1. GM debate flares up in Oxford
2. Ex-environmentalist promotes pro-GM agenda
1. GM debate flares up in Oxford
Tuesday 08 January 2013
Although speakers at this year's Oxford Farming Conference invested a huge amount of time and energy into discussing genetically modified foods, most notably writer and recent GM convert Mark Lynas, who declared "The GM debate is over," the overall picture is undoubtedly much less clear than obdurate advocates of the technology care to admit.
Supporters of GM technology claim it represents an essential tool to providing nutrition and mitigating the effects of climate change through producing crops tailored to changing environments, able to deal with more saline soils and longer dry periods. However, sceptics point out that, even after 20 years of commercial production, the GM industry has failed to deliver on its promises of higher yields and reduced chemical use, while advances in breeding have improved; they argue that a systemic change is necessary to avoid making the food system ever more fragile.
Opponents of GM argue that, far from being a solution to hunger, rolling out GM technology would compound power in the hands of corporations and states responsible for creating the current flawed and unequal system, wherein more than enough food is produced, yet almost 1 billion people go hungry.
A few weeks prior to the conference and again in his address in Oxford, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson expressed unwavering support for the technology's introduction into Britain, where no GM crops are currently grown commercially. Paterson said, "When we're talking about innovation, we should also consider GM. In 2011, 16 million farmers in 29 countries grew GM products."
Although Defra minister first claimed, "I fully appreciate the strong feelings on both sides of the debate. GM needs to be considered in its proper overall context with a balanced understanding of the risks and benefits," he continued unequivocally, "We should not, however, be afraid of making the case to the public about the potential benefits of GM beyond the food chain, for example, significantly reducing the use of pesticides and inputs such as diesel. As well as making the case at home, we also need to go through the rigorous processes that the EU has in place to ensure the safety of GM crops."
His remarks were followed by Mark Lynas, who lamented the regulatory system in the EU, where "GM crops have been waiting a decade or more for approval, but are permanently held up by the twisted domestic policies of anti-biotech countries like France and Austria."
Lynas continued, "We no longer need to discuss whether [GM] is safe – you are more likely to get hit by an asteroid than hurt by GM food." He called for more support and research into creating GM crops that would "ensure technical innovation moves rapidly, and in the right direction, for those who need it," and went on to conclude, "I know it is politically incorrect to say this, but we need a major dose of international myth-busting and de-regulation."
Reaction from GM sceptics
Sustainable farming advocates responded directly to the pair's assertions. On Thursday (3rd January), Tom Macmillan, innovation director at the Soil Association, countered, "Banging on about GM crops, as Lynas did today, is a red herring. Farmers and the public have been promised the earth on GM yet the results to date have been poor. The UK Government's own farm scale experiment showed that overall the GM crops were worse for British wildlife. US Government figures show pesticide use has increased since GM crops have been grown there because super-weeds and resistant insects have multiplied."
Speakers at the Oxford Real Farming Conference suggested last week that the debate over GM is overshadowing a more poignant debate about power in agriculture, and the will of governments and transnational companies to act for global food security. The 2008 IAASTD report, commissioned by the World Bank and compiled by over 400 scientific experts is an exhaustive evaluation of agricultural knowledge and policies. The report largely eschews mention of GM.
Although IAASTD has proven hugely influential, there has been little international action on its findings. These focused on scientific and social goals to ending hunger and poverty, leading to greater food security. The report treats the issue of GM as largely insignificant in the face of the greater challenges to be faced, including imbalances of power, lack of infrastructure and knowledge transfer, environmental damage and gender inequality, all of which perpetuate food insecurity.
Overview of GM debate in 2012
Several controversial issues brought the GM debate to the fore in 2012.
In May, deeply held disagreements over an open air GM wheat trial being grown at Rothamsted Research Institute reached their apex. A demonstration at Rothamsted led to a televised debate and impassioned pleas from scientists and demonstrators alike. Nevertheless, whilst Rothamsted and its supporters, including Mark Lynas, said opposition to its trial was a damp squib, claiming the events in Hertfordshire as a PR victory, polls in the UK continue to show that most respondents oppose GM.
In September, research from France linked consumption of GM maize to illness in lab rats. The study was summarily debunked by the EFSA and health agencies of a number of EU states last year, though its publication and reception led to calls from the French watchdog ANSES for more publicly funded research into the area, where the French agency identified a current lack of research and transparency.
Following the EFSA review, a group of prominent scientists accused European regulators of hypocrisy in an open letter over their willingness to accept industry testing results then hastening to discredit the author of an inconvenient study (Séralini's results were provisionally disgraced within a month).
In November, a ballot to label GM food in California failed in the polls. Proposition 37 was pipped by the narrowest of margins and the clinched victory cost America's food giants, who acted to oppose the legislation, $46 million in advertising and electioneering compared to $9 million spent by groups supporting labelling.
Now the battle for labelling has moved to Washington State, where Initiative 522 will "Require most raw agricultural commodities, processed foods, and seeds and seed stocks, if produced using genetic engineering as defined, to be labelled" if passed. If Washington State Legislature does not agree to adopt I-522, it will be subject of a referendum in November.
2. Ex-environmentalist promotes pro GM agenda - OFC
Friday 04 January 2013
In a speech on "changing perspectives in agriculture" at the Oxford Farming Conference, former environmentalist Mark Lynas has delivered an argument centered on acceptance of genetically modified crops which dovetails harmoniously with both the current industry perspective and the government's desire to roll out GM in the UK.
Lynas began his talk with an apology; he apologised for his previous activism, which stretched over a period from the early 1990s up until the late noughties, aimed at halting the uptake of GM in the UK. Lynas offered his condolences, saying "As an environmentalist, and someone who believes that everyone in this world has a right to food –I apologise." His reasoning for having renounced his former beliefs so completely, he said, was his "discovery of science."
The author and campaigner claimed the anti-GM movement is also "anti-science" and suggested his own opposition had been the result of a "deep-seated fear" of the perceived unnaturalness of GM, adding that, although his work on climate change has been based on solid research, his opinion on GM was not.
Speaking at the conference, and offering up a fiercely pro-GM polemic, which made up the most part of his address on 'a new paradigm for agriculture', Lynas claimed that, whereas he had previously thought GM crops used more chemicals, research shows that pest-resistant cotton and maize actually require less chemicals. However, the findings of recent studies from Washington State University and the US Organic Center run contrary to this claim.
Nevertheless, Mr Lynas expressed deep concern over the changing climate and eventual need to feed more people using less resources as growing conditions become potentially more difficult. He said research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggested the World will require 100 percent more food to feed the maximum projected population adequately, whilst using less water, land and inputs. The figure is based on projections from the University of Minnesota.
Lynas takes aim at former friends
Although Lynas said GM must be implemented to tackle world hunger and improve crop production in global regions where food insecurity is widespread and people are at the greatest risk from the effects of climate change, his arguments at OFC focused mainly on discrediting organic farming and non-governmental organisations, rather than the benefits of GM.
He first argued that the wider acceptance of GM in the EU is being held-up by "twisted domestic policies of anti-GM countries like Austria, Germany and France," adding, "France, remember, long refused to accept the potato as it was an American import" and suggested organic growing is "worse for the environment," than growing GM crops as more land must be used to grow organic crops than GM equivalents.
Contrary to Lynas's presentation of the debate over food security, influential reports into food security do not, generally, treat GM as a panacea, moreover, reports including the 2008 IAASTD report and 2010 UN report Agroecology and the Right to Food by special rapporteur Olivier de Schutter, largely eschew mention of GM.
Both reports have been vital to food policy and their findings are widely accepted, however, both treat GM as insignificant in the face of the great challenges to food security. The two papers focus instead on efforts to create more equitable and resilient systems, with a wider focus encompassing social justice and environmentally sustainable farming practices, arguing that enough food is currently being produced worldwide to adequately feed a higher population but imbalances of power, problems of access and gender inequality are perpetuating food insecurity.
When questioned on access to food and inequitable distribution, which sees almost one billion people go hungry whilst another billion are obese, Lynas returned to yields and said encouraging higher yields is of utmost importance to solve hunger.
Lynas concluded in Oxford on Thursday, "the GM debate is over – we no longer need to debate whether it's safe," before suggesting that people have died as a result of opting to eat organic food, but not GM and adding, "My message to the anti-GM lobby is this: you are entitled to your views, but you must know by now that they are not supported by science. Now is the time to get out of the way."
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1. GM debate flares up in Oxford