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.

Friday, February 20, 2004

Rewriting that Guardian Leader.....

Some days, the Groaniad is just so depressing in its cynical and negative view of everything. Today is such a day, from the dire pieces by Naomi Klein and Colin Tudge to its 'Letters' of unalloyed Spartian disingenuity and the ever-so predictable 'Leading Article' on the government and GM maize.

I have thus rewritten the 'Leading Article' on GM maize in a positive and non-cynical mode. What a change! I feel better all ready:

The New Guardian, Leading Article, February 20, 2004.

Moral maize: yes

As a name, T25/Chardon LL, is hardly an advertiser's dream - but the genetically-modified maize to which it refers will soon, according to cabinet minutes published in this newspaper yesterday, be commercially grown in Britain, thus making it the first new GM crop legally approved for commercial planting in the UK. This is timely news.

The UK is already some years behind much of the rest of the world in developing and growing GM crops. Such crops are now commercially viable in countries as disparate as Canada and China, with over 6 million farmers, many small-scale and local, benefiting from the lower costs and reduction in chemical usage. In 1990, the UK was still at the forefront of biotechnology in agriculture, with many specialists working in the field. Today, by sad contrast, we lag worryingly behind, many of our experts having gone abroad to benefit from the more empathetic research and development environments that exist in other countries, including Australia and Germany.

The government is thus to be congratulated for taking both a strong moral and a sensibly pragmatic stance on this issue, despite the fierceness of the highly disparate, strident, and often irrational, opposition. The approach which appears to have been adopted by Margaret Beckett and her team is exactly right for any crop novelty - GM, conventional, organic, or alternative - namely, a carefully-researched, crop-by-crop, product-by-product, approach. Some GM crops will prove a boon for the UK; others will be largely neutral; while yet others will not be suitable for our special island conditions. It is surely correct to examine each novelty as it comes along and then to make a considered decision in each specific instance. Neither a blanket ban nor a blanket acceptance will serve British agriculture as it deserves.

The idea of an outright rejection of GM crops is dangerous nonsense for the UK. Very soon GM crops will move into their third and fourth generations with all sorts of exciting novelties, including the production of biodegradable materials for packaging, enhanced biofuels with good environmental characteristics, and consumer products, with benefits like lowered cholesterol and improved cooking qualities. GM crops will also be used for what is called 'pharming', to carry much-needed vaccines, medicines, and nutritional supplements. Moreover, some of the countries about to join the EU are already deeply involved with GM crops and GM research, and they could prove powerful competitors in the near future. It would be tragic if, yet again, the UK, once the leader in a scientific field, lost out through its failure of will in the politics and economics of novel development.

The prime minister and the government are thus right and brave to forge ahead, despite much 'Little Englander', 'Little Scottish', and 'Little Welsh' opposition. It is vital that the UK re-asserts its international leadership in the careful development of GM crops. Moreover, we must not let British agriculture lag behind the rest of the world at a time when it is already in so parlous a state. We are confident that, in ten to fifteen years time, the GM brouhaha will have been largely forgotten and that these crops will be taken as a normal part of modern agricultural life. We would also like to see GM crops being linked with organic systems for the very best of modern developments in agriculture. The present artificial dichotomy is foolish and unhelpful.

Philip, thank goodness for Polly Toynbee's piece today - at least there is a little light in the Groaniad's gloaming.

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

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