GM is Not a Solution for World Hunger says UK Chief Scientist
Recently it’s seemed as if the research establishment, GM researchers, the media and all of the fabled “great and good” of UK agriculture have been outdoing each other to proclaim that GM is not the only answer to the problems of feeding the world’s growing population but then to forcibly insinuate that it’s the only one that matters.
Its notable how many people who use the fatuous cliché about “needing all the tools in the box” inevitably talk only about one tool – GM – and promote it to the exclusion of everything else.
Mr Poul Christensen, farmer and Chairman of Natural England, is one of them. He says we need "all the technology we can get to feed the growing population", as if science and technology is the answer to that problem (1).
GM is not a solution
Almost invariably, those who promote GM technology fail to mention that other issues such as access to water and land, economic structures and markets, gender and cultural issues are much bigger factors than technology.
We were briefly heartened by the UK’s Chief Scientist, Sir John Beddington, who said at a recent conference that “GM is not a solution to the world’s hungry, but it is has the potential in certain circumstances to solve problems that can’t be done in any other way.” (2)
Taken at face value, this means that other “tools” should be taken out of “the box” and used; and moreover, they should be tried first.
Whose tool in whose box?
Then, just as we are thinking about giving up cynicism, bang; the government announces a £41 million grant to Rothamsted for its GM research as part of a £250 million package for “agricultural bio-sciences” – why don’t they just say GM and save on the word count? (3)
So whose tool is in whose box? The imbalance in the funding and focus given to GM technology has now reached such extreme proportions that other scientific approaches are being ignored.
Rothamsted’s GM wheat trial is a good example of this. Ostensibly it’s about testing a GM “ecological chemistry” approach to dealing with aphids in wheat; but the decision to fund the research, the scientific review of the problem and the structure of the trial completely ignored previous and successful non-GM R&D about the problem (including research that Rothamsted had previously spent taxpayer’s money on). It also ignored farmer experience.
Can the chief scientist be believed?
If Sir John Beddington’s words had any credence would there not have been a thorough assessment of why organic farms do not suffer from aphid problems nor the associated Barley Yellow Dwarf Virus before the GM wheat trial was funded? (4)
Knowing about the agro-ecological interactions that are found on organic farms is surely of importance if “all the tools in the box” are going to be used.
If Beddington’s words are to be taken seriously, surely someone would have brushed the dust of the 2004 report of government and industry funded research into agro-ecological control of aphids on conventional farms? (5)
This 3 year study showed conclusively that biodiversity in field margins, the presence of hedgerows and the provision of on-farm habitat can ensure populations of aphid predators survive the winter in sufficient to numbers to keep aphid infestations below economic thresholds in most years.
Screwing up good sense and science
Even if, after due evaluation, it was thought necessary to go ahead with a GM trial then wouldn’t any mature, considered and rational approach conclude that such a trial should include a consideration of these agro-ecological factors in its protocol?
But no, it seems that the organic and agro-ecological tools are to be left “in the box” as GM is deployed like a real life version – although more chronic than sonic - of Dr Who’s ubiquitous screwdriver.
Yet there is some hope that good sense about science will eventually prevail.
A recent editorial in the leading scientific journal Nature, whilst commenting on the publication of the tomato genome, makes the point that it is not always necessary to go down the GM path and that “The skills of traditional plant breeders will have to come back into fashion in the world of science... because they have a feel for the whole organism” (6).
Just like agro-ecology then. (7).
2) Prof. Beddington speaking at the Westminster Food &Nutrition Forum Seminar; Food Security 2012 – taking forward the Foresight project; 23/5/2012
5) Managing biodiversity in field margins to enhance integrated pest control in arable crops (‘3-D Farming’ Project); Powell et al; Project Report 356; Dec 2004; HGCA
A version of this first appeared in the ORC Bulletin 109 http://www.organicresearchcentre.com/?i=articles.php&art_id=539&go=Information