15 February 2010

Asking the Right Questions About GM

There was an article in the Times (UK) on Feb 12 which suggested that UK scientists were increasing the pressure for greater GM use in addressing world hunger.

I suppose I am getting tired of the "embrace" or "shun" dichotomy that we see in the press about GM. Here is a letter that my colleague, John Thompson, and I wrote in reply, published today, Feb 15.

Sir, We must neither embrace genetically modified (GM) crops, nor shun them. We must govern them (“GM crops ‘are vital’ to beat food shortage”, Feb 12). It would be foolish to rule out GM as part of the solution to hunger, but equally foolish to see it as the silver bullet. For some ecosystems, for some crops and for some types of farmers it can help to raise yields and reduce the use of other inputs, potentially raising the income of smallholder farmers and those who do business with them. “Potentially” is key.

There are risks associated with the adoption of GM crops: risks for farmers — can they afford the upfront costs and will the crops work as advertised? Risks, too, for society — will only rich farmers be able to adopt the crops and will the crops in any case only reflect the needs of rich farmers? There are also risks for the environment in terms of unanticipated consequences.

In other words, there may only be a few real pathways from GM to hunger reduction. But those pathways may be very powerful ones. If we get the governance of GM right we can find them and create them. Farmers and other less powerful stakeholders need to have a meaningful voice in the institutions that prioritise, assess risk and regulate GM crops.

The best science results from asking the right questions about the right problems, and it is the potential users of technology who understand their own problems best. The best regulations need not be burdensome; indeed they can be facilitative, but they must be based on real, local evidence and so have firm scientific underpinnings. When these are in place I would expect us to be much better at finding and creating ways in which GM can reduce rather than exacerbate hunger.


Malcolm said...

An interesting letter in yesterday's Times and I agree that the 'governance of GM crops' is the key issue. Such governance to date has been lamentable and the potential benefits for human health, nutrition, and food security from GM crops are at risk.
One example of poor governance is the abuse of process that has been employed with GM Insect Resistance. This has been driven through on the back of spurious comparisons with organic crops, purely because of the association with Bacillus thuringiensus...the source of Bt toxin, and the relevant gene. But the comparison is false. Organic use of Bt toxin is as a surface spray. GM use of the toxin is as a systemic chemical. GM toxin can't be washed off. A pre-harvest interval (PHI) can't be employed because genes can't be 'switched off' several days prior to an unknown harvest date. Bt toxin is created as a non-toxic protoxin, that becomes activated in the insect gut after digestion, when an inactive moiety is cleaved off to expose the real toxin. The GM protoxin (also non-toxic)has been modified to consist of two toxins that cleave apart to expose double the mass of toxin...for greater toxicity. The science is very clever, but there is not real comparison with organic practice.
The point is that by associating the GM product with the organic movement, the biotech companies are hi-jacking an exclusion(granted to the organic movement years ago) whereby 'natural pesticides' do not need to be safety tested, have application restrictions or maximum residue levels (MRLs) etc as do 'non-natural' pesticides. These testing procedures are expensive so the motive is obvious.
This practice is far from 'good governance' and contributes to the mood of suspicion and polarisation that has haunted the GM food issue for so long. There are other examples I could describe.
Malcolm Kane

Lawrence said...

Malcolm, thanks, this is interesting. So who has to decide if the comparison with organics is spurious or not? In any rules based system, the more powerful will be able to work the system best. But I would rather have transparent rules than none. The point is that the state must make sure that those potetnially affected can shape the rules and then have some capacity to contest them. Regards.