No scientific consensus on GMO safety – scientists release statement saying public is being misled

Earth Open Source, Monday 21 October 2013

There is no scientific consensus that genetically modified foods and crops are safe, according to a statement released today by an international group of over 85 scientists, academics and physicians.[1]

The statement comes in response to recent claims from the GM industry and some scientists and commentators that there is a “scientific consensus” that GM foods and crops are safe for human and animal health and the environment. The statement calls such claims “misleading” and states, “The claimed consensus on GMO safety does not exist.”

Commenting on the statement, one of the signatories, Professor Brian Wynne, associate director and co-principal investigator from 2002-2012 of the UK ESRC Centre for the Economic and Social Aspects of Genomics, Cesagen, Lancaster University, said: “There is no consensus amongst scientific researchers over the health or environmental safety of GM crops and foods, and it is misleading and irresponsible for anyone to claim that there is. Many salient questions remain open, while more are being discovered and reported by independent scientists in the international scientific literature. Indeed some key public interest questions revealed by such research have been left neglected for years by the huge imbalance in research funding, against thorough biosafety research and in favour of the commercial-scientific promotion of this technology.”


Another signatory, Professor C. Vyvyan Howard, a medically qualified toxicopathologist based at the University of Ulster, said: “A substantial number of studies suggest that GM crops and foods can be toxic or allergenic, and that they can have adverse impacts on beneficial and non-target organisms. It is often claimed that millions of Americans eat GM foods with no ill effects. But as the US has no GMO labelling and no epidemiological studies have been carried out, there is no way of knowing whether the rising rates of chronic diseases seen in that country have anything to do with GM food consumption or not. Therefore this claim has no scientific basis.”

A third signatory to the statement, Andy Stirling, professor of science and technology policy at Sussex University and member of the UK government’s GM Science Review Panel, said: “The main reason some multinationals prefer GM technologies over the many alternatives is that GM offers more lucrative ways to control intellectual property and global supply chains. To sideline open discussion of these issues, related interests are now trying to deny the many uncertainties and suppress scientific diversity. This undermines democratic debate – and science itself.”

The scientists’ statement was released by the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility in the week after the World Food Prize was awarded to employees of the GM seed giants Monsanto and Syngenta and UK environment secretary Owen Paterson branded opponents of GM foods as “wicked”.

Signatories of the statement include prominent and respected scientists, including Dr Hans Herren, a former winner of the World Food Prize and an Alternative Nobel Prize laureate, and Dr Pushpa Bhargava, known as the father of modern biotechnology in India.

Claire Robinson, research director at Earth Open Source commented, “The joint statement and comments of the senior scientists and academics make clear those who claim there is a scientific consensus over GMO safety are really engaged in a partisan bid to shut down debate.

“We have to ask why these people are so desperate to prevent further exploration of an issue that is of immense significance for the future of our food and agriculture. We actually need not less but more public debate on the impacts of this technology, particularly given the proven effective alternatives that are being sidelined in the rush to promote GM.”


Summary of the statement, “No scientific consensus on GMO safety”:

1. There is no scientific consensus that GM crops and foods are safe for human and animal health.

2. A peer-reviewed review of safety studies on GM crops and foods found about an equal number of research groups raising concerns about GMO safety as groups concluding safety. However, most researchers concluding safety were affiliated with biotechnology companies that stood to profit from commercializing the GM crop concerned.

3. A review that is often cited to show GM crops and foods are safe in fact includes studies that raised concerns. Scientists disagree about the interpretation of these findings.

4. No epidemiological studies have been carried out to find out if GM crops are affecting human health, so claims that millions of Americans eat GM foods with no ill effects have no scientific basis.

5. There is no scientific consensus on the safety of GM crops for the environment. Studies have associated GM herbicide-tolerant crops with increased herbicide use and GM insecticidal crops with unexpected toxic impacts on non-target organisms.

6. A survey among scientists showed that those who received funding from biotech companies were more likely to believe GM crops were safe for the environment, whereas independent scientists were more likely to emphasize uncertainties.

7. Although some scientific bodies have made broadly supportive statements about GM over the years, these often contain significant caveats, call for better regulation, and draw attention to the risks as well as the potential benefits of GMOs. A statement by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) claiming GMO safety was challenged by 21 scientists, including long-standing members of the AAAS.

8. International agreements such as the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety exist because experts worldwide believe that a strongly precautionary attitude is justified in the case of GMOs. Concerns about risks are well-founded, as can be seen by the often complex, contradictory, and inconclusive findings of safety studies on GMOs.

Global threat to food supply as water wells dry up, warns top environment expert

Iraq is among the countries in the Middle East facing severe water shortages. Photo: Ali al-Saadi/AFP

Iraq is among the countries in the Middle East facing severe water shortages. Photo: Ali al-Saadi/AFP

John Vidal, The Guardian

Wells are drying up and underwater tables falling so fast in the Middle East and parts of India, China and the US that food supplies are seriously threatened, one of the world’s leading resource analysts has warned.

In a major new essay Lester Brown, head of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington, claims that 18 countries, together containing half the world’s people, are now overpumping their underground water tables to the point – known as “peak water” – where they are not replenishing and where harvests are getting smaller each year.

The situation is most serious in the Middle East. According to Brown: “Among the countries whose water supply has peaked and begun to decline are Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. By 2016 Saudi Arabia projects it will be importing some 15m tonnes of wheat, rice, corn and barley to feed its population of 30 million people. It is the first country to publicly project how aquifer depletion will shrink its grain harvest.

“The world is seeing the collision between population growth and water supply at the regional level. For the first time in history, grain production is dropping in a geographic region with nothing in sight to arrest the decline. Because of the failure of governments in the region to mesh population and water policies, each day now brings 10,000 more people to feed and less irrigation water with which to feed them.”

Brown warns that Syria’s grain production peaked in 2002 and since then has dropped 30%; Iraq has dropped its grain production 33% since 2004; and production in Iran dropped 10% between 2007 and 2012 as its irrigation wells started to go dry.

“Iran is already in deep trouble. It is feeling the effects of shrinking water supplies from overpumping. Yemen is fast becoming a hydrological basket case. Grain production has fallen there by half over the last 35 years. By 2015 irrigated fields will be a rarity and the country will be importing virtually all of its grain.”

There is also concern about falling water tables in China, India and the US, the world’s three largest food-producing countries. “In India, 175 million people are being fed with grain produced by overpumping, in China 130 million. In the United States the irrigated area is shrinking in leading farm states with rapid population growth, such as California and Texas, as aquifers are depleted and irrigation water is diverted to cities.”

Falling water tables are already adversely affecting harvest prospects in China, which rivals the US as the world’s largest grain producer, says Brown. “The water table under the North China Plain, an area that produces more than half of the country’s wheat and a third of its maize is falling fast. Overpumping has largely depleted the shallow aquifer, forcing well drillers to turn to the region’s deep aquifer, which is not replenishable.”

The situation in India may be even worse, given that well drillers are now using modified oil-drilling technology to reach water half a mile or more deep. “The harvest has been expanding rapidly in recent years, but only because of massive overpumping from the water table. The margin between food consumption and survival is precarious in India, whose population is growing by 18 million per year and where irrigation depends almost entirely on underground water. Farmers have drilled some 21m irrigation wells and are pumping vast amounts of underground water, and water tables are declining at an accelerating rate in Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu.”

In the US, farmers are overpumping in the Western Great Plains, including in several leading grain-producing states such as Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska. Irrigated agriculture has thrived in these states, but the water is drawn from the Ogallala aquifer, a huge underground water body that stretches from Nebraska southwards to the Texas Panhandle. “It is, unfortunately, a fossil aquifer, one that does not recharge. Once it is depleted, the wells go dry and farmers either go back to dryland farming or abandon farming altogether, depending on local conditions,” says Brown.

“In Texas, located on the shallow end of the aquifer, the irrigated area peaked in 1975 and has dropped 37% since then. In Oklahoma irrigation peaked in 1982 and has dropped by 25%. In Kansas the peak did not come until 2009, but during the three years since then it has dropped precipitously, falling nearly 30%. Nebraska saw its irrigated area peak in 2007. Since then its grain harvest has shrunk by 15%.”

Brown warned that many other countries may be on the verge of declining harvests. “With less water for irrigation, Mexico may be on the verge of a downturn in its grain harvest. Pakistan may also have reached peak water. If so, peak grain may not be far behind.”