Peter Melchett of the Soil Association explains why GM crops won’t feed the world and Dr Charles Benbrook of Washington State University notes that Mark Lynas mis-characterised the US National Academy of Sciences' (NAS) position on GMO safety
1. “Feeding the world” does not just means higher yields: The case against GM crops – Peter Melchett
2. Essential GM research remains undone – Dr Charles Benbrook
1. “Feeding the world” does not just means higher yields: The case against GM crops
The Independent, 29 Mar 2015
* We need a revolution in how we farm
The Independent spent last week trotting out every argument in favour of GM crops, but the future of food and farming won’t be decided by this obsessive interest in one – risky and out-dated – crop-breeding technology.
The industry’s claims that GM crops yield more are countered by stories of American farmers moving back to higher-yielding non-GM varieties. An industry-supported paper claiming GM crops led to a dramatic reduction in chemical sprays is countered by scientific papers using US government data which show, overall, spray use has increased since GM crops were introduced. The same old unscientific claim that “no one had been harmed from eating GM food” is trotted out again, despite the fact that no scientific research has been done on this. In fact, diet-related ill-health has soared in the US since GM food was introduced, but as no research has been done comparing Americans who eat GM with those who don’t, we don’t know if GM food is to blame.
The pro-GM campaign has always claimed that GM is needed to feed the world, based on the false idea that “feeding the world” just means higher yields. Claims for higher yields are based on the theory, now discredited, that GM crops resistant to Roundup (which kills all other plants) will make weed-control easier; or that GM crops with an insect-killing chemical in every part of the plant will be more resistant to insect attack. Not true. North America is now plagued by superweeds resistant to Roundup and other weed-killers, and insect pests have developed resistance to GM insect-killing crops. No GM crops have been bred that consistently yield more.
The challenges facing farming are not mainly about increasing yields. The first challenge is how we continue to produce food while cutting greenhouse gas emissions from farming by 80 per cent or more. We need farming systems (not individual crop varieties) which are not reliant on manufactured, fossil fuel-based nitrogen fertiliser, dangerous pesticides, or increasingly scarce mined phosphate. Second, to feed the hungry and starving, we need farming systems not reliant on expensive inputs, which would help farmers in the world’s poorest regions to grow a variety of food on farms which are resilient to drought, flood and other climatic extremes. As important is the challenge of producing much healthier diets to combat the growing obesity and diet-related ill-health crisis, which had its origins in the US, but now affects most of the world. This means more seasonal diets, with less, but better quality, grass-fed meat, and more fruit and veg.
All these changes involve a revolution in how we farm, and when 400 international scientists got together to look at how we meet these multiple, crucial challenges, they concluded that low-input farming systems, such as organic, are the answer, and that GM crops have no part to play.
This month the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation gave advance notice in the House of Commons of research which shows that if we achieve some reduction in food wastage, and change our diets in the way that health professionals say we must, organic farming could feed a greatly increased global population in 2050, without using any more land. Only by ignoring the wider picture of the real challenges facing farming, the needs of people both rich and poor, and the need to fight climate change, has the pro-GM campaign survived this long.
Peter Melchett is policy director of the Soil Association and an organic farmer
2. Essential GM research remains undone
Dr Charles Benbrook
30 March 2015
Letter to the editor, The Independent, 30 March 2015
Thanks for your series on the spirited debate on the benefits and risks of GM foods. While generally “on point”, some of the exchanges mischaracterised what the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has said re GM safety.
The NAS has only issued two reports addressing GM crop human health risks, one in 2000 and a second in 2004. Neither addressed the health consequences of the increase in herbicides linked to GM corn and soy beans, nor the novel risks associated with today’s “stacked”, multi-trait GM crops.
Both concluded that the GM crops on the market at the time seemed no riskier than other crops, and that there was, as yet, no strong evidence of harm. But this is a far cry from what GM enthusiasts allege: that all GM crops are for evermore safe, the science is settled, etc.
Plus, these two NAS reports each contains more than 30 pages of recommendations for development of new risk-assessment methods and data sets to guard against the introduction of novel allergens and toxins in the food supply – new research that for the most part remains undone.
The science of GM food risk assessment has progressed much since 2004, and a small, but troubling share of peer-reviewed studies point to previously unforeseen risks. The recent reclassification of glyphosate as a “probable human carcinogen” by the World Health Organisation is the latest in a series of ominous developments in the world of GM food safety.
Dr Charles Benbrook
Research Professor, Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, Washington State University