fifteen years on: GM revisited & golden rice

15 years ago I took the government to the High Court in London to challenge the legality of some GM maize trials bordering our farm in Devon. Encouraged by my father and a group of Totnes radicals, I read a stack of scientific papers and felt sufficiently concerned to accept support from Friends of the Earth and the Soil Association and hire a lawyer. We lost in court but won in the papers, which turned out to be more important. Monsanto struck back with intensive lobbying and adverts featuring images of starving children, claiming their technology would feed the world (despite little evidence of increased yields and unaffordability to small scale farmers). 

Did this justify the selective and emotive use of evidence on our side? A friend recently sent photos of a group of us posing for the press outside the High Court, holding banners and some wearing Frankenstein masks. I regret the masks; we were debasing what should have been a sober debate. To this day, it is very hard to access quality information that is not tainted by dogma, promise of commercial gain or naive fascination with the technology. As each side has become more entrenched, impartial information is harder than ever to find. 

No one will convince me that GM crops are completely safe for us or the environment, but that is not sufficient for me to completely condemn them. The debate should be about whether the benefits outweigh the risks. My reading suggests that the only significant beneficiaries have been shareholders from a few global corporations, with some marginal, short-term gains to large scale monoculture farmers growing for the world market. Health risks might be smaller than I thought 15 years ago, but there appears to have been an overall increase in pesticide use and no consistent evidence of yield benefits. The risk/benefits equation does not add up. With two million people dying a year from vitamin A deficiency (advocates’ figure), could ‘golden’, vitamin-enhanced rice change the equation? I wish I could fight my way through the spin to information I trust; but then I helped to start it. 

Guy Watson