The Geek Manifesto on GM crops

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.

About markgfh

Mark Henderson is Head of Communications at the Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health by supporting the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. The Geek Manifesto contains his personal views, not those of the Wellcome Trust. Before joining the Trust in January 2012, Mark was Science Editor of The Times, where he built a reputation as one of Britain's foremost science journalists and commentators. Mark's first book, 50 Genetics Ideas You Really Need to Know, was published in 2009 by Quercus
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28 Responses to The Geek Manifesto on GM crops

  1. Great article. Certainly makes me regret voting Green in the recent London elections.

    However I would point out that the organic=healthy argument is twofold. There’s a valid concern that a lifetime of consuming unnatural pesticides may undermine health – drastically in the case of agricultural workers. The study you cited only looked at the nutrition side of the argument.

    • Dave says:

      There’s also a valid concern that a lifetime of consuming natural pesticides, known to be toxic, may undermine health.

      • @cojadate says:

        That doesn’t mean that conventionally grown produce and organic produce contain equal amounts of pesticide residue, or that there are equal grounds for concern about natural and unnatural pesticides. It’s a question of relative risk, not absolutes.

        I should also have mentioned that Soil Association certified animal products have much better animal welfare standards than any other certification. There’s no reason why organic farming and high animal welfare standards have to go together, but that’s how things stand.

  2. Fran Murrell says:

    There has been no assessment of the effect on public health of introducing GM foods. Therefore to say they are safe is based on no evidence. How does the claim that GM crops have reduced pesticide use square with the evidence of super weeds resistant to Roundup reducing yields in the US? Why are we even considering GM crops to ‘feed the world’ when the evidence is that agroecological agriculture vastly improves yields and livelihoods. One in four children in the US is food insecure yet it grows the most GM food. Therefore it is clear that feeding the world is an issue of politics and economics and justice not a failed technology promoted by patent holding companies.

  3. Vish says:

    The ONLY issue I have with GM crops is ownership of the seed bank. Large corporations shouldn’t be allowed to do stupid things like patent Basmati Rice or force through their particular type of crop on farmers through Govt bribery, BUT I can’t see how the Greens (whom until yesterday I had great respect for) can have issues with crops that are being developed that would be pest resistant or even crops that are more resilient to drought.

    If you eat Banana’s you have been eating genetically modified foods for decades, every aspect of the banana is human controlled from the original cloning to the final delivery. From what I read, every banana is actually a clone. (not sure if that is right, but would be interested in confirmation)

    As to the US situation, The food povery doesn’t come from shortages of food, it comes from people being paid bugger all for their work and from the massive subisidies and protected markets that US farmers get.

  4. R.Pilkington says:

    Tobacco was once used by hundreds of millions of consumers for hundreds of years without a single documented adverse consequence.

  5. Andrew jones says:

    If you have a problem with GM technology then lobby your MP or convince the scientific world with evidence-based arguments. That’s how science works. Criminal actions destroying carefully planned and regulated experiments are Luddite responses and undermine any reasonable concerns, stifling debate in favour of dogma and criminality. I notice greens hiding behind direct action being necessary historically for universal suffrage etc. it’s easy to pick your just causes post hoc but to align this anti- science stance with these causes is nonsense. Was direct action justified in protesting against mixed-race marriages or women being offered the contraceptive pill? Most would argue your case to be far less noble than you may think.

    • Sean Elvee, Robotics Graduate says:

      Clearly GM WILL CONTINUE to leach into the wider environment more quickly if field trials persist, eventually leaving no guaranteed non GM option available. Where trials are in a totally secure environment, (I suggest hydroponics, with air and water filtering to halt exits to the wider environment) you have a valid point. Where they are grown in open countryside, literally “across the fence” from the UK’s then largest organic producer, Riverford Farm, Dartington, Totnes, it’s hard to understand how no pollen or other bio contaminants (for that is what these would inevitably be, in an organic field) can be guaranteed not to escape. Yet this is exactly what the GM “Scientists” would have had us believe. My evidence based argumnent? You can easily see how this happens yourself by noting where rape has travelled both in distance and time from the fields where it was planted, carried on the wind, vehicles and creatures. Next comes cross-fertilisation with plants of non GM seeds and mutation of the original GM plants, with unintended consequences. These are now not under “intense scrutiny”, as they are not in their nicely allocated plot. This is the real issue, which is avoided here.

  6. So says:

    I live in the Midwest and have direct communication with GM farmers. If you ask GM farmers about GM crops, they will have more negatives than positives to say. Indeed, they will almost unanimously tell you to not plant GM Crops. Monsanto’s model is no longer working to the necessary levels of efficiency. Instead of pumping money into R&D to solve the growing weed problems, topsoil & microbial problems, over-use of groundwater, etc., they continue to propagate the same failed model. We are in desperate need of innovation, and it is very convenient to scapegoat “greens”, but figuring out how to overcome Monsanto’s grip and divert much need capital to agricultural innovators is a much more productive avenue.
    –To hear from actual farmers, a good place to start is .

    • Andrew jones says:

      #So – as the article alludes to, this isn’t an issue with GM, it is a problem of implementation. GM may be one of a number of tools that secures food supplies, reduces the environmental impact of farrming, and allows crops to be grown in marginal territories. The point is, that unless we do the science, we won’t know.
      It is worth pointing out that the results of this study won’t be patented and will be placed in the public domain

    • wesley says:

      If farmers think is a bad product then they shouldn’t buy it. That’s what the market force is all about. It, however, has nothing to do with the overall scientific debate or the attack on science.

      • David says:

        “If farmers think is a bad product then they shouldn’t buy it.”
        Unfortunately market pressure makes it a bit more complicated than that. Say a (fictional) GM crop doubles all your neighbors yield for 5 years only to decimate it after. As a farmer you are now forced to either go bankrupt from running unprofitable for 5 long years (as prices of your crop are sure to drop) or plant GM and hope for a solution as problems arise.

  7. So says:

    The GM crops have been implemented and they are failing. It is directly tied to the GM aspect of the crop — thus having nothing to do with improper implementation. The entire point of genetically modifying crops, in the case of Roundup Ready, is so they survive the bath of glyphosphate, which affects the plant’s ability to uptake essential nutrients. If the Roundup ready variety is no longer doing what it is designed to do, which if you ask any farmer, it clearly isn’t and creating adverse consquences (superweeds, affecting soil microbes and so on) then this is a GM problem.

    • Andrew jones says:

      My point is rather that an example of GM that may of been badly implemented by Monsanto certainly does not mean that the technology itself be discarded in toto, and in fact lends added justification to the exhaustive trials done by Rothamstead and other institutes here in the uk. It is not the silver bullet for all applications – but GM has great potential beyond lining the pockets of multi nationals. As a country we should be applauding the fact that this cutting edge, publicly funded research is happening here and is ultimately likely to be of considerably more value to countries in a less fortunate situation.

  8. Pingback: Note for anyone thinking of going to Rothamsted tomorrow | Butterflies and Wheels

  9. Henry Ruddle says:

    Very thoughtful discussion. The visceral negative reaction some people have to the phrase “genetically modified” or “transgenic” makes it harder for sense and science to prevail. Knee jerk GM opponents seem not to realize that everything we eat has been genetically modified by humans. There are pros and cons to the faster, more precise techniques we now have available, but in principle it’s the same as it ever was.

    • Will Duffay says:

      That’s not quite true though, is it, because GM technology can (so I understand – incorrectly?) add genetic material to a plant which either wouldn’t have got there through normal methods, or would have only got there after many thousands of years of evolution. It’s that element, plus the biodiversity aspect (which isn’t negligible: it has been shown that pesticide resistance can spread to ‘wild’ plants), plus the dominance of major corporations, plus the fact that for all GM’s proponents’ claims about yields and drought-resistance the technology seems aimed mainly at allowed greater use of chemicals – it’s for all these reasons that GM protesters do what they do. And direct action seems valid given that the alternative is for the modified genetic material to be released into the wild as part of the trial or use of these crops.

  10. Deb Swinney says:

    This is a great summary of the issues. I’d add one point. It’s not (IMO) realistic to expect the public generally to distinguish between “science” (pure research) vs “science” (new technology released for sale), especially when they’re so intertwined by corporate funding of research. GM has been immensely damaged by the behaviour of Monsanto, who have tried to overcome consumer resistance to GM by lobbying against labelling requirements and have very aggressive sales and pricing models to developing nations. If GM crops could in theory bring benefit to the public, but in practice do not because of corporate behaviour, that will influence the public against scientists as well. To win public opinion over to the importance of science, scientists need to be aware of the packaging, sale and use of their research to ensure that it’s providing a clear benefit to the public as a whole. Otherwise corporate behaviour by a few could damage the reputation of science as a whole.

  11. Pingback: Another Week of GW News, May 27, 2012 « Random Information

  12. Pingback: Read extracts from The Geek Manifesto for free | The Geek Manifesto

  13. This is a very well explained post on GM crops from perspectives of those who are in favor of it and against it. This post explains clearly why some consumers fail to see the benefits of GM crops over the consequences and states some of the consequences of protesting against GMO can do. The useful information that my blog post lacks in comparison to this blog is the explanation of possible solutions to counter some of the consequences of using GM crops. For example, my post mentioned the potential of super weed and super insects from over use of herbicides on GM crops, which are resistant to herbicides, and Bt crops, which are biological pesticide. This post explains the situation clearly and additionally, it explains possible solutions to avoid the problem of creating super weed and super insects. Although the blog gives evidence by UK review from 2003 that states GM foods are safe to eat, I would like to some up-to date information in regards to tests of GM foods on living organisms . Besides the somewhat outdate source of evidence for that particular argument, the blog explains quite well about the current perspectives on the topic and possibly inevitable need of GM crops for future’s exponentially increasing human population.

  14. IrishPete says:

    So if I read this correctly, the reason GM crops are essential is population growth? Well, why not address that instead? Presumably, with or without GM crops, the Earth has an absolute carrying capacity. We’re going to reach it one day, so why not address that issue now?

    I don’t necessarily believe that GM crops are unhealthy, nor do I know much about their effects on the environment, though I do believe (no, it’s stronger than belief – I KNOW) their long-term effects cannot be known until the long-term. By which time it will be too late. Scientists would do well to remember that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

    The reasons FOR developing GM crops also seem to be suspiciously commercial.

    There are some things we just don’t need. GM crops and nuclear power are two of them. There are other solutions to the problems they’re designed to solve. And in both cases, long-term effects either are not known, are ignored or deliberately understated by partisan interests. Until there are solutions to the problems of nuclear waste and contamination by uranium mines, and proliferation of nuclear weapons, nuclear power is not an “out of the box” solution. The product isn’t finished being designed yet, and I go back to my fundamental question “do we need it?”. I think the answer is no, so let’s stop trying to develop it. Same with GM.

    Science history is full of useful developments which much later turned out to be more harm than good, though at the time they seemed benign (or positive). Don’t beleive me? Well let’s start with asbestos. Feel free to add your own suggestions.

    I’m going to buy the book, but I already know that I’m going to hate this chapter and the chapter on nuclear power, because they seem to argue for science to be unfettered by ethics. “Trust me, I’m a scientist” just doesn’t cut it, I’m afraid.

    But from what I’ve heard so far, the rest of the book is pretty good.

    I have no regrets about voting Green, and will continue to do so.


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