The GM issue is a troubling one. Proponents argue that it'll solve the world's hunger problems. My own sense is that it's not genetic modification we need to look to, but better, fairer, more sustainable methods of food production that are in harmony with natural systems; better and fairer methods of distribution; and challenging the agri-businesses, including and especially of course the pharmaceutical companies responsible for, and set to make huge sums of money from, pesticides, herbicides and now GM.
There is also the issue that GM crops, once released into the environment, can't simply be retracted if they are seen to be harmful rather than beneficial; and so far we simply don't know their long term effects. Inserting a GM gene into an organism, as an expert tells us below, does alter the protein structure in potentially damaging ways.
As far as I know, GM crops are sterile, which then raises the socio-political problems of, for instance, African farmers being sold GM seed and having to rely on the pharma companies each year to buy seed as they can no longer save their own, now sterile, seed as they traditionally have done.
My friend Mario Petrucci, poet and PhD physicist, went out live on Radio 4 the other evening in discussion with Green MEP Caroline Lucas and erstwhile eco-activist Mark Lynas on the GMO issue. Here are his thoughts subsequent to that:
'Much has been made in recent years of the 'conversion' of Mark Lynas from eco-activist to pro-GM. Lynas tells us that his conversion was spurred by his study of scientific data showing beyond all reasonable doubt that GM is safe and indeed essential to future global food provision. I'm no coal-face expert on GM, I openly admit; but it's worryingly easy to find ample on-line data and opinion from individuals and agricultural groups that raise serious concerns about GM, opinions (these sources claim) also based on scientific data. Are these opposing positions all underinformed, misinformed, deluded or biased, and are companies such as Monsanto and their researchers all squeaky clean and up-front? What does your gut tell you here?
'Using my head, too, I sought defectors from the pro-GM movement, anyone who 'did a Lynas' in reverse. Here's the link for what seems a typical case (former pro-GM researcher Thierry Vrain): http://www.foodrevolution.org/blog/former-pro-gmo-scientist/ <http://www.foodrevolution.org/blog/former-pro-gmo-scientist/>
'For me, the hub of his argument is this: "I refute the claims of the biotechnology companies that their engineered crops yield more, that they require less pesticide applications, that they have no impact on the environment and of course that they are safe to eat.... studies show that proteins produced by engineered plants are different than what they should be. Inserting a gene in a genome using this [GM] technology can and does result in damaged proteins. The scientific literature is full of studies showing that engineered corn and soya contain toxic or allergenic proteins."
'Why do these sorts of people not get the same media coverage as Lynas? Of course, it's unwise to base your opinion on an online page here and there, however well-informed they seem; but the divergence in so-called expert opinion (all of it apparently based on science) is pretty startling. As a scientist, I can say it's clear that something's very wrong here. Perhaps this is a case of what I call 'Information Pollution' (e.g. 'junk science' used to promote an agenda, or the disingenuous interpretation of available data, or too many people adopting simplistic positions and not looking deeper). Or maybe the true value of GM is as yet a complex and unresolved issue, in which case should we be going with it? My own reading convinces me that we should be at least sceptical of GM while so much science and public opinion is in conflict on it, especially given the reported problems with GM that are already bleeding through for farmers using it. These instances need to be investigated reliably by independent scientists, if they haven't already. We need a clearer picture based on INDEPENDENT sources.
'On a live Radio 4 programme this very week, Lynas dismissed all my challenges to GM as simply wrong. The impression he gave was that the data didn't support my points at all.... (if you want to hear the whole programme, click link below...) http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0388kfn/Summer_Nights_Environmental_politics_fifty_shades_of_green/ <http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0388kfn/Summer_Nights_Environmental_politics_fifty_shades_of_green/>
'... and yet the comments I made were based on substantial evidence, consisting of first-hand accounts, comments and articles from practitioners in the field, and researched summaries: everything from published data to the BBC's own web article on super-weeds in the US (again, immediately dismissed by Lynas as 'wrong').... http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-19585341 <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-19585341>
'Moreover, whoever turns out to be right on GM, and (more to the point, perhaps) whoever has funded the particular study you happen to be reading, it still leaves us with the problem that food provision worldwide is a much larger and interconnected issue than what happens in fields. Those concerned about feeding the world, and pressing for GM as a means to do it, might apply themselves equally (if they haven't already done so) to examining and challenging those economic, trade and social contexts that contribute to starvation and poverty. And is GM really the ONLY way to put that right or does GM (with its patents on seed, for instance) indeed become an exacerbating factor?
'Many say there is enough food already to feed to world, much of it grown locally by the very people who need it most, so the failures might also have something to do with issues such as fair trade, massive food wastage in the west, and the tempting of subsistence farmers into cash-crop monocultures that mainly serve developed nations. And what about biodiversity, protection of soil, and herbicide/pesticide pollution? Do organic methods and innovations (as it would seem) present safer workable alternatives? In India, for instance, SRI (a system of rice intensification) has "taken agribusiness giants by surprise with its record-breaking harvests across the globe.... an interrelated set of farming principles that rely on fewer seeds, less water and a partial or complete shift from inorganic fertilizers to organic manures and compost". Does this sound like bunkum to you, and if not why isn't it being more widely reported?... http://www.mnn.com/leaderboard/stories/how-small-scale-farmers-are-growing-more-rice-with-less-water-and-fewer <http://www.mnn.com/leaderboard/stories/how-small-scale-farmers-are-growing-more-rice-with-less-water-and-fewer>
'What I'm asking here is whether GM is really about feeding the world's poor, or is it at least as much to do with powerful multinationals endlessly turning a profit and seeking to gain commodity monopoly on our most basic assets? Meanwhile, organisations like the WTO may not always be doing quite what we thought they were:
'In any case, whichever way you lean on the GM issue, it probably isn't wise to assume it doesn't really concern us in daily life, and (more than that) please don't be bulldozed or even persuaded (too easily) by any simplistic assurance or challenge from the likes of Lynas or, for that matter, me.'
Environmental Scientist and Poet
16/17 August 2013