Thursday, June 20, 2013

GM crops: bad science, big profits

You would think that someone holding the post of environment secretary would actually have concerns about, well, the environment. Such is our topsy-turvy world, however, that the opposite is true when it comes to Owen Paterson.

The free marketeer ConDem environment secretary, is a climate change sceptic despite mountains of evidence (as well as casual observation of increasingly erratic weather patterns) to the contrary. No concern for the environment there.

Now Paterson is launching a campaign to get the European Union to dump its ban on genetically-modified (GM) crops that have caused severe problems around the world. Still no concern for the environment, although plenty for the GM corporations.

If the EU does not drop its policy, Paterson wants the United Kingdom to go it alone. He says the government has "a duty to the British public to reassure them GM is a safe, proven and beneficial innovation".

Those are certainly big claims - almost as big as the giant ragweed strangling corn crops in farms across the United States. US farmers are finding that after four or five years growing Monstanto's Round-up ready corn, weeds develop resistance. Up to 15 million acres of crops are now affected.

The farmers must then switch to a different herbicide, and therefore a different GM seed. Monsanto competitor Dow has produced a one with resistance to 2,4-D. This is one of the two components of Agent Orange, the defoliant the US army sprayed on crops and forest during the Vietnam war.

However, we are assured that it is not the component that caused the birth defects – just the one that stripped the land bare. So that’s alright then.

Which brings us to the tiny rootworm, which prevents corn from absorbing water and nutrients from the soil and leaves corps in ruins. The US Environmental Protection Agency reports rootworms have been found in Illinois and Iowa that are resistant to the Bt gene bred into Monsanto seed corn.

Insecticide sales are surging after years of decline, and profits are up. Farmers who already paid through the nose for supposedly resistant GM seed are now buying pesticide to kill the rootworm. Dow/Monsanto competitor Syngenta is cashing in with pesticide sales doubling in 2012.

Pesticides are bad for farmers' health, water supplies and the health of whole populations. As well as killing the rootworm, they wipe out beneficial insects, including bees.

Whilst GM makes lots of money for corporations, it doesn't work in the long term. A herbicide will kill weeds for a time, but eventually a rogue gene will appear that has resistance. That weed will survive spraying, and spread. It will have adapted.

The claims made for GM are based on bad biology, bad botany, bad genetics –  just bad science really. Bad science but big profits, and Paterson doesn't want corporate farmers and the agri-chemical companies missing out on the European market.

He even stooped so low as to repeat the claim that GM is the answer to world hunger. But if the problems faced by US farmers were repeated across the globe the effect would be disastrous.

Soil Association policy director Peter Melchett says GM will make it harder, not easier, to feed the world. "In fact GM is the cuckoo in the nest. It drives out and destroys the systems that international scientists agree we need to feed the world.”

Systems like the one practised by Suman Kumar, who holds the world record for rice yield on his one-acre plot in Bihar in northern India. He achieved 22.4 tons per hectare, where big rice farmers get on average 8 tons.

Kumar and his neighbours are achieving these great yields using a modest amount of inorganic fertiliser and no pesticides or herbicides. They are working with the System of Rice Intensification, where instead of focusing on killing pests and force-feeding, all the effort goes into creating the best possible conditions for the rice plants to flourish.  

As Melchett concludes: "We need farming that helps poorer African and Asian farmers produce food, not farming that helps Bayer, Syngenta and Monsanto produce profits."

A revolution in farming on that scale will require a revolution on a political and economic scale too.

Penny Cole
Environment editor

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