Tag Archives:  GM

Guy’s Newsletter: perfect patios & tainted bread

As combine harvesters rumble across Britain through fields of rape, then barley, then wheat over the coming weeks, around a third of these crops will have been treated with the herbicide glyphosate to speed harvest and aid weed control. It’s no surprise that, according to Defra, this chemical is found in 30% of UK bread. When I grew my first field of veg back in the 1980s and was still arguing with myself about whether to go organic, I spent a lot of time pulling out docks, couch grass and creeping buttercup; they would regenerate from the smallest piece of root and it seemed a never-ending battle. The traditional method of weed control was deep cultivation and surface dragging to dry them out; time and energy consuming, impossible once a crop was planted, and damaging to the soil.

In 1970 Monsanto patented glyphosate, the active ingredient of Roundup. It is absorbed through the leaves to every part of a growing plant, so it kills even the roots. At university I was taught it had virtually zero mammalian toxicity and was environmentally benign, but this was too good to be true; the World Health Organisation has recently classified glyphosate as a “probable carcinogen”.

Glyphosate has grown to be the world’s favourite herbicide for farmers and gardeners alike, with sales growing 400% in the last 20 years alone. The patent lapsed in 2000 but by then Monsanto had moved onto GM crops, most of which were modified to withstand glyphosate, which is sold in combination with the seed. At Riverford we learned to control most weeds through crop rotation but
I have always found the argument that glyphosate reduces soil cultivation and therefore protects soil flora and fauna, and reduces erosion and fuel use, at least potentially persuasive. Set these benefits against its implication as a carcinogen, endocrine disrupter and cause of birth defects, and it rather loses its edge.

Monsanto and the agrochemical lobby is furious and are accusing the WHO of being selective in the choice of studies it has based its conclusions on; a bit rich considering the agrochemical industry’s history in selective use of data. Given the money involved this will be a long and dirty fight reminiscent of the battle the tobacco industry put up, but my bet is that glyphosate will be banned within ten years. Tell your friends and family, they will probably thank you for it.

Guy Watson

Guy’s Newsletter:economy=ecology

Last week I explained, I hope in a reasoned way, why I am still opposed to GM crops in their current form. It’s not about the technology itself, but rather that it represents another step on a path forged by the needs of agrichemical and biotech companies rather than farmers, people and the environment. There is no doubt that those companies are winning, but when it comes to solving how we feed the world, there is an alternative direction we could put our energy into.

This morning I cut some artichokes from a bed I planted eight years ago; there has been no weeding, pest control or manuring for six years but they are still producing a good crop as part of a maturing ecosystem. It would take a lifetime of study to understand that ecosystem and why those artichokes have thrived while others crops are overcome by weeds. The best farming uses skill instead of diesel and chemicals to do less to get more; nearby is one of the very few remaining traditional cider orchards where we collected apples for pocket money as children. Instead of the mowing and spraying seen in most modern orchards, sheep control the weeds and provide some fertility with their manure. It remains as prolific as it was 45 years ago, and is also a beautiful wildlife haven.

The best farmer I ever have seen worked two acres in Uganda; his system involved crops grown in multiple canopies alongside many types of livestock. He saved his own seed, made his own compost and, on the rare occasions when he resorted to sprays, made them himself from local plants. The subtle interactions seen in nature were reflected in the synergy between the different crops and animals; economy=ecology. His inputs each year could have been carried in a wheelbarrow and paid for with a day’s wages yet I calculated his output to be 10-20 times that of the neighbouring monocultures. He was highly skilled, self-reliant and smiled more than any farmer I’ve met since. Such agricultural systems are based on complexity, knowledge and skill. Yet perhaps their greatest vulnerability in a capitalist world is that they need little that is not generated on the farm; no one is making money by selling diesel, agrichemicals or big tractors so no-one has an interest in developing or protecting the vital skill base. I reckon that might be why we hear so much about GM.

Guy’s Newsletter: GM, PR & the BBC

In 1998 some GM maize trials were planned on a neighbour’s farm across the river from Riverford, which threatened to cross-pollinate with my organic sweetcorn. I wasn’t overly bothered but my father, recently retired and reinvented as an eco-warrior, was getting agitated. He dumped a pile of papers on my desk and, reluctantly at first, I got reading.

At university, ten years earlier, I had been intrigued by the neatly simple, powerful genetic coding that controlled the synthesis of proteins and hence heredity and all life. Wow; who wouldn’t be excited? The discovery won Watson, Crick and Wilkins a well-deserved Nobel Prize in 1962 and, as the tools developed to apply and exploit the discovery, a science, an industry and then a political lobby was born.

After a month of reading I was alarmed by the potential food safety and environmental implications of the emerging technology, and with encouragement from the Soil Association and Friends of the Earth, I challenged the legality of the maize trials and the case went all the way to the High Court; but the real battle turned out to be in the media.

Despite being a vocal campaigner I was never fundamentally opposed to the technology, rather the rush to commercialise it at any cost. With cries of ‘Frankenstein food’ from the anti-GM movement and spurious claims of solving world hunger from the pro lobby, the smokescreen of misleading, emotive information from both sides has made it almost impossible to form a non-partisan, informed opinion. I got fed up, declined invitations to speak and backed out of the fight. Money talks in PR, if only because it can buy the persistence that few causes can maintain, and over the last 15 years the GM industry has won the battle, in England and Wales at least. Is this down to the strength of their arguments or the depth of their pockets? Either way, the culmination was seen last week with the BBC’s blatantly pro-GM edition of Panorama, entitled ‘Cultivating Fear’.

What most took me aback was how the programme justified the use of GM aubergine in Bangladesh as a means of preventing pesticide poisoning among farming families. The scale of the poisoning was truly horrific and is repeated across the developing world where many farmers are illiterate and use pesticides with no protective clothing. One of the most disturbing things I have ever seen is a Ugandan farmer smoking a soggy cigarette while spraying tomatoes; it was soggy with the toxic liquid leaking from his back pack sprayer. In the Punjab, according to doctors quoted in the excellent film The True Cost, it is common for villages to have 70 or more children suffering from birth defects, cancers and mental illness resulting from pesticide exposure. As such I found it almost surreal to hear these horrific consequences of the last round of agritech progress being used as a justification for the next, especially when the products in question are supplied by the same western companies. This was PR spin at its worst, yet I wondered if I had become a hopelessly romantic Luddite, part of former Secretary of State Owen Paterson’s “green blob” resisting progress from a position of privilege. I needed the facts, so 15 years on from that courtroom battle I sat down again to read. This is what I found out:

  • GM crops have not reduced pesticide use; according to the US Department of Agriculture (normally pro GM), over 15 years GM crops have resulted in a 7% increase in pesticide use due to weeds and insects developing resistance.
  • It turns out that even the Bangladesh GM aubergine is far from an unbridled success, and that Panorama painted a very flattering picture of it. According to a local scientist, many of the farmers who took part in the experiment are demanding compensation.
  • The USDA states there is no evidence of GM increasing yield potential. It turns out conventional breeding has been much better at boosting yields at a fraction of the cost.
  • None of the claims for nutritionally enhanced food, drought-tolerant or more nitrogen-efficient crops have been successful to date. Owen Paterson labelled the anti-GM lobby “wicked” for resisting vitamin A enhanced GM ‘golden rice’. The reality is that it has proved difficult to make the technology work and the developers at the International Rice Research Institute say they are years from being ready to grow a successful commercial crop. How and why could a politician with research assistants make such a provocative and poorly informed statement?
  • After 18 years of Americans eating GM food it is claimed that there are no obvious health impacts, but the same was said after much longer periods for smoking, trans fats, asbestos, excessive salt etc. There have been peer reviewed animal studies which have raised concern but I find it worrying that in the case of any questioning of GM the response is always a near hysterical hounding of the scientists from their post.

These are just some of the issues that should concern all of us. For all but the most ardent laissez faire capitalist I would suggest there are two more worth considering:

  • In the last 20 years the biotech companies have been buying up the global seed trade; the top three (Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta) own a staggering 47%. With the loss of smaller companies go local varieties suited to local conditions and requirements. As a grower myself, I have seen a very noticeable decline in choice.
  • Even more extreme: 87% of the global surface of GM crops is controlled by Monsanto, either directly through the sale of seeds or indirectly through the licence of traits for which they own the patents.

I am reluctant to be branded a communist (again) but I was taught that the efficiency of capitalism required free markets and that a key part of a free market was the avoidance of monopolies. Monsanto and the other so called ‘big ag’ multinationals clearly have a vision for our future and are rapidly getting in a position to impose it; Owen Paterson and the Panorama presenter Tom Heap may be comfortable with that, but I am uneasy with a global food supply being controlled by the same people who brought us DDT, Agent Orange and PCBs.

I think it is highly likely that GM will have a role in shaping sustainable agriculture at some point; no one can predict where science can take us. But in debating how to feed the world, bombarding us with emotive and misleading messages driven more by a PR agenda than by fact is unforgivable. We need, rather, a cool headed evaluation of the scientific evidence, tempered by transparency around the commercial interests at play.

Guy Watson

SOURCES:

Main scientific content: http://earthopensource.org/earth-open-source-reports/gmo-myths-and-truths-2nd-edition/, itself fully referenced with many scientific citations.

A different view of Bt. Brinjal in Bangladesh – not scientific (but neither was Panorama): http://ubinig.org/index.php/home/showAerticle/76/english”

The status of the Golden Rice project: International Rice Research Institute

Guy’s newsletter: unruly cabbages; the last stand

I hope you are enjoying the spring greens that have started to appear in the veg boxes. They may look a little pale and unruly, with the occasional weatherbeaten leaf, but please don’t let them linger in the back of your fridge; they are a delight simply cooked for two mins in plenty of salted, vigorously boiling water. A small knob of butter might help, but I’d implore you to do nothing more.

You may notice that the individual spring green plants vary from 50-200g; this is partly from fighting off weeds and pests, but also a result of genetic variation as they are among the few remaining open pollinated crops which are not grown from ‘F1’ hybrid seeds. For thousands of years, farmers have saved seeds from the best of their crops, thus exerting a selective pressure which led to incremental genetic improvement. In the 1930s, American maize researchers found that if you created two intensively inbred, and therefore relatively uniform strains, and then crossed them, the first (‘F1’) generation could combine the best of both strains while maintaining uniformity and adding hybrid vigour. Hybrid plant breeding helped boost yields and reduce production costs through the late 20th century, and has contributed to the low food prices we have today.

When I started growing vegetables in the ‘80s, my crops were perhaps 20% hybrids; now it’s 90% plus. Mostly it’s a change for the best as we have benefited from better disease resistance, more vigour and increased yield. On the downside I suspect that we have lost some flavour in a few crops. Bigger issues are that hybrids often need near-perfect growing conditions to thrive (hence our open-pollinated spring greens still win out in the tough depths of winter) and most significantly, hybrids do not breed true; this means that farmers cannot harvest their own seed but must buy new seed in every year. Over the last 20 years the GM companies Monsanto, Syngenta and DuPont have bought up seed companies so they now control almost half the global seed trade; I would argue that this monopoly is a bigger issue than GM. Everything around food starts with the seed, so do we really want its future controlled by companies that have risen on the backs of manufacturing PCBs, Agent Orange, bovine growth hormone and glyphosate tolerant GM crops? Long live the unruly greens I say.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: TTIP my personal tipping point

Since retiring 25 years ago, my father has reinvented himself as a living example of low carbon existence with attempts at anaerobic digesters, solar panels, composting loos and a permaculture garden. In his spare time he audits the moral and ethical performance of his progeny and their businesses. It was he who dumped a mountain of genetic modification papers on my desk in 1998, and encouraged me to mount a challenge on the legality of a local GM trial that went all the way to the High Court.

Now he is hassling me about his latest bugbear; the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). After an evening of researching it myself my blood is up too so, at the risk of causing irritation by straying from vegetables into politics, here goes. The TTIP is being negotiated in secret between the EU and USA with the aim of removing barriers to trade, and thus promoting growth. Sounds positive in theory, but in reality any government action deemed restricting to trade in goods or services (and thus impacting on corporate profits) will be open to challenge. Disputes will be settled in secret by three ‘trade experts’ whose guiding rationale will be that anything interfering with free trade is illegal, whatever the views of a country’s electorate or government.

The TTIP would restrict our or any EU member government’s ability to set a minimum wage, legislate on human rights or even operate nationalised industries like the NHS. Under the TTIP we would be unable to fight the introduction of GM crops (or even insist on them being labelled), prevent hormone use in beef and milk production, or restrict the use of neonicotinoid insecticides to protect our bees, or indeed to enforce many laws protecting our health, the environment or animal welfare. To accept the TTIP would be to sacrifice democracy and any semblance of personal or national autonomy at the altar of growth and corporate profit. There must come a point where the human and environmental cost of marginal increases in GDP is too high; for me this is it. If you feel similarly concerned, please visit 38 Degrees to find out more and sign the petition, or write to your MP.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: GM jostling, hyperbole & inedible bananas

Last week our Prime Minister’s office issued an “independent report” calling for the UK to override EU regulations and start growing GM crops in the UK. What we were not told was that all of its authors had close links with the GM industry, as seen in the national press since the report’s release.

Even though I took the government to the High Court in the 1990s to challenge the legality of GM crop trials bordering our farm, I am not a Luddite. We have made such a mess of our planet that we need to harness science in the search for sustainable co-existence, but we must acknowledge how much we don’t know and that the most important science is the least understood; namely ecology.

Were Monsanto or Syngenta to come up with a perennial, nitrogen-fixing wheat, maize or rice, I would find it hard to argue against it. Yet after 30 years the GM industry has failed to deliver any substantial benefit. The debate doesn’t seem to have moved on and this report isn’t going to help, whatever its true motivations.

I remain marginally anti-GM, though mainly for sociopolitical reasons. Firstly I don’t like the world’s food supply being controlled by a small number of global corporations (Syngenta, Monsanto and DuPont already control 47% of the global seed market); I also lament the continued loss of nutrition, food culture, and the autonomy of small scale farmers that accompanies the drive towards globally traded monocultures.

In Uganda, where 30% of calories are consumed as bananas, a wilt resistant GM variety was widely promoted as an example of how GM could feed the world. According to the farmers I spoke to it was inedible; another case of hyperbole before reality. In the meantime simply better agricultural practices could increase output many-fold and farmers have found other means of living with wilt. Watch our film on my recent Uganda trip here to see how giving farmers independence rather than introducing dependence on GM and agri-chemicals is what is driving positive change.

Guy Watson

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