Monsanto’s Roundup Ready GM maize could be growing in Europe next year

Over at global campaign website SumOfUs there is a petition to try and persuade MEPs not to allow new legislation to “open the floodgates for Monsanto to grow its genetically modified crops across the continent”.

This petition, currently standing at over 100,000 signatures, has been doing the rounds on social media and has attracted all kinds of comments in support of the petition’s claims: that GM crops are deeply unpopular with European citizens, that Monsanto will be given the power to overturn decisions made by democratically-elected governments to ban GM crops; and that usage of Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide will increase, bringing devastating effects to health and the environment. “Take a stand for bees, birds and democracy”, says the petition text, “and vote down the proposal to allow GM crops to be grown in Europe.” Should you be in any doubt of the stance taken by the petitioners, an image of a sliced tomato revealing a skull and crossbones sits at the head of the page.

Let’s have a look at these points, starting with the idea that GM crops are deeply unpopular in Europe. This opinion is indeed supported by some polls, but they tend to be polls that ask leading questions, such as ‘how worried are you about GM food?’ A more professional approach does not take the consumer by the hand and show him or her which path to take, and those kinds of polls tell a different story: European citizens have other food-related priorities – pesticides, food poisoning, diet-related diseases, obesity, freshness of food, additives and preservatives – all come before GM. And when it comes to GM, the biggest problem is a lack of knowledge on the subject which leads to uninformed opinion. But even there the mistrust of GM foods is diminishing, and even the badly-set polls reflect that.

But never mind all that, whether something is popular or not does not say anything about the science, and argumentum ad populum has no bearing on the truth of the safety of GM crops.

So what about the idea that Monsanto will be able to override the decisions of democratically-elected governments who wish to ban any particular GM crop from its land?

First, you should know that this petition is not against some directive that’s giving free reign to the wild sowing of GM seeds all over the European continent. It’s in response to a new piece of legislation that will offer Member States the chance to ban or restrict any EU-approved GMOs on an individual basis. I don’t see the part where Monsanto are given the power to veto this option. It states on the European Commission’s website that “the Member State retains the right to ban or restrict cultivation of the GMO via an opt out measure, regardless of the company’s views”.

There are some who fear that isolated national governments will be weaker in the face of companies such as Monsanto, but it should also be remembered that the European Commission has set very high scientific standards for the safety and testing of any GM crop submitted for cultivation, and there is no legislative power given to the GM corporations to overturn either scientific findings or opt-outs. Monsanto has said itself that they will seek other market territories in the face of a ban on their crops.

Now onto the claim that Monsanto’s Roundup will devastate people’s health and the environment. Roundup is a herbicide that has been used since the 1970s and, apart from a generation of real-world usage, it has been well-studied and no such devastating effects have been found. It is one of the milder herbicides and its increase in use can often mean it replaces a variety of far more toxic farm chemicals. So far, the science shows that the only way to get a devastating health effect from Roundup is to drink a lot of it – and yes, this can kill you.

There are three main studies that most anti-GMO campaigners cite where Roundup is concerned: Seralini’s 2012 rat-cancer study (just republished by the authors, unchanged, on the Internet after being heavily criticised and withdrawn by the original publishers); the 2014 Moms Across America breast milk study (shown to be heavily biased bad science); and the 2013 Samsel and Seneff P450 enzymes study, which links Roundup with everything from cancer and Alzheimer’s to Parkinson’s, autism and depression (and has also been roundly debunked as biased and faulty).

“Take a stand for bees” cries the petition. But Roundup has no link with bee colony collapse, and other GMOs, for instance ‘Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) crops’ not only don’t harm bees, but actually result in a diminished role for the insecticides that do harm bees. Even the famous neonicotinoids have their widely-reported ‘bee-killing’ reputation in doubt (though certainly not discounted) – but we’re getting off the subject of GM crops now.

There are things I don’t like about GM foods, mainly related to private corporation control over the means to feed the world’s population. And I’d much prefer that herbicides and insecticides did not have to be used in farming and that we could live in an idealised garden of organic splendour with local markets providing everything the community requires.

But the reality is not so simple and GM foods offer a chance to improve the world’s food supply through crops that are bred to provide enormous health benefits (eg. beta-carotene-infused Golden Rice and vitamin A-enriched bananas) and to help the environment (with crops that require fewer pesticides and more successful harvests from less acreage, leading to more room for forestation and lower carbon emissions).

Petitions such as the one promoted by SumOfUs are weak on facts and strong on scaremongering. It is biased propaganda – something anti-GM campaigners themselves denounce as underhand and despicable. If Europeans are to become better-informed on both the advantages and disadvantages of GMOs, then we need honest, open discussion and good science in order to move forward.

Update: In Aug 2014 SumOfUs changed the text of their petition, and the text outlining the ‘facts’ of the case, to better represent the actual proposals (as detailed in my article above). In Nov 2014, with the petition 33,000 signatures short of their target, they announced a “major victory” for their campaign after the proposals – the ones SumOfUs initially wanted EU members to vote against (and after gathering well over 100,000 signatures to this end) – were agreed.