Owen Paterson is trying to close down a very necessary debate about an approach full of questions and uncertainties.
EXTRACTS: Having an open debate on the benefits and drawbacks of using GM technology, alongside other ways to tackle nutrition and help farmers, is surely a good thing. It can help regulators, farmers, and consumers to make informed choices and join in the conversation about how and where new technologies can, can’t, should, or shouldn't be applied.
Feeding the world doesn't come down to GM or not, and to imply otherwise is to close down a vital discussion with implications for lives and livelihoods worldwide. (item 2)
On their website, the inventors of “golden” rice say that “the most desirable option would be a varied and adequate diet”. We agree. You can’t just genetically modify your way out of poverty. We’re not against technological advances, but access to a healthy diet is a basic human right. We need an agriculture that is geared towards meeting the requirements of poor people. With the political will, it can happen. (item 1)
1.There is undeniable risk in producing the GM rice that the Environment Secretary is proposing
The Independent, 14 October 2013
*A response to Owen Paterson: You can’t just genetically modify your way out of poverty
Owen Paterson, Environment Secretary for the greenest government ever, apparently believes that climate change is a good thing, that the RSPCA want badgers to suffer from TB, and problems caused by vitamin A deficiency have only one solution: genetically modified “golden” rice. And that if you don’t agree with him you are “wicked”. This emerged in an interview in yesterday’s Independent. And although he did not identify Greenpeace as disagreeing with him, my organisation is clearly one he might have had in mind.
There are already seven proven vitamin A strategies in use today, including supplements and fortification of basic foodstuffs as well as community-based small holdings in poor regions to grow fruit and vegetables. “Golden” rice is not among them, because, as the International Rice Research Institute, which is developing the technology, admitted this year: “It has not yet been determined whether daily consumption of ‘golden’ rice does improve the vitamin A status of people who are vitamin A deficient and could therefore reduce related conditions such as night blindness. This process may take another two years or more.”
“Golden” rice has yet to cure a single case of vitamin A deficiency, and it is an indictment of the GM industry that its PR is always about its hopes for the future, never its achievements so far. And contrary to propaganda, opposition to “golden” rice in the Philippines is being led by local farmers and church leaders.
Greenpeace has welcomed many of the advances being made in biotechnology. Sophisticated plant breeding techniques utilising genome sequencing and marker-assisted breeding have brought us blight-resistant potatoes and crops enriched with nutrients; flood-tolerant rice and drought-tolerant maize. All are being used successfully today by thousands of farmers in Africa. None, though, are GM.
The GM industry will claim that there is no risk attached to its products, as all industries tend to do, but at least when other industries turn out to have been mistaken, there is the possibility of a product recall. There is an undeniable risk in allowing a self-replicating GM rice to contaminate the most important food crop in the world.
Even MPs in Paterson’s own party recognise the problems. Zac Goldsmith complained that “Owen Paterson’s comments about ‘golden’ rice and children going blind were nonsense. He’s swallowed the industry line hook, line, and sinker.”
On their website, the inventors of “golden” rice say that “the most desirable option would be a varied and adequate diet”. We agree. You can’t just genetically modify your way out of poverty. We’re not against technological advances, but access to a healthy diet is a basic human right. We need an agriculture that is geared towards meeting the requirements of poor people. With the political will, it can happen.
John Sauven is executive director of Greenpeace UK.
2.Beyond good and evil: the truth about GM crops
The Rationalist, 15 October 2013
The Environment Secretary is wrong to call opponents of Golden Rice "wicked", because it closes down a very necessary debate, writes Nathan Oxley
[Nathan Oxley works in Communications for Future Agricultures and the Steps Centre, a publicly funded global research and policy engagement centre, bringing together development studies and science and technology studies.]
Are you in favour of "rolling out" GM crops, or do you want little children in Bangladesh to die? In an interview for the Independent, Owen Paterson, the UK Environment Secretary, has called opponents of GM technology "wicked" and accused them of "casting a dark shadow over attempts to feed the world".
In particular, Paterson uses the example of Golden Rice, which researchers hope will provide a way to reduce vitamin A deficiency in some poor countries. The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) is developing Golden Rice for the Philippines and Bangladesh, and hopes to use it to improve nutrition for poor people in those countries.
The story is simple enough. Children and others are developing night-blindness linked to Vitamin A deficiency, leading to many avoidable deaths; GM crops are being developed, which could help poor people; Golden Rice has beta-carotene in it; beta-carotene can be turned by the body into Vitamin A; Golden Rice is "ready to go" but is held up by regulation. Therefore, opponents of GM are "allowing" children to die "because of a hang-up by a small number of people about this technology". Pretty shocking, right?
If you join the dots in the way Paterson has done, it’s almost impossible to see GM as anything other than a battleground for the life and death of the world’s poor, with Paterson on the side of the angels, and anyone who questions this narrative with feet firmly planted among the infernal legions of Satan himself.
This account is connected to a web of other stories. GM "feeding the world" is one such story, in which ideological or irrational concern about GM is stopping efforts to produce more food and thus leading to starvation. It taps into a wider narrative where any questioning of new technology is painted as "anti-science". In another related story, anti-science greens oppose the "rolling out" of new technologies because they want to keep the developing world poor. Some GM crops make it necessary to use fewer pesticides, fertiliser, or water [in theory!], so opponents of them must have it in for farmers and vulnerable communities.
But although you might commend Paterson for putting some passion into his arguments, focusing the debate on food and agriculture down to a simple good-and-evil question about GM crops actually serves to close down a truly moral discussion. This comes powerfully to light when you look in between the joined-up assumptions to ask a different set of questions.
Firstly, where are the voices of poor farmers in this debate? They will, presumably, be at the core of efforts to roll out Golden Rice and other GM crops, but their voices are absent from much of the rhetoric bouncing back and forth in the West. This is perhaps inevitable, given that politicians and well-funded researchers have much better platforms through which to make their voices heard. But it does mean that the different views on GM from farmers may be drowned out. The many criteria they use to choose their crops and methods, and the various options they see for their own futures, are crucial, but they don’t get a look in.
Secondly, where is the science exactly? The story told above hides some important assumptions, including a) that the link between Golden Rice and preventing night blindness is cast-iron, and b) that Golden Rice is ready to roll. In fact, IRRI has recently sought to clarify the position of the science in response to other enthusiastic statements in the media. The nutritional link still needs to be established through trials at community level; and the regulatory process is still some way from completion. This suggests that, as an organisation deeply committed to the Golden Rice project, IRRI recognise that media hype is unhelpful to the often slow, painstaking process of completing and approving controversial research.
There are other dots too: the extent to which we’re happy with corporate control over food production, which varies depending on which technology is examined; concerns about biodiversity and the environmental effects of using large mono-cultures; how to provide access to food and varied diets; how best to respond to wildly fluctuating food prices, which can foil the best-laid plans of governments to feed their citizens, and so on. These are also questions with a moral dimension, even if they don’t yield easy or convenient answers.
Even throughout the course of developing Golden Rice, uncertainties and questions have been opened up at many points, as Sally Brooks shows in her book on the recent history of rice bio-fortification. Having an open debate on the benefits and drawbacks of using GM technology, alongside other ways to tackle nutrition and help farmers, is surely a good thing. It can help regulators, farmers and consumers to make informed choices and join in the conversation about how and where new technologies can, can’t, should, or shouldn't be applied.
Owen Paterson’s remarks are clearly polemical, and are perhaps made at least partly out of frustration with campaigners, some of whom undoubtedly exaggerate their case, and cause headaches for industry or governments who want to move forward in certain ways. Campaigners, too, don’t always play fair and their messages could be similarly examined. But the tone of Paterson’s remarks ultimately serves to narrow the debate. Feeding the world doesn't come down to GM or not, and to imply otherwise is to close down a vital discussion with implications for lives and livelihoods worldwide.