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Was 2009 the year the world turned against GM?

Claire Robinson and Jonathan Matthews

11th January, 2010

Despite promising the world in 2009, biotech corporations have increasingly raised the hackles of scientists and citizens worldwide

2009 was a year in which the biotech industry, Gates and their US Administration allies did everything in their power to drive the world down the GM road, but it was also a year marked by remarkable global resistance.

It was a year too in which the truth emerged more clearly than ever about not just the severe limitations and risks of GM crops, but the viability of the many positive alternatives to GMOs alternatives from which the profit-driven GM-fixation diverts much needed attention and resources.

The scene had been set in 2008 with the IAASTD report, produced by 400 scientific experts and signed up to by some 60 governments. That made it clear that after more than 10 years of commercialisation, GM crops had done nothing to help with the eradication of hunger or poverty, or the reversal of the environmental degradation caused by agriculture.
 
The IAASTD instead championed as the way forward: agro-ecological farming; and research conducted by the UN Environment Programme also suggested organic, small-scale farming could deliver increased yields without the accompanying environmental and social damage of industrial farming. The UNEP's analysis of 114 projects in 24 African countries found that yields had more than doubled where organic, or near-organic practices had been used. In 2009 the contribution of such sustainable approaches to cooling the planet was also widely acknowledged while news of Monsanto's attempts to dress up environmentally destructive GM monocultures as climate friendly earned it a worst lobbying award.

Mainstream criticism

But what was most remarkable in 2009 was the way in which criticism of the biotech industry went mainstream. Alarmingly for the industry, some of the hardest hitting criticism it faced was to be found in editorials and investigative articles that appeared in the likes of Scientific American, the New York Times, the Associated Press and, most astonishingly of all perhaps, the staunchly pro-GM journal Nature Biotechnology.

And in different ways they were all making the same fundamental point - the GM industry has been allowed to gain an unprecedented stranglehold over the use of seeds. An editorial in Scientific American, for instance, complained that 'it is impossible to verify that genetically modified crops perform as advertised. That is because agritech companies have given themselves veto power over the work of independent researchers'.

The editorial went on to note that, 'food safety and environmental protection depend on making plant products available to regular scientific scrutiny', and Scientific American called on the industry to 'immediately remove the restriction on research from their end-user agreements. Going forward, the EPA should also require, as a condition of approving the sale of new seeds, that independent researchers have unfettered access to all products currently on the market'.

Et tu, Brute?

A correspondent for an agricultural trade publication noted that nobody in the biotech industry could provide him with a single example of any other kind of product on the market that was protected in the way GM seeds were from scientific scrutiny.

And the science correspondent of the Financial Times - another solidly pro-GM publication - complained, 'Imagine pharmaceutical companies trying to prevent medical researchers comparing patented drugs or investigating their side-effects - it is unthinkable. Yet scientists cannot independently examine raw materials in the food supply or investigate plants that cover a lot of rural America'.

An article in Nature Biotechnology noted how even when research critical of GM did get published it was met by a wall of apparently orchestrated, ad hominem and unfounded attacks by GM proponents who, in the words of an editor for the Entomological Society of America, 'denigrate research by other legitimate scientists in a knee-jerk, partisan, emotional way that is not helpful in advancing knowledge and is outside the ideals of scientific inquiry'.

And it wasn't just scientific enquiry that Monsanto was exposed as strangling. An Associated Press investigation reported on confidential Monsanto contracts showing how the world's biggest seed developer is squeezing competitors, controlling smaller seed companies and aggressively protecting its multibillion-dollar market dominance.
 
Farmers hit

Meanwhile disenchanted farmers pointed to how the GM giant is using its market power to raise prices for farmers and limit their access to non-GM seeds. And another new report showed GM seed prices increasing so dramatically that they have already cut average farm incomes for US farmers.

So in 2010 amidst the inevitable deluge of vacuous hype about GM being vital to deal with hunger, poverty and the impact of climate change, population growth, fuel scarcity and every other concern known to humankind, nobody should be in any doubt as to what's really at stake: control over science, nature, food and farming.

And over that kind of stranglehold, it can only be a fight to the death.

Claire Robinson and Jonathan Matthews are co-editors of GMWatch

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