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A guide to GM

Submitted by Susan Tomlinson on June 9, 2013 – 9:52 am 9 Comments


What does GM mean?

These are foods that have had specific changes directly introduced to their DNA. This is different from plant breeding, or cross-pollinating – which has been happening for centuries. GM uses genetic engineering to create extremely precise changes to the actual cellular structure of the plant.

These changes include creating plants that are, for example, herbicide resistant, so farmers can spray as much herbicide as necessary to kill other pests and plants without damaging the plant. Another example of a GM seed is known as “Bt”,  where the seed itself has been genetically altered to express a bacterial toxin, which is poisonous to insects and pests. So, this particular seed is basically systemically altered to include its own pesticide.

Take a look at Wiki for more info on Bt seeds and herbicide resistant seeds.

Initially, these GM “Bt” plants seemed to resist pests and insects – allowing for larger yields but in the past few years, some pests have already become resistant to the plant. For the first time in November 2009, Monsanto scientists were forced to admit that the Indian Bt cotton plant  was no longer resistant to the pink bollworm pest. Read The Hindu for more info.

Other seeds have been altered to include vitamins, like the Golden Rice seed which has 20 times more Beta-carotene than previous varieties. Check out the BBC’s report on the Golden Rice Seed.

Is it just plants or animals too?

Animals too have been genetically engineered to grow faster or produce more omega-3 fatty acids, for example. Check out Digital Journal for more info on GM salmon, which grows at twice the speed of a normal salmon and a Science Daily story which takes a look at the effects of GM fish if they escape into the wild.

What is the thinking behind GM?

There is much debate about how the world is going to feed itself, as our population increases. Scientists, researchers and environmentalists are split between believing that we need a scientific answer like GM in order to increase our food supply, while others believe there is no issue – beyond politics and logistics. Biotech companies, claim GM offers a clean green future to help feed the world but environmentalists and other scientists completely disagree, claiming these companies are merely interested in their profits.

Why are they so controversial?

GM foods first came on the market in the early 1990’s and have created controversy ever since. Pro GM scientists see them as a way to feed the world, while other scientists and environmentalists cite possible safety issues, ecological and health concerns. But one of the most contentious issues is that of intellectual property. The GM companies that manufacture these seeds own the patents on these seeds.

seedsaving thanks to find yourfeet on flickr right size!And yet, for thousands of years, farmers have saved seeds to replant the following year. But if you’re a farmer buying GM seeds from a biotech company, you’re not legally allowed to save those seeds. In essence, the company still owns them. And the farmer is forced to buy them again, year in year, year out – or bear the brunt of the legal eagles who watch out for farmers in breach of their seed contract.

It is this point that environmentalists have a big problem with. They accuse biotech companies of wanting to own the world’s seed supply. And they see GM as just the first step.

Who are these biotech companies?

Monsanto, Syngenta among others but by far the biggest player is Monsanto. Word has it they own 90% of the world’s market in GM seeds and they also own one of the world’s most popular herbicides -  Round Up. So the same company that’s selling the herbicide resistant seed, also owns the herbicide.

Monsanto writes…

Growers who purchase our patented seeds sign a Monsanto Technology/Stewardship Agreement — an agreement that specifically addresses the obligations of both the grower and Monsanto and governs the use of the harvested crop.  The agreement specifically states that the grower will not save or sell the seeds from their harvest for further planting, breeding or cultivation.

Environmentalists and other critics accuse Monsanto of wanting to own the world’s seed supply but Monsanto claims it’s a clean, green biotech company that just wants to feed the world.

In an interview with Truthout, director of film, “The World According to Monsanto,” Marie Monique-Robin says…

Nowadays Monsanto is the world leader in biotechnology and the first seed company. Ninety percent of the GMOs grown in the world belong to it. During the last decade, the firm bought dozens of seed companies all over the world, pushing its transgenic seeds, which are patented. A patented seed means that the farmers who grow it may not keep a part of their crops to re-sow it the next year, as farmers used to do everywhere in the world. In the US and Canada, farmers who grow transgenic crops must sign a “technology agreement” – the no-sowing requirement is clearly expressed. If they don’t respect the agreement and violate the patent, they are harassed by the “gene police” and sued by Monsanto. Clearly, transgenic crops are just a tool to control the seed supply, which is the first link in the food chain, by forcing farmers to buy seeds each year.


Don’t GM seeds spread?

Like all seeds, GM seeds spread too, meaning that some farmers have discovered unwanted GM seeds contaminating their land – they are then, of course, forced to use them. In the US, many of those farmers have been investigated and prosecuted by Monsanto for patent theft – despite not being at all responsible for taking the seeds.

For more info on Monsanto suing farmers, check out this report from the US Center for Food Safety.

Has buying the seeds created problems for farmers?

Many farmers in India have also been forced to take out loans in order to pay for the new seeds. Check out this story on Combat Monsanto, that links GM seeds to a dramatic increase in farmer suicides.

What are the main issues for environmentalists?

According to the academic and environmentalist, Dr. Vandana Shiva, the biotech agenda for promoting GM is that the world will depend on them for every seed we plant and every crop we grow.

Although GM has been banned in the UK and Europe for the past 12 years, in recent months it looks as if the EFSA (European Food Standards Agency) has become more open to the idea, giving a GM potato and maize the green light to be grown and in July 2010, allowing member states to decide whether to accept or ban them. While in the UK, the Daily Mail reported finding illegal GM flax seeds in a loaf of M & S bread late in 2009.

Photo credit: Thanks to joka2000 on Fliickr.

Find out more


The  New York Times for an opinion from both pro and anti GM scientists and academics.

The EU decides to let member states make up their own mind about GM on the BBC and The Ecologist.

Britain’s pro-GM lobbying of the EU in the Guardian.

An interview with Marie Monique Robin, the journalist who directed “The World According to Monsanto,” on Truthout.

Monsanto’s website.

Syngenta’s website.

Wiki on GM.


“The World According to Monsanto”, on Debate Your Plate Video.

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