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Golden Rice, Owen Paterson and on being absolutely wicked

It’s a shock to wake up on a Monday and find out you have been branded as ‘absolutely wicked’. Owen Paterson Secretary of State for Environment Food and Rural Affairs yesterday suggested that us, along with a large portion of the buying public, millions of farmers, and other public interest groups, are ‘wicked’ for opposing the introduction of GM crops like golden rice. He stated, wrongly, that our ‘hang ups’ on GM were harming the health of children in developing countries.

It’s important to set a few things straight

  • We are in the business of securing protection for the natural systems on which we depend- protection that the evidence tells us are vital for our future wellbeing
  • We assess the scientific evidence. Always have. Always will.
  • The solutions we, and many others, propose has largely nothing to do with the relatively limited yet absurdly dominant GM thread in the debate about food and farming.

GM is a distraction

Our position is that despite vast amounts of funding and political support received over the last 30 years, GM technology has not, and is unlikely to deliver ready-made solutions in the face of these complex challenges. This is because:

– No ‘miracle’ GM crops have been successfully developed that will, for example, withstand drought, tolerate salt or fix nitrogen. The modifications needed are very complex, involving many different genes in the plant, and interactions between them that are still poorly understood.

– GM crops grown currently do not improve yields compared with conventional crops. Gains in crop yields have been through conventional breeding.

– Commercially grown GM crops are exacerbating problems caused by industrial farming practices, such as monocultures and soil degradation. They also mostly feed cars (as biofuels) and factory farmed animals; not people.

– The currently available pest and herbicide tolerant GM crops are causing serious weed and pest resistance problems for farmers and a huge increase in chemical use. GM crops in the pipeline are more of the same herbicide tolerant and insect resistant crops, and increasingly, combinations of the two, with some resistance to multiple herbicides in one crop.

– Opposition to Golden Rice needs to be placed in the global context of how the biotech industry has relentlessly and aggressively (with the assistance of the U.S. government) thrust this technology on the rest of the world. Asian Farmer groups are opposed as they know that the crop is “being used to wrest control and access over plant genetic resources on which the farmers’ over time have been the stewards and innovators”.

Other better technologies exist and are already proven to work.

But there is a clear pattern of new government support for GM.  This raises the question whether this is a result of meetings Owen Paterson and other key ministers and MPs have held with GM industry representatives in June 2012, uncovered by investigative journalist Guy Adams.

The case of Golden Rice

The specific case of GM Golden Rice – genetically altered to contain beta carotene, a source of Vitamin A – is well documented – see this Channel 4 Factcheck.  The Guardian’s EcoAudit conclusions for the debate yesterday, were that ‘golden rice remains a very long way from the developing world’s dinner plate. The science and the regulatory process still have a long way to go.’

One scientist responding stated that “the main obstacles that lie in front of the science were not the anti-GM lobby or regulation, but the simple technical difficulty of producing the crop.”  The International Rice Research Institute state “it has not yet been determined whether daily consumption of Golden Rice does improve the vitamin A status of people who are vitamin A deficient and could therefore reduce related conditions such as night blindness”.

Indeed it is not even clear that Vitamin A deficiency is still an issue as a programme of a campaign of Vitamin A supplementation (costing less than US $0.04 per child) as well as food fortification has cut levels of deficiency dramatically. The most desirable option is a nutritious, varied diet with fresh leafy vegetables.

The right to debate

We would like a mature debate. We are not wicked (well not at work…) and we listen to the voices of farmers in the global South that consistently say they must not lose control over food supplies – a real risk as crop genes get patented.

The idea that we have to pick between supporting Golden Rice or helping starving children is a false construct. The billions of research dollars spent on developing Golden Rice could have been invested in a programme of supporting farmer and consumer development and farm diversification.

Our briefing outlines the real solutions we think are required to put food security on track and tackle the greatest threats to food security such as  climate change, soil degradation, water shortages, and a lack of agricultural diversity. Experts are increasingly calling for side measures such as reducing waste and tackling unsustainable levels of meat demand.

Expecting simple gene technologies to solve these problems is misguided. Instead we need Ministers to get behind a different approach that enhances resilience in farming systems, uses the best proven technologies available, protects soils and increases agricultural diversity, tackles demand, and benefits local communities.

In an ideal world we would have an Environment minister that focused on these solutions and spent less time commenting on our morality.

Post written on 15th October 2013

 

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