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.

Thursday, October 23, 2003

Thank goodness for a GM cavalier.....

I have to confess that some of the anti-GM lobby come over as the most self-righteous and priggish puritans of the age. They are so earnest that I feel I have lost the will to live (self hanging imitations all round!). I thus found it refreshing to read Ross Clark in more cavalier mood in next week's The Spectator (October 25): 'GM may be good for you'. Thank goodness for a positive take! But Ross is clearly a brave man arguing that we should ignore the eco-brigade’s hysteria over genetically modified food. He will soon be classed as 'The Man of Blood' in po-faced puritan style! Here is an excellent passage from his piece:-

"Before rushing off to join Ms Tulip at the furrows, the eco-brigade might just care to study what the government scientists actually said. They have found nothing in GM food that directly harms any kind of wildlife. The reason there are fewer beasts found in GM fields is that fewer weeds grow there. By the same token, any form of farming can be said to be bad for wildlife in that were it not for crops, the land could be given over entirely to weeds. The preservation of nature is a noble aim, but not to the extent that the survival of particular butterflies in particular fields should be allowed to cast a veto over all agricultural improvement. Wouldn’t it be better if butterflies were provided with alternative habitats on field margins and nature reserves where they wouldn’t risk having their wings mangled by combine harvesters? One advantage of higher-yielding GM crops is that they would free up land for nature conservation." [My emphasis]. Good point.

Nettle tea, Ms Tulip? Philip.

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

A geological perspective on risk.....

There is one occasional Guardian correspondent whom I find excellent, namely Bill McGuire, Director of the Benfield Hazard Research Centre at University College London (UCL) - then all the best people are from UCL! He has a nice way of putting the world's imagined problems into real geological perspective. Here is his 'Analysis' piece from today's newspaper: 'Heebie gee-gees', (The Guardian, October 22). Now what is that rumbling noise.....? Whoops! Very dusty round here today. Phillipus of Pompeii.
Drought and flood - 18th century style.....

Lest you are tempted to fall for the current media and government hype that this year's drought and last year's floods are anything special...here are some pertinent entries from Gilbert White's famous 18th century diary, or Naturalist's Journal:


1770: Oct. 18: Vast floods on the Sussex rivers: the meadows all under water. Vast flood at Houghton..... The Sussex-rivers are very liable to floods, which occasion great loss & inconvenience to the Farmers. Nov. 8. Heavy rain for 24 hours. Vast flood at Gracious street & dorton [sic]. Nov. 3. Misling rain all day. Nov. 9. Floods: torrents & cataracts in the lanes. Nov. 15. Vast rain at night. The ground so wet that no sowing goes forward. Much ground unsown.


1781: Oct. 16. The mill at Hawkley cannot work one-tenth of the time for want of water. Oct. 21. The distress for water in many places is great. Oct. 26. Men sow their wheat in absolute dust. Oct. 31. The water is so scanty in the streams that millers cannot grind barley sufficient for mens [sic] hogs. Dairy-farms cannot fill the butter-pots of their customers.

And, if you can get hold of it (not online, I fear), you might like to read my own latest piece, 'Truth about the politics of flood and drought', in the beautiful Country Illustrated, Autumn 2003, pp. 70-75. And, of course, it poured down all last night! Philip.

Tuesday, October 21, 2003

Small-scale terrorism of a different kind.....

A deeply depressing article in last week's The Times Higher Education Supplement (October 17), entitled 'Scientists quit UK amid GM attacks', records the impact on some very good people of what is little short of ecoterrorism. A small minority of the anti-GM lobby are not nice people. One fine and deeply concerned scientist tells us that over the last five years he has been consistently abused and that he has had to call the bomb squad on one occasion. The head of an equally fine institute has been the victim of personal threats for having had the audacity to take part in the nationwide GM debate. This has forced him into protective measures. In one incident of crop vandalisation, experimental plants were destroyed that were part of an investigation into drought resistence in crops for poverty-stricken sub-Saharan Africa. The mind boggles at the sheer stupidity and self-indulgence. The THES reports a survey showing that between January, 1999 and April, 2003, there have been at least 28 incidents of vandalism against basic crop trials, and 52 against the Farm Scale Evaluations (FSEs). And the outcome is inevitable. A number of our best scientists are leaving, to countries such as Australia, Germany, and the US. We cannot allow this illegal and anti-democratic activity to succeed in this country, and I am waiting for organisations and newspapers that should know much better to disavow publically such activities. Moreover, the government must now show its mettle in the face this crass and dangerous 'campaigning'.

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.

Good but not necessarily approved......

Thanks to Ophelia Benson at Butterflies and Wheels for bringing a most interesting deconstruction of current phobia's about technology and science to my attention: 'The fault line in the organic debate'. This is an excellent piece by Thomas R. DeGregori (Professor of Economics at the University of Houston) and readers of EnviroSpin may be just a smidgen surprised that so critical an article is featured in - er - The Guardian (Saturday, October 18). Don't be; it is in the so-called 'Editor' Section, in which selected pieces from around the media are highlighted for a mixture of reasons. Such an honour, I fear, does not necessarily mean approbation by The Guardian Time Lords. Indeed, they have even reported two of my own articles in the past! "Exterminate! Exterminate!" The original DeGregori article was published at Butterflies and Wheels (September 11) - much more fun on a chilly Sunday evening. Philip.

Sunday, October 19, 2003

GM facts not fictions.....

I happen to like Gradgrindian facts, not emotive media fictions. Here are some telling facts about GM crops you may not have heard:-

(a) The estimated global area of commercial GM crops for 2002 (latest full statistics) was 58.7 million hectares (ha) or 145 million acres (i.e., around 2.5 times the land area of the UK). This was a 12% increase in 2002 on 2001, by an area of 6.1 million ha (15 million acres). Since 1996, the average yearly increase in area has been over 10%. This is one of the highest adoption rates for any new crop technology ever recorded. ("Does this make our little field trials seem just a fraction twee, I wonder? And the farmers sold their crops too!");

(b) Commercial GM crops are now grown in more than 16 countries by between 5.5 to 6.0 million farmers - up from 5 million farmers in 2001 ("Oh! I had been assured that no farmers wanted to grow GM crops. Odd some of our press saying that.");

(c) An increasing proportion of GM crops are grown in developing countries (27% by area in 2002). India commercialized Bt cotton for the first time in 2002, while Colombia (Bt cotton) and Honduras (Bt corn) grew a pre-commercial hectarage. China has benefited from the highest year-on-year percentage growth, with a 40% increase in its Bt cotton area, which now occupies more than half (51%) of the national cotton area of 4.1 million ha ("Oh dear! Environmental correspondents have told us over and over again that farmers in the developing world don't want this technology. Can our media be wrong? Surely, not!");

(d) Our worries over the cross-contamination of 'organic' crops in the UK from beet and oilseed rape are biologically fatuous. We grow no 'organic' oil seed rape, and the beet produces no pollen, being harvested in the first year (it is a biennial). And with regards to the production of so-called 'superweeds', see our super Guest Essay from Matt Ridley above. ("Just think of all those sleepless nights the newspapers have caused me! They have contaminated my dreams!");

(e) Anybody who has been to the US or Canada will have eaten GM in some form or another; GM enzymes have been empoyed in cheese production since at least 1990; and very soon, 60% of all soy-based products in the UK will include some product from a GM source. ("Hm! Time to open proudly an all-singing-and-dancing GM restaurant and to create a new niche market for the rational consumer! My! Wouldn't that shock those trendy newspaper food supplements that nobody reads? Oh! But would I be given the choice? Or would my kitchens be vandalised?").

Further interesting global GM statistics are available from the ISAAA Website. One final question: "Where will British farming be fifteen years on when novel and exciting new GM products, including consumer-orientated foodstuffs, biofuels, and green packaging, are being imported cheaply from the newly-developed world and from the new member states of of the EU?"

Just some facts and questions while our media goes into overhype.

And here is a good piece from Tony Gilland on Sp!ked: GM Crop Trials:Why?. Another fair question!

Time for my natural, organic, as-grandma-made-it, nettle tea, like Nature intended! Ouch, that hurt! Philip.

[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]

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