GM – and one-legged chairs

Central Leader - - NEWS -

The voice on the other end of the phone line was qui­etly de­lighted. For good rea­son.

Less than 14 hours be­fore, Pro­fes­sor Jack Heine­mann had back­grounded me on re­sults of a sur­vey he had di­rected at the School of Bi­o­log­i­cal Sciences at the Univer­sity of Can­ter­bury. That study was a sig­nif­i­cant com­par­i­son of Amer­i­can farm­ing with GM against Euro­pean non-GM pro­duc­tion.

The re­sult showed that non-GM crops in Europe were out­pro­duc­ing equiv­a­lent Amer­i­can GM plant­ing.

As Pro­fes­sor Heine­mann summed up: ‘‘De­spite the stri­dent claims for GM, North Amer­i­can crop pro­duc­tion has fallen be­hind western Europe through US farm­ers us­ing ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied (GM) seed and more pes­ti­cide, com­pared to non-GM use in Europe.’’

In a ma­jor strate­gic move – un­wit­tingly sup­port­ing the Can­ter­bury sur­vey find­ings, and very top­i­cally, GM gi­ant Mon­san­tos had an­nounced overnight that it was with­draw­ing all but one of GM prod­ucts from Europe. The com­pany said they were ‘‘not eco­nom­i­cally vi­able’’.

In our ses­sion the pre­vi­ous day, Pro­fes­sor Heine­mann had urged that the sur­vey find­ings should be a guide to New Zealand’s at­ti­tude to­wards GM.

‘‘GM gets the credit for yield gains in crops since the in­tro­duc­tion of GM – but ac­tu­ally, those gains come from bet­ter breed­ing and man­age­ment,’’ he had said then.

‘‘Not only our re­search pa­per but oth­ers have shown that, at best, GM makes nei­ther a sub­stan­tial, re­li­able nor unique con­tri­bu­tion to pro­duc­tion ef­fi­ciency.’’

A UN study has shown that the poor farm­ers and their com­mu­nity ben­e­fit most from adopt­ing eco­log­i­cal agri­cul­ture over con­ven­tional GM­type crop­ping. Pro­fes­sor Heine­mann: ‘‘In con­trast, science-based eco­log­i­cal agri­cul­ture (in­clud­ing or­ganic), spend­ing far less, has shown po­ten­tial to be part of agri­cul­ture’s bright fu­ture.

‘‘I don’t think all GM prod­ucts are harm­ful and that no prod­uct of GM would ever be use­ful. But it’s also clear that to have more nu­tri­tious food for the fu­ture will need sus­tain­able pro­duc­tion and less waste, not just more pro­duc­tion.

‘‘GM is not mak­ing a con­tri­bu­tion to ei­ther of th­ese necessities. While it might in the fu­ture, how long can we wait for it to prove its worth?

‘‘Our data and that of oth­ers also show that GM is not com­pat­i­ble with tra­di­tional agri­cul­ture that shows greater po­ten­tial in yield im­prove­ments and sus­tain­abil­ity.

‘‘The pow­er­ful IP (in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty) in­stru­ments and in­cen­tives be­hind GM-led agri­cul­ture con­cen­trate providers and drive out smaller scale but more ef­fec­tive agribusi­nesses. Im­bal­ance in in­vest­ment in this form of tech­nol­ogy over other science for agri­cul­ture could make GM-led biotech­nol­ogy our only tool – to our detri­ment.’’

What about claims that GM food is ed­i­ble and safe?

‘‘I am not aware the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion nor any royal so­ci­ety or national acad­emy that I am aware of has stated that all GM or­gan­isms are, or would be, safe to eat or re­lease into the en­vi­ron­ment.

‘‘In­stead, the WHO and UN FAO have es­tab­lished guid­ance for on­go­ing food safety risk as­sess­ment of GM or­gan­isms through Codex, Al­i­men­ta­r­ius and the Carta­gena Pro­to­col on Biosafety pro­vides guid­ance for en­vi­ron­men­tal risk as­sess­ment.’’

The Codex Al­i­men­ta­r­ius (Latin for ‘‘Book of Food’’) is a col­lec­tion of in­ter­na­tion­ally recogn- ised stan­dards, codes of prac­tice, guide­lines, other rec­om­men­da­tions on foods, their pro­duc­tion and safety. The Carta­gena Pro­to­col aims to pro­tect bi­o­log­i­cal di­ver­sity and hu­man health from risks through im­port and ex­port of liv­ing mod­i­fied or­gan­isms.

‘‘We must con­tinue to mon­i­tor science re­port­ing on the health and en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pacts of ex­ist­ing GM crops and those to come and re­gard­less of who makes them, be it a New Zealand or an over­seas, pri­vate or pub­lic com­pany.’’

Reader Ian Buchan dis­agrees: ‘‘While thought-pro­vok­ing, your ear­lier opin­ion piece on GM food was, at best, about as bal­anced as a one-legged chair. On the pig study, what you fail to men­tion is that a num­ber of sci­en­tists had is­sues with both the ex­per­i­men­tal de­sign and poor hus­bandry of the pigs used in the study.

‘‘Check where the Jour­nal of Or­ganic Sys­tems is pub­lished. This does not ap­pear on the PubMed web­site. This site is usu­ally a sci­en­tist’s guide as to the se­ri­ous­ness and in­tegrity of the jour­nal.

‘‘I won’t go into Pro­fes­sor Heine­mann’s find­ings ex­cept to say his re­search in­ter­ests are very much fo­cused on the risks of GM, prob­a­bly not the best per­son to ask for a bal­anced view­point.

‘‘Don’t con­fuse se­lec- tive breed­ing with GM. Se­lec­tive breed­ing car­ried out for thou­sands of years has pro­vided the world with a num­ber of high yield­ing eco­nom­i­cally suc­cess­ful cul­ti­vars. This has been at the cost of ge­netic di­ver­sity. This has not been driven by GM crops but rather the food pro­duc­ers and con­sumer de­sire for fruit/veges of uni­form size, taste and nu­tri­tional qual­i­ties. Ge­netic re­search car­ried out by the same sci­en­tists you de­scribe as ‘New Zealand Mon­san­tos’ are now be­gin­ning to un­der­stand the im­por­tance of this di­ver­sity and how best to use and pre­serve it.

‘‘Lo­cal Mon­san­tos? Well hardly, th­ese are govern­ment-owned Crown re­search in­sti­tutes where the New Zealand govern­ment is the share­holder. The science they do is for the ben­e­fit of New Zealand agri­cul­ture and hor­ti­cul­ture-prof­its stay in the coun­try and they rep­re­sent valu­able ex­port dollars.

‘‘GM is not an­tior­ganic, the two can ex­ist to­gether. Some labs are trans­fer­ring genes from wild crop an­ces­tors to con­fer re­sis­tance against fungi which would oth­er­wise re­quire tons of cop­per based sprays or syn­thetic fungi­cides.

‘‘If or­ganic is about the unadul­ter­ated genes of the plant we’d have to turn the clock an aw­ful long way back and eat pretty much ined­i­ble fruit. Is GM safe to eat? The World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion, the Amer­i­can Med­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion, the Bri­tish Royal So­ci­ety and the Amer­i­can Acad­emy of Sciences all seem to think so. The long and the short of it is, we face a world pop­u­la­tion now near­ing seven bil­lion and it’s pre­dicted to hit nine bil­lion by 2050. Arable land is steadily shrink­ing, gob­bled up by ex­pand­ing cities. GM is not a sil­ver bul­let to solve this but is part of the so­lu­tion.

‘‘I’m all for let­ting peo­ple make up their own mind but that re­quires peo­ple to be well in­formed about the tech­nolo­gies in­volved. Sadly ar­ti­cles such as this don’t re­ally help ei­ther side very much. That said, I do usu­ally en­joy your col­umn.’’

Gee, thanks. So much for one-legged chairs.

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