Who are the real vandals?
2.The new Dark Age
NOTE: Graham Harvey is an agricultural writer and the author of several books on farming and the countryside, including "The Carbon Fields" and "The Killing of the Countryside".
1.Who are the real vandals?
GHQ, May 23 2012
The Daily Telegraph generously gave a full half-page to the scientist who developed the controversial GM wheat variety currently under trial at Rothamsted research station in Hertfordshire. Prof John Pickett dismisses the protestors’ claim to be seeking food democracy. "Is denying access to knowledge and ripping crops out of the soil democratic," he asks. The headline accuses activists of "shutting down scientific debate".
It all seems very convincing until you get to the bit about climate change and the fact that the world population is likely to number nine million by the middle of the century. That's when you realise the prof's indignation is really part of a cynical agribusiness campaign to get this unnecessary technology accepted in Britain.
Even as the Telegraph was arriving in the letterboxes of Britain, Peter Kendall president of the National Farmers' Union was appearing on the Today programme to repeat the same scare story about future world food shortages (And incidentally accusing the GM activists of using the methods of Nazi Germany!).
The truth is that there's now a consensus of farm scientists who believe the planet is quite capable of feeding a population of nine billion using present knowledge and methods (IAASTD report, 2008). That's so long as we don't continue to wreck our soils using the current pesticide-dependent wheat growing methods of Britain and America.
The reason so many research resources are being squandered on GM technology is that back in the early 1980s the then funding authority the Agricultural Research Council identified genetic manipulation as a priority area. As a result of this decision we now have a generation of research scientists who’ve built their careers on this narrow and largely pointless technology.
We currently grow such a huge surplus of wheat in the UK that more than half of it is wastefully fed to animals or fermented into biofuels. The rest is processed into products that make big profits for food manufacturers and give the rest of us diabetes, heart disease and a host of other degenerative conditions. It makes no sense to spend millions on researching wheat growing. We simply need to grow less of it.
Before dismissing the "food democracy" claims of the protesters, Prof Pickett might ask himself when the people of Britain voted to have their sustainable and productive mixed farms replaced by the damaging, energy-squandering, nutrient-wasting wheat prairies that his research currently serves. And when, for that matter, did we agree to give up real food in favour of the rubbish products he's helping to promulgate?
2.The new Dark Age
GHQ, May 16 2012
One of Britain's leading agricultural scientists fears we may be entering a new dark age. Professor Maurice Moloney director of Rothamsted Research is worried by green activist threats to trash a trial plot of GM wheat at the Hertfordshire research site. "We face the destruction of a technology that could not just help wheat production in Britain," he says, "but could boost crop yields elsewhere in the world."
Down here in Candleford we take a rather different view. We think that if there’s a new dark age being ushered in, it's because of the decisions made by Prof Moloney and the BBSRC the funding body that appointed him. Rothamsted's chief responsibility is to conduct research aimed at improving our food security. Britain already has a secure food production system it’s called the mixed farm. It's capable of producing large amounts of healthy food through biological processes. And it has an inbuilt resilience to climate change by virtue of its biological diversity.
A World Bank-funded study by more than 400 scientists around the world concluded that diverse farming systems like UK mixed farming were the most secure and effective way to feed the world, now and in the future (IAASTD, 2008). You might think as we do that a leading research station concerned with food security would concentrate its energies on understanding and refining this established model. But under Professor Moloney, the scientists seem content to gamble our food security on an unproven and potentially unstable technology.
The 20th century scientist George Stapledon a strong advocate of mixed farming warned that for farm science to concentrate on a few narrow technologies was to court disaster. In an address to the British Grassland Society more than fifty years ago he wrote: "Man in putting all his money on narrow specialisation and on the newly-dawned age of technology has backed a wild horse. Given its head it is bound to get out of control.
"With science delving into ever more abstruse fields, so will the danger of unexpected 'ignorances' become increasingly threatening. These will be of much greater significance in the biological fields than in physics and engineering. I have been forced to realise to the depth of my being that facts and factors mean precisely nothing. It is their mass inter-relationships and interactions that mean everything. And these, for all practical purposes, are infinite."
Prof Moloney is a narrow technologist a plant biotechnologist. As head of cell biology at Calgene Inc, he developed the first GM oilseed plants. The work resulted in a landmark patent in plant biotechnology and eventually became the basis of Roundup Ready and Liberty Link gene patents, which now account for 85 per cent of Canada’s Canola aceage. Moloney is an inventor on 43 US patents and more than 300 patents world-wide. He is also founder of SemBioSys, a Calgary-based biotech company which helps food and pharmaceutical corporations profit from the products of GM crops.
In short, Prof Moloney perfectly represents the narrow and high-risk technological approach to biology that Stapledon warned of. He also seems to be in the business of privatising nature and bringing the world's food supply under the control of large corporations. The parallels with the global banking system with its reckless trading of complex derivatives is alarming.
Down here we're baffled that such a narrow technical specialist should have been put in charge of research into securing our food supply. Where is the knowledge of soil biology on which civilization depends? Where is the understanding of agriculture, the 10,000 years of human learning and experience which has got us to where we are today? And what blind faith in technology induced the BBSRC to make this appointment and stake our future on this unwise experiment?
Down here in Candleford we await the answers. But one thing we're already sure of. If this new technology should fail us in ways we cannot anticipate because as Stapledon says the interactions of biological factors are for all practical purposes infinite, we shall indeed be on the eve of a new Dark Age.