GM Free Cymru

The dangers of GMOs

By Marie Monique Robin, journalist and author of "the world according to Monsanto"(6 June 2008)
MM Robin gives evidence at the trial of “José and the 40 volunteer reapers”

Last week I was at the trial of the 41 defendants nicknamed “José and the 40 reapers”. The presiding judge made patient efforts to understand the motivation or the “trigger” which had caused these men and women to be willing to act illegally and to “neutralise” a plot of MON810 maize (the growing of MON810 was provisionally banned by the French government in February, pending new scientific data as to its safety), and Pioneer Bt maize. As I describe in my book, Monsanto sold the “Bt technology” to Pioneer in 1993 for 38 million dollars.

Among the defendants were men and women from many different backgrounds: farmers who grow organically, alarmed at the prospect of losing their certification through contamination of their land, business owners, workers, teachers, nurses and activists experienced in civil disobedience and non-violence, etc.

They had all given mature reflection to their decision to join the “volunteer reapers” movement and felt that their actions were justified as a “case of necessity”, given the refusal of the authorities to listen to what they believe is a situation of irreparable “danger”.

The presiding judge aimed his questions precisely at understanding whether contamination by GMOs constituted a “simple risk” or a “known danger” and if the “case of necessity” was well-founded.

This was why, on Friday morning, he questioned the “informed persons”, a term which he seemed to prefer to “expert”.

Notable among the “informed persons” called to testify by the Parties, was the stainless Claude Menara, a farmer from the Lot et Garonne region who is regularly wheeled out by Monsanto, and was appearing here for Pioneer, to sing the praises of Bt maize. I remember that Menara came to a screening of my film “Argentina: Going Hungry with Soya” in Sceaux, last February, and sat next to a representative from Monsanto. Menara offered assurances that contamination wasn’t a problem, because, he said, “We know how to manage co-existence”! Indeed, he added that didn’t use the word “contamination” but preferred to say “adventitious presence”, which is the term used by Monsanto.

Another “informed person” called to give evidence was a certain Phillippe Joudrier, of INRA (the French National Institute for Agricultural Research) and Chairman of the Biotechnology Panel of AFSSA [1] , the French Food Safety Agency, who delivered a lecture on the difference between “pollen transport” and “gene transport” and explained that maize pollen climbs high in the atmosphere and is literally frozen, before falling back to earth “sterile”. This resulting in a reduced risk of contamination! Which is very curious: as maize is an allogamous, or outcrosser plant, which means it reproduces by cross-pollination. Except, apparently, GMO maize!!

I was the last “informed person” to be heard. The good news is that the presiding judge stated publicly that they had read my book…

I based my evidence on the fact that GMOs already constitute a known “danger” and that I could state this from the results of 10 years of cultivation in the great open air laboratories of North and South America.

I described three different types of such danger:

1) Regulatory and Scientific Bodies have been subject to undue influence.

I described how thanks to its lobbying and to the system of “revolving doors” Monsanto has been able to impose the “principle of substantial equivalence”. This is not based on any science but on a political decision by the White House, as James Maryanski, who was the US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Biotechnology Coordinator, has explained. Phillippe Joudrier has admitted that the principle was used in France as the basis for evaluating GMOs.

The proposed “principle of substantial equivalence” had been heavily criticised by FDA scientists, as is clear from internal documents which have since been made public. So we can read that Dr. Linda Kahl, the FDA’s Compliance Officer who was responsible for drawing up the consensus from her scientist colleagues, sent a memo to James Maryanski, in which she wrote that “The processes of genetic engineering and traditional breeding are different, and according to the technical experts in the agency, they lead to different risks” (see document at my Blog).

Despite the opposition of its scientists, the FDA adopted the principle of substantial equivalence, which allowed GMOs to go on sale – and the first of these was RoundUp Ready soya, which was allowed on the market without any serious toxicological or environmental study, and without any labelling requirements.

As Professor Erik Millstone of the University of Sussex has written, “The reliance by policymakers on the concept of substantial equivalence acts as a barrier to further research into the possible risks of eating GM foods.” [2]

Moreover, as I explain in my book and my Blog, the cases of Aventis’s BT Starlink and of Monsanto’s BT 823 prove that it is important to carry out toxicological tests to make sure whether foods made from pesticide-producing plants are harmless, or not.

Given that we are discussing “manipulation”, there is no small irony in the way in which the principle of substantial equivalence was “adopted” by the WHO (World Health Organisation) and the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation) at the start of the 1990s, before the first GMO appeared on the market, and of course, in the absence of any scientific data. Among the authors of the relevant documents, which provided the justification the GMO manufacturers needed, we find James Maryanski and Dr. Roy Fuchs…of Monsanto!

Continual collusion between representatives of the industry and representatives of regulatory bodies is also found in European organisations. For instance, the Chair of the EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) panel on GMOs, which has responsibility for advising the European Commission before GMOs are allowed to go on the market, is Harry Kuiper. Harry Kuiper has very close links with the biotech industry, as do certain other members of EFSA like Mike Gasson, Hans- York Buhk and Detlef Bartsch.

Conflicts of interest and the absence of independent experts constitute a recurrent problem in the area of GMOs.

2) The Creation of a Monopoly

The second known danger posed by the GMOs growing in the countryside (RoundUp Ready or Bt plants) is that of the monopoly which Monsanto has managed to build in just 10 years.

This monopoly has been built by means of several well-planned strategies:

Buying up seed companies practically everywhere in the world, in North and South America, in Asia, Europe and Africa, has allowed the firm from St Louis to establish GMOs and cause non-GMO seeds to disappear.

This monopoly is currently the object of several class actions by US farmers who believe that Monsanto is violating the US antitrust laws. It may turn out, in the view of a number of lawyers and financial analysts I interviewed in the US, that Monsanto will end up facing the same situation as Microsoft. There should be nothing surprising in that as the firm from St Louis has always claimed that it wanted to be the “Microsoft of food”. The current class actions are also alleging “conspiracy” between Monsanto and Pioneer to fix the price of GMO seeds at a greatly increased price.


Monsanto’s second tool for creating its monopoly over seeds (and thus, eventually, over the food chain) is of course, its patents. As I explain in my film and book, farmers who sow RoundUp Ready soya or any other GM crop are forced to sign a contract under which they agree not to save any harvested seed for sowing in their fields the following year. If they do this, they risk being harassed by the “gene police”.

When we review Monsanto’s strategy over recent years, it’s very apparent that the company would never have ventured to manufacture GM plants, if these weren’t patented.

This is so much the case that my enquiries revealed that the TRIPS agreement (Trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights), which has been a World Trade Association nightmare since its creation in 1995 (and particularly its article 27.3.B re the patenting of life) was largely inspired by…..Monsanto, as the firm’s Director of International Affairs, James Enyart, has admitted.


It’s of interest to note that in countries like Brazil and Paraguay, the moratoria or bans on growing GMOs were “by-passed” by organised genetic contamination thanks to powerful networks allied to Monsanto, like APRESID (in Argentina) and CAPECO (in Paraguay). Once the GM crops were being widely grown, these governments were forced to legalise them, in order to be able to continue exporting to Europe, which requires GM produce to be labelled. And then Monsanto could collect its royalties…..

3) Monoculture and the threat to food security

The third known danger is that of monocultures which inevitably result from GMO cultivation and which are the final disaster to result from the “green revolution”, to the benefit of just a handful of giant producers.

A danger to biodiversity

Monocultures, or “green deserts”, such as I witnessed in South and North America, are accompanied by the destruction of biodiversity and organic agriculture. I have just returned from Canada where I found confirmation of the theme of my previous film: “Wheat: chronicle of a death foretold ”. Since the introduction of RoundUp Ready canola in Canada, the organic canola sector has totally disappeared. The last certificate for organic canola was granted in 2003. As for the conventional canola sector, the countryside is so contaminated, that this has all but disappeared.

A danger to the environment

GM monoculture also constitutes a known danger to the environment.

Contrary to what Monsanto has always claimed, RoundUp Ready plants don’t lead to a reduction in herbicide use. Eventually, they lead to more being used, because the weeds that RoundUp is designed to kill develop resistance to it.

Charles Benbrook, former Director of the US National Academy of Sciences Board of Agriculture, has shown that between 1996 and 2004 the quantity of herbicides used on America’s three main crops (soya, maize and cotton) grew by 5%, or 138 million litres.

What’s more, this phenomenon is exacerbated by the resistance developed by weeds and by “volunteers” (plants with resistance to Roundup which grow back the following year when the field is being used to grow a different crop. As these plants can’t killed by spraying with the herbicide they are compromising crop rotation.)

As far as Bt crops are concerned, two recently-published studies (one from the University of Cornell, the other from the University of Arizona) have confirmed what entomologists predicted: some insects have become resistant to Bt plants.

An economic disaster

To start with, as the agronomist Roger Elmore explained to me, the yield from GM plants is 5% to 12% less than the yield produced by the conventional plants they were created from. American scientists have even found a name for this unavoidable problem: “yield drag”.

Studies indicate that this drop in yield is caused by the genetic manipulation which forces the plant to do something that it wasn’t made for (such as resisting a powerful herbicide like RoundUp), to the detriment of its other functions (such as growing). The agronomists are all agreed too that GM plants are much more fragile than their conventional counterparts, and have much less resistance to agricultural stresses (such as draught, cold snaps and heavy rain).

What’s more, from an economic viewpoint, GM plants are just a “honey trap”. This was demonstrated in a study by Michael Duffy, an economist from the University of Iowa (quoted in my book). He investigated the accounts of farmers in the State item by item, comparing their costs of production and the expenditure incurred in growing RoundUp Ready soya or conventional soya. When all the costs are taken into account (seeds, use of herbicides, yield, expenditure on fuel and fertilisers), the results are stark: the GM soya growers lost $8.87 per acre, against $0.02 for the conventional soya growers.

In the same way if one compares the results from Bt maize against those from conventional maize, the GM growers lost $28.28 per acre and those growing conventional maize lost $25.02 per acre.

In other words, without agricultural subsidies, US agriculture would already have sunk without trace (or at least prices would have fallen through the floor).

As Michael Duffy and other commentators have highlighted, the financial failure of GMOs is hidden by the explosion of agricultural subsidies: 12 billion dollars between 1999 and 2002 to which should be added 180 billion earmarked in 2002 for the next ten years.

It would appear that Monsanto’s GMOs are a means of the US taking over the food market, which is a danger for food security.

Lastly, although hunger riots have been exploited by the promoters of GMOs as an opportunity to present them as a miracle solution for food security, I am certain, along with very many NGOs and farmers’ organisations, that the opposite is the truth.

GM monocultures cause the gradual disappearance of sustainable crops and of biodiversity, which are the only things that can guarantee a food supply for the human race.

It is the small farmers, the ones whose survival is under threat from the spread of pesticide-containing plants, who can feed their fellow citizens. Not the huge industrial producers who are allying themselves with multinational companies and foreign investors to turn the earth’s resources into commodities, to be exploited by speculators whose only interest is in squeezing a profit.

Source : Article by Marie Monique Robin, 6 June 2008. Le blog du Monde selon Monsanto.


[1] Agence Française de Sécurité Sanitaire des Aliments

[2] “Beyond Substantial Equivalence’’ by Erik Millstone, Eric Brunner and Sue Mayer, Nature Vol 401, 7 October 1999