The many lies of David King
1.Lack of GMOs costs lives, claims leading scientist
2.What David King told the Today programme
3.What David King told another BBC programme
4.What David King told the British Association for the Advancement of Science
NOTE: Sir David King is at it again. On a previous occasion he claimed that flood resistant rice going into farmers' fields was GM, when it is non-GM (see item 3). Now he says it would have been available much faster if it had been GM! But the truth is very different - the rice researchers tried to produce a GM variety and failed ( item 3).
And this is not the first time King has been engaged in totally false and irrational claims (see items 2 and 4).The first time he was caught making false claims, he claimed it was "an honest mistake". So how many honest mistakes is one scientist allowed before they become dishonest mistakes?
Peter Melchett is right that David King's fervent belief in GM crops is making him blind to reality (item 3). And like some other GM promoters, he also appears to have a serial disregard for the truth.
1.Lack of GMOs costs lives, claims leading scientist
Farmers Weekly, 20 January 2010
*Many human lives have been lost due to the reluctance of some countries to accept genetically modified crops, former government chief scientific adviser, Sir David King has claimed.
Addressing the annual City Food Lecture in London's Guildhall this week, Sir David cited the example of flood-resistant rice which had taken over five years to develop using conventional breeding techniques, when it could have been done in two using biotechnology.
The drop in rice production in 2007, due to flooding just after planting, was a major factor behind the price hike in 2008 that led to food riots and starvation in some parts of the world, he said.
Yet a "submergence-tolerant" rice gene had been discovered in India in 2005. Had gene-splicing been used to insert this into commercial varieties, it would have been available within two years.
But because of sensitivities about GM crops, the International Rice Research Institute had opted for conventional breeding, and the first commercial strains were only just becoming available.
"I suggest a large number of people have lost their lives because of the unavailability of this flood-resistant rice. It is a wonder to me that it is unacceptable for one rice gene to be transferred into another rice plant."
Sir David said there was a "desperate need" for biotechnology if the world was to meet the challenge of raising food production 50% by 2030.
But this was rejected by Soil Association director Patrick Holden, who described the dominance of a small number of GM maize and soya varieties in North America as "dangerous".
GM technology had not achieved significant yield gains and had, in some cases, led to increased pesticide use. "And we don't know how many people have been damaged by GM foods, because the tests have never been done."
2.What David King told the Today programme
[Extract from] The great GM miracle?
The Ecologist, 23 January 2008
[Here's an extract from David] King's interview with Today - (BBC) 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 transforming agriculture around Lake Victoria, turned out on subsequent examination to be, errr”¦ non-GM! Developed by conventional plant breeding and involving companion planting it had absolutely nothing to do with genetic engineering.
3.Who can we trust on GM food?
The Guardian, 9 December 2008
*Former chief scientist David King praises GM crops. But can we trust a government scientist any more than an industry insider?
Last week, on the Radio 4 programme Street Science, a publicist for the GM industry made a number of claims about what GM crops can do. He said: "Using GM technology, there are now varieties of major crops, rice, wheat and maize being produced that are drought resistant, flood resistant, saline resistant and disease resistant, which could transform Africa's ability to feed its people ... Some products have emerged, for example, from South Africa. They are now planting drought resistant crops that have increased the yield by 30% ... So you can actually save millions of people from starvation by these techniques nothing to do with the private sector ... Americans are perfectly happy to eat [unlabelled GM food] and I don't know of anyone who has ever suffered from eating a GM product."
There is nothing wrong with this similar claims are made all the time by people working for GM companies. Except that this was not Monsanto's press officer, it was Professor Sir David King, recently retired as the UK government's chief scientist.
The first claim, if read carefully, is not inaccurate. GM companies are trying to produce crops that are drought, flood and saline resistant, and although none are available for commercial use, in theory such crops could increase food production in Africa and elsewhere if you make a number of assumptions.
These assumptions are not scientific, they are political, subjective and highly contested. This particular point of view assumes that the key cause of hunger and starvation is lack of food, rather than problems with distribution, access to land, wars, corruption and poverty. It also assumes that in future poor farmers will have no problems with buying expensive seeds, fertiliser and pesticides, all of which are required by GM crops. I know many people assume GM crops must somehow be needed to feed the world. But the IAASTD (the food and farming equivalent to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report by 400 international scientists led by Professor Robert Watson, now chief scientist at the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said GM crops were not essential to feed the world.
David King was wrong to say that drought-resistant GM products that increase yield by 30% are now being planted in South Africa. In fact, Monsanto is carrying out trials of GM drought-resistant maize in South Africa. The process of trialling the crops has only just begun (a permit was issued a year ago), and these crops are probably about eight years away from commercial use if they prove to be successful. No drought-resistant GM crops are currently grown commercially in South Africa. King has been wrong before about new crops in Africa, claiming that a successful project near Lake Victoria was benefiting from GM technology, before having to admit the crops involved were not GM at all.
In the BBC programme, David King referred to crops like rice that are "flood resistant". In fact the submergence tolerant (flood resistant) rice that is on the market is not GM, but instead marker assisted selection (MAS), normal breeding informed by knowledge of the genome and supported by environmentalists and organic organisations, was used to develop it. This is an example of the kind innovative non-GM plant breeding that is making a lot of progress in a number of areas that the GM companies are only just beginning to tackle with unknown results. Marker-assisted breeding (usually called marker assisted selection) uses the genetic diversity found in crops or their wild relatives, combined with genomic data (genomic markers) to speed up what are otherwise essentially conventional breeding methods.
Two years ago, the scientists at the University of California Davis responsible for developing submergence tolerant rice initially tried to develop the rice using both MAS and GM techniques. While the MAS worked well and quickly, GM failed initially, for unknown reasons. The scientists were moving a rice gene into another type of rice, so this failure simply underlines the inherent uncertainty and lack of precision in GM technology. Finally, a couple months ago, the scientists did get the GM process to work, but this version is not being bred for sale to farmers. To get the GM process to work, the scientists had to attach the gene they wanted to transfer to a very powerful promoter the part of the gene that determines in what parts of the plant, when, and how much, the gene functions (called "expression"). The promoter they used is from an ubiquitin gene and it is turned on at a high level in many tissues of the plant, most of the time.
This contrasts with the normal (native) promoter of the sub1A gene, which is turned on only when needed in the plants and at the correct levels. Therefore, while the sub1A gene, run by the ubi promoter may nominally function, it is much more likely to have negative side effects in the plant because of its incorrect expression (called ectopic expression). These effects could be harmful to health or the environment, or just have adverse effects on the agronomic properties of the crop (for example, it could cause the crop to grow poorly under some conditions, as has happened in practice with some other GM crops). Normal breeding using MAS worked better and faster, and is less likely to have negative side effects.
David King also mentioned GM crops that "have not been produced in the private sector, they've all been produced by government and international research laboratories" when he spoke about crops being developed for farming in South Africa. I assume that he was actually talking about the Water Efficient Maize for Africa project (WEMA), which involves several African countries Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and South Africa. The WEMA project was only announced in 2008, so no crops have yet been grown even experimentally. The projections for yield increases from this project are that "the maize products developed over the next 10 years could increase yields by 20-35% under moderate drought, compared to current varieties". But this applies to non-GM as well as possible GM varieties, and the first conventional varieties developed by WEMA could be available after six to seven years of research and development. The project says that GM drought-tolerant maize hybrids "will be available in about ten years".
David King was also wrong to say that Americans are happy consuming GM food: in fact, there is no labelling in the US and many Americans don't even know they are eating GM. When limited labelling was introduced on alternatives to Monsanto's GM-hormone milk, sales of the GM product collapsed and Monsanto sold the business.
Finally, of course, no one has carried out any scientific experiments to see whether eating GM crops in America has caused any "suffering". There is no evidence to say that they have caused suffering, just as there's no evidence to show that they have not. We simply do not know. There have only been a small handful of studies looking at the long-term safety of eating GM food, using properly conducted animal trials, some covering possible inter-generational effects.
All of these show some grounds for concern. Most recently, a study funded by the Austrian government and carried out by two of the leading research institutes in Austria, found that Monsanto's GM maize "severely impairs reproduction in mice" and the scientists involved said that there is an "urgent need for further studies". These safety doubts confirm earlier research findings, and they have in turn been confirmed by other recently published research. In the light of the published science, it is now impossible to say that GM is safe to eat.
David King's pro-GM views have been clear for many years, equally, he has been in the forefront of the battle to get the science about climate change accepted and acted on. On climate change, he supports international scientific opinion (the IPCC), and the honourable role he and other scientists play is to disseminate the science that explains what climate change is, why it is happening, and what cuts in greenhouse gases are needed to avoid the worst impacts. Scientists should talk to the public about their work, and scientists working for the government should be open about the scientific advice they give, and the basis for it.
But King has entered into the political realm, making assumptions about how societies will be organised in future, which current trends will continue and which will change, and which type of development (for example, largely controlled by multi-national companies and international institutions) we will pursue. He is just as entitled as anyone else to have personal views on these issues. So why do his pronouncements anger many people, including me? The answer was provided by a member of the public who King talked to on the BBC programme. After listening to the ex-chief scientist's views, they said, "Naturally a personal chat with somebody is very reassuring somebody who knows the facts, which of course I don't. I'm relying on you."
It seems to me that King is expressing personal and political views under the assumption that they are science. In trying to expand the sales of GM crops, he reminds me of the men in white coats who sold toothpaste in TV ads when I was a child. I think this is why people do not trust scientists working for governments much more than they trust scientists working for corporations. It is not, as these scientists always claim, because people do not trust or understand science surveys show that people trust scientists working for non-governmental organisations far more than government or industry scientists. People are sceptical about scientists who pronounce not on science but on politics and products such as GM crops and particularly about those who fail to make clear the personal or organisational views that colour the assumptions they make. Sadly, King shows that we are right to be sceptical.
4.David King - "unscientific and irrational"
Peter Melchett, Soil Association Policy Director, responds to David King's attack on organic farming in his inaugural speech as President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science
"To blame the Soil Association or UK consumers of organic food for the decades of hunger and starvation in Africa, including the current terrible suffering of people in a country like Zimbabwe, as Sir David King appears to do, is unscientific and irrational. David King and a shrinking number of British and American pro-GM scientists are increasingly out of step with the scientific consensus that GM has little to offer in solving the world's food problems. David King criticises this conclusion of 400 international scientists in the recent IAASTD report as "short sighted". But it is David King's fervent belief in GM crops that is making him blind to reality.
No GM crops consistently produce higher yields than non-GM varieties. All GM crops need expensive, oil-based, climate-damaging fertilisers and chemical sprays. All GM seeds cost more than non-GM, and they cannot be saved so that poor farmers can use seeds they grow themselves. David King and a minority of scientists' belief in GM is based entirely on promises of what these crops might deliver in future. Exactly the same promises were being made by Monsanto 25 years ago. Quarter of a century should be long enough for even the most ardent GM fan to wake up to GM's limitations.
Over the last 25 years, as the 400 international scientists recognise, new environmental and organic techniques have proved that they can deliver big increases in food production in Africa and other developing countries. Newly developed crops, not using GM technology, have increased yields and are better able to resist diseases and pests.
Tony Blair believed in GM, a belief shared by his scientific advisors like David King. We need to put the pro-GM Blair era behind us and work with the solutions we know are already working to increase food production in Africa and elsewhere."