And I discovered that one by one my cherished beliefs about GM turned out to be little more than green urban myths.
I want to start with some apologies. For the record, here and upfront, I apologise for having spent several years ripping up GM crops. I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid-1990s, and that I thereby assisted in demonising an important technological option that can be used to benefit the environment.
As an environmentalist, and someone who believes that everyone in this world has a right to a healthy and nutritious diet of their choosing, I could not have chosen a more counter-productive path. I now regret it completely.
So I guess you’ll be wondering — what happened between 1995 and now that made me not only change my mind but come here and admit it? Well, the answer is fairly simple: I discovered science, and in the process I hope I became a better environmentalist.
When I first heard about Monsanto’s GM soya I knew exactly what I thought. Here was a big American corporation with a nasty track record, putting something new and experimental into our food without telling us. Mixing genes between species seemed to be about as unnatural as you can get — here was humankind acquiring too much technological power; something was bound to go horribly wrong. These genes would spread like some kind of living pollution. It was the stuff of nightmares.
These fears spread like wildfire, and within a few years GM was essentially banned in Europe, and our worries were exported by NGOs like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth to Africa, India and the rest of Asia, where GM is still banned today. This was the most successful campaign I have ever been involved with.
This was also explicitly an antiscience movement. We employed a lot of imagery about scientists in their labs cackling demonically as they tinkered with the very building blocks of life. Hence the Frankenstein food tag — this absolutely was about deepseated fears of scientific powers being used secretly for unnatural ends. What we didn’t realise at the time was that the real Frankenstein’s monster was not GM technology, but our reaction against it.
For me this antiscience environmentalism became increasingly inconsistent with my proscience environmentalism with regard to climate change. I published my first book on global warming in 2004, and I was determined to make it scientifically credible rather than just a collection of anecdotes.
That meant I had to learn how to read scientific papers, understand basic statistics and become literate in very different fields, from oceanography to paleoclimate, none of which my degree in politics and modern history helped me with a great deal.
I found myself arguing constantly with people who I considered to be incorrigibly antiscience, because they wouldn’t listen to the climatologists and denied the scientific reality of climate change… And yet, incredibly, at this time in 2008 I was still penning screeds in the Guardian attacking the science of GM — even though I had done no academic research on the topic, and had a pretty limited personal understanding.
Obviously this contradiction was untenable. What really threw me were some of the comments underneath my final anti-GM Guardian article. In particular one critic said to me: so you’re opposed to GM on the basis that it is marketed by big corporations. Are you also opposed to the wheel because because it is marketed by the big auto companies?
So I did some reading. And I discovered that one by one my cherished beliefs about GM turned out to be little more than green urban myths.
I’d assumed that it would increase the use of chemicals. It turned out that pestresistant cotton and maize needed less insecticide.
I’d assumed that GM benefited only the big companies. It turned out that billions of dollars of benefits were accruing to farmers needing fewer inputs.
I’d assumed that Terminator technology was robbing farmers of the right to save seed. It turned out that hybrids did that long ago, and that Terminator never happened.
I’d assumed that no-one wanted GM. Actually what happened was that Bt Cotton was pirated into India and Roundup Ready Soya into Brazil because farmers were so eager to use them.
I’d assumed that GM was dangerous. It turned out that it was safer and more precise than conventional breeding using mutagenesis, for example; GM just moves a couple of genes, whereas conventional breeding mucks about with the entire genome in a trial-and-error way.
But what about mixing genes between unrelated species? The fish and the tomato? Turns out viruses do that all the time, as do plants and insects and even us — it’s called gene flow.
This is the challenge that faces us today: we are going to have to feed 9.5 billion hopefully much less poor people by 2050 on about the same land area as we use today, using limited fertiliser, water and pesticides and in the context of a rapidly changing climate.
So how much food will all these people need? According to the latest projections, published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, we are looking at a global demand increase of well over 100 percent by mid-century. This is almost entirely down to GDP growth, especially in developing countries.
In other words, we need to produce more food, not just to keep up with population, but because poverty is gradually being eradicated, along with the widespread malnutrition that still today means close to 800 million people go to bed hungry each night. And I would challenge anyone in a rich country to say that this GDP growth in poor countries is a bad thing.
But as a result of this growth we have very serious environmental challenges to tackle. Land conversion is a large source of greenhouse gases, and perhaps the greatest source of biodiversity loss. This is another reason why intensification is essential — we have to grow more on limited land in order to save the rainforests and remaining natural habitats from the plough.
We also have to deal with limited water — not just depleting aquifers but also droughts that are expected to strike with increasing intensity in the agricultural heartlands of continents, thanks to climate change. If we take more water from rivers we accelerate biodiversity loss in these fragile habitats.
We also need to better manage nitrogen use: artificial fertiliser is essential to feed humanity, but its inefficient use means dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and many coastal areas around the world, as well as eutrophication in fresh water ecosystems.
It is not enough to sit back and hope that technological innovation will solve our problems. We have to be much more activist and strategic than that. We have to ensure that technological innovation moves much more rapidly, and in the right direction for those who most need it.
[But] thanks to supposedly environmental campaigns spread from affluent countries, biotechnology…has been made prohibitively expensive to all but the very biggest corporations. It now costs tens of millions to get a crop through the regulatory systems in different countries. In fact the latest figures I’ve just seen from CropLife suggest it costs $139 million to move from discovering a new crop trait to full commercialisation, so open-source or public sector biotech really does not stand a chance.
There is a depressing irony here: that the antibiotech campaigners complain about GM crops only being marketed by big corporations, when this is a situation they have done more than anyone to help bring about.
In the EU the system is at a standstill, and many GM crops have been waiting a decade or more for approval but are permanently held up by the twisted domestic politics of anti-biotech countries like France and Austria. Around the whole world the regulatory delay has increased to more than 5.5 years now, from 3.7 years back in 2002. The bureaucratic burden is getting worse.
France, remember, long refused to accept the potato because it was an American import. As one commentator put it recently, Europe is on the verge of becoming a food museum. We well-fed consumers are blinded by romantic nostalgia for the traditional farming of the past. Because we have enough to eat, we can afford to indulge our aesthetic illusions.
But at the same time the growth of yields worldwide has stagnated for many major food crops, as research published only last month by Jonathan Foley and others in the journal Nature Communications showed. If we don’t get yield growth back on track we are indeed going to have trouble keeping up with population growth and the resulting demand. Prices will rise and more land will be converted from nature to agriculture.
Perhaps the most pernicious myth of all is that organic production is better, either for people or the environment. The idea that it is healthier has been repeatedly disproved in the scientific literature. We also know from many studies that organic is much less productive, with up to 40 to 50 percent lower yields in terms of land area. In a recent report on feeding the world with organic, the Soil Association went to great lengths to not mention this productivity gap.
Nor did it mention that, overall, if you take into account land displacement effects, organic is also likely worse for biodiversity. Instead they talk about an ideal world where people in the West eat less meat and fewer calories overall, so that people in developing countries can have more. This is simplistic nonsense.
If you think about it, the organic movement is at its heart a rejectionist one. It doesn’t accept many modern technologies, on principle. Like the Amish in Pennsylvania, who froze their technology with the horse and cart in 1850, the organic movement essentially freezes its technology somewhere around 1950, and for no better reason. In reality there is no reason at all why avoiding chemicals should be better for the environment — quite the opposite, in fact. Recent research by Jesse Ausubel and colleagues at Rockefeller University looked at how much extra farmland Indian farmers would have had to cultivate today using the technologies of 1961 to get today’s overall yield. The answer is 65 million hectares, an area the size of France.
So how much land worldwide was spared in the process thanks to these dramatic yield improvements, for which chemical inputs played a crucial role? The answer is 3 billion hectares, or the equivalent of two South Americas. There would have been no Amazon rainforest left today without this improvement in yields. Nor would there be any tigers in India or orangutans in Indonesia. That is why I don’t know why so many of those opposing the use of technology in agriculture call themselves environmentalists.
This is not to say that organic farming has nothing to offer — there are many good techniques that have been developed, such as intercropping and companion planting, that can be environmentally very effective, even if they do tend to be highly labour intensive. Principles of agro-ecology, such as recyling nutrients and promoting on-farm diversity, should also be taken more seriously everywhere.
But organic is in the way of progress when it refuses to allow innovation. Again, using GM as the most obvious example, many third generation GM crops allow us to not use environmentally damaging chemicals because the genome of the crop in question has been altered so the plant can protect itself from pests. Why is that not organic?
The biggest risk of all is that we do not take advantage of all sorts of opportunities for innovation because of what is in reality little more than blind prejudice. Let me give you two examples, both regrettably involving Greenpeace.
Last year Greenpeace destroyed a GM wheat crop in Australia, for all the traditional reasons, which I am very familiar with, having done it myself. This was publicly funded research carried out by the Commonwealth Scientific Research institute, but no matter. They were against it because it was GM and unnatural.
What few people have since heard is that one of the other trials being undertaken, which Greenpeace activists with their strimmers luckily did not manage to destroy, accidentally found a wheat yield increase of an extraordinary 30 percent. Just think. This knowledge might never have been produced at all, if Greenpeace had succeeded in destroying this innovation. As the president of the NFU [Britain based National Farmers Union] Peter Kendall recently suggested, this is analogous to burning books in a library before anyone has been able to read them.
The second example comes from China, where Greenpeace managed to trigger a national media panic by claiming that two dozen children had been used as human guinea pigs in a trial of GM golden rice. They gave no consideration to the fact that this rice is healthier, and could save thousands of children from vitamin-A-deficiency-related blindness and death each year.
This to my mind is immoral and inhumane, depriving the needy of something that would help them and their children because of the aesthetic preferences of rich people far away who are in no danger from vitamin A shortage. Greenpeace is a $100-million-a-year multinational, and as such it has moral responsibilities just like any other large company.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough. So my conclusion here today is very clear: the GM debate is over. It is finished. We no longer need to discuss whether or not it is safe — over a decade and a half, with three trillion GM meals eaten, there has never been a single substantiated case of harm. You are more likely to get hit by an asteroid than to get hurt by GM food. More to the point, people have died from choosing organic, but no one has died from eating GM.
Just as I did 10 years ago, Greenpeace and the Soil Association claim to be guided by consensus science, in this, as in climate change. Yet on GM there is a rock-solid scientific consensus, backed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Royal Society, health institutes and national science academies around the world. Yet this inconvenient truth is ignored because it conflicts with their ideology.
And unfortunately the antis now have the bureaucrats on their side. Wales and Scotland are officially GM free, taking medieval superstition as a strategic imperative for devolved governments supposedly guided by science.
It is unfortunately much the same in much of Africa and Asia. India has rejected Bt brinjal, even though it would reduce insecticide applications in the field, and residues on the fruit. The government in India is increasingly in thrall to backward-looking ideologues like Vandana Shiva, who idealise pre-industrial village agriculture despite the historical fact that it was an age of repeated famines and structural insecurity.
In Africa, “no GM” is still the motto for many governments. Kenya, for example, has actually banned GM foods because of the supposed health risks, despite the fact that they could help reduce the malnutrition that is still rampant in the country — and malnutrition is, by the way, a proven health risk, with no further evidence needed. In Kenya, if you develop a GM crop that has better nutrition or a higher yield to help poorer farmers, then you will go to jail for 10 years.
Thus desperately needed agricultural innovation is being strangled by a suffocating avalanche of regulations that are not based on any rational scientific assessment of risk. The risk today is not that anyone will be harmed by GM food, but that millions will be harmed by not having enough food, because a vocal minority of people in rich countries want their meals to be what they consider natural.
We need a major does of international myth-busting and deregulation. The plant scientists I know hold their heads in their hands when I talk about this with them, because governments and so many people have got their sense of risk so utterly wrong and are foreclosing a vitally necessary technology.
So I challenge all of you today to question your beliefs in this area and to see whether they stand up to rational examination. Always ask for evidence, as the campaigning group Sense About Science advises, and make sure you go beyond the self-referential reports of campaigning NGOs.
My message to the antiGM lobby, from the ranks of British aristocrats celebrity chefs, and US foodies, to the peasant groups of India, is this: You are entitled to your views. But you must know by now that they are not supported by science. We are coming to a crunch point, and for the sake of both people and the planet, now is the time for you to get out of the way and let the rest of us get on with feeding the world sustainably.