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Sunday, 17 August 2008

On GM Foods

I have changed my mind on GM Foods.

I used to be against them. Picking apart my objection, my position was generally confused and ill-informed.

In part I was wary of big business and skeptical of their selfless rhetoric. I am still wary, but there are also vested interests in resisting GM Foods. And it is the latter which I think will lead to higher prices for the poorest people.

And in part I also held a silly-sentimental view about authenticity. But that is bullshit. The foods we eat today are from generations of genetic engineering. To do this in a scientific deliberate manner is an issue of type and not principle.

Furthermore, our processed foods are teeming with artificial additions. Look at the list of ingredients on the first thing you see in your kitchen cupboard. This desire for authenticity is rightly derided today by Nick Cohen - see here. Why should the "authenticity" only attach itself to certain raw ingredients and be forgotten as we open some packet?

What tipped me to being pro-GM Foods was my realisation that they are simply necessary for dealing with staggering global population growth and world poverty. George Bridges deals with this here.

I did not mind the contribution of Prince Charles in this debate. Some fellow conservatives did - see Conservative Home. (If this sort of thing nudges a Tory towards republicanism, what would the behaviour of many other heirs have done?)

Prince Charles has a right to free expression. I happen to think he is right on architecture. I also find his interest in comparative religion refreshing for someone destined to be head of the Church of England. And by warming up the GM debate, he triggers another debate on the issues - even if his views are bonkers.

One blogger on Conservative Home ("NigelC") raised the issue of the UN IAASTD report, which he described as "the work of over 400 international scientists, on the future of global food production under the challenges of climate change and population pressure which concluded that transgenic GM crops didn't have much to offer".

Nice wording, which was actually copied and pasted directly form the Soil Association website - see here. To take such a statement without attributing it is not a promising way to contribute to any debate.

However I looked at this report - a summary of which is here and the fuller report is here

Read it for yourself, especially the latter, and you will find it extremely hard to square with the Soil Association's (and "NigelC"'s) take on it.

Conclusion 10 of the full report indeed says:

"Many of the challenges facing agriculture currently and in the future will require more innovative and integrated applications of existing knowledge, science and technology (formal, traditional and community-based), as well as new approaches for agricultural and natural resource management. Agricultural soil and biodiversity, nutrient, pest and water management, and the capacity to respond to environmental stresses such as climate change can be enhanced by traditional and local knowledge systems and current technologies. Technological options such as new genotypes of crops, livestock, fish and trees and advances in plant, livestock and fish breeding, biotechnology, remote sensing, agroecology, agroforestry, integrated pest and nutrient management and information and communication technologies (ICTs) will create opportunities for more resource-efficient and site-specific agriculture" [Emphasis added.]

The report as a whole makes some highly sensible points about intellectual property law, and it rightly emphasises that the benefits of improvement need to be shared fairly. But it does not support NigelC's point. One wonders if he just copied and pasted without actually reading the report itself.

But how far will my rejection of silly-sentimentalism go? What about free range foods? It is a tricky one. Animals do not have rights of course, but humans have an absolute duty not to be cruel. If there is no cruelty, however, what could be my possible objection? Why am I still free range?

Even accepting fully all the scientific and economic arguments in favour of battery hens, I still prefer free range (for now). The reason is entirely aesthetic. I find the ugliness of the battery farm too much for me. I do not want to be part of it.

However, I wonder how long I can maintain this noble position in the age of millions of starving children.

For that would be rather ugly too.

13 comments:

GrumpyBob said...

I blogged, albeit briefly about Prince Charles' ill-informed interview at www.robertsaunders.org.uk.

Actually it's not clear to me what his major problem is, whether it is damage to society at the hands of multinationals, or if it is ecological damage.

If the first, he's missing the point - the bigger problem comes from the likes of Tesco, not Monsanto; if the second, as far as I can tell, he's just plain wrong.

I do have the suspicion (in my more cynical moments!) he is intent on establishing a community of organic crofters at May, who will all line up tugging their forelocks when he visits!

Robert

NigelC said...

Jack, If you hade read the whole Conservative Home thread you will have seen I attributed the quote to the Soil Association earlier in the debate. I repeated it when asking you to justify your stance.

As R&D Executive who left the agribusiness in 2000 I find your approach horribly complacent.

There is a world of difference between traditional crop breeding and transgenic biotech.

I try to apply, and in the UK we have traditionally adopted, the precautionary principles with new development.
I find it difficult to understand the Government's new stance that opponents now have to show transgentics cause harm, which may not be possible for a generation, rather than the agribusiness proving they are safe.

Would we licence medicines that way?

Jack of Kent said...

I can quickly deal with NigelC's post.

1. I will leave it to third parties to see whsther it was clear that you were attributing your comments to the Soil Association.

2. I take your word that you were a "R&D Executive" up to 2000. However, if you were then (a) your direct knowedge is 8 years out of date and (b) I would expect you would be capable of wording your own comment about the UN IAASTD report.

3. You do not deny that you have read the UN IAASTD report. I have. If not, you should not have copied and pasted the Soil Association comment. If you have, please explain how you have nconjured up something as a conclusion of the report which simply was not one of the several conclusions.

4. Demand for food is rising starkly. GM food means that there will be more food, of better qualities, at cheaper prices thatn if we don't have GM food. You want the latter.

In view of the real problem of hunger in the developing world, I will leave it to third parties - and to your conscience - to assess whose complacency is the actually most "horrible".

NigelC said...

"1. I will leave it to third parties to see whether it was clear that you were attributing your comments to the Soil Association."

Earlier in the debate somebody asked what the Soil Association's view was. I copied and pasted it in and attributed it. I also copied in an report from the Guardian about super weeds which I also attributed. There were over 100 comments on the thread and I am not surprised you missed a few.


"2. I take your word that you were a "R&D Executive" up to 2000. However, if you were then (a) your direct knowedge is 8 years out of date and (b) I would expect you would be capable of wording your own comment about the UN IAASTD report."

I also posted on the Con Home thread that I sat on the R&D Executive of a multi national agri buisness. I am pleased you believe me.
I made no attempt to summarise the report by the UN committee but was referring throughout to the Soil Association view with which I agree.

"3. You do not deny that you have read the UN IAASTD report. I have. If not, you should not have copied and pasted the Soil Association comment. If you have, please explain how you have nconjured up something as a conclusion of the report which simply was not one of the several conclusions."

I have read the report and agree with the Soil Association- see 2

"4. Demand for food is rising starkly. GM food means that there will be more food, of better qualities, at cheaper prices thatn if we don't have GM food. You want the latter."

I disagree with your conclusion that GM means there will be more food or better quality at cheaper prices. The UN report does not say that either.
I see more risks and downsides that upsides.

NigelC said...

Do you have any comments on my previous questions?

"I try to apply, and in the UK we have traditionally adopted, the precautionary principles with new development.
I find it difficult to understand the Government's new stance that opponents now have to show transgentics cause harm, which may not be possible for a generation, rather than the agribusiness proving they are safe.

Would we licence medicines that way?"

NigelC said...

The UN report also states " The application of modern biotechnology outside containment, such as the use of GM crops is much more contentious. For example, data based on some years and some GM crops indicate highly variable 10-33% yield gains in some places and yield declines in others".

No guarantee of increased yields!

Anonymous said...

"GM food means that there will be more food, of better qualities, at cheaper prices than if we don't have GM food."

Don't count on it.

Evidence is growing that GM yields are no better than traditional yields.
More importantly, with GM, as insects and weeds adapt, Monsanto et al will have to keep introducing new varieties of seed to keep one step ahead. This seed is not likely to be cheap. In traditional agriculture, farmers save their seeds from one year to the next - a cheap, effective and sustainable option. This will not be possible with GM. Third world farmers will become dependent on multi-nationals for their seed. The poorest will face higher costs.

I don't know where you get the claim on quality!

ps. I read the list of ingredients on packets before I buy them....
I guess that's where our approach differs.

timjlittle said...

A good post, and one I'm not really qualified to comment on. On the whole I do think that the rich world needs to drop its squeamishness if it isn't to condemn the poorer world to starvation. I understand that the prince attacked the "green revolution" of the 60s which has saved countless millions of lives.

There are issues around mutlinationals exploiting the poor, but I think that China and India will probably stand up to them.

Rather than attacking imaginary monsters wouldn't it be better to question the west's use of farm subsidies that prevents the world's poorest from competing fairly and freely?

Not a terribly coherent comment, but I'd be fascinated to hear Jack's opinion on some of my (rambling) points.

Jack of Kent said...

Many thanks for taking the time to leave these comments. Currently I am up to my neck (well, upper spine, anyway) with the Chiropractic issue. So I will respond fully in a few days.

Best wishes, Jack of Kent

NigelC said...

Jack, You appear not to have published my last quote taken from the UN report that questions whether yields have increased as you claim.

Jack of Kent said...

Nigel C - I think you missed it. It is above. As I said, give me a short period to properly consider your points. I will then set out whether you have changed my mind back, or not.

Best wishes, Jack

NigelC said...

You said "I will respond fully in a few days."

Two weeks has passed with no response

Carey Michelle said...

I think the IAASTD report was negative toward the biotech industry based on this article:

Here is the link and an excerpt:


http://www.agassessment-watch.org/docs/New%20Scientist_Comment_%20Deborah%20Keith.pdf

Comment: Why I had to walk out of farming talks Print
05 April 2008
From New Scientist Print Edition.
Deborah Keith

"Despite our active participation, the draft IAASTD report does not adequately represent the contributions of plant science to sustainable agriculture. This is why we, along with the industry association, and I as an individual reluctantly decided to withdraw.
The decision was not taken lightly, given our commitment to agricultural development and
sustainability. But there was blatant disregard for the benefits of existing technologies, and for
technology's potential to support agriculture's efforts to meet future crop needs. I think this was in part because the differences between various participants' perceptions about these technologies,and the scientific facts, were not maintained and highlighted. Sadly, social science seems to have taken the place of scientific analysis." TELL THAT TO THE 400 SCIENTISTS REPRESENTED.

This, if I an not mistaken, came straight from the cloned horse's mouth, so to speak.
If a scientist from Syngenta left the conference and explicitly stated it was for this reason, I am going to go ahead and believe it.

Here are some links for you to peruse to see what biotech has given the world in the past 20 years:

I will summarize: 1) Herbicide resistance, this means the plants are genetically modified to withstand toxic weed killer (that the biotechs sell) so the farmers don't have to weed their crops; they just spray them with poison that kills everything green it touches unless genetically engineered to withstand the poison. We then eat these plants. There are now reports of herbicide resistant weeds that require additional spraying with harsher chemicals. 2) Insect resistant crops, which (if I understand correctly) are classified by the EPA as a pesticide. Sound yummy? I'd rather pick out worms in my corn than eat kernels with built-in pesticide. Research has shown that this pesticide survives digestion (a rare human study was done with 7 volunteers with colostomy bags)in the stomach 3) The only disease resistant crop I have heard of is the Hawiian Rainbow papaya. Proponents claim the GMO version "saved" the industry, but check out this article:

Posted on: Sunday, March 19, 2006
Papaya production taking a tumble
By Sean Hao
Advertiser Staff Writer

Excerpts:
Hawai'i papaya production sank to a more than 25-year low last year despite record demand among U.S. consumers for the tropical fruit.

Unlike most other Hawai'i farmers, papaya growers have one other issue with which to deal. Many Hawai'i papaya growers are raising a genetically engineered product that has yet to generate the market acceptance and higher sales prices that non-genetically modified papayas command. Japan, for example, does not accept genetically modified papaya.

No one will buy this papaya in Japan or Europe, and Hawaiians say it tastes bad.

This GMO papaya is also supposedly more susceptible to a fungus than conventional (which is all contaminated with GMOs now). The stuff spreads.

I hope this is evidence enough, but I have plenty more.

Here are some quotes that I hope will help as well.

According to http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=SourceWatch:

"Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food. Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the F.D.A.'s job" - Phil Angell, Monsanto's director of corporate communications. "Playing God in the Garden" New York Times Magazine, October 25, 1998.

"Ultimately, it is the food producer who is responsible for assuring safety" — FDA, "Statement of Policy: Foods Derived from New Plant Varieties" (GMO Policy), Federal Register, Vol. 57, No. 104 (1992), p. 229

"It is not foreseen that EFSA carry out such [safety] studies as the onus is on the applicant to demonstrate the safety of the GM product in question". [44]. Comments from the European Food Safety Authority

Monsanto Cited In Crop Losses
Published: The New York Times
June 16, 1998
http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9A04EED6153DF935A25755C0A96E958260

Here is an article that challenges the science behind biotech foods:

A Challenge to Gene Theory, a Tougher Look at Biotech
By DENISE CARUSO
Published: July 1, 2007
THE $73.5 billion global biotech business may soon have to grapple with a discovery that calls into question the scientific principles on which it was founded.

Link:
http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/01/business/yourmoney/01frame.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&ei=5070&en=4f36200c1b75c531&ex=1184731200&adxnnlx=1184585066-zpP4161LZ6dF2d4mldRrsw

Monsanto Could be its Own Worst Enemy
Thursday 7-24-08
Filed Under: Opinions
Using too much water could force the company to downsize.

Link:
http://www.themolokaidispatch.com/node/2290


Syngenta sprays school with chemicals?

Wake up people
by Richard Diamond on 18 November 2006 in The Garden Island News

What happened to the teachers and children in the Waimea Canyon Elementary School, as reported by The Garden Island news, is indicative of a much larger problem looming below the radar of our everyday consciousness. It’s a problem that is not so easily plowed into the soil to disappear.

If you connect the dots, the “God only knows what” herbicide (obviously an extremely noxious and harmful one) was sprayed by a large GMO company to “protect” acres of its genetically modified crops now growing in profusion in Waimea.

Link: www.islandbreath.org

I'll go ahead and stop there. These companies used to be chemical companies (they still make a profit from chemicals like Roundup that they sell with their GMO seeds); do they really need to be in control of the food supply? Research their histories.