Trust me; I am a scientist...

14 Dec 2011

I have always associated the Houses of Parliament with robust, and sometimes aggressive, debate. With this in mind, I attended a recent meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Agroecology. I was disappointed because of the complete absence of debate. This group appears to have been established solely to forward the views of those opposed to technology in food production, with virtually all the delegates representing so-called ‘green’ groups.

The outcome was that the vehement anti-GM views expressed by the only speaker were readily accepted, and naturally, the delegates wanted to agree with him. This was despite the ‘evidence’ presented being, in my opinion, largely based on hearsay. Their acceptance was in complete contrast to their lack of acceptance of the best scientific evidence that called their opinions into question.

The speaker was a retired Professor from Purdue University. He started with a passionate attack on GM and then associated Roundup Resistance with a destruction of the soils in the USA, increased disease in soybean and maize, and infertility and botulism in animals fed on GM maize. 

There were other accusations as well, the most remarkable of which was that a new ‘organism’ has developed as a result of growing Roundup Ready crops. He considered that this organism was the cause of many of the negative effects he was reporting.  He added that it was first isolated in 2002, but it has yet to be described and named. In an age when it takes less than a week to DNA sequence a living being, I think it is remarkable that this organism cannot yet be described after nine years.

Under questioning he said that he had a list of 130 refereed papers that support his case. The only example he quoted from the UK was, in my view, a total misinterpretation of the facts and the conclusions expressed in that paper.

He deflected possible questions on why other scientists do not agree with him (his own University refute many of his claims on their website) by implying that other scientists cannot be trusted as they are dependent on short-term contracts. The implication is that they have to toe some invisible line to get continued funding.

He did not mention that the yields of maize have gone up by 20% and soybean yields by 15% in the USA over the past 10 years or so, which has also seen the widespread adoption of GM, notably Roundup tolerance. Also ignored was that the recorded level of disease in soybeans in the 28 US states surveyed has not shown an upward trend since the introduction and widespread adoption of GM. Unfortunately, as far as I know, there is no equivalent survey for maize.

In an era when there is always some dispute over the facts, common sense needs to come to the fore. Dare I say that farmers can have a lot more common sense than some scientists? US farmers have adopted GM and I am sure they are as discerning as UK farmers. They would not have continued to adopt it unless it was financially attractive and it was not threatening the fertility of their soil or their animals.

The concern that some US farmers have reported, even the champions of GM technology, is the potential power of the companies that sell the technology. This is because the highest yielding varieties tend to contain a GM trait, but the trait itself does not necessarily contribute to the high yield. Also GM herbicide tolerance has resulted in conventional herbicide development being reduced or completely stopped in the crops where GM herbicide tolerance has been introduced. Perhaps this is the real potential challenge to the farming industry?