COMMENT from nlpwessex: Below is an article published in the Sunday Telegraph which claims that, 'Farmers are in favour of growing genetically modified crops in Britain despite public fears over their safety.'
It is based on work carried out by researchers at the Open University, including Dr. Sue Oreszczyn of its Biotechnology Policy Group where most of the projects 'have focused upon the development of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) designed for agricultural uses.'
However, the Telegraph's reporting is just the latest example of how research of questionable value combined with lazy (or even willing)journalism serves to give a distorted picture to the public about the subject of GM crops and the 'need' to adopt them.
GM Free Cymru (Wales) have investigated this particular case and discovered:
1. That this was a publicly funded project to the tune of over £100,000.
2. The sample of farmers concerned was not from across the general farming population but exclusively 30 large-scale commodity farmers (the Telegraph refers to '50 farmers and members of farming organisations') including 16 farmers who had taken part in GM crop trials.
3. The farmers were selected by SCIMAC, the industry body responsible for promoting the introduction of GM crops in the UK (SCIMAC was represented in GM crop trial discussions with DEFRA in 2000 by personnel from biotech companies Monsanto and Aventis - http://www.defra.gov.uk/environment/GM/fse/steering/00mar10.htm).
How the sample of farmers was selected is not referred to in the Telegraph's article (the study itself confirms that 'This research required the inclusion of farmers who have had experience with using GM crops; it has therefore used a purposeful sample rather than a statistically representative sample.')
In other words the Telegraph introduces the results of this 'research' as if reflecting the attitude of the whole of the UK farming community when the tiny sample of farmers involved was handpicked by a GM promotion organisation, although two organic farmers were included (one of whom 'did not perceive new technology as particularly important').
The Telegraph's headline is unqualified, and reads 'UK farmers want to grow GM crops'.
You can read more details of what GM Free Cymru unearthed in all of this at:
The Telegraph should be truly ashamed of itself.
How its headline should have read is:
'A Tiny Number Of British Farmers Handpicked By SCIMAC Say They Want To Grow GM Crops - Remaining Thousands Weren't Asked'
The article as published is the journalistic equivalent of going and asking 30 people selected by a body promoting Sharia law in the UK what they think about Sharia and then, having obtained their Sharia-enthusiastic answers, running a story saying Britain is in favour of introducing Sharia.
Nonetheless some of the farmers' less enthusiastic responses in the study(not reported by the Telegraph) make interesting reading:
* 'They [biotech] companies always wildly exaggerate yields.'
* 'In many ways they come up with a solution and it takes them a while to decide what it's a solution to.'
* 'There is always a desire to try something new because we get a bit bored.'
* 'I am a member of The Arable Group, who are very good at testing things. And I see a number of products they do test show no benefit, then we know if they are any good despite what the people selling will tell you. Independent, no strings attached research is the most important terms that we need.'
* 'It shows how idiotic Monsanto can be, thinking that people are going to say yes when it lines Monsanto's and farmers' pockets. There is no way the general public are going to buy that one.'
Limits to the enthusiasm were also apparent when the project culminated in a concluding workshop organised by the researchers. Only ten farmers turned up and were out- numbered by non-farmers. Included amongst the non-farmers were representatives from biotech companies (DuPont and Syngenta), SCIMAC, DEFRA and the National Farmers Union of England and Wales (NFU).
Despite the shortage of farmers, nonetheless at least one novel concern regarding the growing of GM crops emerged. This was described as: 'Loss of dinner party invites'.
But none of this stopped the more glowing tone of the Telegraph's GM story. Its coverage went as far as to claim that 'farmers and farming industry leaders believe GM technology is the only way to produce enough high-quality food as the country's climate changes and the population soars.'
The 'only' way? A weighty conclusion, indeed, when the culminating workshop included only ten farmers.
Yet, the project's own press release, from which the Telegraph's article appears to have been derived, does not even claim this, and the results of the workshop in fact show that attention was also drawn to the importance of other branches of biotechnology such as the use of marker assisted selection in plant breeding (a method based on gene mapping which is generally acceptable to the public and which many scientists consider more important than GM technology - for more on this see: 'The Acceptable Face Of Ag-biotech'
Nonetheless the project press release put out by the Economic and Social Research Council (the government funded body which sponsored the study) was issued under the simplistic title 'WHAT FARMERS THINK ABOUT GM CROPS'.
The release says that 'Farmers are upbeat about genetically modified crops, according to new research...' (although the study's publication date is in fact December 2006).
Whether or not SCIMAC had a hand in drafting the February 2007 press release is not known, but the study itself credits a SCIMAC representative with 'special thanks'.
SCIMAC works closely with the NFU, both of whom have been lobbying for the introduction of GM crops in the UK for years (the Open University study reports that 'Several of the farmers noted that [the NFU] was now a top-down organisation with farmers having little influence.').
They have done so in total disregard for the wishes of the majority of consumers given that experience shows it is impossible to prevent GM contamination spreading to other crops (what other industry works on a business model based on such customer disregard in any market where consumers have choice? The biotech industry hopes, of course, that cross-contamination will ultimately ensure that there is no choice, and that will be the end of the matter. Even unapproved GM varieties grown in research plots have already been getting into the global food chain http://www.lobbywatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=8802 ).
At its recently held annual conference the NFU set out its pro-GM platform and was urged by no less than the President of the American Farm Bureau Federation, Bob Stallman, to make fresh efforts to push the pro-GM case on the back of rising world demand for food and current high world crop prices (he failed to mention, however, that typically GM crops in America do not increase yields nor reduce herbicide usage, and that most of them go into animal feed and are not used for food for direct human consumption - i.e. they go into the most wasteful utilisation of grains and pulses. For more on this see the recent detailed report by Friends of the Earth, 'Who benefits from GM crops', at http://www.foe.co.uk/campaigns/real_food/news/2008/february/who_benefits.html - essential reading for anyone interested in the GM debate).
Stallman told the NFU conference: 'We may have a window of opportunity here and I would encourage you to exploit that.'
Besides 'exploit', the use of word 'we' is interesting. Is the opportunity for British farmers, or for American farmers?
American farmers would love EU countries to start growing GM crops on a major scale to ensure general GM acceptance/food chain contamination, so that additional markets can be opened up for GM American imports (although this is becoming less important now that a subsidised biofuel programme in the US is soaking up more of America's corn output).
However, it is unclear why anyone would think that allowing such a situation to emerge was to the advantage of British and European farmers who are being constantly told that in competitive global markets they must make efforts to distinguish their products from those of other producers.
There is no distinguishing feature more fundamental than whether or not a crop contains recombinant DNA, and Mr Stallman will have been fully aware that aiming to erase that distinction is entirely in the interests of US GM growers.
Step 1 for erasure is allowing the growing of GM crops. Step 2 is aiming for general creeping cross-contamination into conventional supplies, so that ultimately efforts to preserve the distinction become futile.
Indeed, Iain Ferguson, chief executive of Tate & Lyle and also president of Britain's Food and Drink Federation, told the NFU conference that 'For those people who are trying to source non-GM through identity preservation in whatever form they are doing it, that is become a tougher and tougher thing to do'.
However, the tougher it gets the greater the competitive advantage for those producers who remain GM-free.
So apart from Mr Stallman's American constituency, and the 30 farmers in the Open University study handpicked by SCIMAC, what do the rest of British farmers think about that?
Unfortunately that was not a question posed by the Sunday Telegraph.
Will GM Crops Deliver Benefits To Farmers?
The Acceptable Face Of Ag-biotech
UK farmers want to grow GM crops
The Sunday Telegraph, 24 February 2008
Farmers are in favour of growing genetically modified crops in Britain despite public fears over their safety, new research has revealed.
An Open University study has found that farmers and farming industry leaders believe GM technology is the only way to produce enough high-quality food as the country's climate changes and the population soars.
Farmers claim that using GM crops will help them cut down on herbicides and pesticides while increasing the amount of food that can be harvested.
But their views contrast with the strong public scepticism over GM foods and fears that the genes artificially introduced into plants could escape into the wild, changing natural plants.
Prof Andy Lane, who led the series of interviews and workshops with 50 farmers and members of farming organisations, said: 'New technology such as GM is attractive to farmers. They want to produce high-quality food profitably and they want to farm in an environmentally sensitive way. GM may allow them to reconcile this conundrum.'
The findings come just one week after government officials confirmed they were considering growing GM crops at secret locations to combat vandalism caused by anti-GM campaigners.
Biotechnology companies have warned the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that GM trials have become too expensive to conduct in Britain.
The debate over GM crops was reignited last year by the Government's former chief scientific adviser, Professor Sir David King, who claimed opposition to GM technology was leaving Britain at a competitive disadvantage.
Farming leaders also agree that they are suffering as other countries have embraced biotechnology.