Environmental Concerns

Effects on "weed" and insect life.

The vast majority of current commercially grown "Genetically Modified" crops are resistant to herbicide or they produce their own insecticide and some are capable of doing both.

Herbicide resistant crops are designed to be dependent upon an organophosphate herbicide for which serious questions have been asked in regard to its safety to human, animal and insect health.
Some years ago the US courts are reported to have ordered the company to stop making false claims about the environmental benefits of the chemical.
Some scientists have linked exposure to the chemical with serious human illness both in respect to direct poisoning and to cancers.
Experiments have shown that the chemical also has rapid and direct insecticidal action which may go some way to explaining why poisoned individuals have shown decreased cholinesterase levels, as with the other organophosphorus pesticides.

The admitted action of the chemical on the mitochondria may go some way to explaining many of these observed effects.

One interesting point is that product instructions warn against mixing and storing the herbicide in metal containers and this may indicate that the known reaction between OP compounds and metals, alkali and acid may cause the release of the deadly phosphine gas.

Of some concern are the claims for rapid breakdown of this organophosphorus herbicide.
It was the claims made that OPs break down rapidly which enabled them to be introduced as replacements for the persistent organochlorines.
However reports suggest that these OP herbicides have been found in new crops growing on land which been treated with the chemical a full year previous to the planting of the new crop.
Presumably this resulted from a single application but the growers of herbicide resistant crops will often use more that one application. It is said that the lives of people living in GM crop areas in the USA are made a misery by the repeated spraying of OP herbicide in the summer months.

More seriously perhaps is the discovery that diluted OP chemicals, including this herbicide group, do not break down as suggested but may in fact retain both herbicidal and insecticidal activity for many years after dilution in water.

This suggests that part of the formulation actually protects the active ingredient in the solution, thereby preventing the claimed rapid breakdown. If this is the case then we should be told as there may be obvious and possibly irreversible effects on the Environment.

There are therefore serious environmental and human health concerns in relation to the chemical for which the GM crops have been designed before we even enter into the debate on the merits or otherwise of the crops themselves. Furthermore we are once again discussing at this point the controversial disagreements in regard to chemical safety and have not yet touched on the dangers of tampering with genes which will inevitably be released into the environment.

It is interesting that those who promote this method of argiculture claim that there is more biodiversity in stands of GM crops and one report suggested that the inreased insect life within the crop was only reduced following the first spray of the tolerated herbicide.
Any farmer worthy of the name will report that weed competition in the early stages of crop growth is probably the biggest cause of low yields other than bad weather and disease.
It was for this reason that the residual weedkillers were developed as they remained in the soil throughout the winter and ensured that problem weeds could not compete with the crop at that early stage.

A farmer growing conventional seeds in the autumn would therefore spray the field in the autumn with residual weedkiller and possibly an insecticide to prevent the spread of insect born disease.
In the spring there may or may not be a need to spray once more with a selective herbicide to kill any over-wintered or spring germinating weeds.
Some farms with large acreages and problem weeds which germinate and grow in the summer might also use a herbicide to dry out any weeds that may be present in the ripened crop and which can seriously slow the harvest.

Those who promote GM crops suggest that pesticide use would be reduced but in reality the weeds will grow just the same, and more if residual sprays are not used, and reports suggest that to maintain yields the farmer will need to spray his GM crops in similar ways.
the difference will be that more of the manufacturer's chemical will be used at the expense of commonly used chemicals which may be less dangerous in the environmment.

Another commonly used GM crop creates its own pesticide and releases it continuously throughout the growing period.
The pro-GM lobby pronounces that this is progress and that it will reduce the use of dangerous insecticides. This is not sound science.

In the first place the chemical companies and the regulators proclaim the safety of those dangerous pesticides which they claim would never be released on to the commercial market if they had not been tested and proven to be safe to the user, the consumer and the environment.
In the second place, in the UK at least, in efforts to reduce the amount of pesticide used and to maintain the biodiversity found in the British countryside, farmers are advised to spray only when certain threshhold levels of insects appear in the crop.
This has a two-fold effect.
Fewer spays are used, and those that are used are active for relatively short periods of time during the growing season and,
the insects which are present in the crop provide food for predatory insects and the wild birds which depend on them for food.

There is also concern for the so-called "beneficial insects".
Beneficial insects may be those which are predators such as ladybirds, those which provide food for higher life forms, and those like bees which are essential for pollination and therefore crop yields.
If the first are destroyed then the pest insects increase and with them will come more disesase.
If the second group is destroyed there will be a shortage of food for those mammals and birds living higher up the food chain.
If the third group is destroyed then there will be sterile crops and lower yields.

If a crop releases insecticide during every day of its growth then there is no respite period for the insects and there will be less food available for the insect eating birds and small mammals.
We do not know if the rapid reproduction cycle of insects will result in the creation of resistant insect species. This is certainly a problem in conventional agriculture and it is common for farmers to change insecticide types frequently so as to avoid any chance of those resistant strains becoming established. GM crops use one insecticide which is continuously released and the development of resistant strains seems to be an inevitable consequence.
Science has not told us what will happen to the insects which reside in the soil around the plant roots. These insects are part of a complex, living system which has evolved over the centuries to ensure that the soil remains rich in nutrients.
We disrupt this at our peril.
Some would argue that the chemical companies have already damaged the soil with the chemicals used by conventional farming.

There is reported evidence that the crops which release insecticides can produce pollen which can harm beneficial insects and butterflies. Though the GM crop salesmen will deny this and suggest that pollen presents no risk practical experience with pollen suggests that it can spread for miles and even penetrate to the inside of motor vehicles as a friend who ran a car valeting service in the countryside found with wind blown pollen to his cost.
Spiders which normally live near the ground in grassland have been trapped in the upper atmosphere and sand from the Sahara desert has been dispersed in rain falling across Britain.
Bees have been shown to transport nectar from GM crops for large distances and the honey produced has contained GM material.
To dismiss the risks from toxic GM pollen is to hide from reality.

Currently in the UK we have trial plots at several sites across the country which are supposedly intended to determine if GM crops can present a risk to the environment. Given the above information it seems that it was clear even before the trials began that the crops and the chemicals used on them do present such risks. The real motives for the trials must be found elsewhere.
An indication of those reasons came with the contaminated seed scandal which was undiscovered for what is believed to be two growing seasons.

Environmental Contamination.

Farmers buy their seed by variety and their harvested crops are often also sold under contract for that variety with penalties for contamination even for conventional crops. With the known controversy in respect to GM contamination and imports it is surprising that more care was not taken to ensure varietal purity of the seed supply.
The excuse for this disgraceful import of contaminated seed was given as accidental cross-pollination of the seed crop but if this is the accepted reason then it offers proof that the trial crops present environmental risk.

Another possibilty is that the contaminated seed and the trials were a means to introduce the genes into the UK environment in such a way that the protests would be neutralised. Once the contamination has been introduced it is no longer possible to retrieve the situation and all further protest would be futile - it may be thought.
An indication that this is the true picture is found with the attempts to allow a 1% contamination of seeds.

The distances set between GM and conventional crops have been proven by the seed cross-pollination to be inadequate.
Now the powers that be hope to allow those same seeds to be grown within conventional crops and each will flower and produce pollen which will pollinate the plants with which it is surrounded in the field.
All the plants will produce seed and that seed will contain the GM genes.
The only safe contamination level is zero per cent.
Some of those seeds will fall to the ground both within the confines of the field and after falling from various means of transport.
Evidence that this happens is seen in the wild crops growing beside the UK motorways.
GM plants will be growing throughout the UK despite the protests and the false assurances from the regulators.

The "Terminator" genes.

We are told that the "terminator" technology has been shelved but reports suggest that trials for just such actions are ongoing.
This is an extremely dangerous road along which to travel.

The world population is enormous and much of that population depends upon farmer saved seed which has evolved over the centuries to forms most suited to the local environment.
The GM companies hope that they will gain control of the food supply over the entire globe by a combination of patents for life forms and the terminator technology.They must not be allowed to succeed.

Current ideas seem to be that two mechanisms have been sought to control the seed production of crops.
One appears to be that the crop grows in the normal way but the seed produced is sterile and so cannot be sown by the farmer for the next years' crop.
The other appears to be to allow the farmer to grow the crop in the normal way but he must use the seed company's own chemicals which contain a chemical "switch" which allows the crop to create seed.
If the farmer does not use that chemical he will have no harvest.

All this began with the charges levied against farmers who saved some of the harvested crop for seed instead of buying from the seed company every year. Farmers pay a high price for seed of supposed varietal purity, and it is their labour, skills and expense which results in the ability to save the seed so grown, but the seed companies could see an opportunity for more profit.
When farmers failed to register the variety as saved and sown there was a need to find another way to ensure that all the hoped for royalties from the breeding work (already gained in the high seed price)were obtained,and the "Terminator" idea was born.

This technology ensures that the seed companies have total control over the farmer who must abide by the rules laid down by the company or risk complete crop failure.
The farmer must at all times approach the seed company for both the seed and the chemicals which are designed to allow those seeds to grow. He will be instructed when to sow and what to sow, what chemicals he should use and when to use them. It is also likely that he will be told when to harvest the crop and to whom he is permitted to sell.
Failure to submit to the rules will ensure crop failure.

All this assumes that the country supplying the seed can always guarantee that they will not have a dramatic crop failure themselves as the result of drought, fire, disease or flood.

If that happened the entire world would have no seed and famine would follow.
This is the real danger of the aptly named "terminator gene".

Other environmental concerns involve the utilisation of the "untamed" areas of the world. Drought resistant crops are said to be capable of making the deserts green again. Crops which can grow in nutrient deficient soils will enable food plants to be grown in areas where no conventional crop can survive.
Those are the claims but what is the reality?

Stored grain is normally made up of 14% water and so even the most drought resistant crop will need water and therefore irrigation.
Most irrigation systems require dams which in turn may drown vast areas of naturally fertile land. The deserts are part of the Earth's rich lanscape and many animals and insects have adapted to living in such harsh terrain.
To change the desert is to inflict environmental damage.

All food crops require the proper nutrients in order to supply them as food in the parts of the plant we eat. For example it is said that in the UK the diet is now deficient in selenium because we now use more home grown grain instead of that imported from the American Continent where soils are higher in the element.
Simply enabling a plant to grow in areas deficient in a nutrient does not solve the problem unless the missing elements are provided by way of fertilisers and additives which will only serve to bring more profits to the chemical companies. It will also result in the loss of another of the Earth's diverse habitats for wild life at a time when farmers are forced into bankrupcy by policies which prevent them growing food crops on naturally fertile soils.

The Modified Forests

Some of that land will be devoted to woodland and new forests.
This is a process encouraged by Governments who have failed to prevent the destruction of natural rain forests such as those found in the Amazon basin. There is a view that simply growing new forests will reverse the climate damage caused by industry by producing a reduction in atmospheric carbon dioxide. How this can be since the gas exchange process of photosynthesis and respiration balance one another out, and the problem with atmospheric carbon is more the result of drawing the trapped reserves from fossil fuels back into the atmosphere, is a question for which science has few answers.
The carbon cycle will only be in balance if new sources of carbon are not added to the system. For millions of years the fossil fuel carbons were locked beneath the earth's crust and its return to the atmosphere has brought problems which are unlikely to be undone by growing trees to replace those already lost.

The genetic engineers see the opportunity for more profit in this unlikely attempt to reverse the damage. Now we have the introduction of GM trees which can be given the same worrying attributes as GM food crops but with additional changes to ensure profit for the mills which will make the raw wood into paper and other wood based products.

Orchards will grow fruits which have a longer shelf life and which kill any insects which dare to feed on them. Trees will grow so fast that they can be used as fuel without the need to allow them to reach maturity after many decades without income from the forest. They will be resistant to both pests and to the weedkillers which will ensure that nothing grows on the forest floor but the trees themselves.
The excuse for this is that such trees will produce ever more wood products and there will be less need to destroy natural forest.
A more sensible approach would be to return to the traditional form of furniture making where quality ensured that items could last for hundreds of years instead of breaking up at the first real use.

Trees are not like other crops which are grown for one season and are then gone, hopefully without trace. Trees grow for hundreds of years, even neglected GM trees, unless their lifespan is inadvertantly cut short by the genetic engineering process itself.
Throughout their life time they will be releasing pollen and or insecticide into the unprepared environment.
Some of that pollen will be from trees engineered to produce weaker lignin, the strengthening material, in favour of cellulose production which is valued by industry. The risk of cross contamination with natural woodland is obvious and science has been forced to make attempts to reduce such risks.

As can be seen from the above the Genetic Engineering genie has been allowed to escape from the confines of the scientists' laboratory before there was a full understanding of the environmental risks.
Governments tell us that there is a need for this technology even though the human race has survived till now without it.
They tell us that this is just a natural continuation of plant breeding by man which began with the first farmer but that is both a distortion and an over-simplification of the truth.
We are told that we need trial crops to determine the real risk of environmental damage and yet it is obvious that those trial plots present an environmental risk during the growing period, during harvest, and from the means to destroy the crop residues and root structures, in addition to the dangers posed by the chemicals used.

It would appear that the Environmental damage has already been done.

Glyphosate is repeatedly used on Roundup Ready crops.
It is interesting to note that the UK Pesticide Guide 2001 reports that :

"Do not use on grassland if crop to be used for animal feed or bedding"
"Exclude livestock from treated fields. Livestock may not graze or be fed the treated forage nor may it be used for hay, silage or bedding."

Why the change? We are eating treated grains.

Dated 16/9/2000    Updated 22/9/2001

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