GM crops

Genetic modification after Brexit is now being discussed and I’ve just listened to Princess Anne’s opinions on Farming Today. What she said wasn’t very controversial despite all the hyping by the BBC yesterday.  The benefits of genetic modification were all hypothetical ones in the future rather than ones that are available now and being held back from British farmers.

Professor Anne Glover and Tony Juniper had a very sensible discussion about these matters on the Today programme yesterday (click here about 1hr 50min into programme).  We might all be rather better off listening to the discussion between two experts on the subject than the views of a former amateur jockey and Olympian with no formal scientific training (or her brother).  Yesterday’s discussion between Juniper and Glover suggested that there might be some future advantages to us all from GM crops but only from some GM crops and we haven’t seen very many of those benefits so far.  The claimed benefits of GM crops have so far been much greater than their realised benefits (there’s always a large pile of distant jam in this topic) and we should be a bit sceptical of the claims of the industry that benefits most from their production.

What wasn’t said, but is also true, is that we should also be a bit sceptical of the claims of environmental disaster made by some about the harm of GM crops.

A long time ago I was part of a scientific review process, chaired by the then Government Chief Scientist, Prof David King, which looked at these issues and produced two large reports (Report 1, Report 2) one on either side of the completion of the farm scale evaluations of GM crops – a big study which showed that the environmental damage that the RSPB and others had claimed would result from using pesticide-resistant GM crops was indeed true.  The media like to look at GM discussions as being between cutting-edge science to help the world and a bunch of luddite environmentalists who are standing in the way of progress. There has been an element of that in the debate. But, because I was there, and the RSPB played a significant role in these matters, I remember the GM debate as being a victory for environmentalists who knew their stuff, correctly predicted the impacts of pesticide-tolerant GM crops on farmland ecology and were vindicated by a massive field experiment despite the denial and claims of the rather untrustworthy industry.

The massive debate over pesticide-tolerant GM crops around 20 years ago was a scientific victory for the environmentalists – let’s remember that. To believe the biotechnology company claims would have been as foolish as to believe the claims of grouse moor managers about the environmental impacts of their industry.  And if there had been an e-petition process back then there would have been a massive signature count against pesticide-tolerant GM crops from the public and yet, I’m sure, a bunch of Conservative MPs would have packed Westminster Hall to support the industry with their speeches.

My personal opinion hasn’t changed much in the intervening years. We probably should embrace some GM crops, but as with anything else and anyone else we are thinking of embracing, we should have a good look at it first.



PS I thought Anna Hill was very amusing in asking Princess Anne about family businesses where the senior members don’t hand over the business to their children until the last possible moment.

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26 Replies to “GM crops”

  1. When we throw away and waste so much food then perhaps we should tackle that first before embracing GM crops?

  2. I agree with what you say Mark. I must say I get very irritated when so called leading figures, totally lacking in scientific qualification on the subject are interviewed by people who are also lacking in scientific qualification on the subject. What results is likely to be totally misleading and often wrong. (By the way I have to say here, how completely lacking almost every BBC interviewer is in scientific knowledge and qualification and far too concerned with hyping the subject, The BBC is a desert and poor in quality when it comes to handling scientific based subjects and their facts and figures.
    The problem with GM crops is that everyone is "rowing their own boat" on the subject. The advocates of GM I believe do not adequately address the likely effects on wildlife and the environment it seems to me. In other words we only get half a picture on the subject of GM all the time. Until proper qualified scientific evidence is presented for ALL the issues that GM crops raise, I would be strongly opposed to them.

  3. Another problem is that many of the people (including scientists) who have most experience of genetic modification have received or are receiving funding for their work from the big GM companies.
    There has been high-quality research in several fields showing that there is truth in the saying 'he who pays the piper calls the tune', however hard the 'piper' tries to avoid being influenced.

  4. Excellent blog Mark.

    I too believe we should be open to the potential benefits of GM crops, but until we properly understand the environmental impacts then, as always, the precautionary principle should apply.

    I do wonder if the deeply ideological position of those people such as Prince Charles who are implacably opposed to GM might cause them some embarrassment in the future if something genuinely brilliant is developed. What if for example, GM plant scientists can develop N-fixing cereals? What would their position be then?

    1. Yes there's been far too much kneejerk reaction against GM crops, a few of us at the local Green party branch felt that way. To me it seems like a box ticking exercise hi tech and associated with multi nationals therefore a target for protest, although issue is with misuse of technology not supposed inherent evil of GM. A friend of mine at a FoE meeting raised the issue that there might be scope for GM to raise nutritional value of rice that would obviously help the poor - she was automatically shot down in flames for that, GM is BAD end of story. The posturing seemed to be what was important not the environment or the poor - I suspect there's a lot of that going on. The more rabid anti GM attitudes within the green community (as opposed to caution) have done a lot to make environmentalists look like Luddites in some quarters and I often find them embarrassing. No so far the golden promised by GM hasn't materialised, but neither has the near apocalyptic ecological catastrophes. At the end of the day if GM doesn't deliver won't be used.

  5. The trouble with this approach - which we might call the precautionary principle - is that you can postpone making a decision for ever. What is "proper qualified scientific evidence" other than the best available knowledge at any one time? And however much we know, it can never be enough, because there is always more to learn. Would you delay the introduction of a new cancer drug because there might be unknown side effects?

    1. Mark - thank you for your comment. That's not really a fair comparison is it? Would you approve a new cancer drug on the basis of the company's say so when their previous claims for the elixir of life have proved to be unfounded?

      1. Of course not. But that's not what's happened with GM. It's not just Monsanto who says it's safe. It's just about every scientific survey that's ever been undertaken, the nearest thing agri-technology can get to a randomised controlled trial. Yes, they could all be wrong, but sooner or later you have to take a chance and say all the evidence suggests they are harmless so we should run with them.

        If the claims turn out to be unfounded, then the technology will wither away naturally and we will turn to something else. But they shouldn't be banned because they might be harmful, when what evidence we have suggests they won't be.

        1. Mark Brinkley - it wasn't me who started the cancer drug analogy. There isn't an 'it' - GM is a 'they'. Which is why those two scientific reviews cited in the blog, of which I was one of many authors, said that each GM crop (for that is what we were considering) should be treated on its merits on a case-by-case basis.

          We don't introduce drugs on the basis that if they turn out to be unsafe we'll fix it later either. We assess their risks (very properly).

  6. I didn't listen to the Farming Today piece, but did pick up on an article that covered it.

    "On the subject of GM livestock, the Princess Royal said: “I have rare breed livestock so genetic modification would be a bonus if I could just find a way of making them a little more robust in terms of survivability. In a way that's long-term investment.”"

    Given the Princess' evident failure to understand what Rare Breeds actually means (I can see Prince Charles tearing his hair out), I suspect she has no idea what GM means either. In which case, there's an opportunity for someone - The Rare Breeds Survival Trust comes to mind, to explain all this to her.

    I am also not anti-GM just for the sake of it, and can see benefits from applying GM technology which could help nature and the environment. As Mark says, the problem at the moment is that GM is being driven by profit (mostly for Monsanto); and not for any higher purpose.

  7. Monsanto did a lot of damage to GM’s reputation in the early days and the technology’s image hasn’t recovered yet. They aggressively pushed for the commercial introduction of products that were clearly mainly designed to benefit themselves, and big farmers, but certainly not consumers. At the time the representative of another company in the same business told me that he thought Monsanto had set the cause of GM back by a decade – turns out he was optimistic.

    I’ve yet to see the slightest evidence to justify health concerns about GM. My problem is not with potential side effects, but with what the products are intended to do. I don’t want weed-free, or insect free, crops – I want a countryside with wildlife in it, not a monoculture prairie. Where GM animals are concerned the animal welfare outcomes often don’t look too good either.

    The cultural difference between Europe and the US home of Monsanto is significant. The US doesn’t have “countryside” as Europeans understand it, they don’t have a cultural landscape. They have some superb wilderness and near wilderness areas, very rich in wildlife, and they have farms that simply grow as much product as “efficiently” as possible. In crowded and old Europe the wildlife values and food production are intermingled. Labelling is better in Europe – our consumers expect to be able to make an informed choice even if they don’t always do so, to a much greater extent than in the US. And in the US Monsanto’s aggressive tactics are the corporate norm, whereas here they simply empowered the opposition. By being so bullish they trashed their social licence to operate here.

    When we see products that offer benefits beyond the corporate bottom line, we should indeed think again. With the discussions about post Brexit agriculture and what we want from it maybe this is a good time. But I remain concerned that the first “good” product that is licenced will set a precedent that all the wildlife-destroying, GM-driven ways of doing even more intensive chemical agriculture will exploit ruthlessly.
    Robust and credible regulation is the key to regaining public trust, but I bet that the industry will lobby like hell against such red tape continuing to get in the way. They are still their own worst enemy.

    1. "My problem is not with potential side effects, but with what the products are intended to do. I don’t want weed-free, or insect free, crops – I want a countryside with wildlife in it, not a monoculture prairie."

      Yes, this is my main concern too. In theory gene technology could be used to engineer a wide range of potentially beneficial properties into crops, as has been remarked above, but so far its major commercial application has been in 'round-up ready' crops that can be drenched with weedkiller to eliminate every last 'weed' and create an absolute monoculture, utterly devoid of wildlife. It has been argued that the widespread use of roundup-ready seeds in the US and the associated herbicide applications are implicated in the decline of the monarch butterfly because the butterfly's food plant, milkweed, once common in mid-western arable landscapes, has been virtually eliminated by this onslaught of weed-killer.
      The UK farming landscape is already highly impoverished with regards to wildflowers, the insects that depend on them and the birds and other wildlife that would normally rest on this base and I for one would be very alarmed at the introduction of anything that could make this worse.

  8. The key to this is governance. I can see potential benefits - but at present they are massively outweighed by the risks from companies whose only duty is to their shareholders. I've never given much credence to the 'Frankenstein food' scares, but the resistance issue is quite a different matter - resistance built by over-use of valuable inventions is one of the biggest looming threats to mankind. Watching some of the reporting on Monsanto's activities I've started wondering whether building resistance isn't verging on a business strategy, rather than an accidental side-effect. American business is driven by ferocious short termism and the possibility of a company walking away from a disaster it has created is very real.

    At the bottom of all this is the fundamental problem that in agriculture ethics and technology have become completely detached from each other: the question 'should we be doing this, is it right ?' is met with 'we have to feed the world'. There is more and more risk as we go on of the actual means of production rolling up on itself through the collateral damage of increasing intensification.

    1. 'The key to this is governance'

      Absolutely. I do wonder if the extreme reaction of many of those who are ideologically opposed to GM contributes to placing the GM issue in the hands of those who are the least suitable - e.g. global corporations such as Monsanto that only have one aim which is shareholder profit.

      Western Governments, mindful of public opinion, opt to sit back and allow the private sector to take the lead when really it should be led/funded by international collaborative organisations such as the UN agencies such as the FAO, WFP and WHO.

  9. I'm a little more sanguine on genetically altered livestock, since opportunity for cross contamination with wild stock is limited and the most livestock farmers tightly control breeding anyway. However I have a Catch 22 on GM plants.

    1. GM plant material should be sterile to prevent cross-contamination with wild and non-GM stock.
    2. Farmers, particularly in the developing nations (of whom we are scheduled to join in the next couple of years), need to be able to preserve and develop their own seed stock so they are not eternally dependent on the agro-industry; as there are unlimited number of ways to abuse that market.

    As you can see points one and two are mutually exclusive. Maybe if the developed world, which we are Brexiting, was switching to more hydroponics and sealed facility food growth then that would solve some of the problems.

    Or continuing to breed by selecting advantageous strains, which is not genetic modification as the term is generally understood and used despite how Monsanto media teams are muddying the waters (and also using alt-right media streams, because getting those fanboys onside with GM ecosystem has been as easy as promising to let them kick a liberal), they could continue to develop better crops the old fashioned way? And it is a way every farmer can join in on. You'd think farmers would jump at the chance to get more say in how the industry develop.

    1. Very good comment, R22. I'd be a lot more comfortable with GM plant material if the technology was in the hands of people and organisations that I could trust to act responsibly and do the right thing for humanity as a whole, not just their own shareholders and bonuses.

  10. To simply ignore the biological ramifications and simply go with a minimally tested tech that takes gene sequences (that evolved over hundreds of millions of years to fit in perfectly with the environment of the day) and splice them into completely different phyla is both arrogant and stupid beyond belief. We have no idea how this will effect any and possibly all species in the medium and long term re: cancer and new disease causing mutations, but one thing is certain - cause and effect has yet again been ignored in the dash for cash. The timing of this is of course extremely suspect and is the first salvo to soften us up for the post-Brexit bonfire of all environmental regs in the UK. The Conservatives smell a chance of cash in domestic R&D and they're all too willing to poison us every way known to man to get it and they're using their tame lapdog the BBC and Royals to sell it to the gullibles.

  11. Whatever the outcome, which I suspect will be driven and decided by monetary interests, we need any produce or product to be honestly labelled (along the manifold stages of arriving at market) then the consumer has the information to make an informed choice?

    1. The trade deal that Liam Fox is able to negotiate with the US is very likely to include clauses that will allow US corporations to refuse such labelling obligations. I don't believe that Fox is ideologically predisposed to seek to protect UK rights to demand product labelling or other social or environmental obligations on companies operating in the UK but even if he were, having turned our back on the Single European Market, his need to secure a deal at almost any cost with the US will make it very difficult for him to refuse whatever the Americans demand.

  12. But how do you compensate a farmer who has spent a lot of time and invest in organic crops if his neighbour then decides to go down the GM path. Especially if it cross contaminates the organic farmers crop.

  13. "We might all be rather better off listening to the discussion between two experts on the subject than the views of a former amateur jockey and Olympian with no formal scientific training (or her brother)."
    Do you really believe that Mark? when such a low percentage of scientific papers are repeatable, when the peer review process is so obviously not fit for purpose. Would you really prefer the opinion of a "scientist" who is so motivated to produce a result, any result, to secure their next round of funding versus an opinion by an intelligent, clear thinking non scientist?

  14. I know this is an old post but some points have been missed I think. Firstly it's often been quoted that GM has not increased yields which trait wise is basically true. GM variety maize grown beside non GM strains would not show much if any yield advantage however this doesn't explain the massive increase in both maize and soya outputs seen in the US and South America which are basically all GM Crops. In the mid 80's or just pre GM average maize yield in the US was around 110 bushels per acre versus today at 160 bushels. Durring the same period in non GM Europe and the UK our yields have despite , massive conventional breeding programs, mainly flatlined? So what has happened? Frankly I'm not sure but I know that to say that GM has had no influence on yields is I think wrong. GM has in effect removed or de skilled the crop production process in terms of insect and weed management, the effect that this had on overall production is often not appreciated by GM critics.

    The major weakness in GM which is deeply concerning is the over reliance on the technology which is basically Roundup tolerance and BT Maize which is resistant to corn borer. The wave of opppostion to GM by the main pressure groups FOE and Greenpeace and their entrenched positions had exacerbated the problem in that it has driven the R&D into the hands of the major players Monsanto and Dow effectively excluding smaller investors and increasing this rationale and's a very concerning situation as all agricultural methods ultimately fail when farmers become overly dependent on them as we know.

    1. Up to now GM is a wardrobe full of Emperor's clothes as far as we are concerned. Notwithstanding any yield increases in maize in countries that still measure in acres and bushels, unless GM breeders increase yield, and don't just protect potential yield against loss, in combinable crops here they won't get a look in thanks to our recommended list system. Farmers choose according to rank on those lists, or on characters such as malting or bread making, for which there are yet further seals of approval from industry. So we could have a situation where GM crops are free to be grown, but nobody buys the seed.

      The prospect of GM N-fixing cereals has always been intriguing but I doubt I'll live to see it. Then there is the exciting project to re-create the wheat genome from scratch, which has shown the potential to provide a quantum leap in yield. This will require between-species hybridisation at least twice, so again the prospect of heads exploding beckons but alas I don't think I will be able to escape the Grim Reaper for that long.


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