CropGen Mission

CropGen Mission

CropGen Mission

If this website does not answer your questions on GM foods and crops, please call our information line (local rate) during normal office hours.

CropGen Mission

A consumer and media information initiative, CropGen’s mission is to make the case for GM crops and foods by helping to achieve a greater measure of realism and better balance in the UK’s public discussions on agriculture and food.

CropGen recognises that crop biotechnology offers many actual and potential benefits – benefits which are often overlooked or deliberately obscured in public debates.

CropGen accordingly participates in radio and TV interviews and presentations, briefs journalists, writes articles and letters, and offers speakers for private and public debates and meetings.

CropGen’s views are entirely our own. None of the associates or experts is employed by or receives research funding either from the biotechnology industry or from any organisation campaigning against the use of biotechnology in agriculture and the food industry. Most CropGen contributors offer their services in the public interest.

The headlines and rhetoric about genetically modified (GM) crops and foods have been alarming, and it would not be surprising if you had reservations about both of them. There may be risks attached to GM technology, but we believe there are also enormous potential benefits – and that these benefits far outweigh the risks. Where we see real benefits we will say so loudly and if we have concerns we will be just as vocal.

The barrage of criticism levelled at GM crops could well deny us many very real benefits – benefits to the environment in terms of reduced use of chemicals, to the consumer in the form of more nutritious foods and lower prices, and to the developing world through a more secure supply of food.

At a time when people increasingly demand to know how technology affects them, any new development will have to work hard to gain public acceptance. That is not necessarily a bad thing provided the issues are addressed seriously. Several recent scare stories – not just about GM crops – have shown how scientific information is misused in pursuit of other agendas. More understanding and open debate about science and technology is long overdue. If crop biotechnology is sacrificed along the way in the UK, or in Europe more widely, it could be one of the great missed opportunities of our time. Most of the world is forging ahead, not waiting for the doubters to make up their minds.

CropGen makes the case for GM crops (crop biotechnology) on the basis of publicly available information. We have no access to confidential material and would not use it if we had: it is a cornerstone of our approach that our sources must be available to everyone who wants to know.

Whenever we can, we prefer to use data from peer-reviewed publications but that is often not possible. But wherever the information comes from, it has to be information equally accessible to anyone who takes the trouble to get it.

There are many issues to be considered besides the purely scientific and technical, including economic, social, political and moral factors. But if the basic facts are wrong or misused, all that is built upon them will similarly be at fault. It is our objective to do what we can to ensure that in the public debate the “facts” are the real ones, not what some people would like them to be or pretend that they are.

Natural or not natural?

Natural or not natural?

Natural or not natural?

London (16 January, 2006) – Every year since they were first introduced in 1995/6, the worldwide acreage planted to GM crops has increased markedly.

In 2005 it did so again, up 11% to a total of 91 million hectares. The increased acreage was about equivalent to the combined areas of Austria and Wales; the total is now nearly four times the area of the United Kingdom.

In 2004, 17 countries were involved in commercial production of biotech. crops; in 2005, this number had grown to 21. Five of those countries (the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Portugal and Spain) are in the European Union; another (Romania) is a candidate country expected to join in 2007. In addition, several countries in Africa and Asia are conducting field tests with a view to beginning commercial production in the years to come.

The proportion of global plantings taking place in the developing countries in now 38%. It is not unlikely that before too long the developing country total will outstrip that of the industrial nations. Early adopters of GM technology, especially the United States, are almost at saturation level for the GM commodity crops now available: cotton, maize, oilseed rape and soya. When the second generation direct consumer benefit crops are ready for the market and – above all – when the decision is made to plant GM wheat on a commercial basis, we can expect to see industrial country acreages take a marked upward swing.

It is in the developing countries that we may expect the most dramatic proportional advances in planting in the immediate years ahead. As more and more farmers in those countries see the benefits, and ever more countries begin commercial plantings, the opportunities for major increases in acreages given over to GM crops becomes clear. In the wings waits perhaps the largest potential development of all: GM rice. China is said to be on the verge of going down that road while Iran is reported already to be doing so.

We have noted in an earlier piece on this website that in 2000, at a public meeting in the presence of hundreds of people (including members of CropGen), one of the senior figures in the UK’s organic sector predicted that within five years GM crops and foods would have disappeared, rejected and consigned to history. He could not have been more wrong.

London (19 January 2006) – One of the objections to agricultural biotechnology, endlessly reiterated by campaigners and their commercial allies, is that GM crops are not “natural”.

That begs two questions: what does “natural” mean and does gene transfer between plants take place without human intervention?

As regards the first point, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1955 printing) has a number of rather woolly definitions of “natural” along the lines of “not altered or improved in any way” (altered by what is not stated), “taking place or operating in accordance with the ordinary course of nature” (that encompasses everything, including human activities) and “existing in, or formed by, nature; not artificial” (elsewhere defining “artificial” as “not natural”).

Since human beings are the products of “natural” evolutionary processes, they themselves and all that they do must ipso facto also be “natural”. What they do includes inventing gene splicing technology which is accordingly “natural”. If it is not, then one must explain how a dam made by a badger by chewing down trees, or birds’ nests made with twigs and leaves, differ in naturalness from dams made by people using concrete or houses built with bricks. If badgers and birds are natural while humans are not, when did people become “unnatural” – or should it be “supernatural”?

The second matter has recently been illuminated in Sweden. Although it is not difficult for molecular biologists to imagine how genes might be moved between organisms via the agency of bacteria and viruses, it is much more difficult to provide good examples of such events. Not only are they likely to be relatively rare, and biology is a very large place in which to look for needles in haystacks, there is a large question of how a gene might be recognised as originating transgenically from another source.

Results just published by Dr Lena Ghatnekar from the research team for evolutionary genetics at the University of Lund give such an example. One of the genes in the common grass sheep’s fescue codes for an enzyme called PGIC. Dr. Ghatnekar found that the enzyme differed between various sheep’s fescue plants. She discovered that certain plants had extra genes for the production of PGIC, present at a different site in the genome from the normal PGIC genes.

At first it was thought to be a matter of gene duplication – but it turned out that the extra genes were sufficiently different from the main ones to make duplication most unlikely.

It turned out the deviant PGIC came from meadow grass, a plant not closely related to sheep’s fescue and so unlikely to have transferred the additional gene by cross pollination. Dr Ghatnekar commented that they “are so remote from each other that a plant breeder would never dream of trying to cross them”.

Finding the foreign gene did not immediately disclose how it had moved. It might have been transferred by a virus which infects both grasses, just one of the things that human genetic engineers do. Or perhaps a fragment of meadow grass pollen became attached by chance to sheep’s grass pollen and so introduced foreign DNA in the pollination event. That is rather like shooting it in using a biolistics gun.

It all makes human genetic engineers less like the wicked monsters portrayed by those who campaign against improving agriculture and closer to being the inheritors of a long and venerable biological tradition of genes moving about in the most unexpected ways.

ACNFP slams Russian experiments



ort from Russia claimed that people eating GM food would die early; CropGen commented at the time.

Based on this work, some UK newspapers have recently suggested that if mothers were to eat GM foods they might “risk endangering their unborn babies”. No story would be more likely to worry prospective parents, often in no position themselves to judge the accuracy and reliability of scares. They will tend, not surprisingly, to play it safe.

The Russian experiments had already been rebutted by a well-known Australian scientist, as Cropgen reported. Now the UK’s Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes, an official body working in the public interest to review and regulate GM and other novel foods, has published its own highly critical report.

It is worth quoting their closing remarks in full:

“In conclusion, there are a number of possible explanations for the results obtained in this preliminary study, apart from the GM and non-GM origin of the test materials. Without information on a range of important factors conclusions cannot be drawn from this work. The Committee Secretariat is contacting Dr Ermakova to obtain further information on this study and the Committee will consider any further information that can be obtained and review the position if a full report of the study is published in the peer-reviewed literature.

The Committee also notes that Dr Ermakova’s findings are not consistent with those described in a peer-reviewed paper published in 2004.1 In a well controlled study no adverse effects were found in mice fed on diets containing 21% GM herbicide-resistant soya beans and followed through up to 4 generations.”


3. GM ‘could harm your unborn baby’. Daily Mail (9.1.06). [The same newspaper used a similar headline – Can Frankenstein foods harm your unborn baby? – on 30.1.99 for a story suggested exploring possible “statistical links” with Down’s Syndrome.]

4. Statement on the effect of GM soya on newborn rats. Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes

London (19 January 2006) – What you do – and where you do it – can really upset things.

One of the latest concerns in the unending fears about transgenic crops and foods has hit South Africa. It is felt by some sensitive people that foreigners visiting local campsites and defecating in adjacent open spaces can pose a serious genetic threat to the environment.



The reason is that such wicked foreigners may in Europe (sic!) have consumed a genetically modified food with seeds, travelled to South Africa within hours and there performed their dirty deeds, discharging undigested seeds into the purity of the pristine South African environment.

This submission was made with respect to the Genetically Modified Organisms Amendment Bill now being considered; it calls on the committee to plug the loophole although quite how that might be done is not made clear.

CropGen is reminded of a related and possibly apocryphal story, current about eight years ago, in which it was rumoured that UK anti-GM activists succumbed to paroxysms of fear when British scientists ate some GM tomatoes to prove that they were not toxic. The activists demanded that the scientists be quarantined until all seeds had passed through their digestive tracts and were properly disposed of.

The scenario may not be entirely far-fetched. Someone in charge of inspecting sewage treatment plants reported that the most startling feature of sewage treatment lagoons in late summer is the lush crop of tomatoes growing at the margins. The fruits rivalled any he had ever seen in food shops or in farmers’ markets but he could bring himself to eat any of them.