COSTING THE EARTH: BBC RADIO 4
Broadcast: 17 February 2008
The great GM miracle?
Tom Heap investigates whether British attitudes to GM food are holding back the fight against poverty, disease, and hunger.
Tom Heap: I'm just squeezing along on the narrow margin between the hedge and a field which is planted with the very beginnings of next year’s wheat crop. It looks very calm now but barely 10 years ago this expanse of mud and crops was definitely a battlefield.
[flashback to BBC radio news]
Nick Clark: The World at One, this is Nick Clark with 30 minutes of news and comment. And the headlines today: Greenpeace has said it was responsible for the destruction of a field of GM maize in Norfolk early this morning.
(GM crop trial farmer) William Brigham: About quarter past five in the morning, on 26th July 1999, I got a phone call from my brother saying, there’s a digger and I’m pretty certain it’s gone down the track towards the GM crop.
Nick Clark: The company involved in the trial says it may be necessary in the future to conduct such experiments in secret to prevent attacks by environmentalists. [end of BBC news piece]
William Brigham: We confronted them ”¦ They had a tractor with a cutter. They were proceeding to cut, I wouldn’t say in very agricultural methods, they were going round and round in circles but I think it was more for the camera than for effect.
Tom Heap: That was the Norfolk farmer, William Brigham, and much like the cutter, the argument has been going round and round in circles ever since. But, weed out the rhetoric and GM withered here for a simple reason: the public could see no benefit which justified the dangers, however small, of growing and eating GM crops. Even biotech enthusiasts admit the logic of that position, but it is based on a balance of risk vs reward, and today on Costing the Earth we're askin whether the passing years have tipped the scales, and if GM’s time has now come.
Prof. Jeffrey Sachs: There are going to be tremendous shocks to the global food system given that we're already in an unsustainable environment trying to feed thare holding back the fight against poverty, disease, and hunger.
Tom Heap: For over a decade Americans have been chowing down on trillions of GM meals, and there is no apparent human health disaster. Last year GM crops were planted over 1 million square kilometers, that's 4 times the area of the UK: where's the environmental catastrophe? And do the emerging pressures of climate change and 3 billion extra stomachs to fill by 2050 mean yield from our fields is a matter of life and death, or, put brutally, could GM help feed all of us, and be a lifesaver for the starving?
Dick Taverne, a member of the House of Lords science and technology committee, is in no doubt.
Dick Taverne: I think our present attitudes to GM are not just rather short-sighted, and ignore the evidence, but are deeply damaging to the fight against hunger, poverty and disease in the world. The trouble is, the new technology is not essential to Europe. Nobody here in Europe goes hungry. It's the developing world to which it's important, and on the whole people don't seem to care about that. Oh, they love big concerts, Let's Make Poverty History, let's promote things in Africa, but then they don't realize that what's holding back the fight against poverty in Africa is, amongst other things, the resistance to GM crops.
Tom Heap: Poor diet and simple hunger erodes humankind, the death toll so constant that it largely goes unnoticed. Prof Jeffrey Sachs led the UN's Millennium Project on Poverty and Hunger, and is now director of the Earth Institute.
Jeffrey Sachs: The urgency, no doubt, is to use the tools that we have to keep people alive today. Five million children will die of poverty and chronic hunger in Africa this coming year; this is a shocking unnecessary tragic disaster on the planet. Nearly 10 million children die each year, essentially of extreme poverty because the powerful tools that we have do not reach these households, these communities, the children who otherwise would be able to stay alive and to prosper. And it requires us not to turn our back on whole classes of technology, that would be simply absurd when we know we’re going to need much more powerful tools in the future, including genetic modification.
Tom Heap: Sobering statistics, and with a forecast of more people and an erratic climate, Jeffrey Sachs believes we need to invest more, to harvest more.
Jeffrey Sachs: In general, we need first a green revolution in Africa, right now. We have a continent that is extremely hungry, and where the productivity is very very low in yields per hectare. In that case, a lot of our traditional technologies, if brought to scale, would make a difference, but in the African case I would suspect that genetically modified crops can also add to that. They won’t be vital for the next few years, and indeed they won’t be brought online in the next few years, but they can add. Looking forward, there are going to be tremendous shocks to the global food system, not only the growth of population prospectively from today's 6.6 billion to perhaps more than 9 billion at mid-century, if the UN's forecasts turn out to be the case, but also the fact that with climate change, there will be tremendous stresses in food production in many regions of the world, given that we're already in an unsustainable environment trying to feed the current population, we’re going to need a lot of powerful science and technology in the years ahead.
Tom Heap: The claim that GM might help to feed the world appeared over a decade ago. If we look at GM crops today, it's mostly maize, soy, and cotton, principally grown in the Americas, North and South, but gradually taking root in the developing world, although for Dick Taverne, not fast enough.
Tom Heap (to Dick Taverne): Would you really claim that people are suffering or indeed dying because these regulations are holding the products up?
Dick Taverne: Absolutely, oh yes, without any doubt at all. If you take Africa, which has missed out on the green revolution, which has benefited the rest of the world enormously and has saved hundreds of millions of people from starvation, Africa could benefit from this technology because it is particularly geared to the small farmer. But it's being held back in Africa because they are scared of producing these crops because they can't export them to Europe. Why can't they export them to Europe? Because the green lobbies have managed to create a regulatory structure that makes it practically impossible to export genetically modified crops to Europe. Now, again, in continents like Africa, you've got the problem of increasing drought. There are genetically modified crops which have been developed that can grow in arid land and that can grow in saline soil which no other crops can grow in. We will need this new technology as part, I'm not saying it's the solution, but as part of the solution towards producing enough food for people in the world in the future.
Tom Heap: But where is the evidence that if we took these regulatory handcuffs off, or at least loosened them, that fewer people would go hungry?
Dick Taverne: Oh, because then you would get a huge acceleration of developing all these crops that are being developed [sic].
Tom Heap: And you really believe that in 5 years that could actually fill people's bellies?
Dick Taverne: It's not a question of my belief, I'm looking at the evidence, the evidence about these crops. The crops are available but they've got to go through this regulatory series of hoops and hurdles, that's what's holding them back. They could be there quickly. What are these green lobbyists doing opposing it in the name of saving the planet? Completely counterproductive. And indeed I regard it as a crime against humanity.
Tom Heap: The charge doesn't get more serious than that. So let's investigate. Are there genetically modified crops being held back that would help feed the hungry? Here is the just-retired chief scientist Sir David King, on the Today programme late last year.
David King: Nine and a half billion people on the planet we need to be planning for. If we're going to feed that population with 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.
I wonder if I could give you one example. And this is the use of intercrop planting in Africa which has increased grain yields already around Lake Victoria, very substantially. And this is done by discovering what the pheromone is in the root of the grain plant that attracts root borers, and destroys them. If you snip that gene into grass, so that the grass attracts the root borer, the root borer doesn’t feed well on the grass and dies, you interplant grass with the crop and it turns out the crop yield goes up 40-50 per cent. Very big advantage.
Tom Heap: But under scrutiny it emerged that this crop is non-GM, developed by conventional plant breeding! An 'honest mistake', but a big one. Can the biotech industry themselves do any better? Julian Little speaks for the Agricultural Biotechnology Council.
Julian Little: There's absolutely no doubt that GM cannot solve all the world's problems when it comes to the amount of food. What is clear is that many GM crops which are in use today have higher yields than their conventional counterparts.
Tom Heap: What about changes that are actually going to help feed the world’s hungry? What are the companies doing for them?
Julian Little: If we look at biotechnology in the round, almost all plant breeding these days involves some sort of biotechnology. Sometimes you end up with a GM variety, sometimes you end up with a non-GM variety. I'll just give you the example of hybrid rice. You can double or triple the amount of rice that you’ll get out of a hectare by modern plant breeding involving biotechnology, but which the ultimate plant is not genetically modified.
Tom Heap: So does that mean you can achieve all you want without having to actually go down the GM line, you can do it by conventional breeding, and you don’t have to worry people?
Julian Little: In certain circumstances, you can use conventional breeding, in some cases the GM way will be the best way forward. We have never, ever, suggested that GM is the only way forward.
Tom Heap: So even the plant breeders fail to provide an example of a genetically modified crop that could combat starvation now. They lack a killer application, and it's a weakness readily exploited by GM's opponents.
Tom Heap (to Jonathan Matthews): Why do you think we're hearing the argument strongly now about GM having a role in feeding the world? Could it be because we are moving from an era of maybe having a surplus of food to a shortage of food?
Jonathan Matthews: It's the trump card they tried to play in 1998 when they found themselves facing serious opposition in Europe.
Tom Heap: Jonathan Matthews from GM Watch.
Jonathan Matthews: Monsanto launched its PR campaign, 'Let the harvest begin'. And it branded itself in terms of, 'We are going to feed the world.' It didn't succeed last time around in convincing people, but it remains a useful card to play, because if you just say to people, 'Do you want GM foods?' then clearly the answer is, 'No, we don't'. So what do you do? Well, you make them feel guilty. You say, 'But these people need GM foods. And if you insist on not eating or not having them, then that is harming these people, and so you are morally responsible.'
Tom Heap: Harming them to an extent where one of our interviewees said that people like who you are standing in the way of genetically modified crops for the developing world are committing crimes against humanity. What do you think?
Jonathan Matthews: I think that's a truly outrageous accusation, and what is despicable in one sense about demonizing people in that way is that no clear evidence is produced to support these claims. I've come across this repeatedly. Lord Taverne, for example, recently had an article in which he said that millions may have died because of not having GM crops. But he produced no evidence to support that, and I've seen no evidence to support that.
Tom Heap: Dick Taverne's assertion is based on his knowledge of Golden Rice.
Dick Taverne: Here's a rice which was developed not by Monsanto or the big multinational companies, but in the public sector by a Swiss biotechnologist called Ingo Potrykus. It was thought that he would be one of the great benefactors of mankind because he produced a kind of rice that could help remedy the deficiency in vitamin A that at the moment leaves about half a million children to go blind every year and up to 2 million people to die. Now this rice has been tested, people could be benefiting from it now, if it hadn’t been for the regulatory hurdles as a result of the activities of these green lobbies and the crimes which they are committing against humanity in promoting these regulatory hurdles.
Tom Heap: That's a very strong phrase.
Dick Taverne: Yes it is a crime against humanity when you hold back a technology like Golden Rice, and it means that 500,000 go blind. It could have been introduced five years ago. When you hold that back, that is a crime against humanity.
Jonathan Matthews: I think from the evidence I've seen that that is completely misleading.
Tom Heap: Jonathan Matthews from GM Watch.
Jonathan Matthews: In fact, although - I think it was back in 2000 - TIME magazine had a cover about Golden Rice and what a miraculous solution it was to this problem, Golden Rice has actually had a lot of problems, just simple technical problems - that it hasn't been producing enough beta-carotene to make a difference.
When it comes to biosafety, I think it's really extraordinary to claim that if it wasn't for some sort of regulatory system, this could just be fed to them just like that. I mean, that's outrageous. It has to be looked at in regulatory terms. Countries have to have their own biosafety systems in place. What are they saying, that the biosafety systems shouldn't be developed?
Tom Heap: If they could overcome that biosafety hurdle, could Golden Rice be a great thing for curing malnourishment?
Jonathan Matthews: This brings us back to something we were talking about earlier, looking at the choices that we have. What's interesting about Golden Rice is the way in which it has hogged the headlines, as with TIME magazine featuring it on its front cover. It's been presented as being the only solution to this problem. But in fact, there's a range of solutions out there. There's non-GM biofortification of crops, now why don't we ever hear anything about that? That's going on, that's going ahead, some of that's actually ahead of Golden Rice, you don't even have the GM questions or the GM issues and all that complexity.
A lot of this has to do with political will. There are solutions there to deal with this problem, but the political will isn't there to sort them out. At the same time, Golden Rice can create a kind of PR phenomenon. But that's actually not seriously addressing the issue.
Tom Heap: Do you think GM has any role in feeding the world?
Jonathan Matthews: Again I think it's possible, but it needs to be looked at in relation to what other alternatives are available, because GM brings with it a number of uncertainties and a number of risks. We therefore need a very compelling reason to say, 'Ah yes, GM is the solution.' And I think the main problem with what's happening with many of the people who are trying to promote this technology, is they're creating crisis narratives where they're saying, '”¦ and GM is the only solution, the only way of tackling this problem.'
Tom Heap: One of the most famous such crises is when Zambia was in the grip of a famine in 2002 and yet rejected food aid from the US which contained genetically modified grain. Development expert Jeffrey Sachs again.
Jeffrey Sachs: The European blanket, sometimes shrill, opposition definitely has a wear and tear effect in Africa. African leadership is often simply scared even to host the research for fears that this will prevent exports from their countries to European markets, even exports of conventionally produced crops. So there’s a lot of fear. There was a time when an emergency food shipment from the United States, the food that I eat every day, that was milled for flour, was turned back, reportedly on the fears of the national leadership that it had been produced by GMO crops, at a time when there was an intense famine.
Now, this kind of response really won't do. It won't serve the needs of desperately poor people who need the best of our goodwill and efforts to help them to solve their problems.
Jonathan Matthews: You're probably aware of what happened when the Zambian government refused GM food aid. People again talked about crimes against humanity. There were suggestions - one US Bush administration spokesman said that the leaders of Zambia should be tried in the highest courts in the world for the highest crimes in the world. And yet nobody died in Zambia because they chose to have non-GM grain rather than GM grain. This is almost an urban myth, it's used to demonize people, to shut down argument. What happened is that the Zambian president set up a committee to look into it, using scientists and economists. They traveled to the States, they traveled to Britain, they traveled to South Africa, they spoke to regulators, they spoke to scientists, and they made their own decision.
Tom Heap: But you can understand the confusion and even the anger of Americans who found the desperate refusing something that they eat happily, and apparently healthily. Surely the proof of the pudding is in the eating. And trillions of meals with GM ingredients have been eaten by now and we have not seen any evidence of widespread damage to human health. Your fox is shot.
Jonathan Matthews: I'm afraid that's not a convincing argument to epidemiologists. You only have to look at the history of smoking and how many millions of people smoked tobacco, cigarettes and so on before we had an idea of the health consequences that came from smoking.
Tom Heap: So are you claiming there's some big undiagnosed health catastrophe happening in America as a result of GM crops, is that what you're saying?
Jonathan Matthews: What are you saying - in a sense - that there have to be piles of dead bodies before we can identify that there might be a problem? In fact, we haven't a clue what's going on because this food is going largely into processed foods unlabeled, so there's no way of keeping track of what the effects of consuming GM ingredients are.
It would be much simpler to conduct controlled experiments, but the lack of experimentation on GM food safety is truly remarkable. If you take the British government, for example, clearly people in Britain have big concerns about this. It seems to me that if you wanted to reassure them, you would do the research. You'd put the money there, you'd say, 'We think there is value in this, we think the public could be convinced, we'll do the science.' If you don't do it, and you just posture, and say, 'You're very ignorant, foolish people, you're making a lot of fuss, just accept it,' then I don't think that takes the debate forward, and I don't think it helps us get to the truth either.
Tom Heap: So your position, when asked if there is a health risk from GM food, is, 'Currently, we don’t know.'
Jonathan Matthews: We don't know. That's it exactly.
Tom Heap: But why assume that there is when, as I say, trillions of people have eaten this food and we haven't seen the resulting ill health epidemic?
Jonathan Matthews: As I said, there have been other things historically where we've seen that a product used or consumed for a whole period of time, and even valued and thought to be miraculous - you can think of things like asbestos, for example, where we thought we'd found an absolute wonder-product, and then it becomes apparent that there's a problem we had no idea of. Often those problems come out of left field and completely take us by surprise. In this case, we really are doing something quite radical - we're crossing the species barrier, we're introducing something into the human diet that in some cases has never been part of it before. Now it seems to me, it's worth approaching that with caution.
Tom Heap: And caution is exactly what the British Food Standards Agency and their European equivalent say they exercise with GM foods. Each product is reviewed on a case-by-case basis for toxic, nutritional, allergenic and environmental impacts. Dick Taverne again.
Dick Taverne: The international academies, the national academies of science in every major country in the world - United States, Britain, Germany, France, China, India, Brazil, Mexico have all come to the conclusion that there is not a shred of evidence that this is damaging to human health. WHO has come out, and what’s the WHO for but to guard the safety and health of the world population. What does it say? There's no evidence that GM crops are harmful to human health. And still they go on, repeating this mantra, 'Oh, GM crops haven’t been proved safe.'
Tom Heap: But neither Dick Taverne nor Jonathan Matthews are actually involved in tackling hunger. Bonnie McClafferty is. She works for the charity Harvest Plus, which is funded by the Gates Foundation and our own government, amongst others. It strives to improve the nutritional quality of food for the poor.
Bonnie McClafferty: We are actually only looking at this point at what are some of the molecular biology - what can we do with nutritional genomics to understand which genes help in the inheritance of nutrients. So for example, we have discovered that there are certain genes that control where a plant will place nutrients, and we of course want to understand how to better get a plant to place nutrients in the seeds that people eat, in addition to the leaves that they need for photosynthesis.
Tom Heap: So is the relatively small level of GM work in the crops that you're suggesting for planting, is that due to the actual weakness of the genetically modified products on offer, or is it due to the political antipathy towards them?
Bonnie McClafferty: I would say in all honesty, it's a bit of both. But we are in effect hedging our bets. We’ve been able to experience great success in actually finding varieties to do conventional plant breeding with. In some crops that are extremely important to the hungry, these nutrients just don’t exist. So we are in a position whereby we cannot ignore the fact, the powers that genetic modification can offer. However, we also cannot afford, because of the urgency of micronutrient malnutrition, we cannot afford to develop a technology that will sit on a shelf.
Tom Heap: In fact, though GM only makes up 5 per cent of Harvest Plus’s work, Bonnie McClafferty, like Jeffrey Sachs, believes hunger demands every solution.
Bonnie McClafferty: I think that you're finding that there are scientists stepping up and saying, 'Wait, let's really look at both sides of this debate, let's not call it an emotional issue', and for us that's critical because really for us it's an urgency. There are 250 million children that are vitamin A-deficient. Two billion people in the world suffer from iron deficiency. These are children who are coming into the world with lower-functioning cognitive capacity because they haven’t had iron in their diet. These are children going blind every day from the lack of vitamin A. These are moms dying in childbirth because of anaemia and iron deficiency.
Tom Heap: Could genetic modification be one of the tools that helps alleviate that suffering?
Bonnie McClafferty: Genetic modification can, but again it’s in its testing stages, it needs to be effectively tested and safely introduced, and most of all it needs to be owned and understood by the people wherein these technologies will be applied. We have a responsibility to try all technologies we have because it’s more a question of, what if we had the technology and didn’t put it to work? I think that's a question we need to be asking, not necessarily 'Should we or shouldn't we?' If we know we can do it, we're responsible to safely look at whether this can be applied.
Tom Heap: But public trust has been eroded by ten years of high-pitched debate. I've come to James Wilsdon from the think tank Demos to guide me through this tense relationship between science and society.
You said the first round of the GM battle was characterized by much more heat than light. As we ring the bell for round 2 and we hear people talking about 'crimes against humanity'”¦ How do you feel it's going to go this time?
James Wilsdon: I think all sides of the debate need to be very careful not to exaggerate what’s going to happen on either side. There’s a real danger in that kind of exaggerated rhetoric that we end up back where we were in the late 90s, in a very negative destructive spiral of debate. So I think particularly to the pro-GM advocates that it’s time to swallow their arrogance and hubris that they’ve been guilty of in the past, get their head around the complex issues that others are putting on the table and start to have then a more sensible and balanced discussion about the role that GM may play in that broader mix of agricultural technologies.
Tom Heap: Have those scientists and those companies that are behind GM got to take on board the social impact of what they are talking about?
James Wilsdon: Absolutely. 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. So simply sliding back into a ping-pong about the whys and wherefores of the science, whether it’s safe, whether its not, doesn’t get us to those much deeper questions about the place of GM within the food system.
Tom Heap: Beneath the argument and anger, I think a few conclusions do emerge from this week's Costing the Earth. Despite the hype, pro-GM advocates failed to identify a genetically modified crop that could be planted today to put food in the hungriest mouths. But they remain passionate about what's in the lab. Respected figures in development don't see GM as a key tool yet, but are adamant that investment in agricultural science is vital to feeding a growing population in a restless climate, and believe that GM should be part of that research.