Sultana P, Mikami O, Shimada N, Guruge KS, Saito M, Nakajima Y. Detection of corn intrinsic and recombinant DNA fragments and CrylAb protein in the gastrointestinal contents of pigs fed genetically modified corn Bt11. J Anim Sci 2003, 81, 2546- 51.
  9. Dutton A, Klein H, Romeis J and Bigler F. "Uptake of Bt-toxin by herbivores feeding on transgenic maize and consequences for the predator Chrysoperia carnea", Ecological Entomology 2002, 27, 441- 7.
  10. Romeis J, Dutton A and Bigler F. "Bacillus thuringiensis toxin (Cry1Ab) has no direct effect on larvae of the green lacewing Chrysoperla carnea (Stephens) (Neuroptera: Chrysopidae)", Journal of Insect Physiology 2004, in press.
  11. Dutton A, Romeis J and Bigler F. "Assessing the risks of insect resistant transgenic plants on entomophagous arthropods: Bt-maize expressing Cry1Ab as a case study", BioControl 2003, 48, 611"36.
  12. Ho MW. FAQs on genetic engineering. ISIS tutorial
  14. Ho MW. Genetic Engineering Dream or Nightmare? TWN, Gateway, Gill & Macmillan, Continuum, 1998, 2nd ed. 1999, re-issued 2003 in cd
  15. Ho MW. The best kept secret of GM crops. Science in Society 2002, 15, 9.
  16. Ho MW. GM maize approve on bad science in the UK. Science in Society 2002, 15. 10-25.
  17. Collonier C, Berthier G, Boyer F, Duplan M-N, Fernandez S, Kebdani N, Kobilinsky A, Romanuk M, Bertheau Y. Characterization of commercial GMO inserts: a source of useful material to study genome fluidity. Poster presented at ICPMB: International Congress for Plant Molecular Biology (n°VII), Barcelona, 23-28th June 2003. Poster courtesy of Dr. Gilles-Eric Seralini, Président du Conseil Scientifique du CRII-GEN,; also "Transgenic lines proven unstable" by Mae-Wan Ho, ISIS Report, 23 October 2003
  18. Ho MW. Living with the Fluid Genome. TWN & ISIS, 2003.
  19. Ho MW. Unstable transgenic lines illegal. ISIS Report 3 December 2003; also Science in Society 2004, 21, 23.
  20. Ho MW and Cummins J. Comment on Assessment Report C, submitted to UK ACRE and European Food Safety Authority 6 April 2004 on behalf of ISIS and ISP www.i-
  21. Ho MW and Burcher S. Cows ate GM maize and died. Science in Society 2004, 21, 4-6.
  22. El Estado espanol retirara un OGM a instancias de la UE. El maiz Bt 176 podria provoca resistencias a los antibioticos, GARA, Spain
  23. Ho MW. Syngenta's Spanish Trojan horse. Science in Society 2004, 21, 8.
  24. Pusztai A, Bardocz S and Ewen SWB. Genetically modified foods: Potential human health effects. In Food Safety: Contaminants and Toxins, (J P F D'Mello ed.), Scottish Agricultural College, Edinburgh, CAB International, 2003.
  25. Fares NH and El-Sayed AK. Fine structural changes in the ileum of mice fed on dendotoxin-treated potatotes and transgenic potatoes. Natural Toxins, 1998, 6, 219-33; also "Bt is toxic" by Joe Cummins and Mae-Wan Ho, ISIS News 7/8, February 2001, ISSN: 1474-1547 (print), ISSN: 1474-1814 (online) www.i-
  26. Novotny E. Animals avoid GM food, for good reasons. Science in Society 2004, 21, 9-11.
  27. Ho MW. Mice prefer non-GM. Science in Society 2002, 13/14, 24.
  28. Ho MW, Ryan A and Cummins J. Cauliflower mosaic viral promoter - a recipe for Disaster? Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease 1999 11, 194-7.
  29. Cummins J, Ho MW and Ryan A. Hazardous CaMV promoter? Nature Biotechnology 2000, 18, 363.
  30. Ho MW, Ryan A and Cummins J. Hazards of transgenic plants with the cauliflower mosaic viral promoter. Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease 2000, 12, 6-11.
  31. Ho MW, Ryan A and Cummins J. CaMV35S promoter fragmentation hotspot confirmed and it is active in animals. Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease 2000, 12, 189.
  32. Ho MW, Lim LC et al. The Case for a GM-Free Sustainable World. Independent Science Panel Report, ISIS & TWN, 2003

Broken Promises
GM sweet potato project turns sour

By Lim Li Ching
The Institute of Science in Society
May, 10 2004

Will GM crops really help developing countries? Lim Li Ching looks at some telling examples in Kenya, Indonesia and India.

"Monsanto's showcase project in Africa fails", runs the headline in the magazine, New Scientist, pronouncing the project to develop genetically modified (GM) sweet potatoes a flop [1].

The GM sweet potatoes, modified to be resistant to the feathery mottle virus, had undergone three years of field trials. However, the Kenya Agriculture Research Institute (KARI) had to report that the GM sweet potatoes were as vulnerable to the virus as ordinary varieties, and sometimes their yield was lower.

"There is no demonstrated advantage arising from genetic transformation using the initial gene construct," KARI researchers Drs. Francis Nang'ayo and Ben Odhiambo were quoted as saying [2]. The national newspaper, Daily Nation, wrote: "The transgenic material did not quite withstand virus challenge in the field". Furthermore, "all lines tested were susceptible to viral attacks." And, control (non-GM) crops yielded more tuber compared to the GM sweet potato.

The poor performance of the GM sweet potato may come as a surprise, as it had been much touted as an example of how GM crops could help African agriculture. The GM sweet potato project was launched in Kenya in 2001 by the US special envoy, Andrew Young, who had flown into the country for the occasion. "With biotechnology, we are going to make a green revolution in Africa," he had said [2].

Kenyan biotechnologist Florence Wambugu had been involved in the early stages of the GM sweet potato project, and has been travelling the world promoting it. Media reports have been giving the impression that the GM sweet potato was already in commercial use and bringing real benefits. A typical report said: "While the West debates the ethics of genetically modified food, Florence Wambugu is using it to feed her country" [3]. It went on to claim that the GM sweet potato yields "are double that of the regular plant" and that the potatoes were bigger and richer in colour, with more nutritional value.

A recent report by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics cited the project as evidence of the potential benefits of GM crops to developing countries, saying of the GM sweet potato, "it is expected that yields will increase by approximately 18-25%" and that, where sold, "the increased income will be between 28-39%" [4]. And, "the use of GM virus-resistant sweet potatoes could prevent dramatic and frequent reductions in yield of one of the major food crops of many poor people in Africa". This report is what the UK government turns to when questioned about impacts of GM crops on developing countries.

But the yield claims are difficult to verify, as there have been little field data. In fact, early descriptions of the GM sweet potato project had overstated the potential gains from GM by under-reporting the average yield in conventional production. Aaron deGrassi of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex has said [5], "Accounts of the transgenic sweet potato have used low figures on average yields in Kenya to paint a picture of stagnation. An early article stated 6 tons per hectare - without mentioning the data source - which was then reproduced in subsequent analyses. However, FAO statistics indicate 9.7 tons, and official statistics report 10.4."

Thus, if as Wambugu has been claiming, the GM sweet potato produces 10 tonnes per hectare, then rather than increasing yields, it is performing no better than the conventional crop [6], as the recent reports on the field trials confirm.

The technology was imported from Monsanto, where Wambugu had carried out the initial genetic engineering research. Over a period of nine years, Monsanto isolated a viral coat protein responsible for virus resistance, and donated it to KARI, royalty free, to use in its sweet potato improvement programme.

However, the researchers had erred in concentrating on resistance to an American strain of the virus [1]. In any case, the GM sweet potato introduced in Kenya did not address the crop's major problem " weevils " and the virus in question was only one small factor among many that constrain production [5]. Furthermore, there are virus-resistant local varieties that farmers already use. In short, the GM sweet potato does little to address Kenyan farmers' needs.

Despite the reported failures of the GM sweet potato, Monsanto said it plans to develop further varieties. KARI has apparently reverted to working with gene constructs based on a Kenyan strain of the virus [2]. And Wambugu now says that, far from being a failure, the trials were merely meant to develop a specific genetic transformation system, and that more research is being conducted on a second generation product [7].

Over the last ten years, Monsanto, the World Bank and the US government have poured an estimated $6 million into the project, which has yet to fulfil its promises. In contrast, conventional breeding in Uganda has produced a variety of virus-resistant sweet potato in less time, at a small fraction of the cost, and reported yield gains of 100% [5].

"Bt cotton planting has given us more harm than good"

In December 2003, the Indonesian Minister of Agriculture announced that Monsanto had pulled out of South Sulawesi [8]. In fact, Bt cottonseeds were no longer supplied to farmers as of February that year. Monsanto said that its cotton business there was no longer economically viable. After two years of planting, Indonesia, the first Southeast Asian country to commercially approve Bt cotton, was pulling the plug on that GM crop, and switching to a locally-developed non-GM cotton variety.

Monsanto's entry into the region in 2001, through its Indonesian subsidiary PT Monagro Kimia, rode on a concerted campaign of promotion of Bt cotton among farmers. The company had claimed that Bt cotton was environmentally friendly, used less pesticide, and would ensure an abundant harvest and increase farmers' welfare.

The reality was very different. In the first year of planting, during which the government aimed to assess the crop's performance before deciding on whether to allow further commercialisation, there were reported failures of Bt cotton - the crop succumbed to drought [8] and hundreds of hectares were attacked by pests [9]. The drought had led to a pest population explosion on Bt cotton, but not on other cotton varieties. As a result, instead of reducing pesticide use, farmers had to use a different mix and larger amounts of pesticides to control the pests [10]. Furthermore, the Bt cotton - engineered to be resistant to a pest that is not a major problem in Sulawesi - was susceptible to other more serious pests.

Bt cotton did not produce the promised yields [8, 10], which Monsanto had boasted to be as high as 3 tons per hectare. Some farmers were even promised 4-7 tons per hectare. The average yield was only 1.1 ton per hectare, and 74% of the total area planted to Bt cotton produced less than one ton per hectare. Some farmers only harvested about 500 kg per hectare, others even less, about 70-120 kg per hectare. About 522 hectares experienced total harvest failure. Despite the problems, the government extended its approval for Bt cotton commercialisation by another year, with equally dismal results.

The poor yields trapped farmers in a debt cycle [11]; some 70% of the 4 438 farmers growing Bt cotton were unable to repay their credit after the first year of planting [10]. Branita Sandhini, a subsidiary company of Monsanto's Indonesian subsidiary, had provided farmers with the transgenic seeds and fertilisers on credit schemes, and bought the harvests so that farmers could repay their debts to the company [8]. But as the yields were poor, many farmers were caught out. Research conducted by various Indonesian institutions clearly showed that, in the year 2002, farmers planting Bt cotton had lower income compared to farmers planting non-GM cotton [12].

To make matters worse, the company unilaterally raised the price of the seeds. According to Konphalindo, the National Consortium for Forest and Nature in Indonesia, the initial agreement between the farmers and the company set the price of the seed at Rp 40 000/kg; but this increased to Rp 80 000/kg in the second planting season [12]. Furthermore, the company initially bought the cotton from the farmers for Rp 2 600/kg, but this later decreased to Rp 2 200/kg.

Because the company could refuse to buy the farmers' cotton harvest, many had no choice but to agree to the higher seed prices, by signing a letter of agreement with the company. Santi, one of the farmers said, "The company didn't give the farmer any choice, they never intended to improve our well being, they just put us in a debt circle, took away our independence and made us their slave forever. They try to monopolize everything, the seeds, the fertilizer, the marketing channel and even our life" [8].

She and her fellow farmers burnt their cotton fields in protest and refused to sign the letter, although others had no choice but to agree to the unfair deal, and continue planting Bt cotton to try and escape the vicious debt cycle. Eventually, many farmers refused to pay the outstanding credit, resulting in the ousting of Monsanto from the region.

It is farmers - those whom GM crops supposedly benefit - who have had to bear the consequences of the poor harvest and unfulfilled promises of Bt cotton. In contrast, the company abandoned the region, without being held liable for the problems it caused [10].

"Bt cotton unfit for cultivation and should be banned"

The Indonesian experience is mirrored by that of many farmers in India, where three varieties of Bt cotton were commercially planted for the first time in 2002 in the central and southern parts of the country. Mahyco-Monsanto, a joint venture between an Indian seed company and Monsanto, promoted Bt cotton as environmentally safe and economically beneficial, claiming it would reduce pesticide use and cultivation costs, while resulting in increased yields.

But reports from state governments, academic researchers, NGOs and farmers' organisations indicate that, in many areas, Bt cotton performed poorly, and at times failed completely in the 2002/2003 growing season [13-16]. So much so that a panel set up by the Gujarat government under the Joint Director of Agriculture (Oilseeds) said that Bt cotton "is unfit for cultivation and should be banned in the State" [17].

There were reports of failure to germinate, damage in drought conditions in Madhya Pradesh [18], susceptibility to root-rot in Maharashtra (where over 30,000 hectares of Bt cotton were damaged) [19] and leaf curl virus [20], and increase in non-target pests. Bt cotton was reported to be attacked by pests it is supposed to resist; at the Anandwan College of Agriculture, bollworms ate more than 80% of yield [21].

In Andhra Pradesh, farmers experienced economic losses overall, due to the higher price of Bt cottonseed, little savings in pesticide use and lower total yields [22]. Non-Bt plants were productive for two months longer than Bt cotton, allowing non-Bt farmers to reap an average harvest of 6.9 quintals per acre, compared to the 4.5 quintals per acre average harvest of farmers who planted Bt cotton, who suffered a net 35% decrease in the yield per acre. Pesticide use showed marginal differences, as while there was some reduction in the incidence of bollworm, there was an increase in sucking pests on Bt cotton. Bt farmers also had to pay considerably more for Bt seeds and for labour costs. Moreover, Bt cotton fetched a lower price in the market, due to its smaller boll size and staple length.

Overall, a non-Bt farmer obtained Rs 6 663 more per acre than the Bt farmer. The study further revealed that 71 % of Bt farmers experienced losses compared with only 18% of non-Bt farmers. And 50.7% of the Bt farmers surveyed categorically said that they would not plant Bt cotton again.

The Andhra Pradesh government confirmed the poor performance of Bt cotton in the state, saying that farmers weren't getting the yields promised and that the poor quality of the crop commanded a lower market price [23]. It pledged to compensate farmers for their loss. A follow-up study found similar experiences for the 2003/2004 growing season [24]. In spite of better weather conditions, Bt cotton's performance did not live up to its promises.

Despite these negative experiences, the Indian regulatory authority has approved another variety of Bt cotton for cultivation in central and southern India [25]. The same company supplying this variety, Rassi Seeds, a sub-licencee of Monsanto, was also given permission to conduct large-scale field trials for Bt cotton varieties developed for cultivation in northern India. A further 12 varieties of Bt cotton hybrids have just been approved for large-scale field trials and seed production [26].

How many more broken promises will have to be borne by farmers?

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