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Genetic Engineering

The history and spread of GM crops

Genetically altered seeds have been available in the US since 1994. The GM crop production industry is dominated by Monsanto. Other major producers are Du Pont, Dow, the Novartis group and Syngenta.

In 2005, 90 million hectares were planted worldwide with GM crops, more than double the amount in 2000. GM crops are grown in 21 countries as opposed to only six in 1996.

The United States is by far the biggest producer with 50 million hectares of farmland planted in 2005, mainly genetically altered corn (maize), soybeans, potatoes and cotton. Other large growers are Argentina, Brazil, Canada and China.

The European Commission has lifted its six-year ban (1998 – 2004) on the import of GM foods following a dispute with the World Trade Organisation, which accused it of unfair trade. The EU has since approved over 30 GM crops for growth within the European Community. A number of different foods containing GM products have also been approved for import. Genetically modified corn, also known as Bt or biotech corn, is now grown in five EU countries: Spain, Germany, Portugal, France and the Czech Republic. The WTO also ruled that individual countries within the EU had no grounds for their own bans.

The UK government has permitted the commercial growth of GM crops from 2009. Farmers will need to tell their neighbours what they are growing and they have to keep a distance of 100m between crops. This is despite strong consumer opposition to GM foods which led to the major British supermarket chains declaring their intention to no longer sell them.

GM crops are thus being grown in more and more countries. Monsanto did cease producing GM wheat in 2004, but the main reason was opposition from US wheat farmers who were worried about losing their export markets.

Trials of GMOs

Many more varieties of GM crops have been trialled, particularly in the US. Many trials lack independent verification of the results and testing has been short-term rather than long-term. Very little research has been done on the stability of GMOs over several generations. There are no cancer trials. There are no human trials. The food is tested when it is consumed by the general public.

Organic farmers say the biotechnology companies are not building enough safety features into the GMO trials. They do not believe the buffer zones around GM crops are sufficient.


Australia commercially grows GM cotton and canola.The CSIRO ( Commonwealth Scientific & Industrial Research Organisation) was recently growing genetically modified peas but halted the work once the peas were discovered to be unsafe.

The Gene Technology Act 2000 established the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator within the federal Department of Health. A Gene Technology Ministerial Council was conducted a review of the Act during 2005 and 2006. It recommended an end to the various moratoria on GM crops by Australian states and the instigation of a federal system for permitting the growth of GM crops.

To date, there are no GM fruit or vegetables on sale in Australia but imported GM soybeans are used in a range of processed foods. Some imported processed foods may contain GM corn and some imported tomato paste sold in Australia comes from GM tomatoes. Bread and cheese can be made in Australia using GM enzymes.

Safety and labelling of GMOs

Food in the US is under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and pesticides are under the jurisdiction of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). By defining their GMOs as foods when dealing with the EPA, and defining them as pesticides when dealing with the FDA, the biotechnology companies have taken advantage of vague and out of date US laws. This has allowed them to get away with not labelling their genetically modified products and sidestepped a host of safety checks.

There is another reason for the absence of labelling and safety of GMOs in the US. According to the EPA, if the original organisms from which the genetic material was taken were safe, then a combination of the material must also be safe. The term used is 'substantially equivalent'. Many scientists see this reasoning as flawed and suggest that genetic engineering results in a unique organism which was different from the original organisms. This third organism may have characteristics which changes it as a food.

So, over a period of about four years, the biotechnology industry has been quietly creating genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and slipping them into our food. In the US, the biotechnology industry and the Food and Drug Administration decided the public did not need to know it was consuming genetically modified food, so these foods carry no identifying labels. They did not ask consumers if they wanted them, or even wanted them labelled.

Initially, all the biotechnology companies opposed any labelling of GM food products, as well as any liability for any harmful side-effects produced. Due to consumer pressure, many have now accepted the idea of voluntary labelling in some countries. In the US, there has been little opposition to GM foods by consumers over the five years they have been available. A widely publicised study, which showed that caterpillars of the monarch butterfly are killed by pollen from GM corn, has generated greater awareness and a response in the form of direct action. Several experimental GM crops were destroyed by environmentalists.

The European Commission has ruled that all products containing GM ingredients have to be labelled as such and the ingredients have to traceable to the source. This applies to both human and animal food products that have more than 0.9% of GM ingredients.

The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety came into force in 2003 but so far it relates to imports of living modified organisms: not products containing non-living organisms such as processed foods. Nor does it require consumer product labelling. Countries can ban the import of living modified organisms if they feel there is not enough evidence that they are safe. This is a way of protecting biodiversity. However, although over 130 countries have signed the protocol, Australia, the USA, Canada and Argentina have not.

Organic farmers have been highly critical of both chemical and GM systems of agriculture. They fear their industry could be severely damaged by the commercial introduction of genetically modified crops. This is because pollen from GM crops could be blown, or transported by the insects, onto organic fields and contaminate them. If laboratories find contamination from GMOs in organic foods, it is feared that loss of consumer confidence may force the organic industry out of business. A law suit was filed in February 1999 against the EPA and the biotechnology companies by the International Centre for Technology Assessment. They argue that insufficient environmental impact studies have been done on the Bt toxin. Jeremy Rivkin and 20 law firms working in 30 countries have filed against the patenting of genetic information. Monsanto, DuPont and various seed companies are accused of restricting the choice of seeds that farmers can plant.

Organic foods in Australia must meet strict quarantine standards if they are to be allowed export licences. Just the smallest amount of contamination may result in the loss of certification and your right to sell your food as organic. Organic crops are strictly monitored and labelled by organisations such as the Soil Association (UK), NASAA and BFA (Australia), and OGBA and OTCO (USA) to ensure public confidence in the product. DNA pollution is the latest threat to our survival. Insurers are aware that contamination of organic or chemically grown crops with genetic material will result in costly legal battles. If organic farmers cannot sell their product, they will sue. When crops are contaminated, a country will no longer be seen as a reliable supplier of natural crops.

Labelling is also necessary to enable scientists to trace the source of any new illness that arises as a result of eating GM food.

Opposition to GMOs

In Europe during the 1990’s a storm of public protest erupted over the introduction of GMOs. Between 1994 and 2005 activists destroyed fields of experimental GM crops. For ten years GM crops were banned by governments in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and many countries throughout the world. Some manufacturers and retailers agreed not to use them in their products or sell them.

Many people want labels to tell them what it is they are eating and want a ban on GMOs. Some governments have introduced laws, which make the labelling of GM products in foods mandatory and some local government authorities still oppose GMOs in school meals and in nursing homes.

The US use of the World Trade Organisation as its policeman to force GM crops on the world market has been successful and GM crops are finding their way into our foods.


Patenting a GMO, means that the genes remain the intellectual property of the company. Biotechnology companies are claiming global patents on gene changes in many plant species. Monsanto has a patent on GM soybeans and cotton, with patents pending on corn, rice and groundnuts. Monsanto is opposing Argentine production of GM seed for soybeans, which is selling at a cheaper price.

For the farmer this means that they are breaking the law if they save the seed to plant them the following year. Farmers have been the seed keepers and seed breeders for centuries. Basmati is a type of rice, which is grown by Indian farmers. Recently, a US Corporation called RiceTec has modified it, patented it and is now calling it its own property. This phenomenon has been called biopiracy because it is an attempt by western corporations to steal from Third World people centuries of collective knowledge and skill in plant breeding.

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