GM, Pesticides and Hvar's Future Health

Published in Health

The 'Mediterranean diet' is considered to be extremely healthy, especially in protecting against heart disease. The first commercial genetically modified (GM) crops were planted in the United States in 1994 and have aroused heated controversy ever since. When GM meets the Mediterranean diet, are the two compatible? Or will GM swallow up the concept of the 'Mediterranean diet' and spit it out, unrecognizable and indigestible?

GMOs good for butterflies and wild plants? GMOs good for butterflies and wild plants? Vivian Grisogono

On December 4th 2013, the 'Mediterranean diet' was inscribed on Unesco's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, in response to a joint application by Cyprus, Croatia, Spain, Greece, Italy, Morocco and Portugal. The Mediterranean diet was first defined by Ancel Keys, who initiated the Seven Countries Study in 1958, and described the diet as being mainly plant-based. That being so, any developments in farming methods could have an impact on the diet's basic ingredients. There has been largescale sowing of GM seeds from 1996 onwards, mainly in the United States, Argentina and Canada. GM seeds have been aggressively promoted across the world ever since, despite reservations from scientists and consumers alike. Even the fiercest supporters of GM food crops have rarely claimed that they have achieved specific health benefits. Opponents and cautious proponents question whether they are proven safe beyond doubt. So it is fair to question whether GM technology might help or hinder the plants which make up the core of the Mediterranean diet. 

Food, feed and need

The food industry in modern times is complex. The simple truth is that people and animals all have to eat. In most modern societies people are separated from the source of their nutrition. Very few city-dwellers have the opportunity to cultivate even a small part of their daily food intake. When you cannot supply your own needs, you have to procure the staples for survival from a supplier. If foodstuffs cannot be produced locally, they have to come from elsewhere. Not so long ago, 'elsewhere' meant 'from somewhere not far away', but now that food can be stored for certain amounts of time, and transported over long distances, it can mean 'from the other side of the world'. So tropical fruits can now be eaten in the northern hemisphere all year round. Eating fruit and vegetables out of season is taken for granted in richer communities.

http://www.genewatch.org/index-396405

Staple foods are those which form the main part of our diet and supply a large part of our energy needs. In most societies, staples are foodstuffs which can be stored safely without going bad, sometimes for long periods, so that the population has a guaranteed supply in times of food shortages for any reason. The cereals maize (corn), wheat and rice are said to comprise over 50% of human food consumption, according to the Food And Agriculture Organization (FAO). Other staples include tubers or root vegetables, such as potatoes or the more exotic yams, taro, cassava and sago, grain legumes or pulses such as lentils, chick peas and kidney beans, and fruits such as plantains. There are many other staples in different parts of the world, including the cereals rye, oats, barley, sorghum and millet. From ancient times quinoa was a major staple in the Andes, and has recently been highlighted as especially beneficial by FAO, which has also described the traditional importance of acorns as a staple in America, north Africa, the Mediterranean region and Asia, where acorn meal is still widely used, for instance, in Korea.

There are 842 million undernourished people in the world, according to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP). The WFP and many other organizations provide food in emergency situations and run projects to help alleviate the problem in the longer term. There are big organizations like the WFP and relatively small ones, such as Mary's Meals. The need to provide enough food for the world's ever-increasing population is often quoted as a reason for making farming practices larger scale and for finding ways of generating more yield from crops and other foodstuffs.

Foods can now be processed on a large scale in many different ways: raw materials such as sugar and wheat are refined; mixtures of foodstuffs with natural or artificial additives are used to create tasty ready meals; meat products can be combined with cereals, flavourings and preservatives to create items such as sausages or meat pastes.

A major part of the food industry is the supply of animal feed, which may be based on animal or plant products.

Food production methods

Healthy crops depend on having the right soil and climatic conditions, and these are variable according to a lot of different factors. On Hvar, growing conditions are very different on the north and south sides of the island, and also vary with height above sea level, exposure to the sun and the different winds and proximity to natural water sources, to name but a few of the relevant factors. Because of the rocky terrain, Hvar's fields have traditionally been small, even on the relatively extensive Stari Grad Plain, whose patchwork layout has been preserved since the 4th century BC. Growing conditions can be very different in fields which are only a short distance from each other. Modern commercial farming is generally large-scale, involving a lot of mechanization. Even on Hvar, larger fields have been created in recent years by dint of breaking up the rocks with a hydraulic rock-breaker, and larger scale planting of vines is now done mechanically

For many years, large- or small-scale farmers the world over have had the choice between using natural or chemical substances for enriching the soil and controlling weeds or pests which might threaten the harvest. The natural way is known as 'organic farming' (ekološka / organska poljoprivreda in Croatian), while the latter, slightly bizarrely, is now termed 'conventional farming' (konvencionalna poljoprivreda). The introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into food production has given the farmer a further element of choice, but one which has proved much less straightforward than the previous two.

Organic farming in Croatia

In Croatia organic farming is still in its early stages. Organic farms were registered in Croatia for the first time in 2002, when a pilot survey conducted among family farmers in the Bjelovarsko-Bilogorska County showed that there was interest in switching to organic from conventional farming. By 2006 about 5,000 hectares were being cultivated organically by 340 registered organic farms, which represented 0.6% of Croatia's arable land. By 2009, the number of registered organic farms had risen to 885, with some 14,193 hectares under cultivation, representing 1.29% of total arable land. The Croatian Ministry of Agriculture, Fishing and Rural Development (Ministarstvo poljoprivrede, ribarstva i ruralnog razvoja) instituted financial incentives for ecological farming in 2010 and 2011. In 2011 the Ministry published an Action Plan for developing organic farming to reach 8% of arable land by 2008, 10% specifically in Dalmatia by 2020. The Plan was formally accepted by the Croatian Government on February 10th 2011. These aims are modest by comparison with Austria's level of organic farming, which had reached 19.2% of Austria's farming area by 2010.

The organic market on Hvar

Just as organic farming is only in its beginnings in Croatia, so are organic marketing and sales. On Hvar there is just one shop which specializes in organic produce, Green House in Hvar Town. With a range of merchandise including food staples, selected organic seasonal vegetables, wines, teas, etheric oils, shampoos, soaps and vital cleaning products, the shop has proved there is a viable market for organic goods on the island by surviving and thriving over two winters. Most specialist shops on the island close down immediately after the tourists have left on the assumption that the local customer base is too small. The only other shop which sells a selection of organic foods, toiletries and cosmetics, alongside conventional products, is DM at the Stari Grad ferry port.

GMOs: what are they?

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines genetically modified (GM) foods as follows: "Genetically modified (GM) foods are foods derived from organisms whose genetic material (DNA) has been modified in a way that does not occur naturally, e.g. through the introduction of a gene from a different organism." 

Fuller defining details have been provided by many others, including K.R. and R.G.Schneider in 'Genetically Modified Food' published by the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS), University of Florida, 2002: "A genetically modified (GM) food is a result of recombinant DNA biotechnological procedures that allow the genetic makeup of an organism to be modified. This can be accomplished by incorporating genes from other organisms or by rearranging genes already present. These changes can result in the expression of attributes not found in the original organism.... genetically modified (GM) organism is one that has had its genetic material altered through any method. (Although traditional breeding and hybridization are technically genetic modifications, these techniques pre-date recombinant techniques and will therefore not be considered GM in this discussion.) A genetically engineered (GE) organism is one that is modified using techniques that permit the direct transfer or removal of genes in that organism. Such techniques are also called recombinant DNA  or rDNA techniques. Lastly, transgenic organisms have a gene from another organism moved into them."

Hybridization is the traditional way of modifying plants or animals by cross-breeding pairs with different genetic characteristics to create a new type of that plant or animal. It can also happen naturally. It is considered distinct from the new biotechnological techniques which we call genetic modification or genetic engineering. Hybridization has been used to create plants with various improvements, including natural defences against specific pests and diseases. In grapes, for instance, hybridization is used as a method of combating the pest phylloxera, which devastated the European vineyards in the early part of the 20th century. The mutations are not always to the good, as the International Union of Nutritional Sciences (IUNS) has stated (©2012, giving statistics up to 2001): "Traditional breeding techniques, which genetically modify plants and animals, have led to documented contributions to human nutrition and occasionally to unintended health risks." 

GMOs: what are they for?

Biotech crops based on GMOs are being developed to accomplish a variety of aims: 

1. herbicide resistance (tolerance, abbreviated to ht), through creating plants that are not harmed by herbicides which are used in conventional farming. Variations target the weeds most prevalent in the fields where the plants are grown;

2. pest resistance (Bt), for instance by introducing genes from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) into plants such as cotton or maize so that they produce an in-built insecticide to eliminate insects which are specific pests to those crops;

3. disease resistance, by introducing genes into plants which enhance the plants' resistance to fungi or viruses;

4. stress resistance  - helping plants to cope better with extreme conditions such as drought - by introducing genes from plants which are naturally tolerant to the particular extreme conditions;

5. plant optimization - modifying plants to produce more nutritious foods through biofortification, or to reduce allergens in foods, or to produce substances useful for industry; 

6. pharming (molecular farming, biofarming) - the production of substances useful for pharmaceuticals, industry or animal feed - through developing transgenic plants for such things as vaccines and biodegradable plastics, and in order to reduce phosphorus discharge levels caused by animal feed in areas of intensive livestock rearing;

7. "bioremediation" (pollutant elimination): helping to clean up the environment through enhancing the ability of plants to take up pollutants such as heavy metals.

GMO high hopes

The possible benefits of GM products have been much trumpeted. It has been claimed:

1. that GM crops reduce production costs by lowering the need for chemical pesticides and fertilizers; therefore benefiting the farmer and ultimately the consumer, if the savings are reflected in lower prices (K. Schneider & R. Goorich Schneider, UF IFAS, 2002);

2. that bioengineering could produce more nutritious food, and so help to reduce world hunger and malnutrition (Ibid);

3. that GM crops would have enhanced taste and quality (EDinformatics, with references up to 2004);

4. they would have reduced maturation time (ibid);

5. they would have increased nutrients, yields and stress tolerance (ibid);

6. they would have improved resistance to disease, pests and herbicides (ibid);

7. there would be new products and growing techniques (ibid).

The spread of GMOs and biotech crops

Biotech crops covered about 1.7 million hectares in 1996, mainly in the United States, increasing to over 170 million hectares in 28 countries in 2012, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA). There are innumerable experiments in genetic modification going on in the United States and around the world. Between 1987 and 2002, seed producers submitted nearly 11,600 applications for approval for field testing to the United States Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (USDAAPHIS), of which over 92% were approved. The majority of the applications involved corn (maize), soybeans, potatoes and cotton, and were for herbicide-tolerant (ht) or insect-resistant (Bt) plants. Some versions of genetically modified crops contain both types (ht and Bt) and are known as "stacked varieties". The American Center for Environmental Risk Assessment lists 152 GM crops and their characteristics. Worldwide in 2012 2,497 regulatory approvals were granted in 59 countries, 1,129 of them for food use, whether direct or in food processing, 813 for animal feed, and 555 for planting or release into the environment. The countries which issued the most approvals were the United States with 196, Japan (182), Canada (131), Mexico (122), Australia (92), South Korea (86), New Zealand (81) and the European Union (67).

Examples of GMOs and biotech crops

Chymosin

The first biotechnology product to be approved for use in food in the United States was chymosin in 1988, a milk clotting agent used for producing cheese. It was developed as a replacement for the traditional rennet extracted from the stomachs of calves being fed milk by their mothers. Chymosin is an enzyme made from genetically modified microbes, which is used in very small quantities for cheese production. It was developed in response to fears of a shortage of rennet due to increased demand for meat, therefore reduced availability of young nursing calves. Three fermentation-produced chymosin preparations (GM FPCs) were approved from 1997, of which two were successful on the market and were widely accepted in the United States and Europe, where it is said to be in up to 90% of cheeses, although not in France and Austria (as at 2010). (Theoretically it does not remain in the finished product, so technically it does not fit into the definitions of GMOs given above.)

The FlavrSavr™ tomato

The first commercial GM crop (1994), grown in the United States, was the FlavrSavr™ tomato. It was made by a firm called Calgene to suppress the production of an enzyme which was key to the softening of the fruit as it progressed from ripe towards rotten. This, in theory, would make it possible to wait until the fruit was ripe before putting it on sale, as opposed to picking it while still green and then 'ripening' it using ethylene treatment. It was approved and sold in the United States, and approved in the UK (but never sold there), despite official concern about gastric lesions seen in studies on rats, and warnings of the risk that dangerous new viruses might be createdOther types of genetically modified tomato were developed at the same time as the FlavrSavr™, and research is still going on. The FlavrSavr™ itself was a commercial failure and was withdrawn from the market in 1997, amid complaints that it bruised easily and had a bland taste. As it was developed to try to allow tomatoes to be picked in their normal state, it does not really fit into any single category. It could possibly be called an example of a 'stress resistant' GM product inasmuch as it aimed to counteract the normal effects of ageing, or it could come under the heading of 'plant optimization'.

Drought-resistant sugarcane

This is an example of a stress resistant crop. In 2013 it was approved by Indonesia's National Genetically Modified Product Biosafety Commission for commercialization. The announcement made Indonesia the first country to give permission for GM sugarcane crops to be planted and sold, with planting expected by 2014

Golden Rice

In 2000, the project was begun to invest rice grains with beta-carotene to combat vitamin A deficiency, which can cause blindness and death. The Golden Rice Humanitarian Project has the extremely worthy aim of helping poor communities for whom rice is a staple and whose other possible food sources of vitamin A are limited. It is an example of an attempt at plant optimization. According to the project website, the rice, which is produced by Syngenta, has been field-trialled in the Philippines, and could be released to farmers in 2014, with the intention of spreading around China, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Vietnam if all conditions are fulfilled. However, an Institute of Science in Society Report dated 18/3/2009 expressed strong criticism about the methods of developing the rice, the apparent lack of feeding trials on animals, the lack of published scientific results from trials carried out in the United States between 2004 and 2009, and concern over trials involving children. The need for the development of Golden Rice was also questioned, in light of the successful Vitamin A Programme organized in the by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Viet Nam (1991-1994) and Niger (1992 - 1994), which showed that many Vitamin A-rich foods were available but under-used, and that education of mothers and diversifying the diet were vital. Local solutions to food supply programmes were implemented, and the conclusion in both countries was that the programme was self-sustainable and could be expanded within local resources. The announcement that Syngenta was abandoning its plans to commercialize Golden Rice still left cause for concern that despite all the signs that the development was not satisfactory or proven safe, the project might still continue (GMWatch, 2014).

Ruconest is a GMO product used as an injection treatment for a condition known as hereditary angioedema, which causes painful swelling swelling anywhere in the body and sometimes difficulty breathing. The condition is caused by a deficiency in a protein called 'C1 esterase inhibitor'. It is an example of a GMO produced by pharming, and is made by a company called Pharming Group N.V. The active ingredient conestat alfa is made by recombinant DNA technology: rabbits are given genes which make them produce the conestat alfa, which can then be extracted from their milk. C1 inhibitor products have traditionally been produced from human blood. The European Commission approved Ruconest for sale in Europe in October 2010. Ruconest was tested on animals and then in human trials, which showed that it could relieve the symptoms of an attack of angioedema within one or two hours, while those who received a placebo still got better, but it took longer, four hours in one trial, eight in another. Ruconest must not be given to people who are allergic to rabbits or who are receiving treatment for acute blood clots. The most common side effect is headache, but Ruconest can also cause dizziness, skin tingling, throat irritation, abdominal pain, diarrhoea, nausea, hives or skin swelling.

Mine detection

The wild plant thale-cress was genetically modified by the Danish biotech company Aresa so that it would turn red when it came into contact with nitrogen dioxide, which often leaks into soil from undetected landmines. The GM plant was being tested in 2007 in Denmark and Serbia, but produced unsatisfactory results and the experiment was abandoned by 2008. Bioremediation has promised much, but so far positive results have been limited.

The Amflora potato

This potato, produced by the German firm BASF, was genetically modified to produce predominantly amylopectin, a starch used in industry for paper, among other things, while eliminating the potato's normal production of the less useful starch amylose, through a gene which also gives resistance to antibiotics. In 2010 it was approved for growing in Europe by the European Commission, which acted over the heads of European ministers who could not reach agreement on the approval. It was the first GM crop approved for growing in the European Union since a type of GM corn was allowed in 1998, and the Amflora potato was not for human consumption, but could be used for animal feed. There was widespread concern about the approval, especially in relation to its antibiotic resistance property. The Amflora potato was cultivated in the Czech Republic (150 hectares), Sweden (80 ha) and Germany (15 ha), but in 2011 the Czech Republic stopped growing it and German planting was reduced to 2 ha. In January 2012 BASF withdrew the potato from the European market, and later ceased working on GM potato developments for the European market, although Amflora remained approved for cultivation in Europe until March 2020. Meanwhile, however, Hungary, supported by France, Luxembourg, Austria and Poland, took action in the General Court of the European Union to annul the Commission's decision to approve the Amflora potato on the grounds that it presented a risk to human and animal health as well as to the environment. The General Court found in their favour in December 2013, and annulled the Commission's decisions concerning authorisation to place the potato on the market.

MON810

The pest-resistant (Bt) wheat known as MON810 produced by Monsanto was the first GM crop to be approved for sowing within the European Union, in 1998. Its trade names are YieldGuard™ and MaizeGuard™, and it was modified by the gene cry1Ab from Bacillus thuringiensis to damage lepidopteran insects, and by the selection marker genes goxv247, cp4epsps (aroACP4) and nptII, the first two in order to provide resistance to glyphosate herbicide, and the last to metabolize the antibiotics neomycin and kanamycin during selection. MON810 is not a single crop variety, but rather a series, which consisted of 93 different types listed in the EU's Common Catalogue of Agricultural Plant Species in 2008. It was approved for cultivation in the European Union for food, animal feed, food additives, pollen, and seed cultivation. Renewal procedures for the EU approval, which was valid for ten years up to 2008, were ongoing as at the end of 2013. There has been deep division among EU countries about cultivating the crop. Six countries, Spain, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Rumania and Portugal, were growing MON810 in 2008, down from eight the previous year. Six countries banned it in 2008: Austria, France, Germany, Poland, Hungary and Greece, joined later by Luxembourg, Bulgaria and Italy. France's ban  was overturned in the highest French court in 2013, but, as widely reported in the media, President François Hollande and his government remained determined that it should stay in place. Germany's ban was more successful and was deemed lawful when Monsanto tried to challenge it in court. Greece was one of the countries which banned varieties of MON810. Greece argued, with full supporting documentation, that "immediate hazard may arise for the environment and human health as a result of the marketing and cultivation of seeds of maize hybrids with transgenic MON810.." Greece made its case several times between 2006 and 2012. The ban was overruled in a draft decision by the European Commission on the basis of scientific opinions provided by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), but as of 2013 no action was taken against Greece to force the ban to be lifted while Monsanto's approval renewal application was still unresolved. 

Herbicide tolerance

Monsanto pioneered the genetic modification of crops for resistance to its best-selling herbicide, Roundup®, known in Croatia as Cidokor, which was first developed in 1974. Roundup Ready® (RR) soybeans were commercialized in 1996, with alfalfa, corn (maize), cotton, spring canola, sugarbeets and winter canola. According to the Monsanto website: "This means you can spray Roundup agricultural herbicides in-crop from emergence through flowering for unsurpassed weed control, proven crop safety and maximum yield potential." The benefits? "Maximum profit opportunity with no-till and the Roundup Ready system. Efficiency - with reduced tillage and the system's unmatched weed control and flexibility, you get more time to spend where you need it most. Convenience - the system's simple, unsurpassed weed control takes the worry out of crop production." One of Monsanto's arguments for RR crops is that less herbicide is needed for weed control. There are numerous reports that herbicide resistant GM crops have in fact caused an increase in herbicide use, linked to the appearance of so-called 'superweeds' which have developed resistance to the herbicides. This was described, for instance, in 'Impacts of genetically engineered crops on pesticide use in the U.S. - the first sixteen years' by Charles Benbrook (2012), and in an NGO report from Brazil by Gerson Teixeira entitled "Ten years of (legalized) GM Crops' (December 2013), which described how pesticide use had increased by about 190% during the GM period, but the crop yield for soybeans, for instance, only increased by 4%, by contrast with the period from 1992 to 2003 (pre-legal GM) when it had increased by 31%.

Glyphosate

The active ingredient of Roundup® is glyphosate. In the United States, products containing glyphosate are labelled, warning users that they should not ingest the herbicide; they should use protective clothing when applying it; and they should not re-enter a treated field for at least four hours after application. In itself, glyphosate is considered only moderately toxic, but when it is mixed with surfactants for application, the situation changes and it can be dangerous and even fatal to humans if consumed.

Glyphosate herbicides are the most used around the world, and are heavily used on Hvar and in Croatia. Monsanto's patent for Roundup® expired in 2000, so other companies besides Monsanto now produce glyphosate herbicides, effectively extending the potential market for Roundup Ready® crops. Glyphosate traces were found in cereal bars and bread in the United Kingdom in 2012. Although the amounts were small, below the EU's maximum permitted residue levels of 10-20mg/kg, consumers, scientists and the companies involved expressed concern. Research from Canada published in 2011 showed that glyphosate residues are present in human urine, and passed from pregnant mothers to a significant number of embryos in the womb, while city-dwellers in Berlin have shown concentration levels of glyphosate significantly above that permitted in German drinking water. Glyphosate residues have been found in the urine of people tested in 18 countries across Europe, with an average showing of 44%, but 70% in people from Germany, Britain and Poland. There are potential risks to human health, as the pathways for harm from the herbicide exist in the gut bacteria of humans and other mammals. Glyphosate is suspected of promoting breast cancer, and this risk may be especially high through GM soybeans.

According to Monsanto (2003), glyphosate is not a threat to drinking water supplies. The World Health Organization evidently agreed. In its Guidelines for drinking-water quality (4th edition, 2011) no guideline limit was set for glyphosate in drinking water, on the grounds that it only "occurs in drinking-water at levels well below those of health concern". However, Eureau, which represents Europe's drinking water and waste water service operators, included glyphosate among the eight most common pesticides causing problems in rivers in its report "Keeping raw drinking water sources safe from pesticides" (April 2001). A 2011 study from Spain showed that glyphosate was reaching groundwater, with 41% of 140 groundwater samples showing glyphosate concentrations above the limit of quantification levels, with some samples up to 2.5 μg/L (parts per billion, ppb), and a mean concentration of 200 ng/L. The EU limit on pesticides in drinking water is 0.1μg/L (ppb) for a single pesticide, and 0.5μg/L for total pesticides. The UK sets stringent standards for drinking water in accordance with EU legislation. The United States limit is higher, with a maximum contaminant level (MCL) of glyphosate in drinking water given as 0.7mg/L (parts per million) for adults.

Benefits to farmers? 

Sustainable farming

A key factor in sustainable farming is seed harvesting, by which farmers retrieve seeds from their current crops to sow in the future. This obviously reduces their costs. The GM companies have patented their seeds, specifically disallowing the practice. Monsanto has even sued 145 farmers in the United States since 1997 for infringing their seed patents, and of the eleven cases which have come to court, all were ruled in Monsanto's favour. When the first-generation Roundup Ready® soybean trait comes off patent in 2015, farmers will be able to save and re-use seeds from the 2014 crops, but are warned by Monsanto to check with their seed suppliers as to whether seeds from their particular crop are eligible for reuse. Syngenta's Golden Rice is one crop whose seeds will not be patented to prevent retrieval.

To establish complete control over the seed market, Monsanto aimed to develop sterile seeds, called 'Terminator technology', but (so far) has not commercialized the trait, and its website states that it has no intention of doing so

In tandem with the prohibition on reusing seeds, GM seed prices have risen over the years, causing increasing financial pressures on farmers. Meanwhile, some of the few top-selling seed companies have patented their non-GM seeds, and, in a further restrictive step, withdrawn successful non-GM seeds from the market in order to reduce the competition for GM seeds. It has been commented that this restrictive domination of the seed market amounts to the equivalent of 'Terminator' seeds being available, especially in India.

An epidemic of suicides among farmers in India has been blamed on the financial pressures created by GM farming and its system of marketing seeds. From 1995, it is said that some 270,000 farmers committed suicide in India. It is too simplistic to claim that all these deaths are due to farming GM crops, especially Bt cotton, but Monsanto's claims that the deaths are totally unlinked to GM farming is also untenable, in view of the increase in suicide rates, the prevalence in cotton-farming areas, and the economic hardships arising from the policy of non-retrieval of GM seeds and the need of Bt cotton for special irrigation which would be beyond the means of many farmers. The best one can say is that GM crops have done nothing to reduce the ever-increasing number of suicides among Indian farmers.

In 2010, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission began an investigation into Monsanto's glyphosate herbicide business, focussing on cash incentives paid to Roundup distributors in 2009 and 2010. This followed an investigation by the Justice Department the previous year into possible anti-competitive practices relating to its herbicide-tolerant soybean seed business. This investigation was quietly closed in 2012.

According to a report in the journal Environmental Sciences Europe (2013), a study of four countries inidcated the the promotion and consequent rise of GM seeds had reduced the farmer's choice of seed for crops in the GM-adopting country, by contrast with the three non-GM countries: "Our analyses revealed no evidence in support of the claim that farmers living in European countries with no or highly regulated access to GM crops experience declining seed options and forego competitive advantages in terms of yields since the mid 1990s when GM varieties were introduced to other markets. In particular in Germany, the situation changed in a surprisingly positive way towards a remarkable increase in choice of maize cultivars offered since the mid-1990s. Also in Austria, an increase in cultivar choices was observed, while in Switzerland the situation remained similar over the period monitored. In summary, it can be safely concluded that in the three studied non-adoption countries, farmers have more maize cultivars available to them today than they had in the 1990s despite restricting GM maize, while in Spain, the only GM adopting country, overall numbers of cultivars to choose from for a farmer have declined and increasingly have become a choice among GM cultivars. Since 2003, every year on average roughly 49% of the new maize cultivars are GM and nearly all of the removed maize varieties are non-GM, conventional varieties. With this, the development in Spain seems to follow that in the US where cultivar choices today exist practically only among substantially fewer GM varieties.."

Crop failures

Yields have proved variable in different crops. A common pattern is for yields to be improved in the first few years of planting, then to drop. It has also been suggested that GM seeds take a long time to develop, during which time better versions of conventional seeds can be produced to give better yields. In 2008 it was reported that research in America showed that GM RR soybeans gave less yield in direct comparison to conventional soybean, which Monsanto claimed was because that particular variety was not designed to give greater yields, but they were working on producing one which would. Similar results were shown for canola in Australian trials. Bt cotton in India showed increased yields for the four years following its introduction in 2002, and then a steady decline from 2008-2009 up to the 2012-2013 season. Ihas been reported that organic cotton is a more valuable crop than GM or conventional cotton, and that over a period of three years it offers more profit to farmers. GM corn yields have been variable, and some reports suggest that the value of GM corn crops lies in reducing losses in bad years, rather than increasing yields in good years. Recent research indicates that non-GMO hybrid corn varieties create equal or better yields than GM varieties.

Defining the causes of differences in yield is complex, as described in a 2009 text published by the Union of Concerned Scientists entitled 'Failure to Yield'. Their research evaluated the performance of GE crops to date, and concluded that they had failed to produce significantly greater yields in themselves, and probably could not be relied upon to do so in the future, although they had the theoretical potential to increase yields dramatically.

One of the problems linked to falling yields is increased resistance to the herbicides and pest toxins carried by the GM plants. The theory that building in resistance to pests would enhance crop yields and security was severely undermined by 2003, when it became clear that not only were some insect-pests developing resistance to the toxins, but were actually thriving on them. In 2011, it was reported that at least eight species of insects had developed resistance to the Bt toxin. Resistance to pesticides and Ht GMOs has resulted in the appearance and rise of so-called 'superweeds'. In 2011, the Institute of Science in Society published a report stating that resistant weeds covered over 4.5 million hectares in the United States, and an estimated 120 million hectares worldwide. Besides leading to increased use of pesticides, there are also proposals to develop GM plants resistant to different herbicides which can be used to combat the superweeds. In December 2013 the U.S. Union of Concerned Scientists issued a report with proposed solutions to bring the problem under control - and prevent the biotech industry from making it worse.

Environmental effects

EDinformatics (c. 2004) set out some of the dangers as follows: "Potential environmental impact: unintended transfer of transgenes through cross-pollination, unknown effects on other organisms (e.g., soil microbes), and loss of flora and fauna biodiversity".

The emphasis on killing weeds with herbicides takes little or no account of the effects on insects and wildlife, all of which have their part in the natural cycles which make up our world. There has been a reported decline in monarch butterflies (2012), which is thought to be due mainly to the use of herbicides in conjunction with Ht crops. The potential danger to Monarch butterflies had already been highlighted in a paper published by Cornell University in 1999. The epidemic known as 'colony collapse disorder', in which bees die off in large numbers has been blamed, at least in part, on GMOs, for instance in an article by Gunther Latsch on Spiegel Online International in 2007, a post by Craig Mackintosh on the website Celsias also in 2007, and a report by Brit Amos published on the Global Research Website in 2011. These articles are generally cautious in listing GMOs as possible causes of bee decline, among other factors. Research undertaken in Germany, reported in 2009, was more specific in implicating pollen from GM corn as a strong factor in colony collapse, while research published in 2013 showed that GMOs could be causing unwanted gene alteration in honeybees

Contamination 

In the United States, genetically engineered Roundup Ready® (RR) alfalfa was approved for planting in 2011, but by September 2013 hay from a conventional farm was rejected for export because of GM alfalfa contamination. Earlier in 2013, an unapproved strain of GM RR wheat was found growing on a farm in Oregon - having been field-tested in 16 different states as long before as 1998-2005. The finding was announced by the United States Department of Agriculture in May 2013. GM canola was reported to be growing in the wild and spreading rapidly in the U.S. in 2010, with widespread coverage by 2012. The contamination of human food with StarLink™, a Bt corn produced by Aventis CropScience (subsequently bought by Bayer) and approved for use in 1998 in animal feed only, sparked a major recall and led to importers such as Japan and Korea refusing corn from the U.S. unless it was guaranteed free from StarLink™ contamination. Subsequently, a top executive from Aventis CropScience admitted that StarLink™ might never be eliminated from the human food supply. The GM Contamination Register is constantly updating its listing of GMOs being found in foods and places where they should not be. StarLink™ was among several GMO contaminants found in foodstuffs imported into Saudi Arabia between 2009 and 2010, as reported by Saudi researchers in 2013. In November 2013, GMWatch reported that GM crops were spreading out of control in many countries.

Scientists have long been concerned about the possibility of 'horizontal transfer' of genes from plants containing viral transgenes, as was reported in a technical paper published in 2004 by EcoNexus. There is also urgent worry about the escape and transfer of GE antibiotic resistance into water organisms, which has been identified in China (2012), and which "poses a significant challenge to human health".

Organic farmers are the main direct victims of escaping GMOs, as they lose their organic certification if their crops are found to be contaminated with genetically modified material. Spain is the largest commercial grower of MON810 in Europe, and is said to account for 42% of all field trials of GM crops in Europe. When organic farmers lose their certification through GMO contamination, they have difficulty suing for damages and compensation, because there is no provision for this in Spanish or European law. In January 2014, an organic farmer in Australia, Steve Marsh began the process of suing his neighbour when he lost his organic certification due to contamination from his neighbour's GM rapeseed crop.

Are GM crops safe?

There are three possible answers: yes; no; we don't know. The question has a very broad scope, as the thousands of GM seeds and food products relate not only to human health, but to animals and the environment. Are GM crops safe for one and all?

Propaganda is not proof. The 2012 report by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) trumpeted trumphantly the "17th year of successful commercialization of biotech crops", asserting that the growth rates for GM crops reflected "the confidence and trust of millions of risk-adverse farmers around the world", and "..the fact that biotech crops deliver sustainable, socioeconomic and environmental benefits". Hardly. The apparent commercial growth can be ascribed more accurately to the relentless commercial and political pressure on countries round the world to accept GM developments in agriculture.

After all, huge worldwide sales of tobacco products and junk foods over many years have not made these things safe or healthy. They are simply proof of the power of marketing and the gullibility of vast numbers of consumers.

The question of safety is central to the controversies surrounding GMOs in food and animal feed.

Safety levels safe?

When defining safety in relation to chemicals, poisons and pesticides, scientists and governments set out limits which, they claim, will not cause harm, whether to humans, animals or the environment. These levels are theoretical. That explains the disparity between levels set by different countries. In practice, the effects of combinations of chemicals in a given situation can be very different from what is expected on the basis of deductions from laboratory experiments.

Despite the predicted benefits, most GM development is still experimental. Very few of the thousands of proposed GM products have reached the commercial production stage. According to the World Health Organization: "Currently available GM foods stem mostly from plants, but in the future foods derived from GM microorganisms or GM animals are likely to be introduced on the market. Most existing genetically modified crops have been developed to improve yield, through the introduction of resistance to plant diseases or of increased tolerance of herbicides. In the future, genetic modification could be aimed at altering the nutrient content of food, reducing its allergenic potential, or improving the efficiency of food production systems. All GM foods should be assessed before being allowed on the market. FAO/WHO Codex guidelines exist for risk analysis of GM food." Biofortified crops have been released in underdeveloped countries since about 2002, which is the first step towards supplying the product to the population. In 2013  transgenically biofortified rice enhanced with vitamin A was released in the Philippines, Bangladesh, Indonesia and India

No adverse effects detected so far?

The most commonly used argument for the safety of GM crops is that there have been no adverse effects detected in human health in the near-twenty years since GM crops have been widely planted and GM food products distributed. This is easily said and not so easily denied. But it is not proof that GM foods are safe. GM foods are not tested on humans prior to sale. Adverse health effects which are not immediate might arise, but are impossible to pin down, given the number of factors involved. Because of this, for example, the tobacco companies got away with denying that their products harmed human health for years (damningly described by WHO and the Australian Tobacco Control Supersite) in the face of painstakingly gathered overwhelming evidence that they did. Thalidomide, first developed as an anti-convulsive drug, was sold over-the-counter from 1957 as a harmless sedative which had the added benefit of reducing morning sickness in pregnant women, and helping insomnia, coughs, colds, and headaches. It was linked to adverse nerve reactions by 1959, and to birth deformities - 10,000 worldwide - in 1961, when it was withdrawn from the market, although it was still sold under licence in Canada from 1961 to 1963. At the time thalidomide was developed, testing for potential damage to the unborn child was not part of clinical trials. Since then clinical testing procedures have been tightened - but as the drug was only developed to increase the profitable lines of the producing company, like so many other drugs, was this tragic experiment ever necessary?

For GM technology there are many research projects indicating that there might be health risks attached to them. Often the research is denigrated by GM supporters, but the volume is steadily growing. A particular example is the scientific paper published at the end of 2012 raising concerns that major GM crops approved for commercial release over 20 years contain a potentially dangerous virus gene. On 21st October 2012 the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility published a statement asserting that GM foods have not been proven safe and that existing research raises concerns. By 30th October 2013, 297 scientists had signed in support of the Statement.

GM and conventional foods

In the United States, GM foods are considered substantially equivalent to conventionally produced commodities, and for that reason do not need to be labelled specifically. These assumptions are open to question. First, there is the possibility that substances which have been altered genetically might differ in essence from those which have not. Second, in order to accept the premise that 'no adverse effects have been detected' in GM foods, one also has to accept the same assertion in relation to foodstuffs produced with chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Has the average American diet been perfect for good health over the last hundred years or so? Or do Americans suffer from obesity, type-2 diabetes, gout, allergies, intolerances, cardiac problems and various other diseases which may be related to what they eat? Ancel Keys, at the end of the Second World War, perceived the American diet as inferior to the Mediterranean diet in terms of health results, even though Americans had much more disposable income to spend on their daily food.

So-called conventional farming using chemical fertilizers and pesticides has long been a subject of concern. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization has warned: "It has been shown that high external conventional agriculture results in greater ecological disturbance and may be less sustainable compared to low external input agricultural (LEIA) and Organic Agricultural systems. LEIA systems have high genetic and cultural diversity, multiple use of resources and efficient nutrient and mineral recycling (Altieri 1999)." In the same report, the opportunities provided by genetic engineering are described with some optimism, rather surprisingly in view of the advantages quoted, with examples such as Cuba, for successful organic farming. The basis of conventional farming is largescale production, which has created problems such as monoculture (lack of crop diversity) and soil nutrient depletion. Soils are suffering mineral depletion, which in turn is suspected of causing nutrient depletion in produce. The system needs to be challenged on rational grounds, offering viable alternatives.

In all honesty

The most accurate answer to the question of GMs being safe is "we don't know". So the precautionary principle should apply, especially as there are so many indications that GM products can be harmful in a variety of ways. No-one should ever take risks with human, animal or environmental health.

Force-feeding with GMOs

In the United States GM crops have been promoted particularly ruthlessly, to the extent that it is estimated that 80% of processed foods sold in the country contain some ingredient from a GM crop. Labelling of GM foods is not mandatory in the United States. According to a factsheet produced by Colorado State University in 2010 and updated in 2013, arguments against labelling include 'Labels on GE food imply a warning about health effects, whereas no significant differences between GE and conventional foods have been detected', and 'Labeling of GE foods to fulfill the desires of some consumers would impose a cost on all consumers. Experience with mandatory labeling in the European Union, Japan, and New Zealand has not resulted in consumer choice. Rather, retailers have eliminated GE products from their shelves due to perceived consumer aversion to GE products (Carter and Gruere, 2003)'. Monsanto, the biggest producer of GM seeds, approves of the current US government policy on food labelling, and of food companies voluntarily labelling their products, but opposes mandatory labelling: "We oppose current initiatives to mandate labeling of ingredients developed from GM seeds in the absence of any demonstrated risks. Such mandatory labeling could imply that food products containing these ingredients are somehow inferior to their conventional or organic counterparts".

Public opposition to GMOs

However, public feeling in the United States has been aroused: in June 2013 Washington State published a bill proposal called 'Initiative Measure No. 522', which aimed to enforce labelling to identify food products containing GM ingredients, partly in order to allow people to make an informed choice about what they ate, and partly to enable better monitoring of the long-term effects of GM foodstuffs on the environment and human health. The measure clearly had great public support, with about 13,000 people contributing to the $8.4 million raised to fight for their cause by late October, whereas their opponents (who are alleged to have broken campaign-finance laws) raised nearly three times as much mainly from the biotech companies and food firms, with just four individual donations. The bill proposal was narrowly defeated by 895,557 votes to 857,511 (51.09% - 48.91%). A similar proposal was equally narrowly defeated in California in November 2012, a success which cost the proposed bill's opponent's some $45.6 million. Although Maine and Connecticut passed GM labelling laws in 2013, they were not to take effect until other states followed suit. At the end of 2013 Oregon won a legal battle in the State's Supreme Court to begin collecting signatures in order to qualify for a ballot on the issue.

GMO aggressive marketing

Around the world, the GM-producing companies, backed by the United States government, have pushed forward their products with equally relentless zeal. Europe has been forced to accept imports of GM products under 'Free Trade Laws'. This has been largely for animal feed, but it has also affected human food. On December 4th 2008 the EU Council of Minister unanimously adopted the report entitled Conclusions on Genetically Modified Organisms confirming reservations regarding the present approval system as well as the right of member states to prohibit the cultivation of GMOs under certain conditions. Under current EU laws, therefore also in Croatian law, 49 different types of GMOs are allowed to be present in products sold in the EU to a level of 0.9% without being labelled. This is because it has been impossible to prevent GMO traces from spreading where they are not necessarily wanted: 'EC Regulation 1829/2003 of the European Parliament on genetically modified food and feed' (22 September 2003), clause 24: "Despite the fact that some operators avoid using genetically modified food and feed, such material may be present in minute traces in conventional food and feed as a result of adventitious or technically unavoidable presence during seed production, cultivation, harvest, transport or processing. In such cases, this food or feed should not be subject to the labelling requirements of this Regulation. In order to achieve this objective, a threshold should be established for the adventitious or technically unavoidable presence of genetically modified material in foods or feed, both when the marketing of such material is authorised in the Community and when this presence is tolerated by virtue of this Regulation". While strict labelling laws have been applied to most foodstuffs in the EU since 2004, meat, milk and eggs are exempt.

Clearly, the GM companies and the United States government are not confident that farmers and consumers will accept GM produce of their own free will if they have a choice. This all-powerful lobbying, not to say bullying, calls to mind Bob Dylan's apposite line 'money doesn't talk, it swears' (It's all right Ma, I'm only bleeding', 1965).

Freedom of choice, a human right

Allowing GMOs in animal feed which are not allowed in crops for human consumption is an alarming principle, as the animals themselves form part of the human food chain. Also alarming is the concept that GMO intrusion into non-GM foods is inevitable and therefore should be tolerated. As the StarLink™ scandal unfolded, Aventis, thinking to solve their problem, pleaded for approval to allow the GM corn in human food. Similarly, Australian organic farmer Steve Marsh has been told that easing the regulations for organic certification to allow GM intrusions would solve the problem of coexistence between GM and organic farms.

These are ways in which the consumer's freedom of choice has been and is being undermined. The right to make an informed decision about what to eat and what to feed to children, guests and animals is rapidly being eroded, and to a certain extent has already disappeared. The world is being force-fed GMOs, will-he, nill-he.

GMOs and Croatia

The Croatian Government and people have been resolutely against the planting of GMO crops in Croatia. Under pressure from the United States Government, which in 2001 threatened action against Croatia through the World Trade Organization, the Croatian Government ultimately shelved a proposal for a total ban on GM imports. Nonetheless, in 2008 Croatia declared itself 'GM-free'.

In September 2003, a Law on Protecting the Environment was passed which forbade the sowing of GM seeds. However, it then emerged that seeds for a hybrid corn (PR34G13) supplied by the biotech company Pioneer, which has a Croatian branch, were contaminated with GMOs. The Croatian Government ordered the contaminated fields to be destroyed, and paid damages to the affected farmers, as Pioneer refused to take responsibility for the contamination. However, it seems that the problem was not solved, as the following year Hungary returned six lorry-loads of GM-contaminated corn exported from Slavonija (overview of ten years of GMO production - Gde smo nakon 10 godina komercijalne proizvodnje GM usjeva?, by Marija Jošt, published on the Ajda Vrzdenec website, 2006). 

Marijan Jošt, retired University professor of plant genetics and president of the Croatian Organization for Organic Farming (BIOS), defined the problems of GMOs and the reasons why Croatia should not adopt them in a 2005 paper (published in Sjemenarstvo 22 (2005) 1-2), and in 2009 urged the newly formed Council for GMOs to be proactive, emphasizing that GMO crops could not co-exist with conventional farming (published in Nexus 2009 38: 8-10). Similarly, in 2010 the Catholic journal Glas Koncila argued against GM produce on the basis that Croatians had consistently demonstrated their opposition to them.

GMOs in EU member Croatia

Having joined the EU in July 2013, the Croatian Government has had to comply with EU laws, which in fact was a gradual process from 2004, especially in relation to permissible traces up to 0.9% of GMOs in produce which do not have to be declared. On entry into the EU, the law was enacted allowing GM feed for livestock into the country, on condition that it had to be declared to the authorities within thirty days of placement on the market.

At the end of 2013, the Croatian press and the Croatian Beekeepers Association (Hrvatski pčelarski savez) reacted negatively to the news that Monsanto was advertising for a permanent representative in Croatia, expressing dismay at the thought that Monsanto would start selling its GM seeds in Croatia. Other biotech companies including Pioneer, Dow AgroSciences and BASF were already established in Croatia. BASF has been present since 1998. In 2013 Dow AgroSciences its herbicide Lancelot 450 WG, as well as other products on the Croatian market and some yet to come, in a seminar ('Dani Polja' - 'Field Day') organized by the agricultural organization 'Agroklub'. In response to the media reaction against Monsanto's seeds, a positive suggestion was put forward for initiating the revival of Croatia's own seed production, so that it would no longer have to rely on imported seeds.

The issue of GMOs was not mentioned in the full-colour six-page pamphlet which was issued before the referendum held on January 22nd 2012 by which Croatian citizens decided whether they wanted to join the EU or not. EU membership was presented as an opportunity for Croatian agriculture to benefit from the wider market and the possibility of obtaining financial support from EU funds. It would certainly have been relevant to inform Croatian citizens that the EU had already accepted that GMOs were now inevitably present in the normal food chain, and that their presence in traces up to 0.9% did not even have to be labelled.

In 2012, 14 out of 20 counties (Županije) were declared GM-free. This is down from about four years ago, and sadly Split-Dalmatia is not among them. 

Organic Hvar

Many visitors to Hvar during the summer months comment on how delicious the local tomatoes are here. Growing conditions are near-ideal, and of course the fruits are freshly picked and eaten almost straight away. Hvar has an abundance of fresh produce to offer, and could do a lot more. Consumers all round the world have shown that they do not want GM foods. By contrast, the organic market is constantly growing in size. Hvar's 'brand' should be certified organic - visitors to the island expect no less, and conditions are ideal for organic agriculture.

One popular mainstay of the Mediterranean diet, especially during the winter and spring, is wild greens (divlje zelje), Cooked up with onions, garlic and potatoes or rice (recipe in Croatian), wild greens make a satisfying and popular supper. Many people cultivate seasonal vegetables in gardens or small plots where water is available, but the divlje zelje grow wild in gardens or fields, the kind of dark green, slightly bitter leafy vegetables which are now considered to be specially nutritious. In spring, wild asparagus plays a similar important role in the daily diet. As these grow freely in the fields like 'weeds', to take advantage of them one has to be absolutely sure that they have not been sprayed with herbicide.

Fresh vegetables grown in unadulterated soil were key to the Mediterranean diet as defined by Ancel Keys. Traditionally on Hvar and elsewhere, weeds were kept at bay by planting useful crops like beans between the vines and cabbages under almond trees. Clover fixed soil nutrients under the olive trees. Crop rotation was also practised, with old vines being removed and the fields replanted with vegetables for a while. These methods were obviously much more efficient, less damaging, less costly to human health, the environment and wildlife, and cheaper than chemical pesticides and fertilizers, which have no part in the healthy Mediterranean diet. 

An important step in securing the island's reputation for fine, fresh, healthy produce is to establish Hvar as a GM-free zone. Living up to the ideals of the Mediterranean Diet with all its health benefits is only possible if the island's agriculture is wholly, or at least primarily organic. Hvar's future as a place of health and beauty is at stake.

© Vivian Grisogono 2014

Links with updates on GMOs:

GM Watch

The Non-GMO Project

GM Crops List - International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA)

European Commission - Plants: EU Register of Authorized GMOs

EU Parliament News Report, May 2015: Calls to halt imports of GM maize and cotton.

Gene Watch UK -working on all aspects of genetic technologies - from GM crops and foods to genetic testing of humans.

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