Can You Afford GM Agriculture?

E. Ann Clark, Plant Agriculture, University of Guelph( ©2001 E. Ann Clark

Presented to the Eco-Farm Conference at Asilomar, California 25 January 2001

A major restructuring is occurring within the Life Science industry, owing to the relative unprofitability of agricultural biotechnology. In this talk, we'll consider what this means to some segments of the agri-business industry, including consumers. The take home message is that:

Ag-Biotech is history??

The end is fast approaching for agricultural biotechnology, after just a few short years of commercial application. Apparently, the still-lucrative pharmaceutical sector (expected to grow at 11% annually) is no longer willing to carry the burden of the costly but underperforming ag biotech sector (growing at 2-3% annually). In an article titled GMOs are Dead, a term first coined by Deutsche Bank (1999), Kneen (2000) reported that:

* Pharmacia bought Monsanto at the end of 1999, absorbed the valuable Searle drug division, and excised the Monsanto ag biotech division to sink or swim on its own - based largely on the continuing impressive sales of Roundup(1). Performance to date? At the initial public offering of Monsanto stock, only 15% of the stock was purchased - "entirely (by) senior Monsanto employees", leaving Pharmacia holding the bag for the remaining 85%.

* Syngenta is the newly formed ag biotech spinoff from the merger of Novartis and AstraZeneca, leaving the parent companies to pursue the lucrative drugs market. Performance of Syngenta to date? "...Syngenta was a stock market flop, capitalising at just over half of the expected $10 billion when it was floated in November" (The Economist, 18 November 2000)

*the Aventis and AgrEvo agbiotech business is soon to be split off as Agreva, presumably to isolate the parent Aventis company from the costly StarLink debacle(2).

So, what was announced with great excitement just a few years ago - the merger of agricultural and pharmaceutical interests into the "life sciences" industry - has already become unravelled.

Nonetheless, and despite all evidence to the contrary, ag-biotech proponents continue to proclaim a rosy future, that food safety fears are a dead issue, and even more imponderably, that the public is actually coming around to see the benefits of GM food. While a confident public face is doubtless good policy for them, such optimism is not only unwarranted but actually unwise for the rest of the ag business sector.

The Losers

Apart from the stockholders of the agbiotech spinoffs, who stands to lose the most from GM agriculture? Or in other terms, whose experience with GM crops most clearly demonstrates the fundamental incompatibility of GM with field crop agriculture?

1. Farmers. Consider the plight of Laverne Affleck and the many other western Canadian growers of canola. Affleck testified before the NZ Royal Commission on Genetic Modification on 5 December 2000 ( Although a strong proponent of chemically-based agriculture, and a former chem and seed salesman himself, he reported openly on the downside of herbicide tolerant (HT) GM technology for his own cashcrop operation.

He presented graphic evidence of the ease with which GM canola "moves" - whether as seed or as pollen. In his case, wind in the fall of 1999 blew his neighbor's windrowed RR canola onto his land, depositing RR canola seed hundreds of meters out into the field. When the RR canola was discovered in his field in spring 2000, he knew it was not from his own crops, because RR crops had been intentionally excluded from his farm as a business decision. He relies heavily upon Roundup for clean-up in the crop rotation, and couldn't risk the RR volunteers. He immediately notified Monsanto, who came out and sprayed his land with 2,4-D. However, there were misses, and as he noted,

a) canola has dormancy lasting 6-10 years (depending on type),

b) canola can germinate not just in the spring, but anytime in the season (thus, pre-emergence spraying will not ensure season-long kill of canola volunteers),

c) 2,4-D (resistance to which has not yet been engineered into crop plants) has residual activity precluding its use on some crops, obliging him to use more expensive products in some years, and

d) adding a second herbicide to his normal Roundup application (to control the unwanted volunteers) will double his herbicide bill.

Unless he achieves 100% control of all volunteers prior to seed set over 6 to 10 consecutive years, his land will be permanently contaminated with RR canola volunteers, and he will be saddled indefinitely with extra herbicide and management costs - through no fault of his own.

He stated bluntly,

“Canada has gone blindly into broad scale experimentation with the Canadian land base.  It is an experiment which cannot be retracted, and was entered into without sincere reflection as to possible ramifications.  In our experience crops (and weeds) are spread in so many ways (wind, the waterways, on the roadside, on farm machinery and trucks) that it is impossible to prevent accidental releases into unwanted areas.  We now have some degree of GE crop contamination across our entire Canadian Prairie land base.”

He went on to say: "Producers will not benefit, especially from GE crops that simply increase production. In fact they may lose significantly. We (Canadians) have foolishly locked ourselves out of the EU marketplace....Producers must take on more risk, both economic and production, with GE crops....The seed and chemical supply companies have a lot to gain, especially if they engineer themselves a captive market."

At the same Royal Commission (5 Dec. 2000), another Saskatchewan canola grower - Percy Schmeiser - presented evidence of his own famous prosecution by Monsanto (see also In a particularly disturbing twist, given the Affleck testimony, Schmeiser stated that Monsanto no longer cares about how the seed got there - whether illegally or otherwise - they nonetheless consider him liable.

This is an argument that is truly bizarre, with profoundly disturbing implications for farmers and those who serve them.

1. For a farmer to reap the benefit of pirated RR seed, he would have to plant a field of 100% RR seed, and then spray Roundup. Even Monsanto acknowledges that Schmeiser didn't have 100% RR canola (they claim 90%; his independent lab data show 0 to 68%). Nor did he apply Roundup to the nearly 1000 ac of contaminated crop - if he had, he'd have killed all the non-RR plants(3). Indeed, growing RR canola without spraying Roundup for weed control may actually reduce yield, as has already been demonstrated for RR soybeans. In a 2-year, multi-site study at the University of Nebraska (Elmore et al., 2001a and 2001b), 5 cultivars of RR soybeans yielded 6% less than their sister lines, and 11% less than high yielding conventional soybeans - even when weeds were controlled with conventional practices (no Roundup sprayed). The authors concluded that the insertion of the RR gene - not the Roundup - caused the yield drag. Thus, farmers whose GM crops are genetically contaminated with the RR gene could suffer economic consequences, even if they are not discovered and prosecuted by Monsanto.

In no conceivable way could it be said that Schmeiser benefitted from growing a crop contaminated with RR genes, and indeed, it may well have disadvantaged his yields.

2. Given the absence of evidence of illegal purchase by Schmeiser, the origin of the RR genes in his seed was clearly beyond his control - just as it was for Affleck - and yet he is still somehow liable for the fact that patented RR seed and pollen moved onto his farm? How can anyone claim ownership of something they cannot control? Why did the Canadian government approve products that they knew for certain would freely violate the sanctity of other producers' land?

3. How is it that Monsanto can knowingly contaminate land owned by someone else - as their GM product has plainly done to that of many western farmers like Affleck, involuntarily creating massive and permanent volunteer HT canola problems - and not be themselves held accountable?

The phenomenon of permanent contamination of the land is arguably an issue primarily for canola and other barely civilized crops which still retain seed dormancy - such as alfalfa, the bentgrasses, and other turf and forage species(4). But the problem of genetic pollution pertains to any outcrossing crop - including corn, as shown by the still unfolding StarLink debacle (Laidlaw, 2001). So too do the economic realities of attempting to market GM crops to importers demanding GM-free grain.

Gary Goldberg of the American Corn Growers Association also spoke to the Royal Commission in NZ (5 Dec 2000). He documented the decline in US corn sales to Europe from 2 million mt in 1997/98 to 34,000 mt in 1999/2000 - owing entirely to the rejection of GM grain by Europe and the inability of American producers and grain trade to meaningfully segregate GM from non-GM grain. That is a loss of $200 million to American farmers. In effect, although GM corn is grown on a fraction of the total hectarage, it has destroyed the market for all American corn. Losses to Canadian canola producers are reportedly in the same ballpark, for the same reason.

Acceptance problems don't end there, as Japan and other nations have demanded the right - at the Biosafety Protocol negotiations and elsewhere - to regulate and even reject the movement of GM grains into their own countries. Even in North America, major processors such as Gerber, Seagrams, and McCains, are declining to purchase GM products. It is not a coincidence that the popularity of organic foodstuffs - the only products that must by definition be GM-free - is soaring, including the first ever opening of Whole Foods Markets Inc. outside of the US - in Toronto (Laidlaw, 2000). In a nutshell - the market for GM grains is rapidly disappearing - abroad and at home. Since when must people buy something just because we want to produce it?

Goldberg's comments raise the following practical questions:

Can one seriously contemplate a future for a technology that so readily imposes such a heavy economic burden - involuntarily - on everyone else?

2. Consumers. Consumer demand is the driver for much of the unrest in the marketplace, quite apart from the agronomic irreconcilables of GM crops. Industry proponents continue to argue that consumers are not really concerned with GM foodstuffs, and that all the hoopla generated by the NGOs and importing countries is actually self-serving or simple trade barriers. The evidence does not support this assessment.

State and Municipal Actions (US) on GM Food and Labelling

Cleveland, Ohio.  A resolution passed by the City Council on 7 August 2000 and signed by the mayor on 17 August 2000 urges the federal government to require labelling of GM foods, and urges a moratorium on the growing of such crops until “acceptable testing systems are in place”. 

Boulder, Colorado.  On 23 August 2000, public land trustees unanimously approved a policy banning GM crop from the 15,000 acres of city-owned land which is leased for agriculture.  The County of Boulder is reportedly considering a similar policy. 

Minneapolis, Minnesota.  On 25 August 2000, by a vote of 11:1, the City Council resolved:

  • to formally state to the FDA, the EPA, and the USDA that all GM foods be clearly labelled, 
  • that all GM foods be thoroughly tested and regulated
  • that commercial developers of GM foods be assigned liability
  • and that until proven safe, the FDA, the EPA, and the USDA should establish a moratorium
They also resolved that all City departments, agencies, and events, including the Minneapolis School District, avoid GM foods and allow organic foods as an option

State of California  By early September, both houses of the legislature had passed a bill which would levy up to $5 per hundredweight (an extra $8/ac) on retailers of biotech seeds.   The purpose is to oblige those benefitting from the sale of biotech rice to absorb some of the costs of segregating GM from non-GM seed - just one example of an externalized cost that is being imposed involuntarily on others, by the GM industry.

San Francisco Board of Supervisors  On 18 December 2000, they approved unanimously a resolution calling on the FDA, EPA, and USDA to research, regulate, clearly label, and consider a temporary moratorium on all GE foods, until proven safe.  They also urged that liability be assigned to the commercial developers of GE food.

The above resolutions adopted by the elected representatives of disparate states and cities, the most recent of which was passed just a month ago, are difficult to reconcile with the premise that society is coming to terms with GM foods, and that societal resistance is evolving just from radical fringe elements.

A just-released Environics poll of 1508 Canadians, conducted for Health Canada last summer (prior to StarLink), revealed strong resistance to animal cloning, and a 50:50 split on the benefits of GM crops (Cobb, 2001). Most support was for pharmaceutical applications, and least for agriculture. Furthermore, only 5% were "very familiar" with the issue, while 62% were either "not very familiar" or "not at all familiar" with the issue. The more informed citizens were, the more critical they were of government actions in developing and regulating biotechnology. According to the article, an earlier Industry Canada poll found that 75% of Canadians were shocked to realize that most of their store-bought food was already genetically modified, and 93% demanded labelling. The Health Canada poll profiles ignorance, rather than complacency, as the current state of the Canadian public on GM issues.

Most revealingly, the Health Canada poll concluded that "a majority of Canadians see scientific evidence as more crucial than people's concerns and perceptions." As recently as 4 Jan 2001, Agriculture Minister Lyle Vanclief criticized Europe for being excessively conservative on GM crops, stating "That is not to say consumers shouldn't have a choice. But the choice should be based on science - not fiction" (Piper, 2001). So, just how good is the scientific evidence of the safety of GM crops - to human or environmental health?

How Good is the Science?

According to Mr. Vanclief "most of the world's scientists and regulators agree that GM agriculture and food products on the market today are as safe as any other similar products" (Piper, 2001). Perhaps he and others of like mind may wish to review a just-released report by the joint EU-US Biotechnology Consultative Forum (BCF) (2000). This elite, hand-picked group of scientists(5) was unexpectedly blunt in its assessment of the degree to which current regulatory practices reflect "values" as much as science, and in proposing a number of quite fundamental changes to the risk assessment process now in place. They considered that:

"these differences of opinion (on GM risks and benefits) frequently occur in areas where there is a lack of substantial scientific data and evidence, often more as personal interpretations disguised as scientifically validated statements" (N.B. emphasis added)

The degree to which GM risk assessment is currently based on sound science has been questioned by several authoritative studies. In a review paper on ecological risks of GM crops, Wolfenbarger and Phifer (2000) stated that "key experiments on both the environmental risks and benefits are lacking". They identified numerous critical deficiencies in the evidence - which would need to be rectified - before one could determine if GM crops are indeed safe for the environment. They further emphasized that GM risks and benefits vary spatially and temporally, as well as with the particular trait and cultivar - which would necessitate a much more rigorous and complex risk assessment process than is now in place(6).

In a thorough database search of the scientific literature, Domingo (2000) was able to find only 8 refereed studies actually evaluating the food safety of GM products, although an additional 60 opinion papers (without scientific data) were published, mostly by proponents of GM food safety. In an internet dialogue, Pusztai (2000) was able to identify only 10 refereed publications bearing even tangentially on GM food safety, of which only 4 actually involved animal feeding. Three of the four feeding trial papers were published by Monsanto teams. Paraphrasing from Pusztai, if this is the best that industry proponents can come up with to defend the safety of GM crops, then we really are in trouble.

A targeted literature review of Canadian authors publishing over the past 20 years, using numerous combinations of keywords in the Agricola, Cambridge Scientific Abstracts, Toxline, Medline, and the National Library of Medicine databases (Clark and Pal(7), unpublished), found a total of:

pertaining even remotely to any aspect of either human or environmental risks of GM crops.

In essence, GM crops have been approved for commercial release in Canada based on a remarkably flimsy database of scientific knowledge of risks to human or environmental health. The confident assertions of government, university, and industry proponents as to the scientific evidence for GM safety are based not on rigorous, publishable experimentation, but as stated by the EU-US BCF (2000), a "...tendency or even temptation - to underestimate potential longer-term risks and dangers... in particular where materials are unfamiliar and appropriate assessment and consultation processes are lacking."

Conclusions: a future-oriented view

So - where do you go from here? Given what is now known, can you afford to participate in GM agriculture - whether as a producer or a consumer or a retailer? Ag biotech is floundering because government, industry, and even university leaders underestimated the sex drive of plants and overestimated the gullibility of the public. If "floundering" sounds too much like "fearmongering" or "ill-informed hysteria", just look back to the views of the investment/devestment, consolidation/spin-off community. Money talks, and the smart money is no longer on ag biotech - at least for the near-to-medium term. So what does the future hold?

1. Elite scientific analysts, such as Domingo (2000), the EU-US BCF (2000), and Wolfenbarger and Phifer (2000), have looked dispassionately at the state of scientific understanding of GM issues - and found it wanting. The objectivity of these assessments is a refreshing reversal of the previous posture of outright rejection of the growing group of scientists whose concerns are summarized in Clark and Lehman (in press). Instead, these new analysts have profiled just how much still needs to be done to give society the evidence to judge the human and environmental safety of GM crops.

But given the enormous burden of meaningful testing of GM risks, the pivotal question must be: is it worth it? Are any conceivable benefits of GM crops high enough to justify the costs of testing which must be absorbed by society - particularly if, as detailed by Clark (2000), the cost of GM food must necessarily be higher than non-GM food? Or alternatively, could societal resources be allocated more effectively to achieve the same ends - namely, ample, accessible, and healthy food, sustainably produced, to nourish global populations?

2. Faculties of agriculture, now well endowed with molecular geneticists, will wonder what to do with them and their well-stocked labs as industry (and government?) money shifts into pharmaceuticals.

3. Given the vacuum which has been created at universities, farmers will have to look to each other, and to the few agronomic specialists still in the business, to answer real-world questions. This will also provide a wide-open niche for agribusiness consultants.

4. Consumers will continue to migrate toward organic markets, and to those independent grocery stores that identify non-GM foods. Stores that refuse to give their clients the ability to choose, through labelling - the current position of the Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors - will be disadvantaged. The organic sector will be a boon not simply to consumers, but to open-minded, profit-oriented farmers and far-sighted entrepreneurs ready to service their needs.

5. Food processors will not take a bullet for GM. Off-shore sources of primary grains and livestock products will be sought, fueling growth and prosperity elsewhere - at the expense of our own farmers - so long as government and universities continue to uncritically adopt pro-GM industry agendas.

6. Governments and universities will be held accountable by their clients - their own citizens - for promoting, developing, approving and releasing the GM crops which have created such havoc in western Canada and elsewhere.

7. Much of the current euphoria about GM pharmaceuticals bears a striking resemblance to what we heard about GM agriculture just a few short years ago. So - I guess we'll have to wait and see if the promises materialize this time - or not.

But in the meantime, you have been warned. Buyer beware.


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©2001 E. Ann Clark. This text is the property of the author, E. Ann Clark. It may be downloaded or reproduced in whole or in part by any member of the academic community for the purposes of discussion, debate and quotation and may be placed on web sites or on chat lines so long as this copyright notice is included. It may be reproduced on the Internet so long as no charges are levied for its use. It may not be reproduced for sale in any form anywhere without the express written permission of the owner.

1. in Monsanto's disclosure documents to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for the recent stock offering, they stated under "Risk Factors": "Our business is substantially dependent upon the sale of our family of Roundup and other glyphosate-based herbicides, which in 1999 accounted for approximately 73% of our Agricultural Productivity segment sales and approximately 50% of our total sales."

2. in addition to all the other costs being imposed involuntarily on every segment of the industry, as discussed in Clark (2000), a national class action lawsuit was filed 1 December 2000 by Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld & Toll, PLLC and 5 other firms, against Aventis, on behalf of farmers concerned with Starlink contamination ( Compensatory and punitive damages are sought, as well as the obligation that Aventis decontaminate all affected property, machinery, and seed supplies. Likewise, in late December 2000, the Missouri Attorney General demanded a $25 million bond from Aventis to compensate farmers and elevators, including those whose crops were affected in the 200 m buffer zone around the StarLink fields (

3. Schmeiser was aware - as indeed are many prairie farmers - of the contamination of his crop with RR genes, because he'd spot sprayed Roundup around telephone poles and elsewhere, at which time he discovered the resistant canola, but even Monsanto does not allege that he bought or sprayed Roundup over the whole field.

4. One of the key features distinguishing crops from weeds is the loss of seed dormancy. Thus, crops such as corn and wheat which have undergone >10,000 generations of selection, exhibit essentially no dormancy. Conversely, crops with a less extensive breeding history may still retain this trait - as does canola.

5. Ten independent scientists were picked by Bill Clinton, President of the U.S., and another ten by Prodi, President of the European Commission, to serve on the EU-US BCF. They included: Norman Borlaug (Nobel Peace Prize), Gordon Conway (Pres. Rockefeller Foundation), Carol Tucker Foreman (former Assist. Sec. USDA), Christopher Somerville (Director Carnegie Institute of Washington), Rebecca Goldburg (Environmental Defense Fund), and Cutberto Garza, Professor of Nutritional Sciences, Cornell University.

6. Writing from the John Innes Centre in the UK, Harwood et al. (2001) noted that GM barley was more variable in later than in earlier generations, when compared to non-GM controls. They concluded that transgenic crops need to be evaluated over "a number of generations under field conditions" to assess stability and agronomic performance.

7. Former head Agricultural Research Librarian, McLaughlin Library, Univ. of Guelph, now retired.