GM warriors have killed the debate
This, let it be remembered, is the President of a Society that set out to systematically rubbish Pusztai and Ewen's research pre- and post-peer reviewed publication in The Lancet.
This is the President of a Society that sat in judgement on Pusztai's research even before it had been submitted for publication!
At the same time May attacked Pusztai in public by claiming he had 'broken every canon of scientific rectitude', while apologising to Pusztai in private for a preposterous slur.
The truth is that 2 types of GM crop were found to be less beneficial to the environment. The third involved comparison with a type of herbicide that is about to be banned. what is irrational or unscientific about saying that that provides no basis for commercialisation?
May's comments are part of a damage limitation campaign launched by the pro-GM lobby in which Sense About Science, the Royal Society's close ally, is doing the dirty work while May and the RS pretend to keep their hands clean.
GM warriors have killed the debate
A confused public is caught in the crossfire of the biotech battle
Tuesday November 25, 2003
As the government's advisers on GM crops meet today to discuss the resultsm of the GM farm trials, advocates on both sides of the GM propaganda war should be hanging their heads in shame.
Publication last month of Europe's largest study of the impact of intensive agriculture on wildlife should have sparked renewed debate on how we can use the technologies of the 21st century to make farming more sustainable.
Instead, with the battle lines drawn well in advance, many of the protagonists presented a biased and selective summary of the results, digging further into their trenches and leaving the public caught in a confusing crossfire.
The results of the research, published after peer review in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences, showed that the impact of GM herbicide-resistant crops needs to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. They demonstrate that the cultivation of these crops can help farmers to use weedkillers more effectively. But if this more effective use of weedkillers results in changes, good or bad, in the supply of food for farmland wildlife, it can significantly affect biodiversity.
Sadly, these important conclusions have been obscured by the kneejerk responses of the GM warriors issued immediately after, and in some cases before, the publication of the eight detailed scientific papers describing the farm trials results.
On one side, some representatives of the agricultural biotechnology industry appear to have ignored the impact on biodiversity in the farm trials for GM sugar beet and oilseed rape. These results clearly show that GM technology kills weeds more effectively than through conventional means but reduces significantly the food supply for farmland wildlife.
On the other side, some campaigners have denied that the trials lead to any positive conclusions for GM crops. But the results for maize demonstrated that, in principle, if farmers adopt the right strategy with herbicide-resistant GM crops, they can have a less damaging effect on farmland biodiversity than when they use existing conventional methods of controlling weeds.
Why does it matter what the research really shows when this summer's public consultation appeared to show that most of the UK population oppose GM crops? Well, over the next few months, the member states of the EU must decide whether to allow their home soils to be planted with several new varieties of GM crops. In the UK, that decision is due to be made after the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (Acre) delivers its verdict on the significance of the farm trial results, based on a month-long consultation completed last week and two open meetings in London today and Edinburgh next week.
As the 1997 European directive makes clear, the UK government could only object to a licence for a GM crop if it has evidence of damage to the environment or human health. If the impact on farmland biodiversity is the sole criterion, the government may well be justified in objecting to licences for growing GM herbicide-resistant sugar beet and oilseed rape in the ways investigated by the farm trials.
But let us consider the potential implications of rejecting these GM weed control systems solely because they are more damaging to wildlife. On that basis, any proposed new innovation, whether it is the production of a powerful new weedkiller or even the further removal of hedgerows, would have to be rejected if it had a detrimental effect on farmland biodiversity.
That could be a good thing. The intensification of agriculture has had a devastating effect on indigenous species, as farmers have sought to produce more food for less cost. For instance, the government's farmland bird indicator of 20 species shows an overall decline in breeding populations of 40% since the mid-1970s.
Indeed, there is perhaps a case for deciding that no new innovation in agriculture should be allowed unless it is less damaging to wildlife than existing methods. The industry might explore more thoroughly how new technologies, such as GM, might make farming methods better for wildlife than they currently are, and not only concentrate on maximising profits. The public will be more receptive to GM products that benefit the consumer and the environment.
Campaigners could also change tack, and instead of opposing GM technology in principle, put pressure on industry to develop it in a way that benefits the environment. This might be a vain hope as much of the anti-GM campaign is built on opposition to the influence of "big business" on agriculture. But it is ironic that the campaigners should object to GM because of the supposedly corrupting influence of commercial interests, while extolling the virtues of organic farming. Organic food is a billion-pound industry, with big business cashing in.
Together, industry, campaigners and scientists should now be focusing on how innovative technologies can affect, for the better, the many strands of the development of agriculture in the UK.
Lord May of Oxford is president of the Royal Society, the UK national academy of sciences. The Royal Society's submission to Acre is published today at royalsoc.ac.uk.