Owen Paterson: the minister for GM hype


Zac Goldsmith

The environment secretary's stance on GM food is grotesque, argues Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith.
Why is hi-tech golden rice hailed as a solution to a problem that could be solved far more cheaply and quickly with the supply of green vegetables and cheap supplements?

GM has never been about feeding the world. It is and has always been about control of the global food economy by a tiny handful of giant corporations.

Asked recently about 'golden rice', genetically modified to tackle blindness caused by vitamin A deficiency, Britain's environment secretary responded: "It's just disgusting that little children are allowed to go blind and die because of a hang-up by a small number of people about this technology. I think what they do is absolutely wicked."

It was a staggering thing to say. For one thing, the developers of golden rice have said that it is not even ready for commercial planting. For another, it will be assessed in the Philippines, not Europe. So the suggestion that anyone has died because campaigners have hindered progress is grotesque.

What's more, commentators everywhere are wondering why hi-tech golden rice should be hailed as a solution to a problem that could be solved far more cheaply and quickly with the supply of green vegetables and cheap supplements.

Despite the hyperbole, Owen Paterson has said that he wants an informed, science-led discussion about the potential benefits of GM crops. I would like to take him at his word and challenge some of his broader assumptions.

Last year 170 million hectares were planted with GM crops, almost all with one of two traits: herbicide tolerance and insect resistance. Paterson says farmers wouldn't grow it, governments wouldn't license it, and consumers wouldn't buy it if it were not cost-effective and beneficial. But the facts tell a different story.

Farmers who took on herbicide-tolerant GM crops are now struggling with the cost of combating herbicide-resistant "superweeds". Some 49% of US farms suffer from Roundup-resistant superweeds, a 50% increase on the year before. As a result, since 1996 there has been a disproportionate increase in the use of weedkillers - in excess of 225m kg in the US.

Meanwhile, farmers who took on pest-resistant GM crops are struggling with the cost of secondary pests unaffected by the built-in toxins. In China and India, initial savings from reduced insecticide use with Bt cotton have been eroded as secondary pests emerged.

Nor has GM boosted yields as promised. Indeed, in Europe, where only small amounts of GM maize are grown, yield growth of traditionally bred varieties is much faster than that of the GM-dominated midwest of the US: average yields in western Europe are now higher.

The secretary of state apparently fears that other countries are ploughing ahead and leaving Europe behind, but there's little evidence of that either. India has just placed a 10-year moratorium on planting its first GM food crop. Mexico has banned the planting of GM maize, Peru has placed a 10-year moratorium on the import and cultivation of GM seeds, and Bolivia has committed to giving up growing all GM crops by 2015.

Why is hi-tech golden rice hailed as a solution to a problem that could be solved far more cheaply and quickly with the supply of green vegetables and cheap supplements?

Last year China announced a move away from widespread adoption of GM crops for at least the next five years, in favour of developing more sustainable high-yield non-GM crops. Consumers more or less everywhere have been consistently hostile.

Here in the UK, the most recent YouGov survey reported in Farmers Weekly showed that only 21% of consumers are willing to support GM food. As a result, in January the German chemical giant BASF announced it was halting the development and commercialisation of GM crops in Europe, citing "lack of acceptance for the technology". At the same time Monsanto said it would not be selling its MON810 maize in France in 2012 or beyond.

According to Paterson, this is all the result of wicked environmental campaigners. It's such an absurd position that were it not for his government position, it wouldn't merit a response.

GM has been widely commercialised for nearly 20 years; more than enough time to prove itself. The industry behind it has powerful friends in the media and politics, and vast financial resources.

Consider California's vote last year on 'Proposition 37', a proposal to require labels on GM foods. The GM lobby spent $46m. Monsanto's contribution alone was $8m, more than the entire pro-labelling campaign. Food campaigners can only dream of having that kind of influence.

In truth, the reason GM never took off as predicted is because all those promises of cheap pest control, and crops that tolerate flood, salt and extreme weather, simply haven't materialised. If they had, perhaps consumers would be willing to put niggling doubts about safety to one side. Without the success story, GM relies on hype.

The irony is that a different type of biotechnology - traditional hybridisation - has actually delivered those products, and at a fraction of the cost. Using new technologies such as gene marker mapping and genome sequencing, conventional breeding has quietly delivered, among other things, drought-tolerant and flood-tolerant rice varieties with higher yields.

British scientists have developed disease-resistant pearl millet for Africa and 'superwheat', a new type that could increase productivity by 30%. And while the cost of bringing a GM crop to market is estimated at $136m, a non-GM variety costs one-fiftieth of that sum.

But even while there is so much to gain from traditional biotech, there's little money in it. Improving and selling crop varieties that farmers can use year after year is not as profitable to the industry as a GM model that requires farmers to purchase patented seeds each year, locking them into dependence on the giant companies - just three of which control a staggering 70% of global seed sales.

GM has never been about feeding the world, or tackling environmental problems. It is and has always been about control of the global food economy by a tiny handful of giant corporations. It's not wicked to question that process. It is wicked not to.

Zac Goldsmith is the Conservative MP for Richmond, and a former editor of The Ecologist

This article is referred to by Professor Dale Sanders in his article Golden rice naysayers ignore the world's need for nutrition also published by The Ecologist. It should not be seen as a response to that article. 

This article was first published by The Guardian on 24th October 2013. We sought permission to republish it at the time but this was refused by The Guardian. We are publishing it now in response to a specific request from Zac Goldsmith.

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