July 2017


Key to understanding genetically engineered crops is knowing who and what drives this trade. (First of a 2-part article)

By G. Clare Westwood

1.0              The Second Green Revolution or Gene Revolution

            The first Green Revolution was the main vehicle through which agri-corporations took control of the world’s food and agricultural system. As it became increasingly apparent that the Green Revolution had failed to live up to its promises to feed the hungry and in a bid to gain even greater control over the global agricultural market, agri-transnational corporations (TNCs) ventured into biotechnology or the ‘Second Green Revolution’, also called the ‘Gene Revolution’ with ‘more of the same’ formula as the first Green Revolution, flying under the same banner of feeding the world. Already having a stronghold in the area of chemical inputs, they looked to expanding and consolidating their control over seeds.

            Genetically engineered (GE) or genetically modified (GM) crops first entered the agricultural scene in the 1990s, starting in the US. As of 2016, around 18 million farmers across the world grew GE crops over 185.1 million hectares in vast monocultures with the four major biotech crops being soybean (78%), cotton (64%), maize (26%), and canola (24%).[1] USA, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, and India are the top five countries growing 91% of the biotech crops.[2] GE herbicide-resistant (HR) crops make up around 47% of the global acreage; insect-resistant GE crops cover 12% while stacked traits (herbicide-resistance, insect-resistance and other traits combined) comprise around 41%.[3]

            Most of the GE HR crops are Monsanto’s Roundup Ready (RR) varieties which are resistant to glyphosate (sold by Monsanto under the brand name Roundup) while most of the insect-resistant crops are Bt varieties made resistant to selected insect pests using a gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis.

2.0       A Second Bitter Harvest

            Has agri-business delivered on its many promises related to GE crops over the last 20 years of commercial cultivation: promises of higher production, and pesticide and pest reduction, along assurances of safety and improved livelihoods for farmers? Far from it. The evidence speaks for itself.

2.1       Health Risks

            Industry claims that GE crops are needed to feed the world. But are they safe to eat in the first place? In 2009, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM), a US-based international association of physicians, called for an immediate moratorium on GE food citing, “Genetically modified foods pose a serious health risk in the areas of toxicology, allergy and immune function, reproductive health, and metabolic, physiologic and genetic health”.[4]

            In October 2013, a statement released by the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER)[5] unequivocally agreed that there was no scientific consensus on the safety of GE foods and crops, calling claims that these were safe for humans, animals and the environment "misleading". In fact, it stated that many cited studies showed evidence of toxic effects. The statement has been signed by more than 300 scientists and published in the journal, Environmental Sciences Europe.[6] In 2014, a scientific analysis called “GMO Myths and Truths” debunked 34 ‘myths’ relating to GE, finding that claims for the safety and efficacy of GM crops were often based on dubious or non-existent evidence.[7]

2.2       GE Crop Failures

            Bt cotton is grown extensively in India and China. Monsanto controls over 95% of the Indian cotton seed market. Bt cotton makes up 90% of cotton fields in some areas, but pests not previously known for cotton (e.g., mealy bugs) have spread, causing farmers significant economic losses.[8] After 10 years of Bt cotton cultivation in the country, the Indian Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture released a report in August 2012, stating that, “There have been no significant socio-economic benefits to the farmers because of the introduction of Bt cotton. On the contrary, being a capital-intensive agricultural practice, investments of farmers has increased manifold, this exposing them to far greater risks due to greater risks due to massive debt which a vast majority of them can ill afford. …The experience of the last decade has conclusively shown that while [GE agriculture] has extensively benefited the industry, as far as the lot of poor farmers is concerned, even a trickle down is not visible.”[9]

            Health problems were also found in people handling Bt-cotton in ginning factories in Madhya Pradesh, India.[10] The symptoms found were strongly suggestive evidence that workers had allergic reactions to the Bt toxin present in the GE cotton, with symptoms ranging from skin itching, eye itching and swelling to respiratory tract complaints.

            In China, seven years after the commercialisation of (the more expensive) Bt cotton seeds, farmers’ expenditure on pesticides was more or less the same as for non-GE cotton growers mainly due to the emergence of secondary pests.[11]

            In October 2016, six entomologists from the Great Lakes Region in the US wrote an open letter[12] to seed companies asking them to change their marketing claims and label language to reflect the widespread failure of the Cry1F (Herculex I) trait  in controlling the western bean cutworm (WBC). The toxin, Cry1F, is used extensively as an above-ground trait in GE crops by major seed companies and across multiple brands. Dow AgroScience and DuPont Pioneer call it the Herculex I trait. Marketing literature by the companies claims it gives protection against the WBC, a serious pest to corn. However, infestation by the WBC has rapidly spread eastward across the central Corn Belt into the Great Lakes Region.

            Another "bitter harvest" of GE crops is the Burkina Faso case. In 2003, Burkina Faso, in partnership with Monsanto, began the development of Bt cotton. Subsequently, Monsanto backcrossed the Bt gene onto local varietals, which were then released to farmers in 2008. By 2014, more than 140,000 smallholder farmers were cultivating Bt cotton, representing 70% of total cotton production in the country.[13] In 2016, however, Burkinabè cotton officials claimed that the Bt cotton varietals produced lint of inferior quality resulting in tens of millions of dollars in lost revenue as the Bt cotton lint fetched lower prices on the global market.[14] The Burkinabè cotton sector subsequently cut down drastically on Bt cotton sowings and a complete phase-out was effected in the 2016/2017 season.

            A 2016 study by The New York Times[15] found that GE crops in the United States and Canada showed no discernible advantage in yields nor led to an overall reduction in the use of chemical pesticides when measured against non-GE varieties in Western Europe.

2.3       Contamination by GE Crops

            GE crops are also a threat to non-GE crop varieties. There have been many known cases in different countries where transgenes from GE crops have crossed with local crop varieties and wild relatives and spread beyond their areas of cultivation.[16]  In 2006/2007, GE LibertyLink Rice which was field-tested by Bayer in the US, was found to have contaminated rice and rice products in 32 countries.[17] Greenpeace estimated the economic cost of the contamination to the US rice industry to be in the region of US$1.2 billion from food product recalls as well as actual and expected export losses.[18]

            In April 2017, Enogen, a corn genetically engineered by Syngenta for ethanol production, was reported to have contaminated non-GE white corn grown in Nebraska, which is used to make flour, presenting risks of market rejection for non-GE and organic corn growers, and for the baking and milling industry.[19] The Enogen contamination is reminiscent of the StarLink scandal in the early 2000s. Starlink was a GE corn created by Adventis CropScience (now owned by Bayer), which had been approved for feed use only, but was later found in 300 food products, leading to a multi-million dollar food recall, along with multiple lawsuits.[20]

2.4       Insect Resistance

            There is growing evidence of resistance by insect pests to the Bt toxins used in GE crops. A study published in December 2016[21] found that the corn earworm (called bollworm in cotton cultivation) had evolved resistance to multiple Cry toxins in a pyramided/stacked variety (see section 2.6). The study covered 20 years of observations and is the first long-term, in-field assessment of transgenic Bt corn’s effectiveness against one of the most damaging pests of sweet corn, field corn, cotton and many other high-value crops.

            Another 2016 study[22] evaluated the patterns of resistance and cross-resistance against all commercially available Bt toxins (Cry34/35Ab1, Cry3Bb1, mCry3A and eCry3.1Ab) in western corn rootworm populations collected from fields in Iowa, USA. The results revealed resistance to Cry3Bb1 maize, mCry3A maize, and eCry3.1Ab maize in western corn rootworm populations from fields with high levels of feeding injury to Cry3Bb1 maize, and cross-resistance among these Cry3 Bt toxins. Given this pattern of Bt resistance and cross-resistance, it appears likely that Cry3Bb1-resistant western corn rootworm populations in fields planted with pyramided maize will experience strong selection for resistance to Cry34/35Ab1 and eCry3.1Ab, which threatens to further compromise the efficacy of currently commercialized pyramided Bt maize hybrids targeting the pest. The study highlights that this broad-spectrum resistance illustrates the potential for insect pests to develop resistance rapidly to multiple Bt toxins when structural similarities are present among toxins, and raises concerns about the long-term durability of Bt crops for the management of some insect pests.

2.5       GE Herbicide-Resistant Crops Drive Herbicide Over-use

            In 2017, a team of researchers condensed and updated[23] a comprehensive technical report on the agronomic and environmental aspects of the cultivation of GE HR plants which was first published by the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation, the Austrian Environment Agency, and the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment. The key findings are as follows. Scientific data indicates that agricultural intensification and pesticide use are among the main drivers of biodiversity loss. Given the actual trends in cultivation from the 1990s, the GE HR crop system has not increased yields significantly nor reduced herbicide use. Glyphosate-based herbicides have been shown to be toxic to a range of organisms and to adversely affect soil and intestinal microflora and plant resistance to disease while glufosinate exhibits reproductive toxicity to mammals and will be phased out in the EU in 2017. The adoption of GE HR crops has also reduced crop rotation and favoured weed management that is solely based on herbicides, increasing their use. Experience with such crop systems over several years shows that broad-spectrum herbicide application further decreases diversity and the abundance of wild plants, particularly broad-leaf plants, and impacts arthropod fauna and other farmland animals. The report concludes that taken together, the adverse impacts of GE HR crops on biodiversity, when widely adopted, are very hard to avoid. From a nature protection perspective, such crops seem to be no option for a sustainable agriculture model which incorporates the protection of biodiversity.

            A 2016 study[24] found that glyphosate is the world's most widely used herbicide in history, largely driven in the last decade by the expansion of GE HR crops which now account for 56% of global glyphosate use. It reports that the global agricultural use of glyphosate rose 14.6-fold, from 51 million kg in 1995 to 747 million kg in 2014. Total worldwide glyphosate use (agricultural plus non-agricultural) rose more than 12-fold from about 67 million kg in 1995 to 826 million kg in 2014. Over the last decade alone, 6.1 billion kg of glyphosate have been applied, 71.6% of total worldwide use (8.56 bil. kg) from 1974–2014.

            Continuous GE HR cropping and the intensive use of glyphosate over the last 20 years has led to the appearance of at least 34 glyphosate-resistant weed species infesting millions of farmland hectares worldwide.[25] By 2012, the reported acreage infested with glyphosate-resistant weeds in the US stood at 61.2 million acres, almost double from the 32.6 million acres in 2010.[26] A 2016 study by the University of Illinois Plant Clinic analysed samples from 10 states across the Midwest of the US; 593 field samples representing approximately 2,000 waterhemp or palmer amaranth plants (weeds) were tested for herbicide resistance. Of these, 76.8% were found to be resistant to glyphosate.[27] Glyphosate-resistant weeds increase weed control and other production costs. In Georgia (USA), for instance, cotton growers spend US$100 million annually to manage them.[28]

            Glyphosate was classified as a "probable human carcinogen" by WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in 2015.[29] Recent studies have linked glyphosate to health effects such as the degeneration of the liver and kidney and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.[30] There is also mounting evidence that the co-formulants listed as “inert ingredients” in glyphosate-based herbicides (GBHs) can be just as if not more toxic than glyphosate alone.[31] In 2016, 14 scientists produced a "Statement of Concern" drawing on emerging science relevant to the safety of GBHs. They concluded that: GBHs often contaminate drinking water sources, precipitation, and air, especially in agricultural regions; the half-life of glyphosate in water and soil is longer than previously recognized; glyphosate and its metabolites are widely present in the global soybean supply; human exposures to GBHs are rising; and regulatory estimates of tolerable daily intakes for glyphosate in the United States and European Union are based on outdated science.[32]

2.6       Worse to Come: Next Generation GE HR Crops

            Agri-corporations have developed and are developing crops with more than one trait, called ‘stacked’ or ‘pyramided’ crops. For instance, after the first generation of RR crops, which have been plagued by weed resistance problems, the second generation, in an attempt to counter the resistance, consists of crops genetically engineered to be resistant to both glyphosate and other herbicides such as 2,4-D, dicamba, glufosinate, imidazolinone,  isoxaflutole, and mesotrione.[33] This has been described as the ‘GE/GM treadmill’ similar to the ‘pesticide treadmill’ that agri-business introduced with the first Green Revolution and which will only reap even more resistant weeds and more harm from increased herbicide spraying. The active ingredient in 2,4-D, for instance, is linked to embryo mal-development[34], birth defects[35] and endocrine disruption[36] while dicamba has been linked to the increased incidence of cancer among farmers and birth defects in their male offspring.[37] Non-target terrestrial plant injury has been recorded at 75 to 400 times higher for dicamba and 2,4-D, respectively, as compared with glyphosate.[38]

            A 2016 study[39] found that 2,4-D and dicamba active ingredients and commercial formulations of these herbicides can cause both lethal and sub-lethal effects on a lady beetle species, Coleomegilla maculata. The study found that commercial formulations of 2,4-D were highly lethal to lady beetle larvae. In this case, the "inactive" or "inert" ingredients were a key driver of the toxicity. So-called “inactive” or "inert" ingredients in pesticide formulations typically constitute the majority of a pesticide’s volume and can sometimes be more toxic to non-target species than the active ingredients. Meanwhile, the dicamba active ingredient significantly increased lady beetle mortality and reduced their body weight. The commercial formulations of both herbicides also reduced the proportion of males in the lady beetle population.

2.7       The "Promises" of GE Crops - All Myths

      A report by Greenpeace in 2015[40] effectively sums up the myths about GE crops showing that: (1) GE crops are not feeding the world, do not increase yields, can negatively affect the livelihoods of small-scale farmers, and reinforces the industrial agriculture model that has failed to feed the world so far; (2) genetic engineering lags behind conventional breeding in developing plant varieties that can help agriculture cope with climate change; (3) long-term environmental and health monitoring programmes on GE crops either do not exist or are inadequate; (4) GE crops increase pesticide use and herbicide-resistant weeds, and super-pests have emerged in response to herbicide-tolerant/resistant and insect-resistant GE crops requiring additional pesticide use; (5) GE seed prices are protected by patents and their prices have soared over the last 20 years; (6) GE crops can contaminate non-GE crops; and (7) GE crops are not only an ineffective type of innovation, but they also restrict innovation due to intellectual property rights owned by a handful of multinational corporations.

            In October 2015, 19 out of the 28 countries in the European Union registered as official GE-free zones.[41] They were: Austria; Belgium for the Wallonia region; Britain for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; Bulgaria; Croatia; Cyprus; Denmark; France; Germany; Greece; Hungary; Italy; Latvia; Lithuania; Luxembourg; Malta; the Netherlands; Poland; and Slovenia. – Third World Network Features

1 International Service for Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) Brief 52-2016: Executive Summary.

2 International Service for Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) Brief 52-2016: Executive Summary.

[3] ISAAA. 2016. Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2016. ISAAA Brief No. 52. ISAAA: Ithaca, NY.

[4] Leahy, S. 2009. Environment: Monsanto, Dow stacking the deck, critics say.


[7] Fagan, J.; M. Antoniou, & C. Robinson 2014 (second edition). GMO Myths and Truths. Earthopensource. U.K.

[8] GM Watch. 2010 (16 February).Bt cotton boosting pesticide use.

[9] Indian Parliamentary Standing Committee. 2012. Cultivation of genetically modified food crops—Prospects and effects.

[10] Pesticide Action Network International. 2011. Verdict - Permanent People's Tribunal Session on Agrochemical Transnational Corporations (Bangalore, 3-6 December 2011).

[11] Wang S, Just DR, Pinstrup-Andersen P. (2006, July 22-16). Tarnishing silver bullets: Bt technology adoption, bounded rationality and the outbreak of secondary pest infestations in China. Selected Paper prepared for presentation at the American Agricultural Economics Association Annual Meeting Long Beach, CA.

[12] An open letter to the seed industry regarding the efficacy of Cry1f bt against western bean cutworm: October 2016. Cornell Field Crops. 2016.

[13] Dowd-Uribe B. and Schnurr M.A. 2016. Burkina Faso’s Bt cotton reversal: Why Africa’s largest producer of GM cotton is phasing out production and what this means for GM crops in Africa.

[14] Dowd-Uribe B. and Schnurr M.A. 2016. Burkina Faso’s Bt cotton reversal: Why Africa’s largest producer of GM cotton is phasing out production and what this means for GM crops in Africa.

[15] Hakim D.. 2016. Doubts about the promised bounty of genetically modified crops.

[16] Bauer-Panskus, A., Breckling, B., Hamberger, S., & Then, C. (2013). Cultivation-independent establishment of genetically engineered plants in natural populations: current evidence and implications for EU regulation. Environmental Sciences Europe, 25(1), 34.

[17] TWN Biosafety Info, 23 Nov 2007. Unapproved GE Rice from US Found in China.

[18] Reuters, 5 November 2007. U.S. GMO Rice caused $1.2 billion in damages.

[19]Roseboro K. 2017.GMO-Ethanol corn contamination raises concerns about another “starlink” disaster.

[20] Roseboro K. 2017.GMO-Ethanol corn contamination raises concerns about another “starlink” disaster.

[21] Dively G. P. and P.D. Venugopal. 2016.Field-evolved resistance in corn earworm to cry proteins expressed by transgenic sweet corn.

[22] Jakka, S. R., Shrestha, R. B., &Gassmann, A. J. 2016. Broad-spectrum resistance to Bacillus thuringiensis toxins by western corn rootworm (DiabroticaVirgifera). Scientific Reports 6: 27860
doi: 10.1038/srep27860.

[23] Schütte, G., M. Eckerstorfer, V. Rastelli, W. Reichenbecher,  S. Restrepo-Vassalli, M. Ruohonen-Lehto, ... & M. Mertens. Herbicide resistance and biodiversity: Agronomic and environmental aspects of genetically modified herbicide-resistant plantsEnvironmental Sciences Europe, 29(1), 5.2017. See also the Supplement Paper.

 [24] Benbrook, C. 2016. Trends in glyphosate herbicide use in the United States and globally. Benbrook Environ SciEur (2016) 28:3.

[25] Schütte, G., M. Eckerstorfer, V. Rastelli, W. Reichenbecher,  S. Restrepo-Vassalli, M. Ruohonen-Lehto, ... & M. Mertens. Herbicide resistance and biodiversity: Agronomic and environmental aspects of genetically modified herbicide-resistant plantsEnvironmental Sciences Europe, 29(1), 5.2017. See also the Supplement Paper.

[26] Mortensen, D.A., J.F. Egan, B.D. Maxwell, M.R. Ryan and R.G. Smith. 2012. Navigating a Critical Juncture for Sustainable Weed Management. Bioscience 62(1):75-84.

[27] Herbicide-resistant superweeds on the rise in US midwest. University Report.

[28] Lambert, D.M. et al. 2017.Resistance is futile: Estimating the costs of managing herbicide resistance as a first-order Markov process and the case of U.S. upland cotton producers. Agricultural Economics. doi: 10.1111/agec.12341


[31] Lerner, S. 2016. New evidence about the dangers of Monsanto’s Roundup.The Intercept.

[32] Myers J.P. et al. 2016. Concerns over use of glyphosate-based herbicides and risks associated with exposures: A consensus statement. Environmental Health.

[33] Testbiotech. 2014. The Risks of the herbicide 2,4-D.

[34] Greenlee AR, Ellis, TM, Berg RL. 2004. Low-dose agrochemicals and lawn-care pesticides induce developmental toxicity in murine preimplantation embryos. Environmental health perspectives 112(6):703-709.

[35] Schreinemachers DM. 2003. Birth malformations and other adverse perinatal outcomes in four US Wheat-producing states. Environmental Health Perspectives 111(9):1259-1264.

[36] La Chapelle A.M., M.L. Ruygrok, M. Toomer, J.J. Oost, M.L. Monnie, J.A. Swenson, A.A. Compton, B. Stebbins-Boaz . 2007. The hormonal herbicide, 2, 4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, inhibits Xenopus oocyte maturation by targeting translational and post- translational mechanisms. Reproductive Toxicology 23(1):20-31.

[37]Center for Food Safety. 2015. USDA Approves New Pesticide Promoting Genetically Engineered (GE) Crops.

[38] Mortensen DA, J. Franklin Egan, B. D. Maxwell, M. R. Ryan, and R. G. Smith.  Navigating a Critical Juncture For Sustainable Weed Management.  Bioscience, Vol. 62, No. 1 (January 2012), Pp. 75-84.

[39] Freydier L. and J. G. Lundgren. 2016. Unintended effects of the herbicides 2,4-D and dicamba on lady beetles. EcotoxicologyVolume 25, Issue 6. DOI: 10.1007/s10646-016-1680-4.

[40] Greenpeace. 2015. Twenty years of failure – Why GM crops have failed to deliver on their promises. 

[41]Chow, L. 2015. It’s official: 19 European countries say ‘no’ to GMOS.


About the author: G. Clare Westwood holds a Masters Degree in Business Administration and has had extensive experience in education, people development, facilitation, human resource management, programme/campaign coordination, writing and editing. She is currently the new Head of the Justice & Peace Commission of the Catholic Church in the Diocese of Penang, Malaysia which is focusing on ecological justice. She is also a writer and researcher on food, agriculture, climate change and agriculture, and biosafety for the Third World Network.

The above article is an update of the paper “Agri-Business Rules the Food Chain" which was first published in Third World Resurgence No. 295, March 2015, pp 18-22. by the same author.

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