BBC Radio 4 reported in its headlines this morning that the Agriculture Biotechnology Council had published a new report "Going for Growth", which calls for GM to be put at the heart of agricultural development in the UK. The BBC failed to point out that the misleadingly named ABC is actually a GM industry lobby group that represents BASF, Bayer, Dow, DuPont (Pioneer), Monsanto and Syngenta.
The ABC's Chair is Julian Little of Bayer, its Deputy Chair is Mark Buckingham of Monsanto, and it's a member of EuropaBio – "the voice of the biotechnology industry in Europe."
Bayer's Julian Little is the author of the ABC's "Going for Growth" report.
Tom Fielden, the Today programme's science correspondent, also failed to spell out clearly that the ABC are an industry front group.
Fielden notes that later on today the ABC are meeting with ministers to promote their case. It seems they're meeting David Willetts, the science minister, and a Defra minister, Lord Taylor of Holbeach. And according to an article in today's Financial Times, the industry's push for GM is already being welcomed:
"Mr Willetts told the FT that the government has already decided to develop such a strategy, which would build on the life sciences strategy launched by the Prime Minister six months ago.
'Until now we have treated life sciences as human health and medicine but we are well aware that non-human life sciences for agriculture and the environment are extremely important too,' he said. 'This is getting recognition from Number Ten and I hope that by the end of this year we will have an agri-science strategy in place.'
A sign of renewed government support for agricultural research came last month when Mr Willetts announced a GBP250m investment by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council in plant and animal science.
The strategy is likely to promote the creation of spin-out companies from world-class UK agricultural institutes such as the John Innes Centre in Norwich and Rothamsted Research in Harpenden.
An important strand will be to encourage international investment in UK agricultural science, particularly from countries such as Brazil and China which are spending billions of dollars on farm research. This will require Britain and Europe to be more open to GM crop research, ministers say."
The FT also quotes John Stevenson MP, who chairs the all party parliamentary group on food and drink manufacturing, "Potentially there is a huge risk that yes, in 20 years time we might be eating GM food but the research and science and centres of excellence could be in other parts of the world developing the products of the future. We would rather see that happening in Britain."
So, in other words, whether its industry, Big Science or GM's political supporters, the focus is on going for the money, rather than the public good. This perspective conveniently ignores the fact that innovative biotechnological apoproaches other than GM are far more promising, and that agroecological farming practices are more productive.
Agroecological approaches also ensure the health of humans, ecosystems, livelihoods and food security. Their value was confirmed at the highest levels by the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) – the largest-ever assessment of global agriculture, involving more than 400 experts and 30 governments, which was dismissive of GM's potential to address global hunger – see below.
But, hey, who cares about what works for small farmers, the environment or consumers, let alone tackles global hunger, when we can have a flashy agro-industrial strategy that can be promoted as making money for GB PLC?
GM no solution to global hunger
... Claims that GM crops are the silver bullet that can deliver cheap and abundant food for all are once again being made. The evidence to support such claims, however, is scant to non-existent, as noted by the recently concluded International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), a process involving 400 scientific experts initiated by the World Bank with the co-sponsorship of the United Nations.
The IAASTD process involved a thorough sifting of the evidence about agriculture and food production, and took four years to complete. Its 2500-page report, based on peer reviewed publications, concluded that the yield gains in GM crops "were highly variable" and in some cases, "yields declined". The report also noted, "Assessment of the technology lags behind its development, information is anecdotal and contradictory, and uncertainty about possible benefits and damage is unavoidable." Asked at a press conference whether GM crops were the simple answer to hunger and poverty, IAASTD Director Professor Bob Watson (former director of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and as of 2008, chief scientist at Defra) replied, "I would argue, no ". The UK Government approved the IAASTD report on 9 June 2008.
The report not only brought into question GM's claims to be the solution to global poverty and hunger but also to be a solution to climate change. In fact, GM crops are seen by many as reinforcing an outdated model of agriculture, unsuited for dealing with the conditions that climate change and expensive scarce oil bring for global food security. Many also see GM crops as anti-innovation, because they involve patents which restrict the sharing of knowledge and technology.
Large sections of the IAASTD report favoured truly innovative approaches to improving agriculture and increasing food production. These involve techniques suited to small farmers that minimize the use of increasingly expensive fossil fuel-derived inputs like fertilisers and pesticides. These approaches to cultivation and pest control recognise the value, particularly to the poor and hungry, of low-cost practices using locally available materials and technologies in an environmentally sensitive manner. They include integrated pest management (IPM) and agroecological, or even fully organic, methods.
These innovative farming methods have met with remarkable success, both in the developing and developed world. The IAASTD report notes that they can deliver effective crop protection and pesticide reduction and yield advantages. The yield advantages of IPM have been particularly strong in the developing world, increasing productivity for poor farmers while enhancing sustainability. This, the report notes, has significant policy implications for food security. The IAASTD report also notes that the community-wide economic, social, health and environmental benefits of these approaches have been widely documented.
After the publication of one study looking at a large number of projects in the developing world, New Scientist commented, "Low-tech 'sustainable agriculture', shunning chemicals in favour of natural pest control and fertiliser, is pushing up crop yields on poor farms across the world, often by 70 per cent or more... The findings will make sobering reading for people convinced that only genetically modified crops can feed the planet's hungry in the 21st century... A new science-based revolution is gaining strength built on real research into what works best on the small farms where a billion or more of the world's hungry live and work... It is time for the major agricultural research centres and their funding agencies to join the revolution."
Here are some examples of the remarkable gains in productivity that have been achieved:
*Some 45,000 farmers in Guatemala and Honduras used regenerative technologies to triple maize yields to some 2-2.5 tons/ha and diversify their upland farms. This has led to local economic growth that has in turn encouraged re-migration back from the cities;
*More than 300,000 farmers in southern and western India farming in dryland conditions, and now using a range of water and soil management technologies, tripled sorghum and millet yields to some 2-2.5 tons/hectare;
*Some 200,000 farmers across Kenya, participating in government and non-government soil and water conservation and sustainable agriculture programmes, more than doubled their maize yields to about 2.5 to 3.3 t/ha and substantially improved vegetable production through the dry seasons;
*100,000 small coffee farmers in Mexico adopted fully organic production methods, and yet increased yields by half;
*a million wetland rice farmers in Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam shifted to sustainable agriculture, where group-based farmer-field schools have enabled farmers to learn alternatives to pesticides, and increased their yields by about 10%.
The lot of small farmers in the developing world can also be greatly improved by other practical measures for example, through facilitating access to affordable finance (microcredit, grants) or through increasing investment in rural infrastructure, such as road, transport, and storage facilities. In contrast, when it comes to helping the developing world, GM technology is failing to deliver. As Defra chief scientist Bob Watson has unambiguously stated, "The absence of GM crops is not the driver of hunger today."
In a recent letter in the UK press, the chairman of the government agency Natural England (formerly English Nature), Sir Martin Doughty, is equally blunt: "We need to be mindful of the lessons of the past before rushing headlong to embrace genetically modified crops as the solution to rising food prices... GM crops can in no way be seen as a quick fix."
To continue to pretend otherwise is unforgivable as it diverts valuable attention and resources from reliable, accessible and low cost alternatives that are available NOW to help meet the needs of the poor and hungry.
Find out more about the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD):
Read the report
Coverage of the IAASTD report
"GM food 'not the answer' to world’s food shortage crisis, says report", Sean Poulter, The Daily Mail, 16 April 2008
"Change in farming can feed world report", John Vidal, The Guardian, April 16 2008, http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/apr/16/food.biofuels
"IAASTD Report: GM crops not the solution to World Hunger", Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC, Impact Mag vol.42 no.6, June 2008, http://www.scribd.com/doc/3804302/Impact-Mag-vol42no06
"Biotech snake oil: a quack cure for hunger", Bill Freese, Multinational Monitor, Vol. 29 No. 2, Sept-Oct 2008, http://www.multinationalmonitor.org/mm2008/092008/freese.html
"Genetic engineering a crop of hyperbole", Doug Gurian-Sherman, San Diego Union Tribune, 18 June 2008, http://www.signonsandiego.com/uniontrib/20080618/news_lz1e18gurian.html
"Feeding the world?", Prof Jules Pretty, SPLICE, Vol. 4 Issue 6, http://ngin.tripod.com/article2.htm
"Organic farming 'could feed Africa' report", Daniel Howden, The Independent, 22 October 2008, http://www.unep.ch/etb/events/green%20economy%20press%20coverages/organic-farming-The%20Independent.pdf
"Is ecological agriculture productive?", Lim Li Ching, Third World Network, November 2008, http://www.twnside.org.sg/title2/susagri/susagri064.htm
"Biotech has bamboozled us all", George Monbiot, The Guardian, 24 August 2000,