BBC allows pro-GMO claim to go unchallenged while ignoring bumper non-GM crop yields in Africa. Claire Robinson reports

Published October 17 2015

On 24 September, the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 featured an interview with the former UK environment minister Owen Paterson.

Paterson made an astonishing – indeed, unbelievable – claim for the benefits of GM crops in South Africa.[1]   

He claimed that smallholders in South Africa had formerly achieved a yield of 1 tonne of maize per hectare, using conventional crops; but now, with GM maize they had increased average yield to 5 tonnes per hectare, and would soon reach 10 tonnes per hectare.  

Let’s be clear. Paterson was allowed to claim on the BBC Today programme that GM maize in South Africa has already increased yields by 500% and will soon increase yields further by 1000%. Anchorman James Naughtie failed to challenge the claims. No sources were requested, and none were given.

What are the facts about GM and non-GM maize in Africa?

First, there is no GM gene for high yield. Yield depends on the background genetics into which a GM trait – generally for herbicide-tolerance or insect resistance – is inserted. Those genetics are products of conventional (non-GM) breeding. A high-yielding GM crop is a high-yielding non-GM crop with a GM trait added.

Second, while there appear to be no data backing Paterson’s claim of a massive yield hike for GM maize in Africa, there are reports of bumper maize yields coming out of Zimbabwe. But they are non-GM.

Unlike South Africa, Zimbabwe does not grow GM maize. And while maize yields in Zimbabwe have been disappointing in the past, a report in the country’s Financial Gazette suggests that things are changing fast.

The report announces impressive yields from new non-GM hybrid varieties: “Seed varieties trials from seed houses show that local varieties have the potential to produce over 10 tonnes of maize per hectare. Seed Co has released varieties such as the blockbuster SC533 (10 tonnes per hectare), SC637 which gives grain yield of 17.5 tonnes per hectare, while SC727 has unrivalled supremacy not only in Zimbabwe but across all markets in Africa.”

Seed Co is claiming 15–18 tonnes per hectare for SC727.

If these trial results from seed companies are borne out in farmers’ fields, the non-GM maize yields dwarf Paterson’s unsubstantiated claim of 10 tonnes per hectare for an unnamed (and potentially non-existent) GM variety. For some unaccountable reason, both Paterson and the BBC failed to report these non-GMO successes.

GM “successes” that never were

It’s possible that Paterson somehow heard about the bumper non-GMO yields and was seduced by his belief system into falsely attributing the success to GM.

This is a common phenomenon among GMO proponents. The UK government’s former chief scientist, Sir David King, claimed that a big increase in grain yields in Africa was due to GM, when in fact it was the result of an agroecological method that did not involve the use of GM technology.

How impressive are GM Bt maize yields?

The truth is that the yield performance of Bt maize compared with non-GM maize is variable. The crucial factors are how much pest pressure there is in any particular year and how effective Bt maize is in killing that pest.

Any yield increase in GM Bt maize is due to reduced pest damage in the Bt maize, not to intrinsically higher yields. In years of low pest pressure, Bt maize growers may not find any difference in yield from non-GM maize growers.

One study reported a yield increase of GM Bt maize over non-GM maize of around 10-11% – a modest figure compared with Paterson’s 1000%. A separate study recorded a yield benefit of 32% for Bt maize over non-GM maize in the first year of trials, though by the third year of the trials, this had fallen to “no discernible difference”.

Pest resistance makes Bt crops redundant

The yield benefits for GM Bt maize of 10-11% and 32% were recorded in the very early years of adoption – 1999-2001 and 2001–2002 respectively.

That’s important, because this period was before pest resistance to the Bt toxins in these GM crops became a serious problem. Stem borer pests resistant to GM Bt maize were first reported in South Africa in 2007.

A 2013 study stated that “a conservative estimate is that approximately 250 cases of product failure had been reported annually for the 2010/11 and 2011/2012 growing season”. By the time the study was written up for publication, the Bt toxin in GM Bt maize had “lost its efficacy” against the pest.

Fortunately for South African smallholder farmers, they already had the (non-GM) solution in their hands. A recent study found that GM Bt maize was outperformed by local non-GM hybrids and open-pollinated varieties, “which are better adapted to smallholders’ agroecologies, fluctuations in rainfall and suboptimal storage conditions”.

Producing more food is not the key to food security

Increasing yields of staple crops like maize is irrelevant to ensuring food security for the world’s population. The world is awash in food – we already produce enough for 14 billion people, more than we will ever need to feed the projected peak population of 9 billion in 2050.

Hunger is caused not by a shortage of food production but by poverty. The poor cannot afford to buy the food that abounds in markets and shops, even in the most deprived countries.

Who is Owen Paterson?

Owen Paterson is a climate science denier. He has set up a think tank called UK2020, which has teamed up with Cornell’s Alliance for Science to promote GM crops.

UK2020 has denied that it’s funded by the GMO industry. But the think tank does not disclose its funding on its website. It is unclear whether it receives ‘arms-length’ GMO industry money, for example, from a foundation or nonprofit that in turn is funded by the industry.

Paterson is the brother-in-law of Matt Ridley, a climate denier and genetic scientist who, as chairman of Northern Rock, presided over the bank’s collapse. Ridley was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Science from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) in New York, and is a visiting professor at the lab. CSHL has also received funding from Monsanto.

While he held the position of environment secretary, Paterson was widely condemned for ignoring scientific advice in driving forward an ineffective programme of killing badgers in an attempt to curb bovine tuberculosis in cattle. He famously – and hilariously – blamed the badgers for the programme’s failure, saying, “the badgers moved the goalposts”.

Clearly Paterson is not one to be stopped in his tracks by inconvenient science or facts. That leaves us with two questions: Why does anyone still listen to this man? And why does the BBC spend public money giving him airtime?


1. As of today, the interview is available to listen to for another 6 days. The actual claims were made at 2 hours 44 minutes into the recording. The transcript is as follows:
“I was at Cornell University in America earlier this week, talking to scientists, researchers and farmers from Uganda, Kenya, Bangladesh and South Africa. They are absolutely driven by wanting to bring in new technologies, of which the most high profile is GM.
“If you use GM you produce a lot more food.
“I was in South Africa recently.  Local small-holder farmers there were getting at best one tonne per hectare.
“They are now [with GM maize] getting five tonnes [500% increase] per hectare and they will soon get ten tonnes per hectare.
“So that [yield increase from GM crops] releases land for building, for recreation - and in the case of South Africa, for wildlife."