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10 Mar 2010

Why GM Has No Place in a World in Transition

gmI was disappointed to read Mark Lynas’s piece in New Statesman, “Why We Greens Keep Getting It Wrong”.  The piece builds on Lynas’s previous much publicised conversion to nuclear power, arguing that if we are to apply the scientific rigour that underpins climate science to all other areas of life, in the same way that nuclear power is supported by the science, so is GM. While I strongly disagree with him on both, I want here to challenge Lynas’s conversion to GM, and the belief that if we are serious about climate change, we have no option other than to embrace GM.

Lynas clearly has been swayed by Stewart Brand, whose new book ‘Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto’ argues that it is time greens got real and embraced both nuclear power and GM. He appears to be arguing that we need now, given the immensity of climate change, to accept things we might otherwise have questioned; however, for me, in the case of GM, this would represent a jettisoning of ethics, values and principles. I believe absolutely that GM has no place whatsoever in a world responding responsibly to climate change and peak oil, and in saying so, I am not rejecting a “science-led assessment of the likely risks and benefits”, rather am basing it very much on the science. So, lets take a look at the claims Lynas makes for GM.

It’s Safe to Eat.

Lynas states that there is “zero evidence that any genetically modified foods in existence today pose a health risk to anyone. Millions of people in the US and Canada have eaten GM corn and soya for years now”. This is a highly contentious statement. Has anyone actually done such a study, a longitudinal study that looks at the health impacts of GM foods? GM is in foods in various ways, through animal feeds, through all the various foodstuffs extracted from GM foods, especially corn, which as Michael Pollan’s ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’ so brilliantly reveals, are now prevalent in processed foods, as well as through our eating them directly.

The central issue here for me is the Precautionary Principle, a fundamental principle in any decision making process. This suggests that we understand and test new technologies before we implement them on any meaningful scale. There are now hundreds of thousands of man-made chemical compounds in the world that weren’t there 50 years ago, few of which have been adequately tested, and even fewer tested in the diverse cocktails in which we are exposed to them.  I would argue that the current state of the world has arisen, in part, from a failure to apply the Precautionary Principle, climate change being a case in point. Why now, when faced with the climate challenge, would we once again abandon precautionary thinking? It is one thing to state that there is no evidence of any health impacts arising from GM, but this a “no news is good news” approach has failed us spectacularly with other industrial food products, such as trans fats, which have been in our food for years before the harmful impacts they were having were identified.

Corporate Control

Lynas is dismissive of the argument that GM leads to the increasing corporate control of agriculture. He writes of greens that “their concern was that new, genetically engineered seeds would allow big corporations such as Monsanto to monopolise the world’s food supply, to the detriment of poor countries. However, this should not be an argument to oppose the technology. It would more rationally suggest the need for an open-source approach, where the benefits of GM technology could be developed within, and for the benefit of, poorer countries (drought-tolerant, more nutritious and nitrogen-fixing subsistence crops are some examples under development)”.

Handing food and farming over to vast agribusiness corporations in order to save the planet is a completely self-defeating ‘compromise’. Let’s be clear, Monsanto and other bio-tech corporations did not start genetically modifying seeds in order to feed the world, they did it in order to privatise genetic information, to hold patents for the very stuff of life. They also didn’t invent GM in order to save the world from climate change, that has been a much more recent piece of sales spin. A low carbon food and farming system will need to be based on a re-empowering of small farmers, a re-valuing of farming as a profession, a democratising of agriculture, not a bowing down of food and farming to corporate wishes. As we shall see below, this is potentially highly dangerous.

Lynas’s idea that making GM open source would somehow make it OK also needs questioning. Personally speaking, I feel that GM is simply unnecessary, there is no need to interfere with plants and animals in that way, that we are tinkering in a way that we barely understand, and have no sense of the long term consequences of, and we are abandoning the Precautionary Principle. I don’t have scientific papers to back that up, it is an instinctive revulsion at the very concept. The idea that making GM open source makes it fine was also discussed in Charles Leadbeater’s book ‘WeThink’, which argued that we could develop Wiki approaches to the modification of plants. Some obvious questions arise though, beyond whether the technology itself is ethically dubious or not.

Is Lynas really suggesting that remote agrarian communities, linked only by the web, would have the knowledge of genetics to be able to contribute to an international wiki GM design project, bringing genetically modified organisms to the point of being commercially viable? That they would be able to do this without the research funding, laboratory and testing facilities of large biotech companies, without those companies wanting a financial stake in the outputs? Huge money has already gone in to the GM products already on the market, I find it very hard to imagine that they are going to be philanthropically handed over as Creative Commons to the farmers of the developing world.

His proposal also ignores issues of power and money, failing to ask whether, in a corporate-dominated food economy shaped by power, greed, the maximising of profits and centralising of control and intellectual property, Lynas and Leadbeater’s concept of the intellectual property of seeds being handed back to farmers at the lowest level is fundamentally misconceived. What sort of knowledge and practice do we want to underpin our activities during this ‘make-or-break’ period in human evolution? I would argue that solutions which promote centralisation and dependency, such as geoengineering, GM and nuclear power, lock us into the same technofix thinking that got us here in the first place. As Einstein put it, “the significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them”.

Who’s Supported by the Science Here?

The recent IAASTD report, the product of what was, in effect, an IPCC on agriculture, with over 400 contributing scientists, the findings of which was endorsed by 60 world governments including the UK, was a scientifically rigorous look at the question of how to feed the world while reducing carbon emissions from agriculture. One of its chairmen was Bob Watson of DEFRA, a man whose openness to GM has been explored before here at Transition Culture, yet even so, the report is fairly dismissive of GM, arguing instead that the future of agriculture lies in “agro-ecological methods” and small scale farming. It argues for changing patterns of consumption so that farming doesn’t rely on oil and mined water.

At this year’s Soil Association conference, Dr. Mike Bushell from Syngenta was asked by Andy Goldring of the Permaculture Association why it was that Syngenta, one of the world’s leading biotech companies, had walked out of the IAASTD process. He replied that they had been unhappy with the process, and felt that it hadn’t represented their views fully. This was a rigorous process, which applied the scientific analysis Lynas advocates for climate change to agriculture, and concluded that GM has little if no role to play, and that what will produce more significant cuts in carbon will be agro-ecological measures and small farmers. So, is rejecting GM still looking like a rejection of science? Let’s continue. After all, Mark’s case is principally based on the argument not that GM is good for climate change, not whether or not it is morally repugnant.

Low Carbon Farming

Lynas’s bold conversion to GM is, in his article, based solely on those two arguments, that it has never made anyone sick and that there are ways round the corporate control thing and is it really such a problem anyway? There are however many other arguments that he sidesteps, which cannot be ignored in this discussion. One of the key ones is what a low carbon farming system actually looks like. In the 2009 UK Low Carbon Transition Plan, agriculture is set a measly target of 6% reductions in emissions by 2020, but can it do better, given that it needs to? A recent major report from the Soil Association brought together the research on soil carbon, and found that soils under organic management have 28% higher levels of carbon than conventionally farmed soils in Northern Europe, and 20% higher in the rest of the world.

It showed that under organic management, soils can produce carbon sequestration of 2 tons per hectare per year, and that for the UK that would lead to the sequestration of 64 million tons of carbon over the next 20 years, equivalent to taking 1 million cars off the road. This would lead to agriculture producing a 23% cut in emissions, not the 6% currently proposed. Beyond soil management, a low carbon farming system would be more diverse, incorporate more perennial plants, be more localised. If you want to reduce the carbon footprint of food, I would suggest that you start by tackling the fact that 50% of what global agriculture produces is thrown away, and the importing and exporting of produce that could just as easily have been grown close to the consumer.

Creating a Culture of Dependency

Drug dealers often work by creating a dependency that they can then serve, initially appearing generous, their true intentions and motivation becoming clear only over time. Similarly, supermarkets are often accused of opening new stores with cheap offers and loss-leaders, undercutting local competition until it withers away, and then raising prices. Farmers using GM seeds have found themselves in a similar position. The idea that GM was invented for the benefit of anyone other than Monsanto shareholders withers quickly on further examination.

US farmers buying Monsanto’s Roundup Ready 2 Soybean seeds in 2010 will be paying 42% more for those seeds than last year. Between 1975 and 1996, the cost of non-GM cotton seeds doubled, the cost of GM seeds rose from $73 to $589. For farmers in both the developed and the developing worlds, GM often leads farmers into a spiral of debt, as the recent film ‘Food Inc.’ identified. Vandana Shiva also links this spiral of debt with farmers suicides in India, which are still rising. US soya farmers usually spend between 4 and 8% of their income on seed.

In 2009, farms growing GM soya were spending 16.4%, and these costs have been driving cotton farmers into the red since 2008.
GM also increases, rather than diminishes, dependency on pesticide use. The idea behind paying more for GM seeds is that you then save money on the need to spray so often. However, a recent study found that overall, GM crops needed 26% more pesticides per acre than non-GM crops. We need agricultural systems that need less chemical fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides, not more. We need farming systems that rely less on artificial nitrogen, given the major contribution to climate change caused by nitrous oxide. GM would appear to fail on both counts.

Transition Food and Farming

So what does a low carbon farming system actually look like? Perhaps the best description I have yet come across is Colin Tudge’s, who in ‘So Shall We Reap’ describes it like this;

“The general answer (by and large) is to give the best, most suitable land to pulses, cereals and tubers (that is, to arable farming); to fit horticulture in every spare pocket – and be prepared to spend a lot of time and effort on it, and to invest capital for example in greenhouses; to allow the livestock to slot in as best it can …. in short, farms in general should be mixed: even the most committedly arable areas would in general benefit from at least some livestock, as all traditional farmers knew … the areas that are truly marginal – too high, too steep, too rocky, too dry, too wet – can be ideal for ruminants, notably sheep and cattle … some cereal and pulse can be grown expressly for livestock – but in general, only enough to keep them going through the winter, so they can make better use of the grazing in the summer”.

The model of agriculture that offers food security is not one that places control over how food is produced in the distant boardroom or with the share holder. This is too important. However, Lynas appears to have completely given up on the idea that any change in consumption patterns might be possible, our aim is to service business-as-usual in the most efficient way possible.

One of the problems with Lynas’s argument is that he purely sees this from a climate change perspective. When you add in peak oil and a Crash Course analysis of where the world’s economy is headed, the idea that we rely on experimental, potentially harmful, untested, distantly owned technologies becomes absurd. Food security is about creating an agriculture which is more diverse, more intimately linked to local economies, and based on a more seasonal diet. GM seeds are designed, at present, not to even grow stuff we eat directly, like potatoes or lettuces, but to produce the base from which processed foods can be created.

Most GM in agriculture is just four crops, soya, maize, cotton and rapeseed, and these are mostly grown to be processed into the bewildering array of additives that make up today’s processed food. Maize that humans actually eat as corn on the cob is not GM. The glucose syrup, fructose, and extensive list of corn-derived additions to processed food, are derived from GM corn. Although there may not be any direct evidence linking GM with ill health in humans (although some does exist from trials with rats), there is plenty to suggest that cheap processed food is killing us, and that a simpler, less processed diet would be to everyone’s benefit.

“Admitting mistakes is difficult, especially when one’s claimed position if the moral high ground”

I have long held that GM has no place in a low carbon farming system. This is not based on taking a moral high ground, or on intentionally rejecting science, rather it is based on taking a broader picture than merely whether it is harmful to eat or not. Does GM technology promote better soil health and carbon sequestration? Does it support farmers in creating sustainable livelihoods which they are in control of? Does it nurture healthier eating practices and a move away from processed foods? Does it improve and sustain biodiversity? Does it make us more or less dependent on cheap fossil fuels? Until the answer is yes to those questions, GM, for me, is out.

In a nutshell, the key question for me is does GM make us and the natural world healthier and more food secure? Surely, if climate science teaches us one thing, it is the need for the application of the precautionary principle. If there is a significant chance that a particular course of action will have harmful effects, then it makes sense to avoid it, even if it isn’t 100% certain. Likewise, so much is as yet unknown about GM, and so much could go wrong that we are far better off, I would argue, giving it a very wide berth. I don’t feel the greens have got it wrong, and it would take a far more compelling case than that set out by Lynas to convince me that they have.

So why has Lynas had this turnaround? Of course, we can’t know, but I get a sense that in the desperate search for a solution to the crisis we are in, there is a sense that this is still a soluble problem if only that one  big solution can be found to sort it out. I think that if there is a way through, it will be composed of lots of smaller solutions, driven by those that feel ownership of it. There is a huge danger in embracing large scale, untested, remotely-owned solutions, that we end up turning a problem into a predicament, not sensible when so many, time-proven, smaller scale solutions exist.

Comments are now closed on this site, please visit Rob Hopkins' blog at Transition Network to read new posts and take part in discussions.

38 Comments

pete
10 Mar 5:18pm

Well said Rob. I’ve always wondered why people want to hand over the control of their food supply to corporations. The corporations then have complete control over our lives.
Pete

Mike Grenville
10 Mar 5:51pm

The European Commission has just approved growing genetically modified crops in the European Union for the first time in 12 years! Caving to the GM lobby, the commission has ignored 60% of Europeans who feel we have to get the facts first before growing foods that could pose a threat to our health and environment.

A new initiative allows 1 million EU citizens to make official legal requests of the European Commission. Let’s build a million voices for a ban on GM foods until the research is done; they will be delivered to the President Barroso of the European Commission. Sign the petition and forward this email to friends and family:

Consumers, public health, environmental and farmers groups have long rallied against a few international GM companies having such significant influence over European agriculture. Concerns about growing GM crops include: contamination of organic crops and the environment; their impact on climate due to the excessive need for pesticides; the destruction of biodiversity and local agriculture; and the effects of GM food on public health.

EU member states have voiced strong opposition to last week’s decision to authorise BASF’s potato and Monsanto’s maize, including Italy and Austria, which want to ban GM cultivation, and France, which said it would ask for further scientific research.

There is still no consensus on the long-term effects of GM crops. And it is the GM industry, pursuing profits not public well being, that is funding the science and driving the regulatory environment. That is why European citizens are calling for more independent research, testing and precaution before crops are unleashed onto our land.

Now, the “European Citizens’ Initiative” gives 1 million EU citizens the opportunity to submit policy proposals to the European Commission and offers us a unique chance to drown out lobbyists’ influence.

Let’s raise 1 million voices to put a moratorium on the introduction of GM crops into Europe and set up an independent, ethical and scientific body to research and determine the strong regulation of GM crops. Sign the petition now and then forward it widely:

http://www.avaaz.org/en/eu_health_and_biodiversity/98.php?CLICK_TF_TRACK

Hart
10 Mar 5:55pm

In addition to your cogent and very relevant arguments, here is another fundamental one: GM (or GMO as we like to call it on this side of the pond) doesn’t work!

The article below shows that Monsanto’s ‘biotech’ cotton is a failure. I have seen previous articles describing that many weeds are developing resistance to the Roundup herbicide (if you’d like I could dig those up for you). GM allows a short-term win (with unknown side effects as you point out) with great profits for the irresponsible agro-giants – but nature always prevails. Weeds and insects will develop resistance over time, just as bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics and viruses mutate to thwart vaccines.

regards,
Hart Jansson
Transition Oakville

Subject: Monsanto has admitted that insects have developed resistance to its Bt cotton crop

“For the first time anywhere in the world, biotech agriculture giant
Monsanto has admitted that insects have developed resistance to its Bt
cotton crop.”
http://www.thehindu.com/2010/03/06/stories/2010030658401400.htm

This news also validates the widespread opposition that led the Indian
Government to decide not to approve Bt eggplant.

This news could also put into further question the recent cuts in
refuge requirements from 20% to 5% for Monsanto’s 8-trait GM SmartStax
corn http://www.cban.ca/corn

C Robb Worthington
10 Mar 6:26pm

There is clear scientific evidence that the current epidemic of diabetes and obesity is related to consumption of high fructose corn syrup, a genetically modified frankenfood, that suppresses leptin levels which control satiety. This is millions of people. This is evidence that demands further independent research but for me it is a smoking gun.

Brad Vietje
10 Mar 7:03pm

I’d say in the US, we already HAVE turned over our entire food system to huge international corporations. For us, the question seems to be how we might wrest it back into the hands of caring, ethical local growers.

In addition to the worries about unknown or undocumented negative effects, I’m especially concerned about the development of “Terminator Genes” that render a plant sterile. Since genetic drift and contamination can and do occur, if a gene gets out into the biosphere that prevents the reproduction of plants, animals, and/or fish, we will be in real trouble as a species. We can’t allow greedy profit-motivated corporations to buy and sell life itself.

Here in North America we have all sorts of documented cases of very serious liability issues with GMO contamination (accidental, and maybe also intentional) that allow huge corporations like Monsanto to control not only the pesticides, but also the seeds, and even farming practices.

It’s time we humans rose up to get corporate control out of our food system!

Clear skies,

Brad Vietje
Transition Vermont

Marcus Perrin
10 Mar 7:48pm

Moreover, Mark does not appear to address the potential problem of ‘genetic pollution’, where these ‘new’ genes could leak into wildlife (e.g. related species) and nearby non-GM crops.

Stewart Brand
10 Mar 11:22pm

Hi Chris…

Why not respond to my two chapters that converted Mark Lynas instead of imagining his arguments?

Hart
10 Mar 11:49pm

Hey Stewart,

What is your response to the article on the failure of Monsanto Cotton (4 comments above yours) and this article that describes Roundup resistant weeds: Pesticide Use on GM Crops Rising Due to the Spread of Resistant Weeds, Says New Report
http://www.soyatech.com/news_story.php?id=16266

thanks,
Hart

Shane Hughes
11 Mar 1:29am

It niggles that you know for sure that “GM Has No Place in a World in Transition”?, hypothetically, it could be tested to the hilt found to be benign, great in some applications and a failure in others.

i have no real interest in GM and feel in agreement with the thrust of your points and my vision of future farming is not too dissimilar to that of Colin Tudge’s that you quote. while i don’t see GM as significant solution provider to peak oil or climate change i’m open to it having some benefits in some circumstances.

Kenrick Chin
11 Mar 5:51am

Well said, Rob. I would like to paint both nuclear power and genetically modified foods in the following context. Economics is a double edged sword. The point I will make is why we have to switch from economic growth to conservation.

We are consuming about 80 million barrels of oil per day from an estimated reserve of 2000 billion barrels. At that rate, oil will be gone in 66 years. If we were to accept a declining depletion rate of 1% of reserves per year, oil will last for 500 years while at 0.1% per year, it will last for 5000 years. To get to that level, we would have to reduce consumption from 80 million barrels to 8 million barrels per day, that is, one-tenth of current usage.

As we consume the earth’s resources to foster human well-being, at what point is extraction and depletion non-sustainable? That is, what is a sustainable carbon footprint? I can take a cup of sand from the beach or a cup of water from the lake, who would notice? When 6.7 billion people do the same, it becomes significant. We have reached a critical stage where the product of population times consumption per capita is very significant. At what point is it better to deplete a non-renewable resource for the benefit of humanity? It has nothing to do with economics but everything to do with sustaining life on a finite planet. It means we must set conservation as a fundamental guiding principle and put economics aside. In that regard, nuclear power has no place in the sustainability equation. Should we risk jeopardizing the genetic makeup of our food supply with unknown risks for the benefit of financial gain? The similar argument has to be said for the mining of chemical fertilizers in order to increase food production.

On the other edge of the sword, it is the pursuit of financial wealth that is driving wanton consumerism and leading to the destruction of our ecosystem, our only life support system, and life itself. Humanity is at a critical turning point where we cannot solve our problems with the same behaviour that created them in the first place.

Nick Towle
11 Mar 11:14am

In the enthusiasm for, or against, the use of Genetically Modified organisms I see we often lose sight of the question, ‘Why to we actually need this?’

A local Tasmanian man, Bruce French, has travelled the world documenting edible indigenous food plants over the past two decades. Having devoted time to observing and learning about what already exists in the places where people are poor, starving and malnourished, Bruce has come to realise that the solution to many of these problems can be found locally. Armed with this knowledge I ask, ‘why then do we need GM food?’. Eco-pragmatism would surely be more about understanding what we already have, in abundance, rather than pouring limited resources into trying to create something new?

Here’s a link to the not-for-profit initiative that Bruce has helped to set up.
http://www.foodplantsinternational.com/

John Mason
11 Mar 1:55pm

The more I see, the more glad I am to be producing more and more of my own food these days!

Cheers – John

Albert Bates
11 Mar 2:35pm

Nuclear energy is genetic modification, just a bit more random. If anyone should doubt that, just visit any obstetrics or pediatrics ward in Fallujah, where the effects of depleted uranium in the environment are on daily display.

Wendy Anne Flanagan
11 Mar 3:05pm

Thank you for being a voice for The Nature Kingdom.
I am strongly in favour of leaving what is still uncontaminated, pure and like Mother Nature intended so that it remains sustainable for many generations.
Peter Riley is the voice of GMFreeze.
If interested, please see http://www.gmfreeze.org.

Sharon Astyk
11 Mar 5:07pm

I think at best, the onus is upon GM advocates to make the case that we will use GM foods (if we do) in a way totally unlike our history. We know that in the Green Revolution, the vast majority of the calories produced went into livestock in the developed world, allowing us to expand our meat consumption, in fact, outside of China, which was a comparatively late adopter of Green Revolution techniques, much of the world didn’t see a significant increase in food security. GM advocates need to makea a compelling case as to why this won’t happen next time.

Sharon

Danny Hilton, Transition Ely
11 Mar 9:24pm

Thanks for the comments on Mark Lynas’ position.

I am deeply disappointed to discover Mark is advocating GM and nuclear power as solutions to anything! I had previously really appreciated his contributions to The Age of Stupid in particular.

For him to turn to these technologies, I’m certain with good intention, represents stepping deeply into denial of the fact that we will have to learn to use less energy and change our lives. No form of ‘business as usual’ will suffice in the long term, and we will ultimately have to accept changes to our way of life which are bounded by the energy available in living systems.

I fully support a ‘catch and store energy’ approach to managing and slowing the process of change implicit in energy descent, but the ultimate goal must be to make less, sell less, consume less, etc. This implies a redefinition of quality and way of life – the inner transition – which most of us find difficult to adapt our thinking to, and which many people will not yet contemplate. GM and nuclear technologies are both highly dependent on a fossil fuel based ‘growth’ economy to develop and maintain and the question I feel is central is ‘will either of them make us any more resilient?’ It seems to me that the answer is obvious. No!

Corinne
12 Mar 1:17am

Dear Rob,

Thanks for an excellent and thorough post taking on the issue of GMO’s. Hart’s reference to the article wherein Monsanto has admitted that insects have developed resistance to its Bt cotton crop is particularly supportive of the Precautionary Principle. If Monsanto, even with its big labs and budget and especially its financial motivation, hasn’t been able to outmanoeuvre those insects, how reassured do we feel?

Cheers,
Corinne in Paris

Brad K.
12 Mar 7:06am

I was disturbed to read of chickens starving, refusing to eat GM grain – that turned out to have pesticide molecules produced by a RoundupReady strain. They rejected what would have been toxic, if they consumed it.

I think there is another aspect of multinational corporate control of the food supply – and abusive pricing cashflows. At some point, some corrupt barbarian will decide that they have more need – and armed forces – for that asset. Look at what the US is trying to do with health care, and I recall Chile some thirty years ago, nationalizing foreign assets. Monsanto could face a Tienanmen Square, a revolution here or there – and the world could lose access to this season’s grain seed.

Graham
12 Mar 10:57am

“for me, in the case of GM, this would represent a jettisoning of ethics, values and principles. I believe absolutely that GM has no place whatsoever in a world responding responsibly to climate change and peak oil,…”

Rob- though I agree with much of what you say, the language you use does imply an ideological stance rigidly adhered to whatever the evidence suggests- that there is something fundamentally unethical and “wrong” with GM and nuclear technology. This might be an aspect of the “naturalistic fallacy”?
I dont think there is anything uniquely wrong or evil with these technologies and it may be possible in principle for them to be part of a useful response. The point that Brandt and Lovelock make I think is the lesser evil: as humans we inevitably create a footprint whatever we do; maybe a more balanced perspective would be achieved if we compare the harm of nuclear with the destruction, dependency and disastrous climate change already caused by the untrammeled use of fossil fuels.
Albert Bates’ comparison of modern nuclear power with the use of depleted uranium is spurious and emotive/ideological; such pollution is also caused by the use of fossil energy, the worst effect of which is climate change. Nuclear power in, say France- about 60% of their domestic energy use- seems a pretty benign thing compared to oil and coal.
Population growth in the Majority World is pretty much guaranteeing that hungry people are increasing in numbers faster than the Transition Movement; GM so far has a poor track record and seems still more in the realm of “techno-fantasy” than practical solution, but I’m also not so sure it has been “proved” that small-scale organics and permaculture can actually feed all of 7,8 and 9 billion on a planet with diminishing resources.

Of course we should be cautious about food supply being in the hands of a few corporations; but information technology is also something we cannot make from recycled bits and bobs in our backyards- I don’t see too many debates in the green movement worrying about that.

I havn’t finished reading Brandt myself yet but he does make a lot of points about the current state and role of GM (GE) which i don’t think you have addressed, and should not be dismissed on purely ideological grounds.

Andy Brewin
12 Mar 11:08am

Talk about ‘clutching defeat from the jaws of victory’ ! Mark, who I previously respected a lot, spends half a life time accumulating vast knowledge of an important subject, builds a position where he has widely respected views (on climate change) and then makes a stupid pronouncement on a subject that he clearly knows much less about and beautifully falls into the ‘big solution’ trap that he has no doubt lambasted many for in the past.

Whether GM is harmful ( to health and the environment), or even works long term, remains to be seen. Clearly the precautionary principle would be worth following here. The point that Mark misses so spectacularly (or skirts around with some balls about Open Source) is that the future (in an oil and resource depleted world)will not belong to the large corporation (or any large body for that matter). When big problems hit, human nature (survival)kicks in, people get mobililised and come up with locally appropriate solutions. Therefore small, locally appropriate, subtle solutions will evolve (and be required) for feeding the world, much as Colin Tudge suggests.

The danger in making pronouncements such as his is that it causes further delays to the early mass adoption of this approach before the porblems actually hit.

Mark clearly knows that climate change will force the world to readdress how it farms and feeds itself. In a resource depleted world as well (oil primarily), the solution that is most likely to evolve will be smaller scale and less energy intensive farming. As a happy outcome of this we will see significantly reduced CO2 emissions from farming and food production.

You can of course argue that it is better to cut CO2 now rather than later, but as COP15, etc have proven the political will, etc is not there to make this happen. What Mark proposes (as I see it) does not address this either.

What he also manages to ignore (unbelievably) is that there have been plenty of studies conducted that show that the food output from this small scale farming can be up to 10 times greater than that from large scale agriculture.

That Mr Lynas is the future.

Presumably his next pronouncement will be that, because it has been designed using a scientifically rigourous process, Range Rovers are also OK for the planet.

Mark, take a break and come back when your head is straight !

C Robb Worthington
12 Mar 11:25am

For me one of the “business as usual” fallacies about the GM argument is that we can feed 7, 8, or 9 billion people. We have reached the limits of the resources necessary to accommodate the current human population (please see http://sustliving.blogspot.com/2010/02/human-impact.html for some staggering details of our impact on the planet).
Perhaps, if we really applied ourselves, we could feed the 7 billion we are struggling to deal with now, but are we? Of course not, there is not enough money in it. There is no reason to believe we will suddenly find a way to feed 9 billion no matter what the technologies deployed are. I heard a statistic recently that suggested that if the entire world were to adopt a one child policy, in one century the human population would fall to less than 2 billion. Unfortunately I don’t see much reason to believe that this common sense approach will come to pass either. I think there is every reason to believe that adequately feeding 9 billion people, with accompanying sanitation and decent living standards, is out of the question with whatever technology and that GM is simply about making money. It is merely another hastily developed and undertested technology designed to corner a market and stimulate sales, primarily in glyphosate. It is most unfortunate that it is at the expense of the natural systems that have evolved over billions of years to support us. We should know better.

Andrew Ramponi
12 Mar 1:06pm

Clearly the problem is not technology, but what people are likely to do with it. I have no idea whether GM can feed the world, or nuclear energy power it. I daresay in many ways they may be very useful.

But, since I seriously doubt the experience, integrity and cleverness of people in managing them I’d vote for a precautionary approach.

Aubrey Enoch
12 Mar 1:36pm

One of the purposes of BT cotton is to reduce the effect of BT. How do you create a resistant population? You feed the toxin to the greatest number of individuals and let nature take its course. The resistant individuals flourish as the non resistant are no longer competitive. They had no patent on BT so make it ineffective to create need for your patented products. RoundUp Ready crops were designed to reduce the effect of RoundUp when the patent expired so they could then sell newly patented RoundUp II. Creation of “super weeds” is the purpose of RoundUp Ready.
Sunshine is the only income we’ve got.

Aubrey Enoch
12 Mar 3:39pm

My hens will eventually eat the corn chops I feed that are presumably at least partially GM since I buy it at the feed store. Back years ago they would just swarm on any corn I threw out and eat until it was gone. Now, the corn can lay there for hours before they finish it up. I know this isn’t real scientific but I’ve been feeding chickens for most of thirty years and it’s not the same now as it was in the past.
Every living thing on Earth is the current link of a chain of life that goes back for ever. The genetic material is the history of successful response. GMO’s are not part of that history. Therefor they are an experiment. Do we want our children to be guinea pigs?
Sunshine is the only income we’ve got

Graham
12 Mar 5:52pm

Brand says:
“…genes have always been intensely fungible, especially in microbes… as with nuclear, those who know the most are the least frightened”.

The past few comments betray the naturalistic fallacy, the idea that nature “nature knows best” and we humans shouldn’t meddle. But we have always meddled from the time our ancestors started using language and symbols and discovered fire. There is nothing especially different in GM or nuclear than what we have been doing all along.
As Brand points out succinctly in the first pages of his book, our problems are existential rather than to do with having rejected “nature”.

Put it this way: the same kind of thinking that rejects out of hand these controversial technologies also rejects vaccination and embraces homeopathy. You can count me out of that!

I’m not advocating GM personally, but Brand has a crucial message to the green movement: we need to grow up and approach all these issues with the same level of rationality we use to understand climate change, otherwise we may do great harm.

Best to read his book before making knee-jerk responses I think.

Mike Grenville
12 Mar 6:05pm

It is a fallacy that “There is nothing especially different in GM or nuclear”.

Smashing new genes into a fundamental level of nature’s intelligence has complex interactions that we have only a limited understanding of.

There is a reason why a horse crossed with a donkey that creates a mule is infertile. And there is a reason why a fish gene will never cross with a tomato outside of a laboratory.

Graham
12 Mar 6:57pm

Mike:
“Smashing new genes into a fundamental level of nature’s intelligence has complex interactions that we have only a limited understanding of. ”

Nature’s intelligence?? Like the boom and bust cycle we see everywhere in nature (viz. hares and lynxes)? like the 5 previous “natural” mass extinction events (before the 6th human-induced one); like the earthquakes in Haiti and Turkey recently? And countless other examples that could be given from nature.

This is just more of the naturalistic fallacy again. Unless you think crossing donkeys and mules “would represent a jettisoning of ethics, values and principles.” Maybe you think measles and mumps are ok because they are “natural” while vaccines are wrong because they represent human meddling. You could say the same about wearing shoes (and believe you me, there are people who do…)

It seems to me that if the idea that “nature knows best” is still the underlying driver of the environmental movement then it is heading for an evolutionary cul-de-sac.

“And there is a reason why a fish gene will never cross with a tomato outside of a laboratory.”

This sounds dangerously close to an argument for intelligent design!

pete
12 Mar 7:28pm

the real fallacy is that we know better than nature.

Nick Towle
13 Mar 8:00am

Andrew presents an interesting statement.
“I have no idea whether GM can feed the world, or nuclear energy power it.”
At this point in our global history we produce sufficient food to feed the current population so what we lack is the political will to overcome the geopolitical and economic barriers to make this happen. As indicated above there are many millions of people going hungry or suffering malnutrition in regions where there are edible local plants which could address these needs. In these instances there are cultural and knowledge barriers. Our technologically advanced ‘agricultural solution’ is to take heat tolerance varieties of lettuce from Australia to the people of Papua New Guinea, a food type that grows very well.. with almost zero nutritional benefit. GM food proponents are keen for us to adopt a technology fix to a challenge that simply isn’t based on a lack of technology. The work of Bruce French demonstrates how little we know about the plants that already exist in the world, and that a small investment in building this knowledge would be a cheaper, less profitable and more effective path to building food resilience in the face of peak oil and the climate crisis.

As for nuclear power, the proponents here in Australia are eager to pursue it as we have large Uranium reserves and want desperately to sell it to you. We’re also over the peak of our fossil fuel oil production so we’re also desperate to expand our power options (even if the source is finite) so as to maintain the energy intensive lifestyles that you may see on our television programs. Yet, we don’t need nuclear, the range of renewable energy technologies could quite adequately meet our needs many times over and would be far more cost effective. I recognise your circumstances are significantly different in the UK but, it seems our governments are quite steadfast in their commitment to maintaining the status quo and like to take the lead from their allies.

Greenpa
13 Mar 7:52pm

Rob- there is another point to be made in our favor here, though the other camp is extremely unlikely to see it.

The biggest problem with both GM, and nuclear power, to me, is not their down line hazards (which are reason enough) but the fact that they are “answers” to the wrong questions.

Both, in fact, are band-aid patches on extremely destructive practices.

“Agriculture” as currently practiced, is among the very most destructive practices on the planet. So- we need to make it “more productive”, and expand it?

Power consumption is right up there- tied to another of our most destructive practices- unlimited reproduction. So- we need to provide more power to more people?

Nukes and GM patch disastrous practices – and will expand their use. What we really need are entirely different pathways, if we want Homo to survive (let alone thrive).

The problem with communicating this to the other choir, is that the great majority of them have fully emotionally subscribed to their dogma that “we have no choice” and “there is no alternative”.

They believe that, with full religious fervor. It is nearly impossible to get them to revisit the problem from a completely open standpoint.

The TT movement is actually a convincing demonstration- much more powerful than an “argument” – that the survival of civilization does not necessarily require endless growth in energy consumption.

I’m working on the ag thing, as you know. :-) Still a few years from full demonstration; but definitely getting there.

[...] suicides, without necessarily increasing outputs. In the UK, Rob Hopkins of the Transition Movement wrote a critique of GM recently.  And in general, the output of the nuclear power system, certainly historically, [...]

Shane Hughes
14 Mar 9:00pm

we’re immersed in a fear that if we give in to any of the big tecno-fixes we’ll be seduced away from addressing the fundamental transition.

I have that fear but i also understand that logically GM and Nuclear don’t need to equate to a patch, corporate control, continued monoculture or business as usual

These are mindsets that we default to. This is our past. If after precautionary testing of appropriate use of such technologies we find no gain, I would agree they have no place.

C Robb Worthington
14 Mar 10:12pm

Given the monstrously high investments necessary both in the production of the fuel and the construction and decommissioning of the plant (not to mention dealing with the waste), I’m not sure I see how nuclear power could exist without government sponsored corporate control. Similarly, the science required for bio tech to come to market requires huge resources, how would this happen without corporate investment? I do equate corporate investment and ownership with corporate control. While this doesn’t necessarily equate to “business as usual”, “continued monoculture” or “a patch”, I don’t see any reason to believe that the companies involved are changing their tune. Evidence of real precautionary testing and appropriate use might constitute such a reason. I will however attempt to keep an open mind on the subject.

Mike Bendzela
23 Mar 1:00pm

“The central issue here for me is the Precautionary Principle, a fundamental principle in any decision making process.”

And yet it turns out your “central issue” is nonsense.

Organics and anti-GMO advocates trot out the “precautionary principle” only when it suits their case. If one truly adhered to the precautionary principle as it is strictly applied by “organics” advocates, one wouldn’t leave one’s house.

If you, or Sharon Astyk, or any other of your “organics” advocates so much as drive a car, then you are “precautionary hypocrites.”

A good explanation of the myth of the precautionary principle can be found here:

http://skepdic.com/skeptimedia/skeptimedia20.html

Kenrick Chin
23 Mar 3:33pm

Sorry Mr. Mike Bendzela,
I have heard your argument before, attempting to use the argument of absurdity and making extremist counter arguments. You are the one who is talking nonsense. You can mess around with Mother Nature as much as you want but guess who is going to win in the long run. Gaia will live on!

Graham
23 Mar 6:23pm

Mike Bendzela is right- it’s absurd to evoke the precautionary principle here. It’s just away of preventing any innovation of any kind. Rob asks for “long-term studies” proving GM doesnt have negative health effects- but since 1996 the US population have been eating GM crops- up to 70% of processed foods in the US have GM ingredients- while Europe has not. Show me the studies “proving” any significant health differences between Europe and the US that can be attributed tho this.

Graham
25 Mar 7:16pm

Here is a response from Syngenta, the GE company, who, along with Monsanto, walked away from the IAASTD process:

http://www.google.com/search?ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&sourceid=navclient&gfns=1&q=syngenta+IAASTD

The author says:

“I finally felt forced to resign my IAASTD authorship because the draft put forward claims not supported by the evidence.

Too often it treated fears and prejudices against technology and business as fact, and its style drew heavily on innuendo – the assumption that corporate means bad. The result is a document most scientists would find hard to support, and one it would be dishonest and counterproductive for me to endorse.

Instead, I recommend readers look at reports such as the 2007 World Development Report by the World Bank, which highlights the key role of technology in achieving a productivity revolution, especially for smallholders.”

Scientific process is so poorly understood, so commonly disregarded and even dismissed on principle by those in the environmental movement that I find this comment from the Syngenta rep entirely credible.

Just consider this sentence from Rob’s post:
“I believe absolutely that GM has no place whatsoever in a world responding responsibly to climate change and peak oil, and in saying so, I am not rejecting a “science-led assessment of the likely risks and benefits”, rather am basing it very much on the science.”

He clearly states that his position, based on belief, is “absolute” and then claims it is based on science (which is never absolute and does not deal in beliefs.)

And this:
“I don’t have scientific papers to back that up, it is an instinctive revulsion at the very concept.”
One would be hard pushed to find a more unscientific position than this!

Geoff
18 Apr 5:41am

I think you start this piece on the wrong foot as you say the precautionary principle should rule everything… fine in a nice suburb in the West, well supplied with everything (including a new pc, broadband, luxury food (better than ‘normal’ food), etc.
How can people living in such luxury preach to people living in poverty??? And stop them getting LIFE SAVING food?

Precautionary principle…nothing would ever happen, anywhere, if this concept was applied. Invent the wheel? I don’t think so. Water reservoirs? No way! Fur skin coat? Aaargh!

“Has anyone actually done such a study, a longitudinal study that looks at the health impacts of GM foods?”
Yes all the health organizations look at epidemiology >all the time<, it is not 'have I read about it in a trendy magazine recently?'.

The anti GM/GE food people here should CAREFULLY read S Brand's book, as he addresses all the points raised here, including 'have any studies been done' and the precautionary principle, and lots of other points.

The green movement is turning into a a self obsessed cult of ignorance – Western focused, elitist, and racist to boot.

Wake up to history – the book is called '…Discipline' because you have to think harder, try harder, think wider, the Green knee jerk reactions are based on old fashioned class warfare from the 60-70s, narrow minded and patronizing (which is a joke in itself given the liberal arts 'fact free' background of most Green ppl).

Do you care if billions of people eat more nutritious , more viable, food, have energy (not coal derived), have social freedom?

Why be so scared of change – for the better?

Geoff
(living in an Asian developing country btw)