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The GM dream has not delivered

NOTE: Before Mark Lynas closed his blog to them over 500 comments were posted relating to his speech. Here's one of the more interesting ones.
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Lecture to Oxford Farming Conference, 3 January 2013
 http://www.marklynas.org/2013/01/lecture-to-oxford-farming-conference-3-january-2013/

Bob Phelps says: 7 January 2013 at 7:45 am

Most of this discussion is about commercial products, not science! On my visit to Monsanto's world Headquarters in St Louis Missouri USA in 1988, company executives told me a genetic manipulation (GM) revolution would soon dominate world farming and food production. I saw their research into:
*injectable bovine growth hormone (BGH) to increase milk yield from dairy cows;
*crop plants that make their own Bt insect toxins to kill some caterpillars; and
*Roundup tolerant crops, able to survive being sprayed with the potent weed killer.

These products were launched in 1996 but the company also promised higher crop yields, nitrogen fixation in grains, leaner [and] more productive animals, salt and drought tolerant crops, longer shelf life, healthier foods, and much more. They still do, but no such GM products exist now. US farmers still grow 45% of the world’s commercial GM broad-acre crops – soybean, corn, cotton, canola, and sugarbeet – with just the Bt and herbicide tolerance traits. And BGH (now owned by Eli Lilly) is approved for use only in the USA. Canada rejected it after Monsanto was accused of trying to encourage officials to make a favourable recommendation. Most GM products go to animal feed and biofuels as people don’t want to eat them.

Though GM is useful in epigenetic and genome research, the commercial GM product juggernaut stalled long ago. The promised traits depend on many genes interacting and these relationships can’t be cut-and-pasted using crude GM techniques. As the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation's (CSIRO Plant Industry) Dr Richard Richards concedes: "GM technologies are generally only suitable for the single gene traits, not complex multigenic ones". And Dr Heather Burrow, former CEO of the Beef Co-operative Research Centre, says: "… hundreds, even thousands, of interacting genes control important production traits like growth rate, feed efficiency and meat quality – not the handful that researchers had originally believed".

In Australia, the Gene Technology Regulator licensed herbicide tolerant GM canola in 2003 but state bans based on market uncertainty kept it out of NSW and Victoria until 2008, and WA until 2010. Elsewhere, Australia remains GM canola-free to this day, just like 160 other nations and dependent territories. GM is not a global industry.

Clean, green, GM-free farms and foods give Australia a huge competitive advantage over GM producers like Canada. Strong demand for GM-free canola has ensured premiums of up to $50/tonne since 2007. Last season, Birchip Cropping Group (BCG) analysis found GM canola was $150/hectare less profitable as GM growers paid GM seed royalties, used brand-name Roundup weed-killer, and had extra segregation and transport costs to the few GM silos. Roundup Ready GM canola was officially claimed to be about 8% of the crop.

GM canola is also a contamination risk. Tasmania has monitored GM canola trial site contamination since 2004  http://www.dpiw.tas.gov.au/inter.nsf/webpages/cart-6795×9?open. And West Australian organic grower Steve Marsh lost his certification after GM seed blew over his fence. Roadside contamination is widespread too. Percy Schmeiser’s case is not unique:  http://tinyurl.com/amdng6p

The GM giants use patents on seed to own and control the global food supply. At the Patents Office they say that cutting and pasting a single gene makes their seed an invention, but at the regulator's office say GM is just an extension of traditional breeding and need not be specially assessed or subject to the Precautionary Principle. The companies should not be allowed to have it both ways.

Monsanto (the largest commercial GM and conventional seed company with around 27% of the global market) retains ownership of its GM seed under its contracts but transfers liability to GM growers. Farmer Protection laws are needed to make the GM industry automatically compensate any farmer hit by GM crop contamination, without going to court.

The burden of proof that GM foods are safe to eat rests on their patent owners, not regulators or the public. Scientific American (August 2009) and Nature Biotechnology (October 2009) report that GM companies withhold seed from independent research and adverse findings are censored.

Even so, published papers show some GM soybean, corn, and canola harm experimental animals and may pose health risks to people. And industry does not contest some of these research findings. For instance, the Australian National University found CSIRO's GM field peas, containing a gene from a bean, provoked immune and inflammatory responses in mice (Prescott, et. al., J. Agric. Food Chem. 2005, 53, 9023-9030). Similarly, the Brazil nut gene in soybean provoked allergic responses in susceptible humans. The appropriate response is more research on GM food safety to resolve these uncertainties, not vilification of scientists.

GM crops can't deliver on their false promises of plentiful food and fibre. But their empty claims take research resources away from sustainable farming and food production systems based on healthy soils. These are needed to feed, house and clothe everyone well, in perpetuity. With oil and phosphate reserves diminished, land and water scarcer, and global climate changing, we must begin the transition from industrial agriculture to ecological farming systems as soon as possible.

GM is a dud only propped up by subsidies such as the US Farm Bill. Let's move on!

Bob Phelps says:
7 January 2013 at 7:54 am
 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8594427
N Engl J Med. 1996 Mar 14;334(11):688-92.
Identification of a Brazil-nut allergen in transgenic soybeans.
Nordlee JA, Taylor SL, Townsend JA, Thomas LA, Bush RK.
Source
Department of Food Science and Technology, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, 68583-0919, USA.