GM crops and food – the position and role of the Soil Association

Peter Melchett

05 November 2010

In light of the recent push by the GM industry and its close allies to promote GM crops as the answer to what is being reported as a global food crisis, Peter Melchett provides the Soil Association’s original reasons for opposing GM crops and food, and considers whether these have been reinforced or weakened by actual experience and scientific research over the last two decades. 

When genetic engineering of food crops was first proposed, and the crops started to be trialled, the organic and environmental movements opposed genetically modified (GM) crops for three key reasons.

First, particularly for the organic movement, because this technology – like many others introduced into non-organic farming – was in conflict with our core values. This also applied, for example, to the routine prophylactic use of antibiotics in livestock farming, and the feeding of cows’ brains to cattle – both practices declared safe by scientists, and both banned under organic standards. The feeding of cattle remains to cattle is thought to have caused bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or mad cow disease (note that no organically reared cattle had the disease), while the routine use of antibiotics in farming is now linked to the emergence of antibiotic resistant bacteria which can cause serious disease in humans, and to community acquired MRSA. Organic farming rests on a belief in working with nature and harnessing positive forces through healthy soil, healthy crops and healthy animals to provide healthy food for people.

Genetic engineering usually works by taking a gene with a known characteristic and firing it, usually in large numbers, randomly, into the DNA of an unrelated plant (or animal). Several new genes will be inserted into the host DNA, but if the process is successful, one will end up in the right place. Growing the resulting plant should identify gross disturbance of the DNA that leads to immediately obvious effects, but subtle impacts of the other insertions are effectively ignored (only a small part of the modified DNA has to be analysed for regulatory, safety purposes). Even forcing the new gene into the DNA in this way can only be successful if a promoter gene, usually a virus, is fired in alongside the gene with the desired trait. The virus gene (or a similar promoter) will then help the new gene behave aggressively enough to alter the characteristics of its new host.

Because this process is generally random and uncontrolled, a marker gene has to be inserted (these were usually genes that exhibited resistance to antibiotics) so that when the new plant was treated – for example, with an antibiotic – you could tell whether the ‘engineering’ had worked by whether the plant died or not. It is hard to imagine any technology at greater odds with the values and core beliefs of the organic movement. The recent development of GM technology which allows the insertion of a single gene in a specified site is not yet widely used, and still gives rise to a number of the concerns listed below.

The second key reason for the early opposition to genetic engineering was a scientific argument. The early proponents of genetic engineering claimed that they knew exactly what they were doing, and exactly what the consequences would be. They likened the process to fitting a nut to a bolt, or inserting a rivet in a steel girder; hence the original use of the term ‘genetic engineering’.

Yet from the earliest days, some eminent biologists and other scientists said this was scientifically illiterate. They said that genes do not act in isolation, but rather as part of a group of neighbouring genes in the DNA, and indeed that each group of genes has relationships with other groups of genes which affect their expression. In addition, many biologists believed that the behaviour of genes was affected – or even controlled – by other substances.

We now know that all of these concerns were correct. We have learnt that DNA is far more complex than was assumed when it was originally unravelled. For example, we have discovered that large parts of our and other species’ DNA appear to be switched off for reasons that we still do not fully understand. We now know that genes are affected by their position in DNA, and by relationships with other groups of genes, and that the characteristics they express are influenced by surrounding proteins. So we have a (to be expected) string of added complexity to what initially seemed a simple process. It is, of course, not unusual for a new scientific discovery to uncover many new, unexpected and interesting questions. Most recently, the new science of epigenetics suggests that an added uncertainty may be that what genes express is changed by their environment.

In the early days, environmentalists and other opponents of genetic engineering believed it was far less precise and certain in its outcome than its proponents claimed. We now know that this is true, not simply from advances in science, but also because so many GM crops and medicines have behaved in unexpected ways, sometimes with fatal results. In addition, there is now scientific evidence that genetically engineered crops are not stable, and that newly transferred genes appear to rearrange themselves within their host DNA, introducing new areas of uncertainty – and therefore risk.

This is why opponents of genetic engineering were right to object to the US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) decision (generally followed by the EU) to treat GM crops as ‘substantially equivalent’ to non-GM crops. This avoided the need for any safety testing of GM crops, such as is needed for a new medicine. We have now learnt that many scientists in the FDA objected to this at the time, but were over-ruled by the pro-GM US Government under President Bush and its appointees. Over the years, the number of scientists prepared to defend ‘substantial equivalence’ as having any basis in science has rapidly declined.

The third key reason why environmentalists, conservationists and the organic movement opposed GM from the outset was that it was clearly intended to give industrial and intensive farming a new lease of life. At the beginning of the 1990s it was becoming clear that the misnamed ‘green revolution’ was running out of steam, and that non-organic farming’s yields – particularly in developing countries – were beginning to plateau, as continues to be the case. In addition, restrictions on the types of chemicals that could be used to develop new pesticides, combined with tighter requirements for testing and regulation of pesticides, made bringing new pesticide products to the market increasingly expensive and difficult. In the four decades from the 1950s to the start of the 1990s, non-organic farming was responsible for global pollution, and caused immense destruction of farmland wildlife, soils and of natural and semi-natural features in the countryside, in much of Western Europe, much of the former USSR, Japan, China and many other countries.

A similar trajectory was being followed with food processing – increasing use of man-made chemicals and fats, increasing concern about the impact on human health, and the threat of greater regulation both of what chemicals could be used to mess around with food, and of the claims that could be made by the food industry to market these products. GM threatened to allow these damaging processes to continue despite growing environmental and health constraints, and growing public unease about what was being done to their food.

From its earliest days GM was backed by some of the world’s largest corporations. They took the view that GM was the future for both farming and medicine, and there was a rash of mergers between agrochemical and pharmaceutical companies. These new conglomerates bought up most of the independent seed companies to consolidate their grip on future developments in farming. GM also received strong support from the US, UK, German, French and other governments.

Throughout most of the last 15 years, ensuring the global adoption of GM crops has been a key objective of US foreign policy, and this has been pursued in all trade negotiations (North American Free Trade Agreement, World Trade Organisation and others), in all US aid policies and delivery, and as a key plank in bilateral relationships such as with the UK Government. In the UK, Tony Blair passionately believed that the future economic prosperity of the UK depended on us being in the lead in GM (both medicine and food).

Globally, much of the scientific establishment was also behind GM. In an era when scientists and universities in the US and UK were being forced to move closer to business and the market, GM companies represented a crucial new source of funding. Scientists working on GM also saw patents and collaboration with industry as a way of making large sums of money. GM start-up companies raised huge sums in the capital markets on promises of new products backed by scientists. When GM came under attack from environmentalists, the attack was easily portrayed (and in most cases was genuinely seen) as an ‘attack on science’, rather than opposition to an uncertain and nasty technology, which is what it actually was. All US and UK regulatory bodies have been dominated by pro-GM scientists – only the UK Government’s Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission was genuinely balanced in its membership, and its work did not help the GM industry – for example, in the UK GM public debate it supervised.

GM was introduced into food in North America and the EU without any public debate – effectively by stealth. When anti-GM campaigns in Europe started in the late 1990’s, 60% of our processed food was said to contain GM ingredients (mainly GM soya and derivatives). In Europe, this was mainly done by the two huge European food processing companies, Unilever and Nestle, with the implicit (and at Sainsbury’s, explicit) support of the supermarkets. Campaigners focussed on these companies, not US multi-nationals, although the latter – especially Monsanto – were often the focus of stories by journalists. This may explain why so many British scientists wrongly blame US companies like Monsanto for the failure of GM in the UK.

Active public interest campaigns in Europe alerted consumers to what was happening, focussing on supermarkets, with the crucial support of one of the smaller supermarket chains, Iceland. It was Iceland that actually came up with the ‘Frankenstein foods’ line and, crucially, provided proof that the claim from other retailers, scientists and the Government that “it’s too late, GM is here to stay” was not true, by removing GM from all their own products. When in early 1999, the steadily growing public concern was eventually reflected in press campaigns, first by the Daily Express and then the Daily Mail, all UK supermarkets dropped GM food, and said they would only stock it in future if their customers demanded it.

In North America, however, there continued to be complete ignorance about GM and food, with (until very recently) almost all Americans denying when polled that there was GM in the food they were eating. As with US consumers, farmers in North America also adopted the new technology without any real awareness of the possible implications. They then kept using GM crops partly because, at least in the early years, the technology did provide significant advantages, especially for very large scale farms, mainly in terms of convenience. There was less sensitivity about when crops had to be sprayed and, usually for the first two or three years, there were some cost savings for some farmers. In addition, once their land had grown GM crops the farmers soon found they weren’t able to grow a non-GM variety of the same crop without it being contaminated with GM, leading to threats from the GM companies like Monsanto for breach of patent and demands for huge damages. Anyhow, non-GM seed became harder to source (as the GM companies controlled most seed production).

Finally, GM was (and is) so widely supported among the older generation because many older people have a purely emotional and irrational belief in the power of science and technology to solve the world’s problems. The generation brought up on toothpaste ads full of men in white coats telling us with authority what products to buy, with the promise of nuclear electricity too cheap to meter, and on TV’s Tomorrow’s World and its equivalents, have a deeply ingrained faith in the big, quick, technical fix. By the nature of their professional lives, this includes most of those who run large corporations and most senior scientists, and through their influence and our culture, many politicians – regardless of party. Big (and complicated and ideally centralised) is believable. Small and simple (and devolved) is not.

Citizen resistance

So why did it all unravel? The simple answer is citizen resistance. In Europe and Japan, the threatened introduction of this new and untested technology played into citizens’ deeply held fears about the direction that farming had taken since the end of the Second World War. At an emotional level, GM was seen (rightly) as a means through which food companies and industrial farming could continue to interfere with their food in ways which they didn’t understand and which appeared, and indeed were secretive – even sinister.

There is a widespread belief that it was the media in the UK that led opposition to GM – that is wholly wrong. The scientific evidence shows that the media merely reflected public attitudes, and then rather late in the day. Massive media coverage in the UK in early 1999 did not have any additional impact on public opinion, and the level hostility to GM food in other EU countries (and Japan) was independent of the amount of media coverage.

In the EU as a whole, research shows that the underlying reason for opposition to GM was distrust of public institutions to control such a powerful and potentially dangerous technology, based on experience of previous failures of regulatory control of food safety or other public health issues. This was coupled with the underlying unease about modern farming and food processing that had been growing for several decades. In Japan, public opposition also reflected distrust of non-Japanese food and technology.

The loss of export markets (for soya and oilseed rape) to Japan, and a little later the EU, had a significant economic impact on US and Canadian farmers. This meant that, 10 years ago, when the GM companies were ready to launch the next major GM crop, wheat, they were stopped in their tracks by resistance from farming organisations in North America. As a result, no new major GM crops have been launched on the world market after the initial four – maize, oilseed rape, soya and cotton, although other GM crops are ready for commercial use.

When the herbicide-tolerant (for example ‘RoundUp Ready’) and insecticide-expressing GM crops were launched, many predicted that they would lead to serious problems with resistant weeds and insects. This was dismissed by pro-GM scientists, governments and the GM companies. But within as little as three years after the first sales of GM Roundup Ready maize, Monsanto was selling Roundup with a mix of one or more additional weed-killers to deal with the Roundup resistant weeds that were proliferating as a result of the use of GM Roundup Ready crops. Resistant weeds and insects, and the additional chemicals needed to deal with them, soon wiped out most of the cost savings. Also, as new strains of non-GM soya, maize and so-on were brought to the market, GM crops started to yield less well than the best new non-GM varieties. Overall, and over time, GM crops do not appear to have delivered any yield advantages in most of the countries where they have been grown. Non-GM versions of commodity crops like soya and maize are now beginning to trade globally at a price premium. In the UK, the fact that the GM Farm Scale Evaluation, paid for by the Government and run by GM supporters and independent scientists, showed GM crops were generally worse for wildlife, was a further blow.

More recently, there have been a number of significant, but generally little noticed changes which are making the climate for GM crops distinctly more difficult than it was before the turn of the century. First, at long last, there seems to be a real awakening among US consumers and, hence, US food manufacturers to the presence of GM in American food. Things are changing from the Bush era. More US scientists are expressing doubts about GM safety and regulatory controls. In the market, a newly launched ‘Non-GM’ food label is the fastest growing health/environmental label in US stores. Monsanto’s GM growth hormone (rBST) which is injected into cows to increase milk yield – once one of the most widely used GM product in the US food chain – is on the way out. It was rejected by consumers as soon as milk was labelled accurately and major companies like Walmart and Starbucks no longer accept milk derived from cows treated with rBST. President Obama is in favour of accurate (GM and non-GM) labelling of food.

It was, of course, always a mistake to over-simplify the US position. When GM crops were initially introduced, first a major Japanese food company acted to exclude GM soya, and Heinz were the first western food company to announce they would not use any GM in their products worldwide. Both Japan and the USA were ahead of Europe in this respect.

In recent years in Europe, the most pro-GM leader, Tony Blair, has gone, as has by far the most pro-GM European commissioner, Peter Mandelson. Germany has already become much more sceptical about GM, and France, long one of the strongest supporters of the technology, now appears to be taking a completely different and possibly much more hostile line; it is certainly no longer a reliable flag-waver for GM. The accession states from Eastern Europe have not proved to be the pushover that the GM industry thought they would be, despite their strenuous efforts – indeed Poland recently went non-GM. Of course, some EU countries like Greece have always been implacably opposed to GM. Recently, the European Commission has suggested trading the right for Member States to go ‘GM free’ in return for Member States agreeing to a faster GM crop approval process. What difference this will make in practice is unclear while huge problems of regulating coexistence between GM and non-GM crops, and legal liability for damage from GM crops, remain. However, the key is, as it always has been, will consumers buy the GM food that might be on offer?

In the UK, the most significant changes in recent years have been among Government scientists. David King (ex-Government Chief Scientist) and the late Howard Dalton (ex-Defra Chief Scientist) have been replaced by two scientists who are a long way from being the strong pro-GM campaigners that both their predecessors were. David Cameron is probably the least fervently pro-GM Prime Minister we have had in the UK since the technology first appeared on the political scene. More significantly the position in Scotland and Wales, where farming is of greater economic, cultural and political significance than in England, has changed to very strong anti-GM positions. For example, in Scotland, Richard Lochhead, Secretary for the Environment, insisted genetically modified food had no part to play in the nation’s diet. Launching the national food policy, Mr Lochhead said: “One of the reasons why Scotland has such a fantastic international reputation for food and drink is because we have a fantastic, clean, green image of lochs and land. That would be distorted, I believe, by going down the GM route. I believe it’s in the interests of Scottish food and drink to be GM-free”. The Welsh Assembly Government has proposed one of the most stringent coexistence regimes (between GM and non-GM crops) of any EU country – for example, by making GM companies liable for any damage their crops cause. Despite their claims that GM crops are safe and containable, no GM company will accept liability for such damage.

Internationally, the global International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) report, Agriculture at a Crossroads, which was led by Bob Watson, now Chief Scientist at Defra, is probably the first major international report in the last 20 years looking at the future of farming which has not trumpeted the potential of GM to save the world. Modelled on the approach of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), engaging 400 scientists around the world to draft and peer-review the work, the process that led to the IAASTD report proved as intractable to US Government control as the IPCC has. It is not surprising that Syngenta walked out as the report was being finalised. Also significant is the recent report written by the leading European organic research institute, FiBL, for the International Trade Centre, who are technical advisers to the World Trade Organisation and the United Nations. This report speaks in glowing terms of organic farming’s potential to help feed the world in a period of increasing oil prices and in a future dominated by the need to cut greenhouse gases. These reports, along with the favourable line on organic taken by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation at their conference two years ago, suggesting that there is a credible alternative to GM to feed the world, are arguably one the GM industry’s worst nightmares come true.

On the other hand, there are very powerful economic forces, companies and individuals who remain entirely committed to a GM future. This is typified by the huge sums of money that the Bill Gates Foundation is putting into GM research in the developing world, reflecting the large and influential group of people and institutions who continue to believe in high-tech solutions at any cost. India, South East Asia and Africa remain battlegrounds, with strong local opposition. Finally, of course, now that they have been de-merged from pharmaceutical companies, the commercial survival of the agrochemical giants depends on world agriculture being dominated by pesticides and GM crops, rather than organic farming.

The greatest uncertainty for the GM industry looking forward must be in the field of scientific research. There will be continuing problems on farms with existing GM technology, and continued consumer resistance in many key markets. But it is extraordinary how very little scientific research has been done anywhere in the world looking at the safety of GM crops. The famous study by Arpad Pusztai, which suggested that GM potatoes might adversely affect the health of rats, has never been repeated, despite the vicious criticism he came under from the UK Government, GM companies and the UK scientific establishment. GM companies generally stop research looking at the health effects, and inter-generational effects, of eating GM crops (animal feeding trials) by preventing researchers from having access to GM material of known origin. The handful of studies that have been done tend to support Pusztai’s initial findings. Given the shoddy history of a global ‘safety’ regime based on the unscientific fraud of ‘substantial equivalence’, the traducing of scientists who have expressed concerns, and the suppression and prevention of research, if serious health consequences are ever identified in animal trials, it is hard to see the GM industry surviving.

The great hope for GM is the so-called ‘second generation’ of GM crops. These are variously claimed to be crops with clear consumer benefits, such as added vitamins, or with clear environmental benefits, including nitrogen-fixing and saline-resistant crops. These are not recent ideas – they were part of the sales pitch for GM a decade and a half ago. For over 10 years, GM rice with extra vitamin A (‘Golden rice’) has been promised, but never delivered. There are several reasons for this, including the tiny amount of extra vitamin A they were initially able to engineer into the rice. It is still not clear if the extra vitamin could be absorbed by human beings. Many scientists believe that GM technology will not be able to transfer complex, multi-gene traits, like higher yields, saline resistance or nitrogen-fixing, to new crops. Even if transfers are achieved, and remain stable, it seems likely that other characteristics of the plant will be adversely affected.

Modern, non-GM plant breeding can use our new knowledge of the genome to identify genes with useful traits that already in a plant’s DNA. Called Marker Assisted Selection (MAS), this greatly speeds up normal crop breeding and is already delivering commercially useful new crops, such as drought-resistant varieties for African farming. It is also delivering new varieties faster than GM. Indeed, most new varieties, including higher yielding varieties of soya – which is one of the most widely grown GM crops – are now non-GM. In addition, organic farming and food already deliver better drought resistance, nitrogen-fixing rotations based on legumes, and food with higher levels of readily available beneficial vitamins and other nutrients, with less dependence on increasingly scarce oil and other fossil fuels, and fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

Because of the significant economic interests behind GM and their relatively huge economic power compared to their main opponents – the organic movement and international environmental groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth – the struggle will continue. Organic is the real threat to GM. We know from experience in North America, Spain and elsewhere that the two farming systems cannot co-exist when growing the same or related crops in the same country. This is true even in a country as large as Canada, where quite soon after the introduction of GM canola (oilseed rape), organic farmers had to stop growing organic canola completely because of contamination by GM canola. Organic farmers in Northern Spain have faced similar problems with GM maize. GM crops must never be allowed to remove farmers’ freedom to farm organically, and people’s freedom to choose organic food.

Peter Melchett is policy director of the Soil Association. He runs an 360 hectare organic farm in Norfolk, with pigs, beef cattle and arable seed crops. For more information on GM visit

This article was first published in Mother Earth, the Soil Association's journal of organic thought and policy. We hope you enjoyed this article, please feel free to share this with your contacts. If you wish to support the production of Mother Earth in future, and receive the latest issue direct to your door, then please subscribe to Mother Earth, for just £12 a year.


Mother Earth journal cover