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Why GM Free?
From: The Case for A GM-Free Sustainable World

Institute for Science in Society (ISIS)
Executive Summary

  • 1. GM crops failed to deliver promised benefits

    The consistent finding from independent research and on-farm surveys since 1999 is that GM crops have failed to deliver the promised benefits of significantly increasing yields or reducing herbicide and pesticide use. GM crops have cost the United States an estimated $12 billion in farm subsidies, lost sales and product recalls due to transgenic contamination. Massive failures in Bt cotton of up to 100% were reported in India.

    Biotech corporations have suffered rapid decline since 2000, and investment advisors forecast no future for the agricultural sector. Meanwhile worldwide resistance to GM has reached a climax in 2002 when Zambia refused GM maize in food aid despite the threat of famine.

  • 2. GM crops posing escalating problems on the farm

    The instability of transgenic lines has plagued the industry from the beginning, and this may be responsible for a string of major crop failures. A review in 1994 stated, "While there are some examples of plants which show stable expression of a transgene these may prove to be the exceptions to the rule. In an informal survey of over 30 companies involved in the commercialisation of transgenic crop plants….almost all of the respondents indicated that they had observed some level of transgene inaction. Many respondents indicated that most cases of transgene inactivation never reach the literature."

    Triple herbicide-tolerant oilseed rape volunteers that have combined transgenic and non-transgenic traits are now widespread in Canada. Similar multiple herbicide-tolerant volunteers and weeds have emerged in the United States. In the United States, glyphosate-tolerant weeds are plaguing GM cotton and soya fields, and atrazine, one of the most toxic herbicides, has had to be used with glufosinate-tolerant GM maize.

    Bt biopesticide traits are simultaneously threatening to create superweeds and Bt- resistant pests.

  • 3. Extensive transgenic contamination unavoidable

    Extensive transgenic contamination has occurred in maize landraces growing in remote regions in Mexico despite an official moratorium that has been in place since 1998. High levels of contamination have since been found in Canada. In a test of 33 certified seed stocks, 32 were found contaminated.

    New research shows that transgenic pollen, wind-blown and deposited elsewhere, or fallen directly to the ground, is a major source of transgenic contamination. Contamination is generally acknowledged to be unavoidable, hence there can be no co-existence of transgenic and non-transgenic crops.

  • 4. GM crops not safe

    Contrary to the claims of proponents, GM crops have not been proven safe. The regulatory framework was fatally flawed from the start. It was based on an anti-precautionary approach designed to expedite product approval at the expense of safety considerations. The principle of 'substantial equivalence', on which risk assessment is based, is intended to be vague and ill-defined, thereby giving companies complete licence in claiming transgenic products 'substantially equivalent' to non-transgenic products, and hence 'safe'.

  • 5. GM food raises serious safety concerns

    There have been very few credible studies on GM food safety. Nevertheless, the available findings already give cause for concern. In the still only systematic investigation on GM food ever carried out in the world, 'growth factor-like' effects were found in the stomach and small intestine of young rats that were not fully accounted for by the transgene product, and were hence attributable to the transgenic process or the transgenic construct, and may hence be general to all GM food. There have been at least two other, more limited, studies that also raised serious safety concerns.

Why GM Free? (continued)
  • 6. Dangerous gene products are incorporated into crops

    Bt proteins, incorporated into 25% of all transgenic crops worldwide, have been found harmful to a range of non-target insects. Some of them are also potent immunogens and allergens. A team of scientists have cautioned against releasing Bt crops for human use.

    Food crops are increasingly used to produce pharmaceuticals and drugs, including cytokines known to suppress the immune system, induce sickness and central nervous system toxicity; interferon alpha, reported to cause dementia, neurotoxicity and mood and cognitive side effects; vaccines; and viral sequences such as the 'spike' protein gene of the pig coronavirus, in the same family as the SARS virus linked to the current epidemic. The glycoprotein gene gp120 of the AIDS virus HIV-1, incorporated into GM maize as a 'cheap, edible oral vaccine', serves as yet another biological time-bomb, as it can interfere with the immune system and recombine with viruses and bacteria to generate new and unpredictable pathogens.

  • 7. Terminator crops spread male sterility

    Crops engineered with 'suicide' genes for male sterility have been promoted as a means of 'containing', i.e., preventing, the spread of transgenes. In reality, the hybrid crops sold to farmers spread both male sterile suicide genes as well herbicide tolerance genes via pollen.

  • 8. Broad-spectrum herbicides highly toxic to humans and other species

    Glufosinate ammonium and glyphosate are used with the herbicide-tolerant transgenic crops that currently account for 75% of all transgenic crops worldwide. Both are systemic metabolic poisons expected to have a wide range of harmful effects, and these have been confirmed.

    Glufosinate ammonium is linked to neurological, respiratory, gastrointestinal and haematological toxicities, and birth defects in humans and mammals. It is toxic to butterflies and a number of beneficial insects, also to the larvae of clams and oysters, Daphnia and some freshwater fish, especially the rainbow trout. It inhibits beneficial soil bacteria and fungi, especially those that fix nitrogen.

    Glyphosate is the most frequent cause of complaints and poisoning in the UK. Disturbances of many body functions have been reported after exposures at normal use levels.

    Glyphosate exposure nearly doubled the risk of late spontaneous abortion, and children born to users of glyphosate had elevated neurobehavioral defects. Glyphosate caused retarded development of the foetal skeleton in laboratory rats. Glyphosate inhibits the synthesis of steroids, and is genotoxic in mammals, fish and frogs. Field dose exposure of earthworms caused at least 50 percent mortality and significant intestinal damage among surviving worms. Roundup caused cell division dysfunction that may be linked to human cancers.

    The known effects of both glufosinate and glyphosate are sufficiently serious for all further uses of the herbicides to be halted.

  • 9. Genetic engineering creates super-viruses

    By far the most insidious dangers of genetic engineering are inherent to the process itself, which greatly enhances the scope and probability of horizontal gene transfer and recombination, the main route to creating viruses and bacteria that cause disease epidemics. This was highlighted, in 2001, by the 'accidental' creation of a killer mouse virus in the course of an apparently innocent genetic engineering experiment.

    Newer techniques, such as DNA shuffling are allowing geneticists to create in a matter of minutes in the laboratory millions of recombinant viruses that have never existed in billions of years of evolution. Disease-causing viruses and bacteria and their genetic material are the predominant materials and tools for genetic engineering, as much as for the intentional creation of bio-weapons.

  • 10. Transgenic DNA in food taken up by bacteria in human gut

    There is already experimental evidence that transgenic DNA from plants has been taken up by bacteria in the soil and in the gut of human volunteers. Antibiotic resistance marker genes can spread from transgenic food to pathogenic bacteria, making infections very difficult to treat.

  • 11. Transgenic DNA and cancer

    Transgenic DNA is known to survive digestion in the gut and to jump into the genome of mammalian cells, raising the possibility for triggering cancer.

    The possibility cannot be excluded that feeding GM products such as maize to animals also carries risks, not just for the animals but also for human beings consuming the animal products.

  • 12. CaMV 35S promoter increases horizontal gene transfer

    Evidence suggests that transgenic constructs with the CaMV 35S promoter might be especially unstable and prone to horizontal gene transfer and recombination, with all the attendant hazards: gene mutations due to random insertion, cancer, reactivation of dormant viruses and generation of new viruses. This promoter is present in most GM crops being grown commercially today.

  • 13. A history of misrepresentation and suppression of scientific evidence

    There has been a history of misrepresentation and suppression of scientific evidence, especially on horizontal gene transfer. Key experiments failed to be performed, or were performed badly and then misrepresented. Many experiments were not followed up, including investigations on whether the CaMV 35S promoter is responsible for the 'growth-factor-like' effects observed in young rats fed GM potatoes.

In conclusion, GM crops have failed to deliver the promised benefits and are posing escalating problems on the farm. Transgenic contamination is now widely acknowledged to be unavoidable, and hence there can be no co-existence of GM and non-GM agriculture. Most important of all, GM crops have not been proven safe. On the contrary, sufficient evidence has emerged to raise serious safety concerns, that if ignored could result in irreversible damage to health and the environment. GM crops should be firmly rejected now.


Report Says More Farmers Don't Follow Biotech Rules

By Andrew Pollack
New York Yimes
June 19, 2003

A new study, drawn from government data, shows that more farmers are failing to comply with standards governing the planting of genetically modified corn than the industry has claimed.

Nearly one-fifth of farms growing the main type of genetically engineered corn, BT corn, are violating government rules aimed at preserving the usefulness of the corn, a consumer group said yesterday.

The group, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said that 19 percent of the farms growing BT corn did not plant at least 20 percent of their acres with corn other than the modified variety, as required by the Environmental Protection Agency. That figure is higher than the 14 percent noncompliance rate reported by the biotechnology industry.

"Noncompliance on this scale shows that current regulations aren't up to the task," said Gregory Jaffe, author of the report, adding that the government should stop relying on biotech companies to enforce the rules.

BT corn contains a gene from the Bacillus thuringiensis bacterium that causes the plant to produce a toxin that kills the corn borer and some other pests. But overuse of the crop could result in pests becoming immune to the BT toxin, which would diminish the effectiveness not only of the corn, but also of BT sprays widely used as a natural pesticide by organic farmers.

So the E.P.A. requires farmers to plant 20 percent of their corn acres with non-BT corn, to serve as a refuge for insects that would otherwise be killed by the toxin.

The agricultural biotechnology companies that sell BT corn seeds have monitored compliance with a telephone survey.

But the center received its data from the Agriculture Department under a freedom-of-information request. The data was for three states - Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska - that account for about half of all the BT corn grown in the nation. About 19 percent did not plant a large enough refuge, with 13 percent planting no refuge at all, the data showed.

One reason for the discrepancy was that the industry surveyed only large farms. The center also looked at small farms, which had a higher rate of noncompliance.

Lisa Dry, a spokeswoman for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, dismissed the significance of noncompliance by small farms, saying those farms account for only 8 percent of the BT corn grown.

Mr. Jaffe of the consumer group underscored the importance of having refuges close to BT corn, the reason the requirement is for each farm, not for each county.

An E.P.A. spokesman said the agency was evaluating the report.

Another report released yesterday by an activist group said that there had been almost 40,000 field tests of genetically modified crops authorized by the Agriculture Department from 1987 to 2002. The report, by the United States Public Interest Research Group, said that the Agriculture Department had acted as a rubber stamp, rejecting only 3.5 percent of the applications, usually because they were incomplete or had minor paperwork errors.

The report also said that in an increasing number of field trials - nearly 70 percent last year - the identity of the gene being put into the crop was not publicly disclosed because it was considered confidential business information.

David Hegwood, special counsel to the agriculture secretary, said in an interview that the current rejection rate was 8 percent and that the department gave robust scrutiny to trials.

In yet another development related to genetically modified crops, the Bush administration gave signs of pulling away from a proposed requirement that companies notify the Food and Drug Administration before putting a new genetically modified crop on the market. Right now, consultation with the F.D.A. is voluntary, though the agency and companies say it is always done.

The proposal was made in January 2001 in the final days of the Clinton administration. But Lester Crawford, deputy F.D.A. commissioner, told Congress on Tuesday that the regulation was "not a pressing public health priority" because the voluntary system was working.

The mandatory notification was favored by biotechnology companies, which thought it would improve consumer confidence in the regulation of biotech foods. Opponents of such foods had mixed feelings, saying the proposed regulation was an improvement but did not go far enough in ensuring F.D.A. scrutiny.


"We asked the captain what course of action he proposed to take toward a beast so large, terrifying, and unpredictable. He hesitated to answer, and then said judiciously: 'I think I shall praise it.'" - - Robert Hass

Berkeley, California, 26 June 2003
Dear friends, dear colleagues,

Beginning at 6 o'clock this morning, as I enter the final days of my contract as a faculty member at the University of California at Berkeley, I intend to mark and celebrate them, by doing what I believe a professor in a public university must do: to further reason and understanding. For the brief time that remains of my terminal contract at Berkeley, I shall sit holding office hours, day and night, outside the doors of California Hall. This is the building housing the Budget Committee of the Academic Senate, and the office of the Chancellor, the two arms of our university governance in charge of my file.

I am saddened by the failure of the administration and the Academic Senate to resolve in a timely fashion whether to grant me tenure at Berkeley. I believe that I have contributed to the mission of the university and my heart and intellect are also vested in its health and growth. All but one of the colleagues who witness my everyday teaching and research in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management have repeatedly stated their support for my tenure, and so have a set of external expert reviewers and the leadership of my College. To the extent that reason can assess, I do not know of any other academic information on the case that might suggest that a negative decision should be reached. Yet as of tonight, well over a year into the part of the process conducted in secret in California Hall, no decision has been made, as far as I am aware. I must therefore conclude that there is another set of criteria that counterweigh the strength of the case, but that such information cannot be publically shared. In the face of such lack of transparency and accountability, I choose to hold office hours in public, in the open, and in the midst of our beautiful campus. I do so in celebration of my vocation and my time at Berkeley, and not in the expectation that such an action will change the course of the decision process, whatever that might be.

It has been suggested that the extraordinary delay in reaching a decision on my tenure case without ostensible reason may be the result of, even retribution for, my advising our campus, academe, the government and the public against dangerous liaisons with the biotechnology industry, as well as my concerns regarding the problems with biotechnology itself. Without doubt, the uncertainty and reproach implicit in the silence on campus surrounding my case has had grave consequences for my professional, public and personal life. But such are the wages of doing work that has significance for the world, and it will be up to those sifting through the files of this case to discern the twists and turns that brought us to this moment, and to pass the judgment of history on the motives and actions of those involved, within and beyond our community. It is difficult to blame otherwise principled individuals for not voicing their best understanding. Fear is justified when even the president of the country equates with criminal acts any questioning of the wisdom of deploying transgenic crops. Against the desire of some to banish critical thinking from the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement, I choose to sit, openly available for discourse, in the heart of our campus.

At least one person has said that I should be banned from the academic system, implying that my work harms the public role of the university as a hothouse for the agbiotech industry. Indeed I have long stood against the folly of planting 100 million acres with transgenic crops each year, without knowing even the simplest consequences of such a massive intervention in the biosphere. An increasing number of scientists seem to be reaching the same position. It seems also true that research in my laboratory has prompted serious public concerns that the industry would rather not address. An industry on the crutches of public subsidy for a quarter of a century, an industry that trembles in the face of the simplest token of precautionary research, is hardly an industry that deserves to carry the public trust, much less our best hope for recovery in a flagging economy. It would seem rational that our university - and the public - should strive to keep an independent source of advice on the wisdom of supporting such an industry. Rationality, however, must take a back seat when the university becomes grafted to a specific industry. Such has increasingly been the case at Berkeley and at other universities.

At a time of rampant obscurantism and irrationality, I am proud of the privilege vested in me by the public as a professor at Berkeley. In fulfillment of the duty attached to that privilege, I intend to share the light of rationality during office hours over the next five days, together with those who might wish to join me.

Fiat lux.

Ignacio H. Chapela
Assistant Professor (Microbial Ecology)
Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management

Please feel free to forward this email as you see fit. I hereby decline all copyright.


Biologist Protests His Lack Of Tenure

By Michelle Locke
Associated Press
June 27, 2003

Modified crops critic camps out Berkeley assistant professor camping out to protest lack of tenure

BERKELEY - A biologist known for his outspoken criticism of genetically modified crops was camping out at UC Berkeley on Friday to protest his lack of tenure.

Ignacio Chapela, who began his protest Thursday morning and planned to continue through midnight Monday, said he is not sure what is preventing administrators from confirming him as a professor.

He said he wanted to move his office outdoors to serve as a transparent contrast to the closed-door secrecy of the tenure process.

Chapela, who is in the Environmental Policy, Science and Management department, began teaching at Berkeley in 1996. He is on a "tenure track" which means if he is not granted tenure, a permanent appointment, by the end of his contract he must leave the university.

Chapela's contract was scheduled to expire on June 30. However, on Thursday, university officials informed Chapela his contract had been extended for one year.

Administrators say they decided on the extension before Chapela's protest began, noting that the letter announcing it is dated June 19.

Chapela says he was approved for tenure by his department last year, but he has yet to hear from university administrators about his case.

Chapela has been a controversial figure on campus, loudly opposing a five-year, $25 million deal Berkeley signed with Novartis Corp., a Swiss-based agriculture giant, in 1998. Two years ago, Chapela co-authored a study published in the journal Nature that concluded that DNA from genetically engineered corn contaminated native maize in Mexico.

The study was denounced by the biotechnology industry and Nature later said there wasn't enough evidence available to justify publication of the paper. The journal did not retract the original paper but printed two harsh criticisms of the work as well as a defense by the researchers, who presented new data.

Chapela's supporters say one of the professors reviewing Chapela's tenure has ties to the biotech industry. UC officials declined comment on that or any of the details of the tenure case.

On the question of whether Chapela is being punished for his controversial stands, George Strait, Berkeley's assistant vice chancellor for public affairs, said Chapela "is a valued and respected member of the Berkeley faculty. We respect his scholarship and his teaching."

Chapela's camp out was proving a rigorous one as Berkeley abandoned its usually wintry June weather for temperatures near 90.

Chapela, who is maintaining a 24-hour presence with some short breaks, said he'd discovered it is legal to be on campus at night, but not to sleep there. "You have to keep your eyes open. The police come by and check."

Friday morning, Chapela was greeting a stream of supporters, some of whom brought offerings of coffee and muffins. His office, parked under a shady tree, consisted of a few chairs and a small bookcase.

Earlier, Chapela had taught a high school chemistry class brought to campus by their teacher, said supporter Jason Delborne, a graduate student in the environmental department.

"This has been a crazy couple of days," Delborne said.

Biotech researchers say their work splicing foreign genes into a variety of plants to enhance such traits as pest resistance will produce more food. But critics worry the consequences of the work are not known.

"My concern is really with the widespread release into the environment of transgenic organisms," Chapela said.

Some view the tenure-track period as a time to avoid controversy, but Chapela said he doesn't regret speaking out.

"If you're scared enough to shut up for tenure you'll be scared enough to shut up for (office) space, for privileges here, for recognition there," he said. "I would rather be able to look at myself in the mirror every morning than be a professor at Berkeley."

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