01. 03. 2010

Genetically modified fetishism

The assembled great and the good of the NFU must have been absolutely delighted to hear Chris Smith, Chairman of the Environment Agency, extol the benefits of GM technologies earlier in the week.

He stressed that he was speaking in a ‘personal capacity’, despite the fact that he was invited as Chair of the Environment Agency, and presumably had plenty to talk about in that capacity which might have been of more immediate interest to farmers.

Reflecting on this, it seems to have become a mandatory test of credibility for people like Chris to declare their enthusiasm for GM. The pro-GM lobby has done a fantastic job in persuading the media and politicians that even the most modest GM-scepticism is tantamount to extreme science-hating emotionalism.

To express any reservations about the notional sustainability benefits of current GM crops, let alone about the massively hyped potential benefits of future GM products, is to open oneself up to the charge of debilitating technophobia. Shades here of George Bush beating up his NATO allies over the Iraq war: “If you’re not with us, you’re against us”.

Sorry, Chris, but that’s really not the deal. Interviewed on Radio 4’s Farming Today, he suggested that anti-GM campaigners would really have to ‘move on’ in terms of their opposition on both environmental and health grounds – given that the balance of the available evidence would appear to indicate a relatively clean bill of health for GM on both counts.

If only it were that easy. One’s judgement about ‘the balance of the evidence’ depends largely on where that evidence comes from, and even pro-GM advocates are very uneasy about the stranglehold that the big biotech companies have over access to data and transparency of the data used by regulators. I wonder how content Chris is, as Chair of the Environment Agency, about the quality of that evidence, and the credence that should be attached to it?

Furthermore, I wonder what Chris means by ‘environmental concerns’ in this context?
I’d be astonished if he is not worried about the biggest environmental concern of all: the fact that even the next generation of GM ‘solutions’ promise little if anything in terms of reducing the dependence of modern intensive agriculture on fossil fuels and hydro-carbon-based inputs.

On broad sustainability and governance grounds, GM-scepticism still seems to me to be the most appropriate response to the latest surge of evangelism for all things GM.

But balance in this debate seems to be entirely lacking. As the IAASTD (International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, Technology for Development) Report in 2008 so eloquently pointed out, there are so many things that can and should be done right now to address issues of food security and increased yields without casting all our eggs in the GM basket. (Don’t ask, incidentally, what happened to the IAASTD Report, which has, to all extents and purposes, been ‘disappeared’. Some would say precisely because it was so sceptical about GM.)

But for reasons I still can’t fathom, people like Chris get hugely over-excited about GM whilst remaining resolutely underwhelmed by all those other aspects of sustainable food production and distribution that would make a far bigger difference to an infinitely greater number of people in a far shorter period of time.

This is clearly not a rational process, whatever GM advocates may say. Indeed, I’d go so far as to suggest that Chris is just the latest ‘big name’ to have given into the phenomenon of what I can only describe as ‘GM fetishism’.

President Sarkozy recently accused his fellow world leaders of having given in to ‘GDP fetishism’. By which he meant (I assume!) that their obsessive preoccupation with GDP at the expense of every other measure of prosperity, wellbeing and quality of life, was seriously impairing their judgement.

By the same token, it is clear to me that the elite of today’s farming establishment (plus a few misguided Greenies) have clearly given in to a form of GM fetishism, which overshadows every other measure of innovation, sustainable yield improvement and resource efficiency in farming today.

I am sure Chris doesn’t see himself as a GM fetishist. But then he has also converted to the pro-nuclear cause over the last few years, and I have noticed that this is rich ‘two for one’ territory: go nuclear and throw in GM evangelism for good measure. Or vice-versa. That, it would seem, is the only way to demonstrate one’s serious scientific credentials these days.

Or so some sad people say.

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04. 03. 2010
Blake Ludwig

Dear Jonathan
I'd ask you to please be a bit less condescending toward your fellow 'environmentalists' who do care an awful lot about the future of the planet and are also open to GM and perhaps, gasp, even nuclear.

I've been an activist with greenpeace for over 6 years, and have been very anti-gm. I've been to the marches, been arrested, done conferences, arranged debates etc.

But, having read Stewart Brand's new book, I see that I've adopted a really very strong belief without really fully understanding the science. While I'm not rushing out to eat gm food, I'm not as close minded to looking at it as you seem to be.

You would do well to set out the advances and restrictions of farming as it currently is in the UK, and suggest where we need to find new solutions.

I'm particularly interested when Brand suggests that tilling the soil is removing the soil's ability to capture and hold carbon, which is interesting.

05. 03. 2010
Fr. Peter

Let’s face facts; GM is not about producing more food it is about the control of the seeds grown for food for the profit of the (mainly US) food seed companies.

First of all, the companies patent the seed, in order to obtain the 'intellectual rights', then sell the GM seed, and with it the herbicide matched to the seed.

We witnessed the demise of many small seed producers in the UK when the EU regulations meant that seeds had to be registered. This cost put many out of business and they were purchased at a knock-down price by the larger seed companies, such as Monsanto, who also make herbicides.

Seeds and seed saving are the basis of life for the majority of the 'third' world yet the world is losing adapted seed varieties at an ever increasing rate.

The George Bush comment is apt Jonathon, as in Iraq's valley between the Tigris and Euphrates the seed saved and crops grown by farmers for thousands of years have been wiped out via a GMO scheme devised so that agribusiness can get a foothold in the region and supply the world market. US bombers targeted Iraq seed stores for this reason.

Iraqis suffer and starve as GMO giants run the country's agriculture for export. Iraqi farmers are now agribusiness's slaves.

Food is power, its rather like a legalised form of arms dealing. That fact should never be overlooked, which is why GM companies have offered to 'give' seeds away. They are secure in the knowledge that one they have achieved a foothold in the area there will be no turning back for the recipients.

Sorry Blake, but the all above are facts.

Do we need GM? NO! Tomatoes are grown outdoor in Siberia, I have some of the seeds for my crop this year, kale can be grown in North Scotland, and so the list goes on, all with seeds that already exist and can be saved... while there is still time.

No one can save GM seeds unless they have specific permission from the GM company, and even then the saved seed does not produce anything like the same kind of crop, like F1 seeds, GM seeds are a one off.

As I said, food is power.

08. 03. 2010
Blake Ludwig

Your very emotional responses are quite rightly justified based on the current politics of GM seed companies like Monsanto. Indeed we should be extremely careful that companies should be given control over the food chain, or should encourage a new economic serfdom.

But we have to separate the biology/technology from the politics. These outrageous practices aren't an inherent problem with the GM process itself. They are a byproduct of greed and control.

GM has a real place in niche situations where the farmers are already experiencing drought or pests, where they ordinarily can't produce food to eat.

10. 03. 2010
Fr. Peter

The detail we already know about GM is that it cannot grow in drought conditions and that without the matched pesticides it is resistant to (in order to destroy the pests that feed upon it) it cannot work.

The farmers in the 'niche situations' are mainly in the Third World. Where will they get the money from to afford this technology, even if it did work?

05. 04. 2010
Anthony Gaskell

Mr Porritt

I have just listened to you talk to the LSE on a podcast titled “Climate Crunch: Making the Economics”.

In your talk you showed concern about the number of climate sceptics still, even though the science is so well proven. Well; I think I have an explanation for the continuing doubt (or really confusion) so many people have. You may not have had time to read through all of my article – but if not at least the last bit where I enumerate what I call the “eco-myths”.

I write from the base that I disagree with the usual explanation for climate change. The usual reason is the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. My view is that the atmosphere is warming up because we are putting heat into it by “the combustion of fossil fuels and changes in land use” (by cutting down trees and not replacing them – my comment). This quotation is from a report from the US Academy of science in 1979.

Interestingly – this quotation was cited by Naomi Oreskes in a talk given at the AAAS recently and broadcast by the Australian Broadcasting commission (ABC) Radio National – the Science show. Even more interestingly she referred back to in later in her talk and the “Combustion of fossil fuels” was replaced with “Greenhouse gasses”. It is amazing that Greenhouse gas has replaced fossil fuel by just about every scientist who talks or write about the subject.

Atmospheric warming is being cause by heat being put into the atmosphere. There are marvellous other explanations like albido effect, Plank’s emission/absorption variability and change in molecular power in carbon dioxide as opposed to the predominant nitrogen and oxygen in the air. If we apply the dictum of Ockham we really have to say that the atmosphere is heating up because we are putting heat into it faster that it can be re-eradiated into space.

Ockham's razor is a principle from philosophy. It says that the simplest explanation is usually the best one.

The things the scientists are saying are not bad science – they just emphasising the wrong things, over-looking the obvious and missing really critical points like the benefit of photosynthesis. No wonder the non-scientific public are confused.

(unfortunately I can't email my article to you via blog. It will be appearing on my website soon - www.carbonwheel.net)

08. 03. 2011

You say "But for reasons I still can’t fathom, people like Chris get hugely over-excited about GM whilst remaining resolutely underwhelmed by all those other aspects of sustainable food production".

I think there are very interesting reasons for this. I think its due to the myth of progress. Many of us have to believe that technological ways are always better and we will continue to 'progress' to some perfect future society in which all our problems are solved by technology, no one was to work, loads of leisure time, etc... The high tech approach sounds shiny, new, fancy, attractive whereas low-tech approaches (along often much better) don't have this appeal.

Personally I think many of these things go in cycles. Such as the green revolution which only increases yield by massive extra fertilizer inputs which destroyed the soil. Many would call this forward progress, I argue it is backwards progress.

The sustainable approach surrounding the cultivation of microbiological activity in the soil is more complex and exciting than just adding N, P and K.

19. 01. 2015
Mark stolzoff

Let’s face facts; GM is not about producing more food it is about the control of the seeds grown for food for the profit of the (mainly US) food seed companies

Yea, that's not a fact, so you're failing right out of the gate

21. 07. 2014

agreed blake. i myself adopted an anti-gm stance trustng to Greenpeace in their eco advocay. I have now spoken many times with a worker at John Innes in Norwich with an open mind.Grenpeace seem to default to fear over logic while the Soil Assocition and some Green reps rely on a philosophy that denies anything that may or not be 'unsfe' and that logic covers just about everything.

20. 06. 2013

What really are the supposed benefits of GM food? Many political leaders say "increased yields" - but even the EU's own reports confirm that these have not materialised. When Stiglitz went to India this January - it wasn't GM food that was producing world record yields of 4x conventional farming practices - but organic production using the System of Root Intensification. Research into Organic farming (http://www.ifad.org/evaluation/public_html/eksyst/doc/thematic/organic/chap3/3.htm) shows that it is also more resistant to extreme weather conditions because of the higher carbon content in the soil which absorbs / releases moisture. So if it's not yield - nor weather resilience - what is the attraction of spraying toxic chemicals onto land and poisoning watercourses? I just don't understand all these people who seem to want to show that they are technologically superior to nature just for the sake of it

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