The UK is under immense pressure to sign up to US demands on the regulations applying to GMO (genetically modified organisms), as part of the US-UK trade deal. One look at the USA’s commercial commitment to GMO tells you why.
GMO technology, often developed by US companies, is embedded in US farming practices and hence the food chain. In 1997, 17 per cent of US soybean crops were modified to be “herbicide tolerant”. By 2014, the figure reached 94 per cent where it has stayed ever since. The two other major crops, corn and cotton, today stand at 94 per cent and 92 per cent respectively.
The yield per acre for corn grown in the US is now three and a half times greater than it was in the mid-1950s. Much of this gain is attributable to genetic modification. A 2014 analysis concluded that applied GM technology had reduced chemical pesticide use by 37 per cent, increased crop yields by 22 per cent, and increased farmer profits by 68 per cent. In isolation, the commercial case for GMO is compelling.
Most products that are modified are ‘stacked GMOs’ containing both herbicide-tolerant and insecticide-resistant modifications. Increasing numbers of other traits such as pest or drought resistance, crop height or blight resistance are being added through genetic modification to improve the yield. It is estimated that 75 per cent of US processed foods now contain ingredients produced from GMOs.
The US farming industry has wholeheartedly embraced GMO, though the US public appears to be more circumspect, with 39 per cent of them wanting GM foodstuffs to be labelled. GMO technology is so well established in US farming that the industry has left public opinion in its wake. Any industry concession on a food-labelling requirement for GMO content in the US is unlikely.
The widespread adoption of GMOs by US farmers is also a commercial problem. The scope for US sales growth reduces in the US market as GMO use approaches saturation. So while the almost monopoly position of GMO has to be protected in the US, the efforts of US lobbyists and diplomats now turns to international markets. The EU has been the recipient of such lobbying attention for a long time, in spite of, or maybe because of, its citizens’ basic resistance to GMO. In this regard, voter concerns in the UK are broadly in line with the rest of the EU.
In the EU only Spain and Portugal are significant growers of GM crops. When last invited to declare their wish to grow GM crops, 19 of the EU members states from 27 opted out. Interestingly, the UK was then a member state. England wished to have the option, but Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales opted out.
While the EU is not a grower there are 60 GM products in the EU marketplace with animal feeds being a large component of those products. GMO and pesticide use run hand in hand and in any rigorous analysis the impact of GMO and associated pesticides should not be divorced from one another.
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Some scientific experts in the agritech world are frustrated at the way GMO technology has been demonised as inevitably a ‘bad thing’. They argue that Darwinian evolution of all species (random mutations) and the human intervention in breeding plants both produce genetic modification. As populations expand and pressure on limited farmland increases, many see GMO as the only way to meet the rapidly increasing global food demand. Equally, it is important that the demand for more food globally, and the commercial opportunity it represents, do not overlook any detrimental effects on humans or on the environment caused by large-scale GMO food production.
Any suggestion that GM food has a directly detrimental effect on human beings, or any other averse effect, is heavily contested by those with vested interests. A combination of strategies is used, including direct lobbying, discrediting the science (any science suggesting GMO are a problem) and marshalling PR and propaganda campaigns.
There’s a fundamental difference in attitude between the US and the EU regarding the safety of farming practices. In the US, the first priority is to commercially exploit new products in the market place. Regulations, and attitudes to risk, are typically less constraining than in the EU. Statutory US safety requirements are respected, but the regulations tend to offer a lower threshold for approval than their EU counterparts require.
The prevailing scientific view is that no GMO technology should be subject to blanket regulatory rejection; rather, that approvals should be considered on a case-by-case basis, looking at the particular application of a specific technology. It is simultaneously being argued by supporters that certain GMO technologies are substantially the same as natural gene-modification processes and should be exempt from regulatory approval altogether. One such technology is the so-called “precision breeding techniques”.
As the agriculture bill makes its way through committee scrutiny and the House of Lords, procedural and technical questions arise about an amendment being proposed. The amendment was originally proposed by York Outer MP Julian Sturdy and was put forward by crossbench peer Lord Cameron of Dillington and others. The effect of the proposed amendment will be to absolve “precision breeding techniques” from any regulatory scrutiny in the UK on the grounds the “nucleic acid changes could have occurred naturally or through traditional breeding practices”.
There are further questions: If the loosely defined precision breeding techniques are made exempt from regulation on the grounds they are the same thing as naturally occurring modifications or traditional breeding techniques, should they not also be denied patent protection? If they are denied patent protection should they not be treated similarly to naturally modified products, meaning farmers cannot be compelled to repurchase the seeds for the GMOs every year. Also, including the word ‘precision’ to describe the genetic modification process is a seductive label. It cannot be assumed that scientists can precisely predict the impact of a genetic modification when introduced in industrial-scale farming, just because the modification itself is ‘precise’. Making any GMO completely free of regulation is dangerous when so often there are unknown and unintended consequences of a technique moved from the lab to extensive deployment in the real world.
Corporations have a history of getting products through regulatory hurdles and then concealing detrimental effects of those products that are already known about or subsequently arise. Once corporate fortunes are heavily dependent on the products already in the marketplace, the tendency is to hide the inconvenient truth, or deny it, and spend a lot of money persuading the public that everything is fine. The Philip Morris example of prolonged corporate deceit about the known link between smoking and cancer has become a classic model of US corporate malpractice. Europe is not without its equivalent scandals: VW’s gerrymandering of exhaust emissions under official test conditions being a recent one. Removing regulatory hurdles altogether just invites further cover-ups.
In contrast to the US culture, EU regulation generally adopts the ‘precautionary principle’ where the onus is on the GMO developers and seed suppliers to demonstrate that they have identified all foreseeable safety considerations. Until potentially adverse consequences have been resolved, approval is withheld or restrictions imposed on the product’s use. This is a huge irritation to the US and the current US president in particular. Critics of GMOs say that the EU is as subject to the commercial power and funding of the lobbyists as the US is, and we are being taken down the same road. Now outside of the EU, and in desperate need of striking a trade deal, the UK is a sitting duck whose wings and legs have been removed by the genetically engineered nationalistic delusion of “taking back control.”
The implications of GMO use go beyond food safety concerns for human consumption of GM foods. Those involved in applying herbicides and insecticides to GMO crops are exposed to toxic chemicals as part of the industrial-scale farming process, as are nearby people affected by drift. The effect on animals reared on GM feedstock is another potential hazard. The creation of millions of acres of mono-cultural GMO crops that are weed and insect free undermines species and habitat diversity and so plays havoc with the food chain. Hence GMO technology, intended to improve our food security, can inadvertently pose a threat to it. There are also concerns that cross pollination from GMOs with unintended target plants and weeds can produce weeds with robust resistances that inure them to herbicides over time. The phenomenon is called ‘lifting’ – in which applied spray rises as a cloud and drifts off to settle somewhere it was not intended to be, with unpredictable effects on the flora and fauna whose genes are altered or whose habitat is changed.
A further commercial issue is the ability of the seed suppliers (often the same companies that supply the agrichemicals), to assert intellectual property (IP) rights over farmers. It arises because gene modification enables the large agrichemical companies to patent the resulting seeds and in turn dictate the use of modified seeds. In the US, this ethical issue of whether manipulation of naturally occurring genes should qualify for IP protection, is less important than the commercial opportunity to be exploited. Currently, farmers can be compelled under their commercial contracts to buy their seeds for future crops from the agrichemical companies. There is a cosy relationship between manufacturers, regulators and politicians, with little opposition to this state of affairs apart from environment campaign groups and their lobbyists, who don’t have anything like the funding available to make their case.
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The jury is still out on the extent to which GMOs harm people, wildlife and the environment. There might not even be a jury if the US succeeds in establishing commercial tribunals in the trade deal. These operate outside of national legal jurisdictions, where corporations can claim future loss of profits due to actions by national governments and reclaim the predicted loss if the tribunal of commercial lawyers decides for the corporate plaintiff.
The network of pro-GMO advocates includes lobbyists, diplomats, regulators, industry-funded scientists and politicians. Their collective lobbying practices are interconnected, sophisticated and well funded. Known lobbying spend by Monsanto in the EU is $1.8m per year. They are highly active in the US, EU and now the UK. They operate as a consortium rather than rivals. Many of the key players move frequently between industry, regulatory bodies and academic posts so they know how the lobbying game works. They have comprehensively infiltrated regulatory decision making in the US and the EU. The lobbying organisations appear in their own right or hiding behind lobbying groups that they fund. In the US and the EU, Monsanto and Syngenta are big players with big budgets. Attempts have been made by the EU to filter out industry insiders from sitting directly in positions where they can influence policy. Their long-term strategy however means vested interests continue to erode or compromise EU regulation. The EU’s precautionary principle for GMOs is under attack and hanging on by its fingernails. The UK’s attachment to this principle is suspect or, to be exact, England’s attachment is.
The English having declared an openness to GMO, the UK may be seen by the US an easy door to push open. Without pressure from the public to express opposition to US trade conditions on GMO, the government is likely to cave in. We all need to tell our MPs and make it clear to government we are watching their every move and will not accept conditions laid down by the negotiators on the US side. Otherwise, the UK won’t have much say and the US requirements for acceptance and deregulation of GMO products will be locked in to the UK market indefinitely. Negotiation will not even be a recognisable part of the process. Left to its own devices, the US will reject labelling. The commercial ethics around patenting, the unresolved safety issues or the environmental threats of GMO are unlikely to get a look-in. If you don’t want the US to call the shots on GMOs make sure your MP and the government know you understand the issues and that you do not want a regulatory-free zone in the UK.