A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Monday, October 20, 2003

EnviroSpin Guest Essay: Matt Ridley

From time to time, EnviroSpin will host a guest essay from a famous writer or scientist. Our first is from one the world's most popular science writers, Matt Ridley, celebrated for his many fine books, but especially for The Red Queen, The Origins of Virtue, and Genome. His latest much-reviewed book is Nature via Nurture (London: Fourth Estate, 2003). I am most grateful to Matt for sending EnviroSpin this trenchant essay which addresses the false dichotomy between the concepts of GM and 'organic'. You should contrast the careful arguments presented by Matt with the pure hype in yesterday's The Observer. I have also just received an e-mail from an Australian colleague amazed at the dreadful science reporting in our media in relation to the Farm Scale Evaluations(FSEs). (Well! At least we beat South Africa at Perth!). See also my own little potted History of biotechnology in agriculture.

Guest Essay
Field of oilseed rape in flower (courtesy of the Canola Council of Canada).
Matt Ridley

SO NOW we know that the first generation of GM maize has more weeds in it than conventional maize, while rape and beet have less. (In the topsy-turvy world of modern farming, more weeds mean a more acceptable crop.) The anti-GM argument that they should all be banned to save the environment is therefore finished for good. But it will not stop many environmentalists opposing all GM crops, for they have two other arguments up their sleeve, both so specious, so hypocritical, that they must not pass unchallenged.

The first argument is that GM technology will create 'superweeds’. These sound appropriately triffid-like, but in practice they are a dream come true for the 'organic' movement. The second argument is that GM crops will 'contaminate' organic food. The emotive word disguises a problem entirely of the 'organic' movement’s own making and a non-issue for the rest of the world.

A 'superweed' is greenspeak for a weed that has acquired a gene, or genes, from a genetically modified plant, probably by hybridisation. Since nobody has suggested that GM plants are more promiscuous hybridisers, or more vigorous spreaders – the genes inserted into them are not those that affect these properties – this risk is no higher than with conventional crops. So first pause to ask yourself when you last had a trouble with wheat, with rape, or with hybrids between them and their wild relatives, last time you weeded your herbaceous border. Never?

Hardly ever in the past 9,000 years has any crop turned into a weed, and for good reason: we select our crops for their ability to deliver yield: heavy seeds, not hardy ones. We domesticate them.

Actually, no environmentalists really believe that GM crops are likely to be better at being weeds (though they are happy for us plebs to reach that mistaken conclusion) – except in one respect. They worry that a GM crop with the genes for herbicide resistance may spread that trait to a wild weed making it, too, resistant to herbicide. That is what they mean by `superweed’. Then where would we be?

'Organic' high priests

In 'organic' heaven, that is where. These are the very same people who have been inveighing against synthetic herbicides as dangerous pollutants. Now along comes an invention that might make some herbicides useless against some weeds and they want to moan about it? They should rejoice! The 'organic' farmer, far from being threatened by the superweeds that his GM neighbour might inadvertently create, can look across the hedge and laugh, for he does not use synthetic herbicides, so the `superweeds’ cannot possibly be a threat to him.

The environmental movement’s other argument against GM crops is that any 'contamination' by pollen from GM crops is unacceptable. A slight trace of such 'contamination' makes an 'organic' crop ineligible for the certification on which the farmer depends to charge an 'organic' premium. But this is an arbitrary decision by the 'organic' high priests, with no scientific basis. 'Organic' plants have always been 'contaminated' by pollen from other crops nearby and always will be. By choosing an absurdly low threshold of cross-pollination from just one kind of innovative crop, the activists are merely signing the death warrant of 'organic' farming. What are their motives for this ridiculous position? Beats me.

In any case, think what genes could possibly arrive in the 'contaminating' pollen. In the United States, they would now include genes for insect resistance, for example: these so-called Bt* genes make the very insect-killing toxin that 'organic' farmers use as a pesticide. Yet whereas the 'organic' farmers spray it on, indiscriminately killing passing insects, the GM farmers will see the toxin expressed only within the plants so that it only affects pests that eat the plants. This is why the birds and butterflies thrive better in GM, but not in 'organic' maize fields. How is it possible to object to Bt when it comes from a GM plant, but not when it comes in spray form? Hypocrisy, that’s how.

GM technology best hope for 'organic' agriculture

By the way, try asking an 'organic' farmer how the varieties he grows were produced in the first place. The chances are, he will reply that they were produced by conventional breeding. This conjures up an image of a bearded rustic carefully selecting seeds from hybrids in a flower-flecked field. Then tell him the truth. Nearly all of the varieties grown by 'organic' farmers (and other farmers) these days were first produced with the aid of artificial mutagenesis – i.e., random, sledgehammer genetic modification – using one or more of the following aids: beta rays, gamma rays, X-rays or toxic chemicals. The truth is the nuclear industry is one of the prime sources of new 'conventional' mutations in crops – or was, until genetic modification came along.

Like all techniques, including GM, 'organic' farming has its environmental benefits and its drawbacks. Its benefits include a greater tolerance for flowers and insects in its fields and lower risk of contamination with synthetic chemicals. Its drawbacks include a land hunger caused by low yields, and a consequently greater pressure on 'natural' habitats, plus a tendency to produce food stuffs high in 'natural' toxic chemicals. Every single one of the samples of 'organic' maize tested last month by the Food Standards Agency were unsafely contaminated with genuinely dangerous but natural mycotoxins called fumonisins [See post here for October 7. Ed.] that were at safe levels in all samples of non-organic maize meal. Fumonisins cause liver and kidney damage in rats. In one 'organic' maize sample, the levels were 40 times those considered safe. But don’t expect to read about this in The Daily Mail.

It is becoming more obvious by the day that the 'organic' movement has made a disastrous mistake by its opposition to GM technology, for GM represents the best hope of making 'organic' agriculture competitive with conventional farming. It could increase 'organic' yields, thus saving wild habitats. It could make 'organic' crops insect-resistant so making indiscriminate spraying unnecessary. It could introduce no-till agriculture, preventing soil erosion. GM is the way to make the 'organic' dream become a reality. Because it affects the plant from within, using natural genes, it is a supremely 'organic' technology.

The agricultural chemical companies rushed into GM technology because they saw the threat it posed to their old chemical way of doing business. Most have now rushed back to inventing new chemical sprays: they get far less flak from the greens for that.

Copyright©Matt Ridley, 2003. This essay is first published here with the permission of the author.

* Bt = Bacillus thuringiensis

See below (October 19) for some illuminating world statistics on GM crops. Ed.


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