Tuesday, 26 May 2009

GM foods: dream or nightmare?

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

Writing in our new issue, science journalist Angela Saini argues that campaigns against genetically modified crops have prevented us from embracing what could prove the only rational alternative to mass starvation:

"GM crops have the potential to be agricultural heroes, yet instead of embracing them, scaremongering and twisted facts have turned transgenic crops into the X-Men of the food world - misunderstood and vilified, when they could be helping us."

Of course it's a controversial argument, and in the spirit of free thinking we invited the Soil Association, who have campaigned against GM, to write a response. Their policy campaigner Emma Hockridge duly obliged, and I've just posted it on our website. She argues that GM crops have produced none of the benefits claimed by their proponents, and have in fact led to rising prices and increased application of unsustainable and environmentally damaging agricultural methods. The future she says, lies not with GM but with the worldwide adoption of sustainable farming systems.

What do you think? Have a read of both articles and let us know by leaving a comment on this blog post.

15 comments:

Grumpy Bob said...

Emma Hockridge - Please supply a citation or evidence for the figure of 125,000 suicides.
Also, please supply a citation or evidence for your statement that GM is inherently unsafe.

MJS said...

What strikes me is that criticism remains focused on what has supposedly been done (or not) with GM crops by businesses, but there are zero arguments against the technology itself, besides the gratuitous labeling of GM as "unsafe and inherently risky technology". The scare tactics, the unsourced cataclysmic figures and the lack of understanding of real things such as golden rice continue to amaze me.

The new age eco-fanatics seem to have no grasp on the science of most of what they loudly criticize and what the kinds of prohibitions and repression they espouse actually mean in real life. It would be very desirable to have some rational criticism of these issues rather than panicky propaganda from unknlowledgeable professional activists.

Mauricio-José Schwarz

Anonymous said...

Saying that you are against genetic engineering is rather like saying that you are against mechanical engineering.

There are many potential misuses of engineering from anti-personnel mines to crops that are resistant to a herbicide (fortuitously patented by the same company selling the modified seeds) but there are endless possible ways to use engineering (in all its forms) to benefit humankind and the natural environment.

It is about time for some rationality in the GM debate.

@Schroedinger99

Lambert said...

@ Grumpy Bob: Does asking for a 'citation' make one seem all sophisticated and part of academe? Why not just use Google?...

Farmer Suicides:
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/04/16/india-1500-farmers-commit_n_187649.html

http://www.counterpunch.org/sainath02122009.html

http://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/rough/2005/07/seeds_of_suicidlinks.html

http://www.hindu.com/2007/11/12/stories/2007111253911100.htm

and that's just the first few hits.

As for the safety or otherwise of GM foods, that's still a matter of opinion with both sides in total disagreement. However there is no disputing that most of the GM foods out there are not for increasing yields, except indirectly by making plants tolerant of pesticides. Seems there's not much research going on into making *humans* more pesticide tolerant.

Most interesting of all to me, as that no one in all of this debate seems remotely inclined to mention the 700 pound gorilla in the room: population control. The reason the world just keeps on digging a deeper hole is that we simply will not address the fact that there are too many people.

Anonymous said...

Regardless of how much food is produced the end result will always be the same, overpopulation and famine in areas hit by changes in weather patterns.
GM foods tend to promote the overuse of pesticides.
Better to eat good healthy food without the use of pesticides while we can!

The Vicar said...

@MJS:

If there were only a small number of GM crops being grown on a small number of farms, then potential usage would be relevant. But that is not true. There are plenty of GM crops growing all over the world. It is, therefore, entirely relevant to examine what has -- and has not -- occurred as a result.

That GM crops are causing increased use of extremely harmful pesticides is relevant. That GM crops are not raising yields (which is the major argument in their favor) is relevant. That GM crops are putting farmers into debt is relevant. These show that in the real world, GM crops have no unquestionable positive effects, and have serious negative effects. It is people like you, who insist on ignoring the real world and considering only pie-in-the-sky hypothetical worlds, who have no grasp on what GM crops mean in real life.

It's also relevant that GM crops are being used to undermine non-GM crops by suing farmers whose crops are pollinated by chance by patented GM pollen. (For that matter, I recall reading that GM corn genes have now spread, via pollen, to all the corn in North America, including isolated wild corn.) As any realist could have foretold, the industry simply does not take the precautions which they promise to take, thus magnifying any potential damage which might result.

Joe Otten said...

If farmers are not getting a choice between GM and non-GM, there is a freedom of trade problem, irrespective of the merits of GM.

If they do have a choice, then how can GM be blamed for them getting into debt?

AT said...

Good points, Vicar. But there's still a legitimate objection to the idea that GM crops are 'inherently unsafe' - as in, any genetically modified crop is a priori an evil. This is still a young science and there's something to be said for continued research and testing; currently, there are clearly problems in real-world application that compound the issue.

Angela Saini said...

For the Soil Association to offer a set of expensive alternatives that will only "provide us with slightly more food than we currently produce" is not particularly encouraging... Especially for those who are already suffering food shortages. GM may not be delivering big benefits right now (it is a young science, after all), but at least it has potential.

I do take particular exception to Emma Hockridge's claim that, "There have been an an estimated 125,000 farmer suicides related to crippling debt, something that studies have shown is exacerbated by the expensive GM seeds." Although there have been many farmers committing suicide, in Punjab, for example, I haven't seen a single study that links these to using GM seeds. Prince Charles made a similar claim last year (reported in The Independent), which was rapidly dismissed by the International Food Policy Research Institute. So this seems to me just another attempt to cultivate an unfounded myth against GM.

Tummy Tuck said...

GM food and chemically chemical-tainted medicine - they both are the problems of today.

But I can't say that they are bad. Still, they help to survive in our complex world, helping to save thousands of lives. So I am pleased with our progress.

Ken said...

This reflects an image problem with green politics in general. By confusing technology and the politics around the technology, and insisting that anything that involves people wearing white coats is inherently evil, greens rob themselves of the support of sections of the electorate who are emotionally on their side but feel unable to support them because of the anti-rational elements in the movement. Once there is a green movement that people who can do long division can feel comfortable joining it might become a more significant social force for good.

Paul Sims said...

Ken - yes, the irrational sentimentality that seems to pervade many parts of the Green movement does appear to put many rationalists/humanists etc off backing a cause that would otherwise be perfect for them. Environmentalism should be the ideal outlet for scientific rationalism.

You may be interested in a previous piece Angela Saini wrote for us, on the Greens embracing nuclear power: http://newhumanist.org.uk/1949

ColonelFazackerley said...

GM is a tool. It can be good or bad. It depends entirely on the on the goal and the implementation of the modification. I would not declare that writing was evil because a few declarations of war have been written.

It is clear that overuse of pesticides and fertiliser is bad. GM could be very useful.

If Saini holds realistic expectations for antioxidants, she needs to read some Goldacre.

Anonymous said...

A. Where is the INDEPENDENT scientific analysis & corroberation of GM claims?

B. Where is the INDEPENDENT research on species contamination risk?

C. Where is the proof of the intellectual & financial INDEPENDENCE of pro-GM lobbyists?

D. On the subject of Golden Rice. This is still not a good source of Vitamin A. In fact, polished rice is not a good source of anything. The following are infinitely better sources of Vitamin A, un-patented and without GM:-

liver
sweet potatos
carrots
mangoes
spinach
cantaloupe
dried apricots
milk
egg yolks

The Americans have an apt saying. "If in any doubt about the motives of companies and/or politicians, just follow the money".

Do wake up please!

Tummy tuck said...

its actually sad that nature and wholesome foods are not paid attention to, all this corporate profit over health is killing their own customers and making them very fat.