GM: a red herring, a straw doll and the elephant in the room


Click on this to read a summary of the issue.

UPDATE, November 2017. Here’s an article on how Monsanto operates, published in :  ‘How Monsanto Captured the EPA (And Twisted Science) To Keep Glyphosate on the Market’

I just sent the letter below to the BBC’s DG. It’s self-explanatory.

Lord Tony Hall
Director-General and Editor-in-Chief

Dear Lord Hall

GM: a red herring, a straw doll and the elephant in the room

I am writing, not for the first time, to challenge the BBC’s apparent lack of integrity in its approach to the issue of GM food crops. This time I am addressing you, the Director-General, directly, as I have not previously received a satisfactory response. I feel compelled, as someone with social and environmental awareness as well as a scientific background, to continue to call your organisation to account for what could be perceived to be uncritical support for companies such as Monsanto, Syngenta and Bayer, the former of which was recently condemned by an international tribunal of five judges:

‘The judges conclude that Monsanto has engaged in practices which have negatively impacted the right to a healthy environment, the right to food and the right to health. On top of that Monsanto’s conduct is negatively affecting the right to freedom indispensable for scientific research. … International law should be improved for better protection of the environment and include the crime of ecocide. The Tribunal concludes that if such a crime of ecocide were recognized in international criminal law, the activities of Monsanto could possibly constitute a crime of ecocide.’

In ‘The Life Scientific’, broadcast on Radio 4 on the morning of 16 May 2017 , Professor Jim Al-Khalili addresses Professor Ottoline Leyser, Director of the Sainsbury Laboratory Cambridge University (SLCU), as follows, ‘We’re all aware of the need for a sustainable and secure food supply. How might your knowledge, of how plants grow, help?’ After Professor Leyser’s response to this seemingly innocuous question, Professor Al-Khalili goes on to say, ‘We hear a lot about modern technologies, like GM, playing an increasingly important role in agriculture. How might GM fit into this new, holistic picture?’

Professor Leyser answers, ‘GM can play a really important role. The role is very specific and limited: where there are traits that you can introduce into a crop that depend on a single gene, or a very small number of genes. One very good example is disease resistance, and there are single genes that can make a huge difference in protecting plants against major plant pests.’

Professor Al-Khalili continues, ‘Obviously a lot of people are nervous when they hear “GM”, so should we be worried?’

Professor Leyser replies, ‘No. GM has very little to define it uniquely that’s different from anything that we have been doing for a very long time. We used to be thinking about the collection of genes that plants have as very kind of stable, fixed things and the idea that adding one in through genetic modification was somehow a big disturbance to that system, but what we’ve learned about genomes over the last two decades is that they are frankly a mess, and the kinds of things we’ve done to them through conventional breeding – the scrambling kinds of effects – are far stronger than anything we can do by putting in one gene by GM, and it would be a good thing if we moved forward into a discussion about how do we deliver [a] safe and sustainable supply of high quality food that was distributed with some improvement in the level of social justice. There are no simple solutions and it is certainly the case that having GM or not having GM will make no difference on that landscape at all.’

Professor Al-Khalili says, ‘Of course, people often tend to think of any changes we make to the environment as unnatural, and therefore bad.’

Professor Leyser responds, ‘This is another key area where if you think like a plant, very rapidly it’s clear that that way of thinking is absurd, so let’s think like a plant. The thing we are eating, as people, is mostly seed: seed – plant babies. Plants do not want you to eat their babies, so most plants are hotly defending this seed. It’s indigestible, it’s small; some of the nastiest toxins we know about come from seeds. What we have done in 10,000 years of agricultural domestication, is essentially unilateral disarmament, to take out from the natural plants the things that make them poor crops, not so good to eat, not so easy to cultivate. So again we have to move away from this natural-unnatural dichotomy, because it’s a false dichotomy.’

There is a disturbing amount of disinformation/propaganda packed into this short exchange, much of which could come from a standard Monsanto crib sheet, given the similarity of the content to that of previous programmes and to the utterances of GM advocates in other fora. I attempt below to analyze what was said. (For a more detailed and referenced set of arguments on GM, please see my blog article – Pro-GM = anti-science. – in which I critique the statements of GM advocates on the Sense About Science website. You will also notice my reference to another BBC programme.)

Credibility of the interviewee

It is surely the duty of professional journalists to establish interviewees’ expertise on the specific topics being discussed, and also to reveal any vested interests such interviewees might have. Here, as happens all too often, we have an expert on gene expression being asked broad questions about the wide role of GM crops and concerns about this technology, with no revelation of her financial ties to the industry.

There is no reason to believe, from her research background, that Professor Leyser knows more about the de facto impact of GM crop technology, as pushed and implemented by Monsanto et al., on the environment (biodiversity), economics, social justice and health, than the average person on the street. Furthermore, as the Sainsbury Laboratory and Cambridge University have multiple financial links to these organisations (and the Sainsbury Laboratory is part funded by Lord Sainsbury, one of the UK’s biggest GM supporters with shares in the industry), she has good reason to avoid criticising GM. (See  Scientists’ hidden links to the GM food giants: Disturbing truth behind official report that said UK should forge on with Frankenfoods.)

In short, Professor Leyser is not a credible witness on the wider issues she was asked to address, and the BBC failed to make this clear.

Red herring

As per the putative pro-GM crib sheet, Professor Al-Khalili started his apparent attempts to elicit pro-GM statements by invoking that old red herring, albeit subtly, that a fundamental issue is a global shortage of food, and then trying to get his guest to state that GM technology addresses this supposed issue. While he does not explicitly say that there is an absolute global shortage of food (‘We’re all aware of the need for a sustainable and secure food supply’), the uninformed listener would probably have interpreted his words to mean that there is.

The problem is not total production; rather it is the interconnected issues of financial speculation, economic inequality, poor distribution, waste and spoilage. Far from tackling these issues, GM-crop technology fosters monopolies over seed and food production, promotes an environmentally destructive and inefficient agro-industrial approach to food production and widens inequality. Despite all the promises made by the advocates of GM crops over the years, and the vast amount of money spent on research, there are only two developments with major impacts (and these are overwhelmingly negative): so-called ‘Bt’ technology (the introduction of Bacillus thuringiensis genes to make plants pest resistant) and glyphosate resistance (which allows the increased use of herbicide).

Furthermore, the evidence that GM actually boosts food production is mixed, to say the least. There is abundant evidence that GM crops are expensive and have a high environmental impact and that the absolute yields from much more environmentally benign and cheaper forms of agriculture (for example, those described by such not-necessarily-exclusive terms as ‘eco-agriculture’, ‘organic farming’, ‘permaculture’, ‘agroforestry’ and ‘analogue forestry’) are at least comparable, if not higher, particularly in conditions found in the developing world. Of course the yields of GM crops, in relative terms (relative to cost or fossil fuel input, for example) are hugely higher, and this is a far more important point, especially in the context of absolute food production not being an issue.

Highly questionable assertion

There are several questionable statements made by Professor Leyser, but the one that particularly stands out is her assertion that GM makes no difference to the issue of social justice. Is she not aware of the fact that this technology is patented and monopolised by a handful of ruthless organisations, whose last concern appears to be social justice? Given the conclusions of the recent Monsanto tribunal, referred to above, it was surely remiss of Professor Al-Khalili not to challenge her on her amazing statement.

Straw doll

When proponents of GM crops are attempting to defend the technology they often avoid mentioning the more serious and grounded concerns raised by sceptics (such as the huge amount of money spent by the industry fighting the labelling of their produce, something which would facilitate large-scale investigations of the possible impact of this produce on human and animal health – see Opponents of GM Labeling Triple Lobbying Spending in 2014). Instead, they tend to mention spurious and/or ‘less scientific’ objections, seeking to use such straw dolls to damage the credibility of their critics, and to imply that they are ‘anti-science’ ignoramuses.

Professor Al-Khalili apparently sought to do exactly this, with his (disingenuous?) remark about ‘any changes […] to the environment [being] unnatural, and therefore bad’. We are not talking here about ‘any changes to the environment’. We are talking about a technology that is destroying the biodiversity upon which a future food supply depends, by fostering a monoculture-based agroindustry which displaces indigenous varieties and the people who developed and propagated them over centuries (an issue of which laboratory-bound ‘GM experts’ appear blithely unaware). This is to say nothing of the effects of glyphosate. We are talking about the attempted control of a major proportion of the global food supply by a handful of companies. We are talking about a technology which goes hand-in-glove with the destruction of food sovereignty, which is the elephant in the room at most BBC discussions of GM crops.

The elephant in the room: food sovereignty

I would be grateful if the BBC stopped its apparent championing of the GM food industry and addressed the balance of its coverage of it, setting it in the context of the global struggle for food sovereignty ( Please interview people such as Vandana Shiva , some of those who attended the recent European forum for food sovereignty (I can put you in touch with Scottish delegates), representatives of La Via Campesina, the authors of ‘Who benefits from GM crops? The great climate change swindle.’, etc.

To conclude on a more general point, please stop presenting as experts on Topics B-Z people who only know about the thin end of Topic A, and please reveal any vested interests of your interviewees (and interviewers). To fail to do so is surely to be complicit in misinforming the public.

Thank you for considering this. I look forward to your response.

Yours sincerely

R. Eric Swanepoel PhD (zoology/ecotoxicology), MSc (ecology), BVSc, MRCVS

About biowrite

I am a writer specialising in non-fiction, particularly in assisting people with their biographies.
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