Thursday, 31 May 2012

GM technology is not the answer

In the past week a row has broken out over the actions of a group of protesters called 'Take the Flour Back ', which threatened to trash some GM wheat crops being grown as part of field trials in Hertfordshire by scientists from the Rothamsted Research Institute. On the day, the attempt was foiled by Police but the event raised arguments about whether opposition to GM crops is 'anti-science', and whether GM technology should be used in this way.

Jenny Jones, who recently stood as the Green Party London Mayoral candidate, attended the event and wrote a blog post criticising the decision to carry out field trials of the GM crop. As a result she, and the Party, were criticised in a Daily Telegraph blog by Tom Chivers as being anti-science. Of course Chivers could have bothered to look at Green Party policy before heading a blog post "Don't vote Green until they drop the anti-science zealotry", because as Jenny pointed out in her response to him, the Party's position is not anti-science but "sceptical and precautionary", and for very good reasons as I will explore below.

In an earlier post, I referred to an international report by 400 scientists which stated that GM technology was not the answer to feeding the world as has been claimed by its supporters. At the time the report was published the Daily Mail commented:
"Genetically-modified crops are not the solution to spiralling food prices or Third World hunger, according to a powerful international report published yesterday." and
"Professor Watson [UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser] and his team made clear that GM or transgenics - moving genes between plant species - was not the solution to providing plentiful cheap food."
This was a scientific report and the proponents of GM appear to have conveniently ignored this scientific view. Does that mean they are anti-science?

On Monday, whilst driving, I heard Professor John Beddington, the Chief Government Scientist, make supportive comments about the trials on Radio 4, during the interview he referred to the fact that food prices had surged in 2007 as if this was some sort of justification for GM crop technology. What he didn't say however was that the increases were caused by market speculators. A recent report from the World Development Movement said:
"Financial speculators have flooded food commodity markets, creating massive inflation and sudden price spikes. These broken markets are bad news for people in the UK, whose average annual food bills increased by £260 in one year alone. But for people in poverty in developing countries, price rises are disastrous,"
There is no compelling evidence I have seen that GM will reduce food prices and I believe that speculation in food should be banned. Food should not be treated like any other commodity, it is far too important for that. The problem of food shortages is caused by speculation and distribution. GM technology isn't going to solve that problem.

Organic vegetables at a farmer's market in Argentina

But if GM technology is not needed to feed the world what about the actual field trials that are being carried out? Those who oppose the field trials are not 'anti-science', they have legitimate concerns, based on science, that field trials pose unacceptable risks. The danger is that the trials will cause contamination of surrounding plants and crops or will have unexpected effects on organisms the food chain. In this particular trial:
"There is serious doubt that the aphid alarm pheromone as found in this GM crop would even work. Other scientists have raised concerns that if aphids get habituated and insufficient predators are available, this may increase the aphid burden on the wheat and thus potentially increasing the need for pesticides and chemical spraying against aphids."
In a small crowded island like ours these fears are very real, particularly amongst people who support organic agriculture, which would be ruined by such contamination. There is also a danger that the traits in GM crops such as herbicide resistance will be passed on the native plants creating 'superweeds', that there will be knock-on effects on biodiversity and environmental food webs, and harm to human health - see here. The pros and cons of GM are too complex to go into in this post but the key point is that supporters of GM have attempted to paint the protestors as 'anti-science'. This is not true. They are concerned about the use of GM technology, not science or research. They also have legitimate concerns about how this technology will be used by commercial interests.

The fact that the field trials were publicly funded and carried out by Rothamsted has been used by supporters to demonstrate the 'neutrality' of the scientists carrying out the research but according to Jonathan Matthews of the Ecologist:
"And this industry alignment is perfectly illustrated by Rothamsted itself, which partners up with corporations like Bayer, Syngenta and Dupont and has an Institute Director who not only drives a Porsche with a GMO number plate but has a c.v. to match. It is Maurice Moloney’s GM research that lies behind Monsanto’s GM oilseed rape."
Which is why its such a pity that commentators like Will Hutton have chosen to rush to support this slanted and unfair view of both Jenny Jones and the protestors. The problem is, of course, that science can easily be presented as 'progress' and opposition to it as 'Luddite'. Nuclear technology is science-based but there are plenty of good reasons, science based and otherwise, to be opposed to it. There is nothing anti-science about that. My view is that the protestors should have protested but have stuck to the arguments rather than threatening to damage the crops, making themselves an easy target for the likes of Will Hutton. I also believe that public money could be much better spent on research into methods of improving organic agriculture, which is more energy efficient, employs more people, and has the potential to feed to world in a sustainable way without risks to human health or the wider environment.

A report in 2007 concluded that:
"organic methods could produce enough food on a global per capita basis to sustain the current human population, and potentially an even larger population, without increasing the agricultural land base. (from the abstract)"
Perhaps we should re-name it 'organic technology' so that it can be taken more seriously by scientists themselves? But the real problem with organic farming is that it doesn't provide agribusiness with the same opportunity to make a profit. That is why so little research, publicly funded or otherwise, is being carried out.


Kevin said...

Your post covers many of the reservations that I have with G, but misses one of the biggest problems I have GM.

GM is essentially corporate driven, even with as you noted in this case that it is government research. If the research proves to be economically viable it will be corporations like Monsanto that distribute the seed & any chemicals required whether specific fertilizers or weed killers etc. But the consequence will be like it is for F1 varieties that the farmers can no longer keep their own seed for future use.

GM is about intensifying the corporate control of the food chain, that is why corporations love it so much.

Howard Thorp said...


I agree that I haven't focused on that and its a very important issue but I did deal with that in my last post on GM which is referenced in this one