BBC World Service - One Planet: The Father of Genetic Engineering....
First broadcast 10:32am, 7 Oct 2010

GMWatch comment: This programme, part of the BBC World Service’s One Planet series on the environment, interviews genetic engineer Dr Roger Beachy. Beachy's interview appears to be part of a new evangelical push on the part of the US government hyping GM crops as the solution to world hunger.

In the BBC interview, Beachy claims GM is being demonized but then proceeds to demonize organic production, as he has done before (even suggesting organic food may be dangerous to eat!)

Beachy characterizes people who oppose GM crops as anti-science or just plain ignorant. He also uses straw man arguments, dismissing scientifically valid concerns about the uncontrollability of GM contamination with a story about a man who (according to Beachy) had an irrational concern about potatoes being contaminated by GM corn or cotton.

This strategy exactly fits with what Guy Cook, Professor in Language and Education at the Open University (OU) and author of Genetically Modified Language, a book which critically analyses the war of words waged by those arguing for GM crops, found in research investigating the type of language deployed by GM crop scientists. The 'public', Cook's data revealed, tend to be portrayed as as frequently emotional, rather than rational, and as uniformly ignorant. Cook notes that this "characterization of the public is often achieved through anecdotes of some farcical encounter with a particularly 'uninformed’ member of the public: a commonly voiced one concerns people who are worried that they may be 'eating genes'." Interestingly, research suggests that technical knowledge of GM does not necessarily lead to increased acceptance of GM crops.

Beachy also seems to suggest, by implication, that those concerned about GM foods may be candidates for psychiatry ("They choose, not based on science. Where have those attitudes come from?"). He also deliberately attempts to link those concerned about GM with people typically characterised as anti-technology or anti- modern medicine.

It is therefore amusing that another interviewee in this BBC programme is a genetic engineer working in the field of medical biotechnology (Dr Michael Antoniou) who does not share Beachy's confidence about the safety of GM when applied to agriculture.

The BBC calls Beachy "the father of GM foods" and mentions in passing one of Beachy's links to Monsanto: "Two decades ago, his research - in collaboration with Monsanto - helped develop the world's first genetically modified crop (a tomato)".

But the BBC does not mention that Beachy was the founding president of St. Louis' Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, which was principally established by Monsanto, or that he is still a trustee and a member of its scientific advisory board (along with the Monsanto-connected British GM promoter Jonathan Jones, and Monsanto's CEO Hugh Grant).

Beachy is now working for the US government. In September 2009, President Obama put Beachy in charge of a USDA agency, the National Institutes of Food and Agriculture, that will fund R & D in agricultural "technological innovations". So don't expect a lot of research dollars for badly needed agro-ecological approaches.

Beachy is also joined in the BBC programme by Jack Bobo, senior advisor for biotech in the US Dept of State, and Beachy's BBC appearance seems to coincide with a new GM push on the part of US government. On 7 October, the same day that the BBC broadcast Beachy's GM hype, the USDA put out a press release flagging up research claiming there were benefits from GM crops for neighbouring non-GM farmers as they have fewer corn borer pests. The release quoted US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack plugging GM. (But see why the corn borer may not be such a problem on organic farms: here and here)

On 8 October, Jose Fernandez, the US assistant secretary of state for economic, energy and business affairs published an article in the Huffington Post claiming - surprise - that "Unjustified and impractical legal obstacles are stopping genetically-enhanced crops from saving millions from starvation and malnutrition".

So stand by for more evangelical efforts to win us all over to the U.S. GMO way.

Beachy's BBC interview - extracts:

RB: The ability of countries to feed themselves is our responsibility, your responsibility, and it should be based on science, and it should not be based on the demonization of a technology [GM] per se. It should be based on the best science to meet the needs of the world.

Michael Antoniou: I'm not comfortable at all with the way GM is being used in agriculture. Compared with what we do, in a clinical context, where not only is the research done under contained use, but even when we use our GMOs for clinical use, they’re non-replicative they can’t reproduce and spread and cause harm. In agriculture, the same technology is being used in an open field. The organisms can spread in an uncontrolled way and then we’re stuck with the consequences of that forever.

RB [on why he got involved in GM, invoking Rachel Carson's Silent Spring]: We wanted to find ways to reduce the use of agricultural chemicals.

Interviewer: Does it bother you that there is resistance, that people are scared?

RB: There’s a recent article about why people make decisions about accepting cell phone technology or driving a fast car or GM crops or having a vaccine for measles. There are some who will choose, against all facts, against all knowledge, simply not to participate for some other reason, for some reason in their heart, their head, their soul. They choose, not based on science. Maybe turn the question around. Where have those attitudes come from?

What we would hope is that decisions made by the public are based on their understanding and knowledge of the science. That’s not happening in many cases. We know that in the case of vaccines, some people won’t take vaccines for reasons that are not based on science, but something else. Certain people won’t accept a new food variety because they believe it should be grown in a certain way. That decision making process is often in the absence of science.

Interviewer: Let’s come back to that example, that people can refuse to take a vaccine which the science shows is beneficial to them. What you can’t then do, is put the vaccine in the water. One of the arguments that people make about GM crops is that they're out there, that those genes will spread, and that they’ll end up ingesting GM material.

RB: I gave a talk in Dublin years ago and a young man was really concerned about potatoes. I said, we’re mostly talking about corn and cotton. He said corn pollen will contaminate potato. He didn't know that corn pollen couldn’t pollinate potato. Which gets back to the issue of literacy about science. It’s very easy to promote fear and distrust when there’s lack of knowledge in those who are reading or listening. So in a case where cross-pollination is an issue, there’s a guy who’s growing organic sweetcorn and somebody next door is producing commercial corn for cows; the sweetcorn has a different pollination time than does the commercial corn. The chances of contamination in that example are either non-existent or can be managed nicely if one farmer says I’m going to plant my crop a little bit later so there’s no cross-contamination.

The point is, by knowing about the biology of the organism and how they’re grown, one can find ways that side by side you can have a safe organic production or conventional production and biotech. It’s straight science knowledge and the ability not to vilify but to get along with each other.

Interviewer: Joining us now, Jack Bobo, senior advisor for biotech in the US Dept of State. Mr Bobo, can I ask about US policy: it seems that the US dept of state is interested in promoting GM foods worldwide. Tell me why.

JB: Actually the US is interested in promoting agriculture worldwide, and biotechnology happens to be one of those. We promote organic agriculture, conventional agriculture, and biotechnology, but as an export issue, and as a development issue, there’s particular importance in trying to address the issue of acceptance of biotechnology both from a farmer and consumer perspective.

JB: We need to double food production between now and 2050, a huge challenge. Climate change means there’s going to be a 27% decline in productivity, so we need to double production and we have declining productivity how are we going to do that? We need all the technologies available in order to do that. The developing world is in desperate need of technologies that are going to reduce the variability of yields and that will allow them to produce their own foods, this isn’t about exporting consumerism, this is about self-sufficiency.

RB: This partnership and knowledge sharing and building the ability of countries to feed themselves is our responsibility, your responsibility, and it should be based on science, and it should not be based on the demonization of a technology [GM] per se. It should be based on the best science to meet the needs of the world. And that’s a responsibility that goes beyond the philosophy of yes, GM or organic or conventional, it comes to a moral obligation not of feeding people but of educating them so that they can feed themselves.

In our country the technology is demonized because it’s a way to value something else more. An organic product costs more than a conventional product. That 20, 25, 30, maybe even 100% premium on an organic banana compared to one that’s conventional, allows someone to make more money. It’s about finances. I’d like to see this come down to, what is safest for the environment, safest for people, and more economic, so that those who don’t have as much as you or I have, sitting around this table with a biscuit and a cup of tea, can say that the woman who has less, has the same capability of feeding herself and her kids, as we do sitting at the table. And I think that’s only going to come when we adopt the safest and best technologies of whatever type, to help make that happen.

Interviewer to Michael Antoniou: What’s wrong with other scientists using these techniques to feed the extra millions? You heard the argument that there was a need, a moral obligation [to use these technologies].

Michael Antoniou: Indeed, the world has a moral obligation to feed itself. But what is invariably ignored by advocates of GM crops when explaining why almost a billion people go to bed each day hungry is that we have more than enough food in the world to feed everybody now, in fact we have double the amount, but people don’t have access to that food. And in terms of meeting future food needs, especially in the face of climate change, the latest UN Food and Ag Org-sponsored report clearly pointed that the [key to] future meeting food needs lies in agroecological methods. They said GE will play little or no role in meeting future food needs, which is why the Americans were not signatories. But 62 other nations including the UK signed up to that report. We have to take on board the findings of this report complied by 400 independent scientists from around the world, which said, go forward with low-input, agroecological, sustainable methods, not with GM, because GM simply doesn’t fit the bill. ”¦

[bit about resistance to GM in Bolivia]

Interviewer to Michael Antoniou: Bolivia might not want GM crops but might need them.

MA: I don’t think anyone needs GM crops. There are a number of sensible, responsible uses of biotechnology in agriculture, which I am glad to see coming through. These come under the umbrella of gene mapping augmented plant breeding or marker assisted selection. This is an incredibly powerful technology which even industry is embracing. What this recognizes, which is important in light of claims that we need GM to make plants tolerant to drought and saline-tolerant and flood-tolerant in the face of climate change, the point about all these highly desirable properties is that they are multi-gene. It’s not just one gene that confers this property onto a plant, but multi-gene families working in a coordinated way.

Now GM can’t deliver this. Simply, it’s beyond what it can do.

What we can do with biotechnology, however, is map the genes within the DNA of the plant, of one variety of plant that’s, say, drought-tolerant, and another that, say, is high yielding. And we can breed them naturally. And we use gene mapping, marker assisted selection, to identify the plant offspring which combines the genes that confer high yield and drought tolerance.

This is where we should be putting our money, in combination with, as the IAASTD report says, agroecological practices. Use the local knowledge of the farmer, like in Bolivia, that we heard wonderful use the local knowledge of the farmer who knows his landscape, knows what plants will thrive under different conditions. Combine new varieties with that local knowledge, and that gives us food security.

Interviewer: one of the contibutors in Bolivia said they didn’t want anything that went against God. Doesn’t that apply to your work too? It’s unnatural?

MA: Yes, introducing therapeutic gene units into a patient could be seen as unnatural, but then any pharmaceutical [is, unnatural too]. Where we distinguish is, we do not affect he reproductive cells of the patient. So if a patient has something wrong with their muscles, we deliver the therapeutic gene units to the muscle. If it’s something wrong with their blood, we treat the blood cells. We don’t go anywhere near the reproductive organs of the patient. As a result, we’re not affecting the genetic makeup of future generations. That distinguishes us clearly from a clinical application of GM technology, it’s constrained in the laboratory and also contained to the patient. If something goes wrong, it's not going to affect the other people in society or future generations. In food production, it’s affecting every generation, everybody, now and all future generations, because those genes, defects, are going to be passed down the line.