2.Comments on the Lawson article
NOTE: By far the nastiest of the responses to the recent criticisms by the Prince of Wales of GM crops and heavily industrialised ag, was the following piece in The Independent by Dominic Lawson.
Curiously, we've seen only one letter published critical of this article, even though it's certain The Independent will have received many. In item 2 we reproduce that letter, plus comments made on the The Independent's website or in letters copied to us. Some comments have been shortened. If you would like to comment, you can easily do so at the url for the Lawson article.
1.The Prince is entitled to his views but not his ignorance
The Independent, 15 August 2008
*It's shocking to hear this millionaire Gloucestershire farmer denounce the 'Green Revolution' in India
There are any number of reasons why someone such as His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales should be passionately opposed to genetically modified crops. For a start, his own position and future one as head of state is based entirely on genetic purity (formerly known as "royal blood").
One characteristic he might have inherited from his grandfather, King George VI, is a propensity for sudden, almost incoherent, rage. This week, that excellent journalist Jeff Randall gently suggested to the heir to the throne that the future of farming might be with industrial-scale production, rather than the sort of methods he practises. "What?" exploded the Prince. "All run by gigantic corporations? That would be the absolute destruction of everything!" Randall went on to report that "bouncing in his chair", the Prince set out a nightmarish vision in which millions of small farmers "are driven off their land into unsustainable, unmanageable, degraded and dysfunctional conurbations of unmentionable awfulness".
The Prince, predictably, continued his rant by attacking GM technology although Randall had never raised it which he said was: "Guaranteed to cause the biggest disaster environmentally of all time. Snakes, some of them thousands of miles long, will roam the countryside." Well, I made that last sentence up, but you get the gist: the world as we know it will come to an end if wicked big business is allowed to introduce GM crops on an industrial scale. The main empirical problem for this argument is that GM crops have already been grown for more than a decade across the globe, providing trillions of meals, with no observable malign consequences for humanity or the environment. Quite the reverse, in fact: many types of GM crops have been designed to produce high yield with minimal soil tillage; others require much lower use of pesticide than conventional crops, thus saving vast amounts in agricultural fuel use.
Now that the area covered by GM crops has reached more than 100 million hectares, involving farmers in countries as varied as China, Uruguay, South Africa and Iran, it is possible to assess the truth of the various "Frankenfood" scare stories promulgated by the likes of the Daily Mail (which yesterday was alone in publishing a leading article endorsing every word of the Prince of Wales's outburst).
Such a study has recently been published by the European Commission. This is especially significant because the member countries of the EU have been more nervous about the consequences of GM technology than any other developed nations. The report, ominously titled "Economic Impact of Dominant GM Crops Worldwide", gives the lie to the notion that GM is somehow only designed for large-scale agribusiness. It states that "analyses show that adoption of dominant GM crops and on-farm economic gains have benefited both small and large farmers... Moreover, detailed analyses show that increases in gross margin are comparatively larger for small and lower-income farmers than for larger and higher income farmers." In other words, Prince Charles's notion that such methods will in themselves cause the extinction of small farmers is simply refuted by the experiences of real people in the real world.
One of the most persistent complaints of the anti-GM lobby is that the owners of transgenic technology will make huge profits at the expense of the farmers. On general grounds alone one might question this: farmers are not known for persisting with methods which reduce their own income. The more innovative among them will try out new methods, and if it improves their business, they will continue with it. If not, they will dump it.
The European Commission report shows how in practice the increased profits are divided, based on an analysis of the adoption on Indian farms of Bt cotton, a cotton modified by the insertion of a bacterium resistant to the blight known as bollworm. It observes that "Indian farmers adopting Bt cotton were the main beneficiaries of adoption, capturing 67 per cent of generated welfare, followed by seed companies with 33 per cent". You might argue that 33 per cent is a pretty big royalty for the GM seed salesmen, but the point is that the farmers would still be well ahead of the game: the Commission's report shows that "in a sample of 157 farmers from three Indian states, the average yield gains of Bt cotton were up to 87 per cent over the non-Bt counterpart". So everyone's happy except for the Prince of Wales .
It is undeniable that the technology which produces these transgenic strains is dominated by a small number of multinational companies. But if you object to that, you might also wonder why it is: after all, there is no theoretical reason why experiments should not be successfully carried out by much smaller companies. The reason lies in the very neurosis of European consumers and governments about the potential dangers of GM. The number of trials required and the regulatory hoops are so many that only very large companies have the stomach and the wallet for the fight.
It's not just a matter of regulation which is obviously necessary. Groups such as Greenpeace take pride in destroying field trials of GM crops; almost all of the 54 crop trials attempted in Britain since 2000 have been vandalised, a record which would completely deter any small-scale investor from even contemplating such a venture.
These vandals share the Prince of Wales's quasi-religious belief that transgenic technology presumably including that used in insulin for diabetics runs counter to the divine order of nature: he has argued that they interfere in matters that are "the realm of God and God alone". With such metaphysical self-assurance, these people have no conscience about wrecking trials which are designed precisely to assess the environmental impact of GM technology: even if such experiments produced no observable adverse impact, ever, they would not alter the mindset which puts "blood and soil" mysticism above mere evidence.
Prince Charles would argue that he is motivated by a concern for humanity and I don't doubt his sincerity or passion. Still, it was shocking to hear this multi-millionaire Gloucestershire organic farmer denouncing India's "Green Revolution" the plant-breeding precursor to GM pioneered by Norman Borlaug. It was these techniques that saved millions in the sub-continent from the famines which slaughtered so many of their ancestors, and for which Borlaug received a Nobel Prize.
I can do no better than quote Professor Borlaug's remarks about those who denounced his work as destructive of traditional methods: "They've never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for 50 years, they'd be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things."
2.Comments on the Lawson article
It would be appropriate if Dominic Lawson did some more thorough research. The article is riddled with misleading claims. Basing his argument on a single EU summary is insufficient. As a researcher who has followed the story of GM crops and the agri-biotech industry in the developing world for 8 years, I can assure Mr. Lawson that the story is much more complex than he pretends.
The 'average' benefits that he cites are just that - averages, which obscure the huge variability of GM crop performance between fields, farms, regions and seasons. That variability, combined with the high costs of GM seeds, creates serious risks for small-scale farmers, who are most certainly not the ones benefiting from GM crops. Read the original studies! GMCs may well have some environmental and economic benefits for some farmers in some contexts but, like any technological innovation, they also have risks. They are certainly not the silver bullet that Lawson, Norman Borlaug, Dick Taverne and others claim.
I'm sure Mr. Lawson your rich privileged background makes you an excellent candidate to defend the interest of Indian farmers. My bet is Professor Borlaug and you have never faced starvation either.
Borlaug's "Green" revolution is nothing of the kind. It has mortgaged future agriculture by draining aquifers and depleting topsoil. It has made farming more dependent on external inputs not less.
Did Monsanto write this piece for you?
This is an extremely ill-informed article. There are currently no GM crops on the market that [are designed to] increase yields and even the USDA admits that they often result in yield reductions. There has been a lot of research on GM soy yields in the US and some on GM maize showing yield drag. Most of the GM crops currently available are designed either to contain an inbuilt pesticide or to resist herbicide, enabling MORE herbicide, not less, to be used on the crop. Herbicides are made from oil, which is running out. And no tests have been done to ensure that eating GM pesticidal crops is safe. It's obvious that the reason multinational companies don't promote organics is not because organic doesn't work, but because they can't make money from it, unlike the patented GM seeds and accompanying chemicals.
The Independent (Letters), 16 August 2008-08-20 http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/letters/letters-visa-shame-899043.html
Dominic Lawson (Opinion, 15 August) makes the fundamental error of ignoring the most relevant research into science and technology in agriculture, published this year. The UN International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), written by 400 scientists and backed by 60 governments, was so unconvinced about GM crops feeding the world that the biotechnology industry pulled out of the process despite contributing substantial funds at the outset.
Lawson's statement that "many types of GM crops have been designed to produce high yield" is simply wrong. The IAASTD found no conclusive evidence that GM crops increase yields. Even the US Department of Agriculture has admitted there is not a single GM crop designed to increase yield.
Prince Charles is right to highlight the risks to the environment and small farmers posed by GM crops. His central point, that GM crops are part of the export-led, oil-reliant model of food production that has created the food crisis in the first place, is spot on.
Umendra Dutt (Punjab):
Green revolution brought a short lived prosperity which has taken away the very sustainability of our State. Its perishable prosperity left us with poisoned eco-system , contaminated food chain, empty aquifers, contaminated water sources, destroyed biodiversity, debts, disease and suicides...
Dr. Amar Singh Azad
Community Medicine Dept.
Guru Gobind Singh Medical College
The Green Revolution in Punjab has indeed played havoc with nature, the environment, and all forms of life including humans. The cumulative effects of forty years of chemical farming are now strikingly visible. The concentration of highly poisonous chemicals-pesticides, chemical fertilizers and heavy metals are much beyond permissible levels in the air, soil, water, food chain and tissues of animals and human beings... Drinking water (surface as well as ground water) in Punjab is not safe for drinking. It contains all sorts of pathogens and highly poisonous toxins.
All right, many of you may feel that my article is badly researched. It's not because I verified every word I wrote on a telecon with my friend Hugh Grant in St. Louis, Missouri. And those who have suggested that my head is stuck up my you-know-what, are again wrong. If the Independent sacks me, Hugh has promised me a PR job with his firm. Jeez... Luddites.
Dominic Lawson's sounding rattled - see his comment about checking his facts with Monsanto's CEO. I certainly don't think that that's where he gets his dubious information, because Lawson's personal assistant once rang me up by mistake in an effort to check one of his climate sceptical pieces with Philip Stott. I'd done a profile of the GM-loving, climate-change-denying Stotty and her lazy googling for Stotty's contact details had turned mine up by mistake. To give some idea of Lawson's climate guru's passion for all things biotechnik, here's what Stotty had to say about the completion of the human genome project: 'Today, we shall truly ''eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil'' (Genesis 1.17), for two teams of scientists... have come together to announce the decoding of the alphabet of human life. And "we shall be as gods".' What was it Lawson was saying about zealots carried away by their pseudo-religious enthusiasm???