Jimmy’s GM Food Fight swallows my afternoon whole…

November 26, 2008 at 5:46 pm 5 comments

I’ve just spent an afternoon watching Jimmy’s GM Food Fight when I was supposed to be working. Oops.

And it drove me mad, but the funny thing was that I actually agree with his conclusion, broadly that in theory there is no reason why genetic modification cannot have a role in sustainable agriculture in the future, but that the model as it stands at the moment stands to benefit large-scale farmers and the biotech companies while putting the people who live around and eat the crops at risk and that we should therefore proceed with extreme caution. Which is all well and good, and thus makes me slightly annoyed that the previous 50 minutes should have been spent trotting out the same old pro-GM arguments you hear all over the place and portraying anti-GM campaigners’s rejection of biotechnology as anti-science or a product of ignorance. He seemed to be assuming they didn’t know how GM worked and were rejecting it because they didn’t understand it, rather than because of issues around corporate control and markets.

He said his main concerns about GM were the potential risks to human health and the environment. He did admit that some lab tests had shown that GM provoked allergic reactions in mice, but pointed to the fact that people in the US had been eating GM for 10 years and no adverse effects had been recorded, without mentioning that this could be because there is no labelling (despite overwhelming public demand for it) and so nobody can build up a picture of what people are eating and examine the data to see if there’s a link. There was also much emphasis on how good for the environment GM crops were because they needed less pesticide, which had also saved farmers in Arizona money, but then you could easily find other farmers (Mr Schmeiser springs to mind, or see the films The World According to Monsanto or The Future of Food) who’d tell you that resistance built up and meant they had to spray more, or that the companies who sold both seed and pesticide/herbicide put up their prices…

And the point was made that the debate is very polarised, with hard-line extremists on both sides, there is research claimed to support both sides (a lot of it of dubious origin) and there is no proper safety testing regime, but this got lost among what seemed like pro-GM propaganda: we’ve been modifying plants since the dawn of time, GM is just like selective breeding (and compare his rejection of the wild carrot in its natural state to his glee at seeing the brown GM tomatoes that were ‘more nutritious’ than conventional ones); GM will feed the world; GM could be better for the environment; the unspoken idea that it’s okay for white, middle-class, well-fed people in the developed world to reject GM but do we really want to see millions of poor Africans starve? And the idea that it’s a conflict of scientists versus protestors.

His closing statement was that whether you were for or against GM, ‘you’ve got to be for understanding’. Indeed.  Here are some things I am totally in favour of understanding:

Where are these crops that will be drought-resistant or fight cancer? Are they in development, as well as the ones that grab the headlines such as the Roundup-ready or Terminator genes?

How will GM prevent hunger in developing countries? What about all the research and scholarship that shows that famines are almost always about access and markets than due to an absolute shortage of food? Did the Zambian president reject the GM food aid because he didn’t understand the science, or did he reject the way Western agribusiness companies control world food markets? Can we implement changes to world trade policies that would give developing countries greater food security?

Why are all trials of GM crops done against conventional crops? Why can’t we have some publicly-funded research comparing GM crops with organic or agro-ecological agriculture or whatever you want to call it?

Are there other methods of achieving the same thing? Are there less water-intensive forms of agriculture that could take the place of crops bred to be drought-resistant? The tomatoes that were ‘more nutritious’ than conventional ones – are they more nutritious than the ones I grow or the ones at the farmers’ market, or only more nutritious than the tasteless water-bombs in the supermarkets? They have been modified to contain the nutrients and antioxidants found in blackberries and blackcurrants, which people don’t eat much of and which are ‘seasonal’ (unlike tomatoes, of course *rolls eyes*) – why do people eat more tomatoes than berries? Can we encourage them to eat more berries instead?

Yes, it is ‘madness’ to reject out of hand a technology that might prove useful in the future, but surely it’s also madness to adopt it in a hurry when there are other, albeit low-tech and less sexy, solutions like land reform, trade reform, nutritional education or tried-and-tested organic farming that could solve the same problems without the risks. Surely?

Now, is there going to be a series of ‘Jimmy’s GM Farm’ coming up anytime soon, that’s what I want to know…

For further information, please read Raj Patel’s Stuffed and Starved, because unlike me he is a proper writer and has a thorough reference section.

Entry filed under: farming, food, GM. Tags: , , .

Allotment update… Slimming products

5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. sheepdrove  |  November 27, 2008 at 5:21 pm

    The scientific evidence available to challenge GM is broad. Ecological, epidemiological and energy aspects are not easy to resolve, once you look into the weaknesses of GM crops.

    The claim that “we need GM to feed the world” seems to be the biggest part of the present propaganda from the biotech industry. And who would deny the chance to feed the hungry? But GM as it stands is not the magic ingredient. The lack of GM technology is not the reason for 1 billion undernourished today.

    AS YOU SAY – what about the lack of access to food, what about the control of “commodity” markets?

    That’s what this conference begins to answer >
    There were speakers who were pro-GM, middle of the road, mixed, and against. GM crops were, however, shown to be not fit for purpose – time and time again.

    The case for ecological farming is actually stronger than ever. Environmentally-friendly and socially-aware approaches to food production are essential for food security.

  • 2. animah  |  November 29, 2008 at 3:54 am

    Only pseudo-scientific half truths and biased comments. Portraiting european concerns about GM foods as unfounded and ill-informed.
    All in all a decent and, possibly efficient, GM propaganda piece from BBC Horizon.

  • 3. Ed Harris  |  November 30, 2008 at 10:15 am

    I agree completely with your views on Jimmy’s contribution to the debate. There are so many important questions about GM that were left completely untouched. It also frustrates me that when a problem like “People aren’t getting enough of nutrient X which is common in vegetable Y” is raised, the immediate solution isn’t just to encouage people to eat more of vegetable Y, it’s to genetically engineer some other vegetable that people prefer eating, at vast expense, unknown risk, and with reliance on corporate funding. More here.

  • 4. sproutingbroccoli  |  December 2, 2008 at 10:10 pm

    So glad it wasn’t just me… I’ve just written and complained about it.

  • 5. fuad  |  January 8, 2009 at 5:37 pm

    i would second all the scepticism of the BBC’s angle on this programme as well as its pro -GM stance, as well as portaying anti GM sentiment the preserve of badly informed reactionary fools. there is a LOT of very credible evidence that not only is GM untested and unproven but actually very dangerous. implying that it caused some alleriges in mice and thats all is just blatantly untrue, a lot of the mice in the russian study had a hugely increased rate of infant mortality. also the coincidence of and 8-fold increse in allergy to soya that dovetailed with the introduction of GM soya to the UK. thats just scratching the surface of this potentially irrevocable ecological disaster.please read ‘seeds of deception’ by jeffrey m smith or visit seedsofdeception.com. also essential is the film ‘the world according to monsanto’.


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