Azara Blog: GM Policy in Developing Regions

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Date published: 2010/01/30

The Cambridge branch of Triple Helix ("a student society that aims to raise the standard of debate surrounding issues of science and technology in society") held a panel debate on "GM Policy in Developing Regions: Yielding Much?" the evening of 28 January in Cambridge.

The title of the debate is already pretty telling. GM is relevant to the world, not just the "developing" regions. Unfortunately the anti-GM brigade has long since hijacked the political debate about GM crops, and scientists in the UK have long since given up on trying to promulgate its use here. Fortunately the debate was global in scope, i.e. the official title was ignored.

The four panellists were David Baulcombe, a professor of Botany in Cambridge (but who spent most of his career at the University of East Anglia in Norwich); Adrian Dubock, who works on the "Golden Rice" project; Dick Taverne, a Lib Dem peer who has taken an interest in science; and Tony Juniper, ex-head of Friends of the Earth in the UK and currently the Green candidate to be the next MP of Cambridge. The chair was Gerard Evan, the recently appointed head of the Department of Biochemistry in Cambridge.

The panel was stacked three to one for GM, so Juniper was the lone "sceptic" voice. But in terms of stridency it was one against one, since Dubock and Baulcombe played the reasonableness card and it was left to Taverne to speak a few home truths. In this three-against-one circumstance the reasonableness card was a reasonable strategy, but in general, the anti-GM brigade are so strident that there is no point treating them with kid gloves. (This is the mistake the Democrats make in America when discussing policy with the Republicans. The Republicans are not interested in analysis but in dogma. There is no point being nice to them.)

Evan started out by giving potted biographies of the panellists. Amusingly enough he had obviously never heard of Juniper because he admitted to looking him up on google. Well, Evan has been at UCSF for the last decade so that's not too surprising. On the other hand, Juniper thinks of himself as the most important environmentalist in the UK, if not the world, so he was probably amazed that not everyone knows who he is.

The panellists were then given ten minutes to put their sales pitch.

Juniper went first. He's swimming against the tide of history on GM, like Tony Blair on Iraq, but, like Tony Blair on Iraq, he will never admit he was and is wrong. This is unfortunate because he's a clever enough chap that he could actually make a positive contribution to the world and not just be someone who stops progress.

He started out by saying that industrial agriculture has not brought about the end of hunger in the world so why would anyone think that GM would help. Well, given that he is one of the people responsible for blocking GM technology at every opportunity, it's a bit rich for him to complain that people are starving.

He insisted on using that dreadful phrase "sustainable development" several times. Well that buzz phrase just means anything you want it to mean. For Juniper it means using "traditional methods" in farming, i.e. going back in agricultural techniques a couple of hundred years.

He put down a few reasons why he was against GM. He was worried about loss of biodiversity. But that is an issue that is mostly orthogonal, although obviously relevant, to GM technology. Juniper purposefully conflated the issue. And needless to say, the biggest threat to biodiversity is the ever increasing human population and associated issues like climate change. Juniper himself has contributed to the ever increasing human population so he presumably doesn't want to discuss that issue.

He then mentioned that he once had had a public health concern about GM but that he was less concerned now about this. But this is the issue that he and his fellow travellers in the anti-GM brigade used to destroy the introduction of GM foods into Britain. ("Frankenstein foods" and all that.) So he and his media enablers really owe an apology to the nation. He was completely wrong on this, the headline issue. (Of course some GM foods in some circumstances will cause some disaster or other, but that's true about every technology on the planet.)

He then claimed that there was an ethical argument against allowing GM crops in the UK, but this really was a completely bogus argument. The "organic" food lobby has arbitrarily decided that GM crops are not "organic". And if you equate "organic" with "19th century" then technically this is true. As a result of this decision, if even trace amounts of GM pollen land in an "organic" field, then that crop is no longer deemed to be "organic".

Juniper used this to argue that allowing GM crops would harm people's choice about food. Of course this is completely backwards. By disallowing GM crops he has prevented people from having the choice to eat it. Why should the entire country be held to ransom by the blackmail of a religious cult which has decided that odd bits of DNA are against their religious beliefs?

He then went onto his next complaint about GM, and this one seemed to be the real reason he is so anti-GM. And this is that large companies (e.g. Monsanto) were making money out of GM. Juniper cannot seem to cope with the concept of corporations and particularly of corporations that make money. During the question and answer session at the end he made it quite clear that his real "solution" to global poverty was to smash the international capitalist system since evidently that will set the peasants free.

It is unfortunate that Monsanto in particular made such a disastrous series of decisions on GM food and IPR in the 1990s, because it played right into the hands of people like Juniper.

Juniper briefly mentioned something called the IAASTD (the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development). Apparently this was supposed to be a global attempt to come to grips with the problem of agriculture in the developing world. It included the companies that were pushing for GM but at some point it evidently became clear to them that the report was going to be anti-GM so they pulled out.

Not surprisingly the Juniper spin on this was that the pro-GM lobby was afraid of "evidence based science". But it seems that the real problem was that the IAASTD was dominated by non-scientists, in particular social scientists. Juniper was keen to mention that the IAASTD director is Bob Watson, who is also Chief Scientific Adviser to DEFRA. He's a real scientist (which is presumably why Juniper mentioned it) but a climate scientist, not a food scientist.

Juniper next claimed that the key to farming was "soil". Well, that's not saying very much, and the way he said it rather sounded like the chap in The Graduate saying that the future was in "plastics". But apparently, if we use "traditional farming methods" not only will we feed the world but we will also sequester lots of carbon in the soil.

He ended by claiming, apparently with a straight face, not to be against GM technology. Perhaps his next career will be in stand-up.

David Baulcombe was next up. He plugged a Royal Society group that he chaired that produced a report called Reaping the benefits: Science and the sustainable intensification of global agriculture, whose time horizon was the next 30 to 40 years.

This report was pro-GM but only as one of many technologies. And throughout his talk and afterwards Baulcombe had to keep emphasising that GM was only one technology and that it wouldn't solve all the world's problems. This is how defensive scientists have had to become over GM. It's ridiculous.

One of the problems for the planet is that there are not large areas of uncultivated land that are available for food production (if you ignore areas like the Amazon forest which obviously you don't really want to use for that). So somehow we need to get more from the same or less. But he claimed that current high yields are often based on "unsustainable" practises. (He didn't choose to name any.)

Another problem is water supply for agriculture (and everything else, for that matter) due to climate change.

And he showed a graph which projected that the planet would now be facing a divergence between supply and demand for food. If true, a lot more people are going to be starving the next decade or two.

He went through a list of GM technologies that are already being used, that will shortly be used and that will come along in due course.

For example, he mentioned the possibility of increasing photosynthetic efficiencies. And of possibly having "perennial crops", so avoiding having to plant, plough, etc., every year.

Because of the Juniper anti-capitalist diatribe, at the end Baulcombe mentioned that GM does not have to be owned by big business. And he plugged Cambia, an organisation dedicated to putting GM technology into the public domain. It's not clear if this is the one organisation that will lead the way into achieving this, but it's a very important point.

Many years ago the UK was one of the main partners in the decoding of the human genome. Because of this effort this information was made available to the public domain. If it had not been for the UK public effort, a lot of this information might have become commercialised, and progress in science would have been held hostage. There were many people involved in pushing the research forward in the UK, in particular John Sulston, the then director of the Sanger Centre, where most of the British side of the work was done.

The UK should have made the same effort on GM technology. There is no reason that equal success could not have been achieved (although it's not such a tightly defined field). Unfortunately, there were no visionaries like John Sulston in the GM arena. Instead we had Tony Juniper and the rest of the anti-GM brigade, who decided to halt progress. The UK will live to regret this.

Next up was Adrian Dubock. He is the Project Manager for the Golden Rice project. The underlying problem that they are trying to address is that the part of rice that is eaten by humans does not contain Provitamin A (β-carotene), and so can lead to Vitamin A deficiency (VAD). Dubock quoted some grim statistics.

A quarter of a million people are blinded, and 1 to 2 million people die every year because of VAD. To put some emotion into these numbers, Dubock noted that this is equivalent to two 9-11 attacks every day, and to the December 2004 tsunami deaths every month or two, and the Holocaust even got a mention. It is unfortunate that pro-GM people feel the need to use such emotional comparisons, but this is what the anti-GM brigade have forced upon the world.

And apparently half the world's population gets 80% of its calorific intake from rice, so this is obviously a major reason for VAD.

A couple of German professors (one working in Switzerland), Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer, figured out how to insert genes into rice so that Provitamin A is contained in the part of rice that is eaten. They have in effect made the IPR public domain. Further, Syngenta and other companies (including Monsanto) also donated some of their IPR for the project. The project has also been supported financially by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Gates Foundation and others.

How could anyone object to this effort? Well they can, and when asked later about it, Tony Juniper refused point blank to say anything positive about it, instead saying he was worried about biodiversity and commercial gain. Well, there is no commercial gain for the Golden Rice project itself, although obviously there eventually might be gain for farmers who take this on board. (But Juniper seems to hate farmers who use GM almost as much as he hates Monsanto.) And the idea is to cross-breed with local varieties (apparently there are 20000 rice varieties in the world). Bizarrely enough, it almost seemed as if Juniper didn't know anything about the Golden Rice project, so couldn't come up with any real criticism, but he's supposed to be an "expert" on these matters, so perhaps that was a mistaken impression.

It's not at all clear if this project will succeed, even if the anti-GM brigade don't manage to sink it. First of all, as the name implies, the rice is golden. And white rice is what most people eat. It remains to be seen if that social hurdle can be overcome.

The project is doing some market research in the Philippines to try and understand how they might be able to market it. Unbelievably in certain areas the locals are all hostile up front because Greenpeace has so scared them into believing that all GM technology is bad.

There are of course alternatives, and Dubock, like Baulcombe, was cautious again and again to say that this wasn't the total solution to VAD. One alternative is Vitamin A supplements. Apparently USAID has been distributing pills since 1993, but it doesn't reach everywhere, and it seems it is much more expensive than Golden Rice. And similarly with fortified food.

Of course there is also the Tony Juniper alternative of smashing the international capitalist conspiracy.

The final speaker was Dick Taverne. He's a British eccentric, of the sort that seems to be dying out. His degree was in philosophy (over half a century ago) and he was the only non-scientist on the panel. He quipped that he was not a scientist but that he was married to a scientist.

He is chair of some organisation called Sense about Science, which campaigns for GM as well as other things. They published some book called "Sense about GM" (which Dubock later recommended).

His most amusing moment was when he compared the anti-GM brigade to the climate change sceptics. Poor old Juniper, being compared to another bunch of reactionary crazies. Perhaps, in spirit of this, we should start to use the phrase "GM deniers".

Taverne was scathing about Peter Melchett of the Soil Association (which is the biggest determiner in the UK of what is "organic" food). Apparently Melchett was asked by some parliamentary committee about GM and he said that no evidence would change his opposition to it. You can imagine saying something like that when you are drunk at a party with like-minded friends. Otherwise it is just plain dumb.

Taverne was scathing about Prince Charles, and his views about the "wisdom of nature". Taverne noted that "the whole of agriculture is unnatural". (Dubock repeated this later.)

Taverne was scathing about Doug Parr, the chief scientist of Greenpeace, for apparently going around Africa telling them not to "repeat Europe's mistakes" (like being able to feed its population).

Rather than shirk away from the profit motive of companies, as Baulcombe did, Taverne took this head on. So what is wrong with making money, he asked. Companies that sell medicine make money, and the world doesn't get (too) hysterical about that. And some of them use the same GM technology, for example with insulin for diabetics. Taverne claimed that 25% of drugs sold are GM in some way.

Juniper later came back to this point. So he claimed that the difference with medicine was that that was "needed" whereas GM food was not. Well that is just ridiculous. Juniper of course is happy to benefit from novel medicines, so he thinks these are "necessary". But Juniper is rich and well fed, so he personally doesn't need GM food. But to extrapolate that to the world is rather Juniper-centric.

Taverne claimed that most GM research was now being done in China and India and that China was making breakthroughs in GM rice. Well, it's a trivial lesson from history that cultures that turn their back on technology are cultures that decline, and the inverse is also true. Juniper thinks that the UK is too rich so he's probably happy for the UK to go downhill. Unfortunately there are far too many people like him in positions of influence in the UK (the major national newspapers, the BBC, etc.).

Taverne said that organic food was more expensive not because people were being ripped off (although that is probably part of it) but because it is just so much less efficient. Well, if for some reason it was just as efficient when you included all externalities then that would be fine. But it's hard to know if that's true or not since it's hard to find someone honest who is competent enough to analyse the situation.

Taverne finished by saying that the only thing "sustainable development" sustained was poverty.

After this the floor was opened up to questions from the audience. The initial batch was supposed to be about "clarifications" but it soon became obvious it might as well just be a free for all.

It's hard to tell exactly the split in the audience, but certainly there were plenty of biotech-type students and the like, but the questioning did not get heated.

There was one questioner who was obviously anti-GM and he bizarrely wanted to know if Juniper was an environmentalist or an ecologist, as if somehow that was relevant to the discussion. But then he also mentioned the so-called precautionary principle, and wondered how Taverne could promote action on climate change but not against GM foods based on this "principle". Taverne correctly answered that the precautionary principle was a "load of bollocks". And indeed, it is only used by people who don't have a real argument against something but don't like it and want to stop it. Funnily enough, Juniper then piped in to say that he was all for it, and that is indeed the kind of intellectual depth behind most of his arguments.

Patents came up. Dubock said that even though in theory companies have patented their technology, in practise patents were only ever issued in the rich country markets. And he also said that one of the problems today, thanks to Tony Juniper and his friends, is that there is vast over-regulation of the GM market so that mostly companies are the ones who can afford to jump through the hoops to bring something to market, and not so much public sector bodies.

Dubock said that in his view the anti-GM brigade hijacked the debate starting at the Rio conference in 1992. And Juniper then claimed he was there and seemed to be proud of it. (But don't the Green Party hate aviation? Perhaps he sailed there. Or perhaps it's ok for him to fly, just not the peasants.)

Taverne claimed that the cost of bring a GM product to market was 40 times that for a conventional product, and this was not down to any reason except that the regulations had been set up like that thanks to Tony Juniper and his friends.

Rather than GM as a way of producing more food on less land, Juniper has other "solutions". So apparently a third of food is wasted in the UK and obviously if that was dramatically cut then that would help. Well, obviously nobody is going to argue against that. Unfortunately, as one might expect, he mentioned "cheap food" as the source of this waste. Well, certain people in the UK will not be happy until the peasants are once more spending most of their income on food and/or starving.

Juniper also spoke out against meat eating, a policy which would get less widespread support, even in the developing countries whose citizens he seems to be more concerned about. Funnily enough, he didn't mention anything about not having children, although that is far worse for the environment than meat eating. Perhaps this is because he has children.

And he launched into a standard academic middle class rant about the "debt-fuelled consumer society" (funnily enough, he doesn't look poor). And he wanted a "culture change". Well the only way to read this is that he, the superior intellectual, knows better than the British peasants how the British peasants should behave, and if they don't behave then he would be happy to send them to re-education camps.

He also had a good rant against GM soya being fed to farm animals so that the British (and American) peasants could eat meat (but what does that have to do with GM?), and that a lot of food was now being used for biofuels (ditto). Dubock picked up on this and said that people were working on trying to make GM bioethanol from cellular waste.

Juniper claimed that pesticide use with GM was up and Taverne claimed it was down. Well, it probably depends on how you measure "use".

Juniper had one stab at playing to the crowd. So there was a question about the public funding of GM research. And for once Juniper said something sane. He was for more public research. But it seems that the only reason he was for more public research was because it was "public" rather than because it was "research". So evidently Juniper has never seen a public sector worker he didn't like. If he could entirely squeeze the private sector into nothing he would be a happy man.

Bizarrely enough, Cambridge University has hired Juniper as some kind of consultant, presumably for great sums of money. (Profits for Juniper = Good. Profits for Monsanto = Bad.) Why did the university do this? It's hard to see why other than as greenwash.

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