10 YEARS OF GM WATCH
1.GM-Watch on Channel 4's 'Animal Farm'
2.The great GM miracle?
3.Dolly's long goodbye
NOTE: The name 'GM Watch' originally came from a regular column we contributed at one time to The Ecologist magazine, for which all the GM Watch editors past and present - Claire, Jonathan and Andy - have written pieces over the years. To help mark GM Watch's 10th anniversary, here are some things Jonathan did for The Ecologist Online.
1.Interview: Jonathan Matthews from GM-Watch on Channel 4's 'Animal Farm'
Ecologist Online, 22/03/2007
This week marked the start of Channel 4's three-part documentary, 'Animal Farm'. We asked Jonathan Matthews, founder and editor of the GM-Watch website, whether Channel 4's reporting was fair.
Ecologist: Channel 4's documentary accused anti-GM lobbyists of luddism, wanting to hold back scientific progress, even when, in the case of 'golden rice', it is thought to hold significant health benefits. Is this the case?
Jonathan: No, it's complete nonsense. GMOs are no more 'science' than washing machines, cars, DDT or nuclear weapons. They're technological products. They may draw on scientific knowledge but they need to be evaluated on their own merits. If we judge nuclear weapons to be a dangerous misappliance of science that doesn't involve us in rejecting the laws of physics!
Winston Churchill got it spot on when he said, 'Scientists should be on tap, not on top' and that's still more the case when so many biotechnologists are in bed with big business. It should be for civil society to decide what are the most desirable avenues for future technological development, not researchers and corporations with massive vested interests.
The same goes for 'golden rice'. It should be evaluated alongside the many other alternatives by the people who will be most directly affected - for instance, through citizens' juries, which have already happened in relation to GMOs amongst poor farmers in India, West Africa and Brazil.
What few people realise is that among the alternatives for tackling Vitamin A deficiency is biofortification of foods by non-GM means. In fact, non-GM biofortification seems to be well ahead of 'golden rice', which despite all the hype - and the misleading claim in the programme that it is 'banned' - is actually still stuck in the lab after all these years.
And this is often the case - that much hyped GM 'solutions' that attract tons of media attention are actually expensive hi-tech distractions from simpler and far less risky ways of tackling the problem.
Ecologist: The programme's GM advocate, Olivia Judson, argued that today's supposedly 'natural' landscape is anything but. Selective breeding and grafting has made it very much a human creation. GM is merely the next step. How would you respond?
Jonathan: This is classic sleight of hand. There's all the difference in the world between traditional breeding techniques and crossing the species barrier in the way GM does.
Selective breeding operates within established natural boundaries which allow reproduction only between closely related forms that have been fine tuned over millions of years of evolution. But genetic engineering allows the insertion of genes from one species into an entirely unrelated one - you can stick human genes into corn, for instance, or a bacterial gene that has a pesticidal effect into potatoes. This means we can create novel foods that may look familiar but contain proteins that have never previously been part of the human diet.
On top of that, there's still more potential for unexpected consequences because the process of genetic engineering is so crude, involving the random insertion of genetic traits. It's sometimes compared to using a sledge hammer to adjust the intricate mechanism of a watch.
Ecologist: Animal Farm's GM 'sceptic' is food critic Giles Coren. He was depicted by the filmmakers to be an almost squeamish traditionalist. His arguments on the manipulation of animals' genes were countered by claims that if animals could be made more comfortable - such as by breeding featherless chickens - or indeed cut out of the farming process altogether - such as by growing petri-dish burgers - then GM could be the most humane process available. Does GM contribute towards animal welfare?
Jonathan: Some of the things shown in the programme actually don't involve GM, but still involved very doubtful logic. The presentation of musclebound Belgian Blue cattle as the future of meat production, and featherless chickens as the future of mass poultry farming in warmer countries, has already led to a complaint to Channel 4 from Prof Bob Orskov, whose specialty is livestock research.
Prof Orskov points out that all calving from Belgian Blue cows has to be via cesarean section due to the calves' large hind quarters. He also notes that in the tropics there are just as many chickens as in the temperate zones but the indigenous chickens are adapted to the hot climate even with feathers. He also says they taste a lot better than the introduced intensively bred birds. In Indonesia, for instance, they're apparently worth twice as much per kg!
I think you need a peculiarly narrow lens to see radically reshaping animals to fit inhuman conditions as an advance in animal welfare. The real future lies in learning how to work better with the grain of nature. That's not some romantic notion. It's actually the most effective way to protect the environment, animal welfare and human health.
Ecologist: At one point in the documentary, the commentary suggested that 'GM scientists only ever have the good of other people in mind throughout their work'. Is this your experience of genetic modification?
Jonathan: Absolutely not and it simply flies in the face of common sense. Would we accept such a statement if it were made about priests or policemen? How about lawyers or psychiatrists?
It's also a profoundly unscientific statement because there's plenty of evidence of false claims being made and of data being manipulated, not to mention scientific researchers being seduced by the material charms of industry. There are also GM scientists working on biological weapons!
And the fact that there's so much money riding on this technology raises particular dangers, not least when so many GM scientists seem to be in a state of denial.
Ecologist: The day after the documentary was aired, news broke that a GM mosquito had been developed which was unable to transmit the malaria parasite. It was suggested that a 'field trial' - a release of the mosquitos into the natural environment - could be just five years away. Are there any dangers involved in releasing GM organisms into the environment?
Jonathan: Yes, with GMOs we're talking about living, reproducing organisms that once released cannot easily be retained or recalled. We've seen this with the repeated contamination of non-GM food crops by GM crops that in some cases are still experimental and have not even been approved for human consumption. With GM mosquitoes the key unknown is the ecological consequence of wiping out wild mosquitoes, which is part of the plan.
We're increasingly turning the planet into an open air laboratory despite the fact that our knowledge of biology and ecology is still extraordinarily limited. This is why concerned scientists are warning that we risk a catastrophe.
Jonathan Matthews is the founder and editor of the GM-Watch and Lobby-Watch websites.
2.The great GM miracle?
Ecologist Online, 23/01/2008
The man on the phone said he was from the BBC. They were interested in interviewing me about my alleged involvement in crimes against humanity.
Possibly the deaths of millions
I stood accused, it emerged, of holding back the fight against poverty, disease, and hunger.
No laughing matter.
Who was my accuser?
The person lining me up for the Pol Pot Award, apparently, was Lord Dick Taverne - the head of the lobby group Sense About Science.
By opposing GM, Taverne had told the programme makers, people like me blocked the products of this life-saving technology from reaching the starving millions. And others the BBC had spoken to had assured them that opposition to GM crops had even resulted in famine relief ships being turned back at sea by a southern African nation in the grip of terrible famine.
Radio 4's Costing the Earth team, I was told, were coming to investigate.
The resulting programme went out last Thursday and it's to the credit of the programme makers that they managed to cut through the hyperbole, peel back the rhetoric, and examine the actual factual basis of the claims being made by GM's promoters.
And once they focused on the facts Lord Taverne and his pals came seriously unstuck. Take for instance, the Government's recently retiring Chief Scientist, Prof. Sir David King, who in the demob-happy period before he finally quit at the end of last year launched a volley of dodgy promotionals for GM, nukes and badger-killing.
Costing the Earth re-ran part of King’s interview with Today - Radio 4's flagship current affairs programme - the part where King told the listening millions that given the world's burgeoning population and the impact of climate change, 'We're going to need to get even cleverer. More crop per drop. And we need the technology that can deliver that, and in my view we have the technology, it's GM.' And Prof. King had the killer application to prove it.
Unfortunately, the high yielding GM product for Africa, which King described in such loving detail to listeners as an example of how GM was tansforming agriculture around Lake Victoria, turned out on subsequent examintion to be, errr”¦ non-GM! Developed by conventional plant breeding and involving companion planting it had absolutely nothing to do with genetic engineering.
'Can the biotech industry themselves do any better?', presenter Tom Heap wondered. They asked the industry's PR guy in the UK, Julian Little to give his killer application for transforming the lives of the poor. He came up with hybrid rice, which he readily admitted wasn’t GM either, but non-GM biotechnology had had something to do with its development he claimed.
Lord Taverne proffered Golden Rice and banged on about crimes against humanity. Happily, I got the chance to respond and to point out that when it comes to helping deal with Vitamin A deficiency, not only is Golden Rice not all it's cracked up to be but there are a range of other, often more viable, solutions out there which we never hear anything about. Golden Rice, I pointed out, has everything to do with PR for the industry, but that's very different from seriously addressing the issues that drive malnutrition. I also got the chance to puncture the GM promoters' urban myths about what happened when Zambia turned down GM food aid.
It was left to the final contributor to the programme, James Wilsdon from the think tank Demos to speall out why GM's promoters need to cut out the demonizing and other negative rhetoric: 'There's a real need to be more open to the very sensible social, political, economic questions that many critics of GM have been arguing about the place that that technology could have within global agriculture and not simply to dismiss these out of hand or to pretend that any objection to the technology is a sign of some luddite anti-scientific ignorance. It's not ignorance that's prompting these questions, it's very sensible concern about who will benefit from this technology, who will control it, who will take responsibility if and when it goes wrong. And it's those questions that remain unanswered.'
If you'd like to find out more about the programme, there's a complete transcript available here http://www.lobbywatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=8690
3.Dolly's long goodbye
Four years since the death of Dolly the cloned sheep, her legacy very much lives on...
Ecologist Online, 15/02/2007
Ten years ago this month the world first heard of Dolly the Sheep - the first mammal cloned from an adult cell. And St. Valentine's Day marked the fourth anniversary of Dolly's 'euthanasia' at the age of six after a veterinary examination showed she had a progressive lung disease, a condition more common in older sheep.
But this double anniversary doesn't round off the story. Dolly's birth at the Roslin Institute in Scotland marked just the beginning of a long production line of animal clones that has included mice, rats, rabbits, horses, mules, cats and a dog. More ominous perhaps are the cloned cattle, pigs, sheep and goats. For, while Dolly's stuffed remains are to be found exhibited in Edinburgh's Royal Museum, the push is on to serve up the remains of today's cloned livestock on our dinner plates.
Just two months ago a US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)'s draft risk assessment concluded that meat and milk from adult clones and their offspring are as safe to consume as those from standard animals. There has, of course, been no public debate about whether US citizens, let alone the recipients of US exports, wish to consume such fare, and surveys of US public opinion show a decided lack of appetite for cloned food. But we may not have the choice. The FDA has already concluded labelling should not be required while semen brokers have been busy selling thousands of units of semen from cloned bulls. Their offspring are almost certainly going to end up in the food chain. The daughter of a US cloned cow has already been born on a British farm.
The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) sees no need to worry. A clone, claims BIO, is just 'a genetic twin of that animal... no genes have been changed or moved or deleted.' But clones are far from perfect copies. All clones are defective, in one way or another, with multiple flaws embedded in their genomes. Rudolf Jaenisch, a geneticist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, estimates that something like 4-5% of the genes in a cloned animal's genome are expressed incorrectly.
These often subtle genetic defects can have tangible consequences. Cloning produces an extraordinarily high number of deaths and deformed animals. Some clones have been born with incomplete body walls or with abnormalities in their hearts, kidneys or brain function, or have suffered problems like 'adult clone sudden death syndrome' and premature ageing. This brings us back to Dolly who developed a potentially debilitating form of arthritis at an unusually early age.
By that point, the company behind Dolly, PPL Therapeutics, had received big public funding guarantees, as Dolly became the biotech icon at the centre of what was supposed to provide Scotland with an emerging 'biotech tartan triangle' and a major economic driver. However, in the same year that Dolly died, PPL Therapeutics decided to sell its assets and shut its doors, following multimillion pound losses. It left behind a large herd of unwanted GM sheep in New Zealand that, like Dolly, had to be 'euthanased'.
But still Dolly lives on, not only in the industry of the abnormal that she gave birth to but as a 'cuddly' incarnation of the dream of a world remade without natural boundaries - limited only by our imagination and desires. While the dream may be inherently defective, it has powerful economic drivers. Cloning expert, Peter Shanks, points out that the FDA's favourable draft assessment of cloned food leaned heavily on the work of animal-cloning companies like Cyagra and ViaGen. Over a quarter of the 700-page draft, says Shanks, is a data dump from the two companies - a fact that the New York Times failed to mention, even when quoting the president of ViaGen saying, 'I think that this draft is going to provide the industry the comfort it needs.'
For Dolly and her 'descendants', it looks set to be a long goodbye.