Landmark victories leave agrochemical giants reeling
Over the past 12 months GMWatch has once again been at the forefront of those revealing the problems with GMOs and toxic pesticides, and working to force them out of our environment and the world’s food supply. Your support is critical to our ability to do this, so please give what you can to keep us strong in 2019. We may kick ass but we do it on a shoe string, and that can be a challenge! And thank you again to all of you who’ve already made our work possible with your kind donations.
A year in review
This review is a great way of making sure you’re up to speed on key issues and developments from around the globe.
In the last year, in addition to our own original research, articles and commentary, we’ve also brought you all the breaking news. Some of these developments have been so big they’ve even made the front pages and topped the bulletins of the mainstream media! Sadly, though, most continue to be under-reported and ignored.
So here is the first part of our review of some of our most striking stories from the last twelve months. They deal mostly with legal, political and research developments, but GMO boosters also suffered a series of personal PR disasters in the course of 2018, which we were at the forefront of reporting. We’ll review all the lurid details of those in a separate bulletin.
Although 2018 left the agrochemical industry reeling, they actually started the year looking set to be bigger and more unstoppable than ever. Here’s why:
- The concentration of the Big 6 agrochemical corporations was headed towards a climax that would leave just four gigantic companies controlling 60% of the world’s proprietary seeds. Regulatory approval of the $63 billion mega-merger of Bayer and Monsanto made possible not just the largest corporate acquisition of 2018 but the largest all-cash transaction ever. Approval for a merger that created the biggest seed and agrochemical company on the planet came despite over 90% of surveyed US farmers expressing concern that it would not only negatively impact independent farmers and farming communities but would result in increased pressure for chemically-dependent farming.
- The jewel in the crown of the mega-deal from Bayer’s point of view was its acquisition of Monsanto’s glyphosate-based herbicide Roundup, which, despite a fierce battle, had won a new five-year lease of life in Europe at the end of 2017. Roundup has always been a massive money-spinner, and the Roundup line of products (which includes GMO seeds) represents about half of Monsanto's yearly revenue. The vast majority of GM crops grown worldwide are engineered for tolerance to glyphosate herbicides.
- Also on track was the biotech industry’s push to stop the products of a new generation of genetic engineering techniques – so called gene-editing – being classed as GMOs. This ruse would not only allow the industry to dodge the more careful – and more costly – regulations currently applied to GMOs, but also to dodge GMO labelling, thus doing away with the problem of consumer resistance.
- The industry’s strategy was helped by the successful hyping of new genetic engineering techniques, such as CRISPR, as near-miraculous means of attaining all kinds of remarkable benefits with much less risk of unintended impacts than old-style genetic engineering.
But before we turn to the massive setbacks the industry suffered during the course of the year, let’s take a moment to remember the passing in 2018 of five remarkable men.
Fallen heroes in 2018
- RIP Peter Melchett, giant of the UK environmental and organic movements – and a dear friend of GMWatch.
- RIP Dr Samuel Epstein, US expert on carcinogens who blew the whistle on Monsanto's GMO dairy hormone.
- RIP Dr Shiv Chopra, Canadian regulatory whistleblower, who ensured Monsanto's GMO dairy hormone was not introduced in Canada.
- RIP Fabián Tomasi, Argentine farmworker and victim of agrochemicals, who touched many hearts around the world.
- RIP Faisal Rahman, Bangladeshi journalist who helped expose the failures of Bt brinjal (GMO eggplant/aubergine).
Landmark victory in India
The industry suffered its first major setback of 2018 in April when the Delhi High Court ruled that Monsanto had no patent rights in India on its GMO cotton varieties. The court said this was because seeds – and biological processes for the propagation of seeds – cannot be patented under Indian law. Although India’s Supreme Court has subsequently for procedural reasons referred the matter back to a lower court for reconsideration, what it has not done is uphold Monsanto’s patent. Vandana Shiva, an intervenor in the case, remains confident that Monsanto’s lack of patent rights will be confirmed when it comes to trial. And a group close to the Indian government is calling for an amendment to Indian law, if needs be, to make absolutely certain that patent rights on seeds are outlawed.
Landmark victory in Europe
In July the industry suffered another massive setback when the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that new forms of genetic engineering, known as gene editing, are just as much genetic modification as the old forms and pose similar risks, which means their products must be regulated and labelled as GMOs. Although the ECJ’s ruling left the industry reeling, it reflects the science and what we at GMWatch have been saying all along about new GM – or GM 2.0, as it’s sometimes called. Now the pro-GMO lobby is trying to change the EU’s GMO regulation in order to get the new GM techniques de-regulated or subjected to light-touch regulation only. We have our work cut out to oppose this push.
The problems of GMOs old and new were brilliantly captured in two highly readable and informative articles that we published this year:
- Bound to fail: The flawed scientific foundations of agricultural genetic engineering (part 1) – Dr Angelika Hilbeck
- Bound to fail: The flawed scientific foundations of agricultural genetic engineering (part 2) – Dr Michael Antoniou
And look out for Gene-editing hype starts to unravel in one of the forthcoming parts of our Year in Review.
Landmark victories in the US
Another landmark victory in 2018 came just a month later, with the verdict in the DeWayne Lee Johnson Roundup cancer case. The jury, which contained a molecular biologist and an environmental engineer, among others, unanimously agreed that Monsanto’s glyphosate-based weedkiller Roundup not only caused Johnson’s cancer but that the corporation had “acted with malice or oppression” in hiding the risks.
The news caused an immediate plunge in the share price of Bayer, which was in the process of completing its merger with Monsanto. Bayer finds itself facing over 8,000 similar lawsuits. They will start going to court in February 2019, with at least another five trials to follow during the course of the year.
Just days after the Johnson verdict, Monsanto lost another important case when the California state Supreme Court rejected the company's challenge to the state’s decision to list glyphosate as cancer-causing.
The Monsanto Papers
One of the most damaging aspects of the glyphosate-cancer litigation has been the release of the so-called Monsanto Papers – internal Monsanto documents showing the extreme tactics that the company uses to fix the science and regulation on glyphosate. Indeed, it was this evidence, which shows how the company flooded scientific journals with ghostwritten articles and interfered in the scientific process in order to defend glyphosate, that led the jury to find the company guilty of “malice or oppression”.
Two academic papers drawing on these documents were published in 2018:
- The Monsanto Papers: Poisoning the scientific well
- Roundup litigation discovery documents: implications for public health and journal ethics.
Another academic paper – Retraction by corruption – looked specifically at the new light shed on the much-publicised retraction of a study led by Prof Gilles-Eric Séralini which raised concerns about Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup and a GMO maize. The new paper reviews the history of the retraction and describes the evidence showing how it was engineered by Monsanto with the apparent collusion of the editor-in-chief of the journal. Séralini’s study was later republished by another journal.
Among much media coverage, Australia’s public broadcaster ABC's documentary The Monsanto Papers stands out.
More evidence also emerged in 2018 that EU regulatory reports on pesticides have been extensively plagiarised from industry dossiers, without any indication of their having been copy pasted from industry sources.
Reforming pesticide regulation
Revelations like these helped strengthen moves to reform pesticide regulation in the European Union. GMWatch participated in a collaborative process with other NGOs, led by Pesticide Action Network EU, to develop proposals for reform of pesticide risk assessment to make it more science-based and less biased towards corporate interests, i.e. more in the public interest. Many of our proposals were reflected in and reinforced by the report of the PEST committee, set up by the European Parliament to analyse and assess the authorisation procedure for pesticides in the EU, with a view to improving regulation.
Claire Robinson of GMWatch also co-authored – with the toxicologist Dr Peter Clausing, and the biochemist Dr Helmut Burtscher-Schaden – a peer reviewed paper showing that the European authorities violated their own rules in concluding glyphosate is not carcinogenic.
The political pressure to ban glyphosate kept growing throughout 2018. The French and German governments have committed themselves to phasing out glyphosate herbicides over the next few years. Indeed, from January 2019 these herbicides will no longer be available in France for home gardeners. They were banned from all public spaces there a year ago. In October, Belgium also banned glyphosate sales to non-professionals and the Czech Republic has said it will restrict glyphosate use, including banning pre-harvest desiccation, in 2020. The State of Carinthia in Austria is also banning glyphosate for private use and has been seeking permission for a more general ban. And a growing number of towns, cities and other municipalities are following suit.
It’s not just in Europe that this is happening. In India, the state of Punjab has banned glyphosate, while China will introduce maximum residue levels of glyphosate (200 ppb) for imported food products and raw materials in 2019. These levels are way below those allowable in the US, so they could impact farming practices in exporter countries in the Americas, Australia, and elsewhere.
Our most-read article of 2018
Over the years we’ve dedicated an enormous amount of coverage to the toxic impacts of glyphosate-based herbicides – and 2018 was no exception. In fact, our most-read story by far was our report on an Argentine study linking glyphosate herbicides to miscarriage and birth defects. This study came hot on the heels of an equally alarming study from the States, which correlated glyphosate herbicide exposure with shortened pregnancy length. Although the latter was conducted in the US corn belt, none of the women studied worked in agriculture. The lead author, Shahid Parvez, noted, “If diet is the route by which everyone is exposed this is not necessarily a regional issue but a national or global issue.”
More bad news on glyphosate in 2018
Research showing problems with glyphosate and glyphosate-based herbicides came thick and fast in 2018. Here’s just a small selection:
Save the bees
It wasn’t just humans, rats and crustaceans that were shown to be harmed by glyphosate. Another of our much-read stories reported how exposure to the world’s most widely used weedkiller impaired honey bees' gut microbiomes and so reduced their resistance to pathogens. The researchers from the University of Texas at Austin said this evidence suggested glyphosate could be contributing to the decline of honey bees and native bees around the world.
We also reported research showing glyphosate caused brain damage to young bees, and was lethal to stingless bees. The same research showed that the Cry toxins engineered into GMO insecticidal (Bt) crops altered the development of the stingless bee.
Needless to say, some genetic engineers think the answer to this problem is not to stop using bee-harming pesticides but to engineer pesticide-resistant bees!
What’s coming next?
In future parts of our Year in Review we will go on a whistle-stop tour of important developments in Africa and Latin America, sum up developments in the dicamba controversy, and look at the damaging research findings that emerged in 2018 on GMOs old and new.
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