Rigged Trials

Experimental releases of GM crops are a scientific nonsense

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 15th July 1999.

The genetically engineered poplar trees hacked down by protesters on Sunday night posed, according to Zeneca, the company which had planted them, “minimal risks” to the environment. It should know. For six years its “regulatory affairs manager”, Nigel Poole, sat on the government committee which approved their cultivation.

When the poplar tree application came up, Professor Poole left the room. So many of the committee’s members had commercial interests, Friends of the Earth reports, that its meetings must have looked like a game of musical chairs: members would get up and leave, then return to consider the next application, for which someone else would have to depart.

The public outcry over the composition of the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE) has forced the government to replace most of its members, but its dubious decisions litter the British countryside. While the poplar trees Zeneca planted were all female, so produced no pollen, campaigners point to means by which genetic material can be transferred to other plants without pollination. Trials of rape and maize in Britain pose more immediate threats of contamination. Some of the GM experiments ACRE has approved could precipitate precisely the problems they are designed to investigate.

Experimental plantings of GM crops, the government, the companies and even some environmentalists argue, are essential if we’re to determine whether or not they will damage the environment and contaminate other fields. Without a quantitative means of assessing their potential impacts, no sensible decisions can be taken. This is evident nonsense.

On Sunday, hundreds of protesters will gather in a field near Watlington in Oxfordshire to demonstrate against a ten hectare “farm-scale” trial of genetically modified rape. The rape has been engineered for resistance to a herbicide called “Liberty”, which kills all other plant species. Liberty-resistant rape enables farmers to eliminate everything from their fields except the crop they are trying to grow.

The government and the companies which have jointly commissioned the trial want to know whether this crop will hurt wildlife. They could have saved themselves the trouble. The technology is designed to hurt wildlife. Either it works, in which case its widespread deployment will be environmentally catastrophic, or it does not, in which case it will not be used. So what on earth is this experiment for?

It seems to me that trials like this have precious little to do with science, and everything to do with politics. Like “scientific whaling” in Japan, they are the means by which the corporations keep a foot in the regulatory door. They are forbidden to start full commercial planting in Britain, but farm-scale trials are a major step towards that destination.

Moreover, the widespread genetic contamination these “experiments” could cause will do the biotechnology companies no harm. They will be able to argue that the horse has already bolted, so there is no further point in keeping the stable door shut.

Even when the regulations governing these trials are followed to the letter, the transfer of genetic material to other crops is probable, perhaps inevitable. ACRE insists that the genetically modified plants be separated from surrounding fields by either 50 or 200 metres. But bees carry rape pollen for up to four kilometres. Researchers have found that Liberty-resistant rape will pollinate as much as seven per cent of the non-GM plants in fields 400 metres away. The resistance gene is also able to transfer itself into a wild relative of rape. The regulations, moreover, are frequently flouted. Last year the Health and Safety Executive reported that 20 per cent of the experimental sites it inspected were failing to prevent their plants from spilling into the environment. Some companies, it seems, are not exactly breaking their backs to prevent contamination from occuring.

ACRE says that the experiments it has approved are safe. But its credibility has been called into question yet again, as the acting head of the committee works for the organisation contracted to carry out the farm-scale trials. A new scientific body appointed by the government to ensure that these experiments are conducted properly did not convene until three months after the rape had been planted.

We already know enough to conclude that genetically modified crops damage the environment and grant big corporations a terrifying degree of control over the food chain. The one thing left to determine is the extent to which the British people can be forced to accept them. The trials now taking place all over the country are not experiments in genetic engineering. They are experiments in social engineering.