Today’s report trumpeting the need to force more food with GMO’s into the UK is as flawed as it is predictable. Here’s my handy guide to spotting the problems:
1. GM* researchers want more GM
Now there’s a surprise. GM cheerleaders in the front line today are Jonathan Jones (whose lab receives millions from the biotech industry), David Baulcombe (a “consultant for Syngenta”), Jim Dunwell (a founder of GM lobby group CropGen who claimed on the radio this morning to have “no stake” in the technology), and a handful of others dependent on the GM bandwagon for their livelihood, many of whom hold (or are part of outfits that own) patents on GM technologies. Shouldn’t those advising the Government be a bit more independent, or at least a little more distant from the profits?
Both Jones and Baulcombe are quoted in the press today saying there are no “unknown unknowns” in GM food and crops. This is a pretty bold statement for a scientist to make. I like my scientists a bit more old-fashioned, asking questions instead of making blanket assertions. Then again, I also prefer the old model of the scientific method as a means to understand the world we live in, rather that the contorted political thing it is now, pressed as it is into the service of propping up the economy and producing stuff no one actually wants for export.
In their letter to the Prime Minister these folks are clear “we must not overclaim” what GM can do while simultaneously calling GM a “game changer.” This group can’t even see the contradictions in their own arguments. Those with a wider view, like the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), issue urgent calls to “wake up before it is too late.” UNCTAD says that since the era of increasingly damaging industrial agriculture has not eradicated hunger as promised, we need “drastic changes” in approach, more respect for farmers and “more sustainable and affordable production methods.” We need global food sovereignty, not an easier ride for GM crops. Sadly UNCTAD also says, “One does neither see the necessary level of urgency nor the political willingness,” to do what is needed. Instead we get reports like the one issued today.
2. There is no ban (or “moratorium”) on GMOs in Europe.
One does grow ever wearier on this point. GMOs are regulated in Europe. There is no ban. The problem for the GM industry is that the process of authorising new GM crops in Europe fails to do so for a variety of reasons. They don’t like the results when we play by the rules everyone agreed to, so they want to change the rules. This is not scientifically, politically or socially sound. Nice try though.
The reason there is precious little GM food for sale in the EU is that consumers reject it, and in the EU we have the benefit of labels to help us avoid it. Jonathan Jones said on BBC Farming Today this morning, “It wasn’t that long ago, 20 years ago or so, when there was a GM tomato paste on the shelves in British supermarkets, and nobody was bothered.” This conveniently forgets that it was precisely this product that kicked off the anti-GM movement among consumers, who forced supermarkets to stop selling the GM paste. We remember if Jones doesn’t.
3. You can’t see a problem if you don’t look for it.
Indeed European GM regulation needs reform to bring developments in emerging genetic sciences, like epigenetics, fully into consideration when determining the safety, or not, of GM food and crops. GM proponents repeatedly say there is no evidence of harm from GMOs, and this line was repeated forcefully this morning on the BBC. However, with no long-term intergenerational trials looking for low-level toxicity, for example, and no labels in the U.S. to enable anything like meaningful epidemiological study of the impacts of eating GMOs, it isn’t too surprising we haven’t found anything. In fact, just today we received news that the courts in Brazil, by no means a country critical of GM crops, annulled the approval of a GM maize because there hasn’t been enough study of the risks to determine it’s safety. So I’m not the only one who wonders.
Today’s GM puff piece smacks of an industry desperate to get less regulation, less safety assessment and more GM before the party crashes to a halt. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one to see a problem with that approach, particularly as the evidence of environmental harm, including from superweeds and superbugs, mounts up with the costs of controlling them. While GM researchers complain routinely now that EU regulation is “holding back” precious GM research and development, when pressed they will actually admit there are precious few applications for new GM crops on the table. So it is not the regulation holding back GMOs, it’s the lack of products on offer.
Now for a question: What exactly is the proposal here?
That the UK leaves the EU behind in order to run more trials for products no one wants to eat? Are farmers really prepared to leave the Single Market and lose their CAP subsidies in the process to get more GM?
Those who complain that the discussion on GM is “polarised” need to stop playing around with the truth. The BBC, still struggling to balance its apparent desire to support the Government’s pro-GM position and the requirements of its charter as a public interest broadcaster, needs to give me a call if they are still confused about any of this. Since the Prime Minister commissioned today’s effort, I look forward to the complementary edition produced by a panel of GM sceptics.
I won’t hold my breath.
*GM is the European equivalent of GMO or genetically modified organism.