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


Main scientific content: ", itself fully referenced with many scientific citations.

A different view of Bt. Brinjal in Bangladesh – not scientific (but neither was Panorama):

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