Peter Melchett: Don't believe the GM apologists

Share
Related Topics

Arguments about genetic modification, often wrongly characterised as science versus irrational nature-worshippers, have lost none of their passion. On one side are those who yearn for simple, high-tech solutions to complex problems. Against GM, there are ecological realities and scientific evidence. There is overwhelming evidence that farming took a wrong turn after the last war, with widespread use of artificial nitrogen fertilisers and sprays.

In Britain, we lost up to 95 per cent of our ancient woodlands, flower meadows, hedges and wildlife and saw massive losses of farms and farm workers' jobs. Farming became more oil-dependent. Our food lost vitamins, taste and diversity and our diet became unhealthy.

As the environmental and human cost of industrial farming became harder to deny, along came a new miracle cure – genetic engineering. Twenty years ago, GM promised unbelievable wonders – fruit that would never freeze, crops needing no fertiliser or sprays and food with vitamins and medicines engineered in. All food would soon be GM. Geneticists would engineer anything we wanted, taking a gene from a fish here, a pig there, adding a bacteria gene and maybe a bit of a virus.

The greatest coup by the GM companies, and their greatest scientific fraud, was to ensure no GM food had to be tested for safety. In America, they established the concept of "substantial equivalence" – which means that if a GM crop looks like its non-GM equivalent and grows like it, then it is it – no safety testing is needed before people eat it. GM maize could have added virus and antibiotic resistance genes, and a gene that makes it express an insecticide in every leaf, stem and root – but to the US government it looks and grows like maize, so it is safe to eat.

GM crops face mounting scientific evidence of uncertainty, risk and danger. But now, because of rising food prices, the GM industry's claim that GM is needed to feed the world is suddenly newsworthy again. However, a key reason for soaring food prices – higher oil costs leading to higher fertiliser prices – also presents a massive threat to GM crops. All current and planned GM crops depend on artificial, oil-based fertiliser to grow, and all need to be treated with pesticides to survive.

In 2006, the pro-GM US Department of Agriculture observed that "currently available GM crops do not increase yield potential" – a point already made by a 2004 UN Food and Agriculture Organisation report which acknowledged that "GM crops can have reduced yields". The recently published UN IAASTD report, the work of more than 400 international scientists, about the future of global food production under the challenges of climate change and population pressure, concluded that GM crops do not have much to offer.

Confirming an earlier FAO conference's conclusions, the IAASTD report acknowledged organic farming's real potential to help feed the world in an era of rising oil prices and the urgent need to cut greenhouse gases, because organic systems use solar energy and clover to fix nitrogen in the soil, not oil and gas. The value of this approach was also confirmed in a report this year by the International Trade Centre, technical advisors to the WTO and UN. The new challenge we face is: how do we feed the world as oil and gas become costlier and scarcer, and as we cut greenhouse gases by 80 per cent by 2050? No one suggests the answer to that is GM.

Peter Melchett is the director of the Soil Association

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Data Scientist (Data Mining, RSPSS, R, AI, CPLEX, SQL)

£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Senior Data Sc...

Law Costs

Highly Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - This is a very unusual law c...

Junior VB.NET Application Developer (ASP.NET, SQL, Graduate)

£28000 - £30000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior VB.NET ...

C# .NET Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, jQuery, XML, XLST)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Web De...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Richard Attenborough, who died on 25 August, attends a film premiere  

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

DJ Taylor
Women were excluded from the decision-making progress in Rotherham  

Rotherham child sexual abuse scandal - the lessons: Asian women's voices go unheard

Joan Smith
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Chosen to lead the women's wing of the ruling Zanu-PF, the wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding the 90-year old
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model of a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution