On Sunday, an anti-GM crop group called Take the Flour Back is planning a “day of mass decontamination” at the site of a trial of GM wheat run by Rothamsted Research — a public sector agricultural research organisation. The aim of the protest is simple: it’s to tear up the crop.
The event has the support of the Green Party, and one of its most prominent politicians — Jenny Jones, the Green candidate for London Mayor — is planning to attend. It’s going ahead despite a plea from the scientists behind the trial, which I blogged about a couple of weeks ago.
Tom Chivers at the Telegraph has written a great post about the “anti-science zealotry” of these Green protestors. I explore many of the same themes in The Geek Manifesto, and I’ve had permission from my publisher to post the relevant extract in full here.
The whole question of being pro- or anti-GM food is in many ways a bad one. The better question is what crop, with what modification, for what purpose, made by whom? The Rothamsted trial, I think, passes all these tests. That the protestors, backed by mainstream Green politicians, don’t even bother to ask these more nuanced questions speaks volumes about their attitude to science.
Here’s the extract. It follows a section on nuclear power — another technology to which many Greens are implacably opposed, despite its potential to play a part in containing climate change — so please excuse any cross-references. There are full references in the back of the book, and I’ll try to find time to go through and add some hyperlinks to this as soon as I get the chance.
Genetically modified politics
Another part of the green package, to which all proper environmentalists are supposed to subscribe, is opposition to the genetic modification of crops. Like nuclear power, GM food is taken by the main green NGOs and political groupings to be an intrinsic evil, rather than as a neutral technology that can potentially be deployed for both good and bad ends. Interfering with genes is seen as meddling with nature – a freakish and dangerous pursuit that cannot possibly result in anything good. This is taken to be bad for the environment, and bad for human health to boot.
The argument that GM food is unsafe to eat can easily be dismissed. There is nothing in the process of genetic engineering that ought in theory to make crops any riskier than conventionally bred new varieties, and this has been borne out by experience. GM foods have been eaten by hundreds of millions of consumers in the United States for close to two decades now, without a single documented adverse consequence. A UK government review in 2003 found nothing to suggest that eating GM produce would have harmful effects, and nothing has changed since then.
Environmental questions are a little more finely balanced. It is perfectly plausible that GM crops that are resistant to herbicide, or that make their own pesticide, might have deleterious consequences for biodiversity. Herbicide-tolerant varieties, for example, could encourage farmers to apply too much herbicide, or wipe out the weeds on which birds and insects feed. The UK’s farm-scale evaluations of three herbicide-tolerant crops, conducted in 2003, indeed suggested that they were a mixed blessing. While the GM maize appeared to improve biodiversity, the opposite happened in fields of beets and oilseed rape.
The results prompted green groups to demand an immediate ban on the cultivation of any transgenic crops. But these activists both cherry-picked from the evidence and over-extrapolated its significance. As the scientists who ran them pointed out, the farm-scale evaluations showed only that particular GM varieties, grown in particular UK conditions and using a particular agronomic regime, had a negative impact on biodiversity. Yet from that, campaigners concluded that all GM crops must be environmentally damaging, and so should not be permitted.
When looked at in the round, including worldwide evidence, the environmental credentials of the first generation of GM crops look rather better. The impact of herbicide-tolerant varieties depends greatly on the attitudes of farmers, and on how they are used. If used as an excuse to spray as much as the farmer likes, there may be a deleterious effect. If deployed intelligently, so applications of herbicide can be reduced, they can have environmental benefits.
A 2010 report from PG Economics, an agricultural consultancy, found the net effect was positive: GM techniques led herbicide applications to fall by 182 million kilograms between 1996 and 2006. A further benefit has been to encourage no-till agriculture: fields sown with herbicide-tolerant crops do not generally need to be ploughed, reducing carbon emissions from soil and preventing erosion. GM crops engineered to make Bt, a biological pesticide, also had a good environmental outlook. The introduction of Bt cotton has reduced applications of insecticide by 170 million kilograms.
It is, of course, quite possible to manage GM crop use to maximize these benefits. Varieties can be licensed for use only if a particular spraying regime is mandated. Or if herbicide-tolerant maize looks beneficial while beet does not, the former can be approved and the latter blocked. The mainstream green approach, however, has been to seize on any evidence of environmental harm from single varieties to insist on a comprehensive ban. This is rather like calling for all painkillers to be outlawed because Vioxx can have dangerous side-effects. Case-by-case regulation, so that individual crops are assessed according to their merits and risks, is not good enough for most greens. Only outright rejection of an entire application of science is seen as consistent with good stewardship of the planet.
This green intransigence is unfortunate because, just as nuclear power is probably essential to containing climate change, GM crops are probably going to be pivotal to solving several other contemporary environmental challenges.
The first of these problems is land use. The world’s population reached 7 billion last year and it is forecast to grow to 9 billion by 2050. If we are to stand a chance of feeding so many people sustainably, we are going to have to increase the yields we get from existing agricultural land; the alternative is to bring more and more wilderness under cultivation. GM techniques promise to be an important part of the solution, allowing farmers to get more out of their fields and to produce crops with improved nutritional qualities. Improving crop yields this way may bring regional and global environmental benefits even if biodiversity is damaged on a local level. Getting more out of existing farmland, even at the expense of farmland biodiversity, is preferable to ploughing up forest and savannah.
Genetic engineering is also likely to be necessary if agriculture is to significantly reduce its use of other important natural resources. As most plants cannot fix the nitrogen they need from the air (the exceptions are pulses and clover, which use symbiotic bacteria to achieve this), conventional farming relies on large applications of nitrogen fertilizer. This nitrogen has damaging effects when it washes into watercourses, causing blooms of algae and depleting oxygen to create aquatic ‘dead zones’. Crops that fix their own nitrogen, or which use it more efficiently, would significantly alleviate this environmental impact. Genetic engineering is the only realistic way of achieving this. GM techniques are also likely to be important to creating new varieties that use less water and can thrive in the warmer, drier conditions we expect in many regions as a result of climate change.
GM isn’t a ‘silver bullet’, and it won’t be the solution to every agricultural problem that the world faces. But it is very likely to be among them, and we need every tool that science has to offer. It’s foolish to reject it out of hand because it doesn’t fit some environmentalists’ idea of what is natural. The UK government’s Foresight report into the future of food and farming, published in 2011, took an enlightened view of this after dispassionate evaluation of the science. ‘New technologies (such as the genetic modification of living organisms and the use of cloned livestock and nanotechnology) should not be excluded a priori on ethical or moral grounds, though there is a need to respect the views of people who take a contrary view,’ it concluded. It remains to be seen whether green activists will allow it to be translated into policy.
The omens aren’t particularly good. When the UK began its farm-scale trials of some GM crops, to gather evidence that might answer the legitimate questions raised about the environmental impact of herbicide-tolerant varieties, the response of many mainstream green groups was to wreck them. Lord Melchett, then executive director of Greenpeace UK, was among those arrested in 1999 for ripping up a trial plot of GM maize. More recent crop trials, of potatoes modified to resist late blight, have taken place behind tight security, adding significantly to their cost. Far from being guided by the science on genetic engineering, these greens prefer that science not to take place at all.
Onerous European Union regulations introduced in response to green GM protests, and the reluctance of public funders to support controversial science, also have the perverse effect of concentrating the technology in the hands of the large multinational companies to whom these campaigners most object. These big businesses are the only ones that can support the costs involved.
‘It is difficult to collect evidence of benefits or risks, given the routine destruction of GM-crop field trials by NGOs opposed to the use of the technology,’ saidJoyce Tait, of the University of Edinburgh, and Guy Barker, of the University of Warwick, in September 2011. ‘It is difficult to develop new GM products that could be beneficial for the environment or contribute to food security when there is a lack of funding for basic research and development to produce such products. It is impossible for small companies to develop GM crops, as is generally advocated by the public, when the cost of regulatory requirements is so high that only large, multinational companies can afford it.’
Green attitudes to science are similarly selective over organic farming, an approach to agriculture that meets with the approval of environmental NGOs because it eschews pesticides and herbicides that do not occur naturally. There is good evidence that, as used in rich countries like Britain, this approach is somewhat better for the local environment than conventional farming. But it also generates lower yields, which means it would necessarily require more land. Research led by Tim Benton, of the University of York, suggests that switching all UK agriculture to organic would double the land area required. This important part of the ecological calculus is conveniently forgotten when greens campaign for wider adoption of organic techniques.
Organic lobbyists also like to argue that such food is healthier than conventionally grown produce. Evidence for this is again lacking. A large systematic review led by Alan Dangour, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, investigated this in 2009. It found no reliable indications that organic foodstuffs had any more nutritional value than their conventional counterparts. There is a good argument, indeed, that falling for organic propaganda can actually be bad for you. Science has established beyond doubt that a diet rich in fruit and vegetables is beneficial to health, yet organic produce is much more expensive than its conventional counterparts. If families on a budget choose organic fruit and veg in the misplaced belief that it is a healthy option, but buy less of it as a result, the potential for perverse consequences is clear.
The knee-jerk ideological opposition to GM crops and to nuclear power that characterizes so much of the green movement matters because it makes important technologies, with much to contribute to sustainable development and containing climate change, more difficult for governments to back. Green pressure, for example, ensured that nuclear power was excluded from the Clean Development Mechanism, the provision in the 1999 Kyoto Protocol for rich countries to offset their carbon emissions by investing in low-carbon energy in developing countries.
It also has another effect. By so transparently rejecting scientific consensus on both issues, greens invite the charge of hypocrisy when they urge politicians and the public to listen to the scientific consensus on climate change. If they are prepared to cherry-pick scientific evidence to suit their purposes on nuclear power and biotechnology, people are bound to wonder whether they are doing the same over climate change.