Oxford Union GM Food Debate
14 June 1999

"This house would not continue to feed GM material to farm animals"

ATTENDANCE FIGURES: 745 (Debate open to the public)

President: Nicky Black

Speakers supporting the motion
Professor Arpad Pusztai, Biotech Scientist, formerly with the Rowett Institute
Dr John Ingham, Environment Editor, The Express newspaper
Norman Baker MP, LibDem Environment Spokesman
Melanie Marshall, Oxford Union

Speakers opposing
Professor Derek Burke CBE, former Vice Chancellor of the University of East Anglia and former Chairman of the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (1988 - 1997)
Mr Harry Kershaw, Managing Director, AgrEvo UK, biotech multinational, one of the world's leading Genetic Engineering corporations, with more test sites on UK farms than any other seed company
Dr Sandy Thomas, Director, Nuffield Council for Bioethics
Andy Kidd, World Debating Champion

Voting result
Supporting the motion 438
Against the motion 207
A majority of 231
Over 100 did not register any vote

Nicky Black, President introduced the speakers and stated the motion:. "This house would not continue to feed GM material to farm animals".

Melanie Marshall, of the Oxford Union began by proposing the motion "This house would not continue to feed GM material to farm animals" and Andy Kidd, also from the Union opposed. Both speakers proved to be highly accomplished in the art of debate, taking their brief at the request of the President, regardless of their private convictions. They set the evening off to a high standard of argument and, although Mr Kidd is the current World Debating Champion, Ms Marshall had no difficulty in measuring up to his high standard.

Dr John Ingham was the first of the real protagonists and began by stating that three years ago we were told that BSE could cause non-variant CJD in humans, resulting from scientists, feed manufacturers and farmers choosing to meddle with nature. Tabloid stories predicting this development were all dismissed by government as scare stories on the basis that "beef is safe
according to the best scientific evidence and advice". John Gummer, the then Agricultural Minister, was cited with his moment of infamy when, to show how confident he was he thrust a hamburger down the throat of his daughter in front of photographers. "Today", said Dr Ingham, "there is a similar process underway. It involves Tony Blair and GM food, who has let it be known that there is no evidence that GM foods are harmful and that he is happy to eat this food and for his children to eat it...acting on, yes, the best scientific advice."

Dr Ingham then explain what he understood genetic engineering to mean. "Genetically modified crops have been given genes to give them new qualities, usually at least five, from another species with which they could not breed in nature..... It might make them resistant to herbicides, insecticides. It may give the plant the ability to kill insects pests or, in the case of the tomatoes in your tomato paste, it gives them a longer shelf life."

He accused the government of picking the advice it likes and ignoring the rest. "The opposition to GM technology is usually branded as green", but he went on to list the many organisations, from the RSPB, English Nature and the BMA, along with the more traditional green lobby groups, that are concerned about GE technology in varying degrees, with the BMA as one of the most worried. Meanwhile Tony Blair remains unmoved, though his officials are less sure. But days after he gave the thumbs up to GM technology, his cabinet office officials called for a report into the safety of GM food.

Dr Ingham explained that there are 70 million acres of GM crops planted commercially around the world—one and a half times the size of Britain, with half going into animal feed, without labelling, leaving the farmer and the consumer not knowing which meat, milk or eggs have been reared on GM feed. Food Safety Minister, Jeff Rooker MP, was then taken to task for not being present, having been invited. "He knows about the difficulty as he told MPs that anything imported from America of the main GM crops is likely to be contaminated with GM material."

Lack of consumer choice and lack of scientific research were given as the two main important reasons for concern. Dr Ingham cited the Scottish Crop Research Institute which fed spotted lady on aphids which had been eating genetically modified potatoes which then suffered shortened life spans reproducing troubles, along with a number of other similar projects.

Monsanto was exposed as the original speaker in the debate, and who withdrew after trying to no avail to change the wording of the motion. Dr Ingham then defended the press for its ongoing campaign against genetic engineering in food. He also defended Prof. Pusztai: "He suffered a nine-month gagging order, the like of which he never endured when he was under the Nazis or under the Communists in his native Hungary"

He asked the house to ask two basic questions. "If you think feeding livestock GM crops is in any way unnatural, or if you think there is any doubt about the long-term safety of these crops to human health or to the environment, you have to vote for the motion, without it meaning that you are anti-GM. .....and I say to remember, when you’re thinking about how you vote, when you think about this very new, embryonic technology—only fools rush in!"

Prof. Derek Burke: Opposing the motion Prof. Burke appealed for public policy to depend upon facts rather than on the basis of feelings or newspaper headlines. With reference to the "Prime Monster" he asked: "Is this a way for an advanced society at the end of the 20th century to debate an important issue of public safety and public policy?" and suggested that the debate has been hijacked by those who want to trivialise it and turn it into a media circus.

Prof. Burke said that the start of this run of the last year comes from Dr Pusztai’s appearance on the Dispatches programme in August last year, saying that that the evidence on which much of this castle of sand has been built has a flawed scientific basis. He complained that Dr Pusztai’s claims had not gone through the normal peer review process and that the GM issue has been embroiled in a debate about controversial evidence. He referred to two committee’s that had now looked at Dr Pusztai’s research, one of which being the most prestigious scientific body in the country, the Royal Society. This particular paper of Dr Pusztai’s didn’t make the grade, and the Royal Society was really quite scathing about it: "We found no convincing evidence of adverse effects from GM potatoes" and the differences that were seen were "uninterpretable because of the technical limitations of the experiments and the incorrect use of statistical tests". He then claimed that further research was continuing, citing The Journal of Nutrition, and more importantly, the feeding trial of 300 million people in the United States, "eating GM soya like billy-oh", with the result being zero problems and no evidence that this material is unsafe.

A description followed on the technique of genetic modification, arguing that only a single gene out of 70,000 is added. On the question of whether this one gene could be a problem through transfer in the gut or into other organisms, Prof. Burke pointed out that "we’re rather immune to eating foreign DNA. Ever since we’ve eaten, we’ve eaten foreign DNA. We’ve eaten slices of tomato, slices of lettuce and slices of meat. And all that contains lots of DNA". He compared the difference to Soya beans, after making them herbicide resistant, to a spit in the river above the Niagara Falls. However, he agreed we should label and segregate and was also critical of Monsanto, but stated that this is not a "Day of the Triffids" scenario.

Prof. Burke said that there is a corn which came from Novartis which his committee turned down because they were not happy about anti-biotic resistance genes.... and added that it was only going to be used for cattle feed anyway. He stressed independence and rigour of committees regulating food industry products in the UK and stated that in nine years as Chairman he never had any political pressure. He then spoke of the very small additions to animal feed and warned that to get rid of them now the prices would rocket.

In summary, Prof. Burke said that there is no scientific evidence of harm in feeding GM materials to animals. Secondly, that "despite the press hoo-ha there, we have no more evidence of harm than a year ago", and thirdly, while he respected and acknowledged ethical and philosophical concerns, that this is not the basis on which to make public policy. He said that public policy depended on facts and hoped that because the facts were clear the motion would be rejected.

Nicky Black, President called for contributions to the debate from the floor: Short speeches in support of the motion were made by Mr Noah Tucker, Mrs Joanna Wheatley and another Lady Member of the Audience, and in opposition to the motion Dr Phipps of the University of Reading.

Prof. Arpad Pusztai began by agreeing that we need more facts and asked where all those facts are, and lamented that in fifteen years of GM there is still only one published paper (the one referred to by Professor Burke). He pointed out that GM is quite a new technology and one in which not just one gene but a battery of genes are introduced, without the knowledge of possible effects: "Were they surviving? Will they be expressed? Will they be getting into your gut? Will they do something to you? Will the proteins or the genes, the DNA pieces do something to you?" He referred to a peer reviewed study by Professor Derflash which found that these pieces of DNA can be taken up. While 99.9% of DNA does break down, he asked about that 0.1% if it carried something very important?

Prof. Pusztai said that he was not there to defend his own research, which he said was probably the best known in the whole scientific history, but peer reviewed when it was not in the right form to be peer reviewed. Nevertheless, people did peer review it and pronounce on it. People said that they liked it. Some people said that they didn’t like it. The Royal Society said that they didn’t like it. The research, he said, is now on the internet, available to all and people can make their own minds up.

The technology, in his opinion, was largely untested, as was anything which was only supported by a single experimental paper in a peer review journal. He referred to his past research into Soya, having had it published in at least 40 papers. This, he said, was carried out by the same design as with the potato work. However, it was not accepted or liked so much because the message wasn’t good. But the method was exactly the same as used before!
Prof. Pusztai stressed the importance of looking forward. The Royal Society, with due respect to the Nuffield Foundation, and all the others, were looking back, he said. They were trying to criticise—and may be even right in some respects—but facts were still there. He outlined the statistical issue of organ weights between genetically modified and non-genetically modified rats—you have 29 of them
and calculate, and find 4 generated by random error. So what about the other 25? He didn’t try to explain them because he was stopped before he could explain them. The onus to explain, he said, was on the other side "how is it possible we have found this huge number of significant differences?" He was not even saying that what the significant differences were at 99% at 0.01 because again "there were 9 as opposed to 1 which would be created by standard, random error"

He explained that he provided the data, but people were complaining about the lack of data! Here it is, he insisted, and then asked the audience if they thought he had cheated and fabricated the data. There must be an answer as to how it came about, for our children and our grandchildren’s sake.

Mr Harry Kershaw then took the floor and began by pointing out three facts: two thirds of the value of chicken was in the feed; secondly that in the US pig production was 25% cheaper than in Britain; and the thirdly that if Britain was forced to use non-GM animal feed, the cost would rise by 25%. He added that if all three facts were added together America would be 45% cheaper with the implication that British pig and chicken production would become unsustainable.

He suggested a tariff on imports of meat, milk and eggs, or a subsidy to the farmers, and asked the audience who would pay that subsidy. He answered the question himself: "Everyone in this room, if they want to buy milk, meat or eggs". He then said that, with the exception of the rich and famous, the British people would have to live off imported milk, meat and eggs which would contain undetectable GMOs anyway. He asked if people are happy to see the end of the British industry where only the rich could afford the produce from exclusive piggeries.

A member of the audience interjected, making the point that so many people are concerned about GMOs that they are now trying to buy directly from organic farmers, and that networks were springing up, making this choice possible. Mr Kershaw’s response was that this was exactly what he wanted to discuss next - choice. He suggested that banning GMOs was a contradiction, and that if people really had a choice they would be able to buy relatively cheap milk, meat and eggs containing GMO material, or buy non-GMO fed produce which would come with a substantial premium. Another member of the audience pointed out that all choice is wiped out by the inability to stop GM crops cross-pollinating with non-GM crops. Mr Kershaw responded by saying that the non-GM food would be more expensive because of being properly segregated.

He then recommended a more responsible attitude towards the 800 million people starving and the increased populations of the future. Refusing to take a point of information, he continued by saying that the "developing" world would benefit hugely from biotechnology and urged the audience to give this young science a chance for the sake of the less well off humans on the planet. He concluded by re-iterating the importance of choice and asked the audience not to reject GM just because it was new.

Nicky Black, President explained the voting system and then called on the next speaker, Norman Baker MP.

Mr Norman Baker MP drew attention to the curious questions which had arisen during this debate: labelling; acreage of GM crops; the effects of GM on the Monarch butterfly and why Dr Pusztai was still attracting controversy. He asked why no-one had yet disproved Dr Pusztai’s findings and why, at this untested stage, we still had GM on our plates and in our fields.

Mr Baker cited government studies on effects of biodiversity resulting from GM test sites next to organic farms. He said that whilst reports wouldn’t be filed until 2003, trials were going on now, with isolation distances of 50 to 200 metres, posing the question of how bees know when to stop. The matter, he said, was out of kilter due to "power". He asked for a balance between commercial market technologies and independent scientists. But where, he asked, were the independent scientists? He suggested that this side of the democratic process was fast disappearing. Scientists, he said, were beholden to commercial companies with no autonomy or power to explore the benefits or dangers of science, concluding, to great applause, that it is the market place and not the scientific community which held sway.

He reported that Jeff Rooker (Minister for Food Safety) had said "We are not in the driving seat" and questioned who was, if not the government? He suggested it was the commercial agrochemical sector—decision makers who stood to make the money, but with no interest or responsibility for the long term health and environmental consequences.

Questioning the tactics of these companies he pointed to vertical integration of the food chain—monopoly in simple terms. He claimed that because Monsanto’s patent on Round-up Ready runs out in 2000 the corporation was, therefore, out to build a dependence upon the pesticide.

He complained of the elimination of competition, pointing out that Monsanto and AgrEvo had fought labelling in the United States by threatening individual states on the grounds that this would impugn their product, and fought segregation (to make sure that Europe cannot choose what to buy), and even fought the definition of organic in the United States to make sure that organic farmers can’t call their produce organic. Now they want to argue that GM can be organic, they’ve used the World Trade Organisation. Britain, he said, had signed up to two international groups: the WTO and the Convention of Biological Diversity—and these pointed in opposite directions. The trouble with the WTO, he claimed, was that it had a very rigorous way of getting it’s own way, with the consequence that free trade ruled, rather than properly protecting human health, the environment and social issues.

Mr Baker then spoke of the cynical "buying-up" of key opinion formers, including the Prime Minister and the President of the United States. To loud applause, he named top corporate and governmental personnel who had embarked upon "a revolving door policy of the utmost cynicism" through which former top names in government had taken up top posts in Monsanto, while one of their chemical supervisors had become Deputy Director of the new governmental Animal Drug Evaluation Office in the FDA. He added that Monsanto’s tactic was also to avoid debates where they didn’t like the question being asked, and quoted Dr Harry Swan, their London Press Officer, who said when they withdrew from the debate, "If we were to lose a debate on GM animal feed at the Oxford Union and this were to be reported back in the US and seen by our customers there, it could be very damaging". Mr Baker said to further applause that this was the power of the Oxford Union.

He said that he didn’t deny that there could be positive benefits from GM but questioned whether these outweighed the genuine concerns, accusing the biotech companies of using the democratic process for their own ends. Dealing with use of pesticides he said that the government didn’t know the effects in this country since it didn’t follow that what happened in America would happen in Britain. And he disputed that increased production through GM would eradicate the starvation in the world, pointing out that there was a surplus of food in this world and there were still people starving. He said it was not a problem of technology but a problem of distribution and equity. The audience once more applauded. Mr Baker said Christian Aid agreed with him on this point. He said they were backed up by that more than 24 leading African agriculturists and environmental scientists when they said that GM crops were creating classic preconditions for hunger and famine, and that these countries would lose the diversity, the local knowledge and the sustainable agricultural systems that their farmers had developed for millennia, thus undermining their capacity to feed themselves.

Mr Baker went on to ask why people in boardrooms were telling these people what was good for them, stating that they didn’t want it, then asked "Who is responsible if things go wrong? Who is in the driving seat? There’s no liability issues sorted out." He concluded by stressing the need for independent scientists, for people to stand up to these companies, and the need for a proper debate.

The President then thanked Mr Baker for his speech and called upon Dr Sandy Thomas, Director of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics to sum up in opposition.

Dr Thomas began by explaining that her presence there was in the context of a report produced by the Nuffield Council, rather than being there to defend any constituency. She said the report concluded that GM technology should not be rejected out of hand, but that we do need to be extremely careful, with regard to human health, and to the environment, etc. She stressed that there are not actually any commercial plantings as yet in the UK. She then went on to say that research and transparency were important, but that the risks weren’t sufficient to reject the technology, and the public had been mislead by the media. She stressed the importance of choice and labelling, and that even tested GM crops have to compete against some very good, ordinary varieties. She said there was a window to carefully construct experiments, to inform and listen to the public, and to ensure that transparent, careful research takes place.

She went on to say that she didn’t have time to discuss the developing country issue, but that small farmers need decent crops. She said the green revolution did not help these farmers, but GM foods could be very beneficial in providing vitamin A to 150 million blind people in the world, and that this was a moral imperative. At this point Dr Thomas refused to take an interruption from a member of the audience. She then went on to talk about the risks of GMOs to the environment, stating that we already have a highly industrialised agriculture. She said there were no proven harmful effects from GMOs on the environment, and that current research to answer some of the questions we had heard should not be stopped.

She again refused to take an interruption from the floor, then went on to address the development of the technology in the context of mans’ manipulation of nature over the last 40 years. She then posed the question, "So what are these environmental risks? The consequences," she continued, "of using herbicide tolerant crops I would argue is that the use of these crops will allow, in some cases, more flexibility [and increased yields]. Remember that many farm land birds have declined by over 50% because of conventional agriculture in the last 25 years. There is no evidence of any greater risk to the environment than conventional agriculture. That is our base line."

She explained that by environmental pollution she meant genes escaping from crops which have close relatives and the risk of hybridisation into non-GM crops. If there aren’t any close relatives of maize or wheat in the vicinity then there isn’t an argument about cross hybridisation but that there is an argument about contamination of organic crops. She then cited the case of the monarch butterfly which had not been born out by field data. She stressed that whilst we need to be careful in terms of how our biodiversity is affected we must not lose sight of the fact that the current use of pesticides in conventional agriculture not only kills monarch caterpillars as it is, but it also kills very large amounts of insect biodiversity by the sheer amounts of insecticides, and said she was backed up on this by English Nature.

Dr Thomas refused another interruption from the floor, and went on to conclude: "We need environmental audits, proper field trials that are carefully managed and we need transparent management of that information so that consumers have access to it. We need robust science that is peer reviewed in proper scientific journals in the normal manner, supported by adequate statistical evidence that will stand up to the normal processes of scrutiny."

The debate ended and the audience voted as they left.

Voting result
Supporting the motion 438
Against the motion 207
A majority of 231
approximately 100 did not register a vote