Britain’s Chief Scientist has come out trumpeting the need for genetically engineered (GE) crops to feed the world, and the UK media is falling all over itself with blaring headlines that echo this badly misinformed sentiment (see Guardian, Telegraph coverage).
The source of all the hullabaloo is the UK’s release this week of its mammoth Foresight report, Global Food and Farming Futures. Using the occasion to espouse what seems to be his personal opinion, Sir John Beddington —the Chief Scientist in question — argues that “It is very hard to see how it would be remotely sensible to justify not using new technologies such as GM. Just look at the problems that the world faces: water shortages and salination of existing water supplies, for example. GM crops should be able to deal with that.” “Should?” Is that the best you can do, Sir John?
In reality, after 25 years of research, no drought or salt-tolerant crops have yet been commercially developed, while yield declines, surging herbicide use, resistant superweeds, and a host of environmental—not to mention social—harms have been documented where GE crops have been planted. In contrast, ecologically resilient agroecological farming systems are known to perform well under the stressed conditions increasingly associated with climate change and water scarcity. For a scientist, Beddington does a remarkable job of ignoring the science.
So much hype
In truth, the UK report does not ever claim, as the newspapers and Beddington have, that “genetically modified crops are the key to human survival.” All it actually says is that “New technologies (such as the genetic modification of living organisms and the use of cloned livestock and nanotechnology) should not be excluded a priori on ethical or moral grounds.” But that sort of talk just puts people to sleep; it certainly doesn’t sell papers or keep industry happy.
The BBC at least has shown a bit more journalistic integrity, avoiding the GE hype and keeping to the report’s main message, namely that “the food production system will need to be radically changed, not just to produce more food but to produce it sustainably.” I couldn’t agree more.
Unfortunately, despite the relevance of its main message, there's still much that is missing from the report, as Indian journalist and policy analyst Devinder Sharma and UK organizations GM Freeze and the Soil Association explain. When asked by BBC for his opinion of the report, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter, politely exposed the flaws in the report and concluded:
We should realize that the insistence on producing more food is one that often has not benefited the small farmers, the poor in the rural areas in developing countries.... The problem with GM crops is that the patents on these crops are [held] by a very small handful of corporations, who will capture a larger proportion of the end dollar of the food that the consumer buys. [This] creates a dependency for small farmers that is very problematic in the long term. It may not be sustainable for small-scale farmers to be hooked up to such technologies.... Investing in small-scale farming rather than investing in large-scale heavily mechanized plantations is really the path we should now radically espouse.
Too bad the UK fell short of the mark this time. We usually expect greater vision from across the Atlantic.
I asked a few of my colleagues who are listed as among the report's “400 authors and contributors” what happened. They all indicated that they had had no say in the actual writing of this report. As one scientist—whose name is listed in the report—put it:
“I was invited by email to write a review to be published elsewhere. I didn’t participate in any meetings, discussions, findings, or report writing. I hadn’t even been alerted to the fact that a report had been issued. It isn’t at all clear to me how the listed “stakeholders” actually participated in the process. The issue of GM crops never came up in anything I saw, and it doesn’t even seem to feature strongly in the report. [The] conclusion that Beddington is just using the report to promote GM crops seems about right.”
That's how they treated eminent scientists. What about farmers, workers and Indigenous communities? They are simply and entirely absent from this report. (In contrast, to hear African farmers speak out, see IIED's amazing Excluded Voices report.)
A helping hand for industry
Patrick Mulvany of UK-based Practical Action observes: "The Foresight report delivered by Beddington today provides few surprises and offers no new proposals. It could have been different and saved the taxpayer a lot of money had the scientific establishment not been so 'willfully deaf' about recognising and taking forward the findings of the World Bank and UN sponsored global scientific assessment of the future of agriculture – the IAASTD reports."
The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Scientific and Technology for Development (IAASTD) is the most comprehensive, rigorous and credible global assessment of the future of agriculture, authored by 400 scientists and development experts from over 80 countries and approved by 58 governments. It firmly concludes that business as usual is not an option, and reliance on industrial agricultural technologies such as chemical pesticides and GMOs is unlikely to reduce global hunger and poverty. The IAASTD highlighted the urgent need to support small-scale farmers, invest in agroecological farming, undertake radical shifts in governance, trade and development policies to achieve social equity, and control corporate actors.
With the IAASTD already pointing the way forward, why would the UK even bother to come up with a less rigorous, less credible report of its own? Devinder Sharma suggests, “The only objective of the (Foresight] report seems to be to oppose the findings of the IAASTD.”
Turns out, the report is actually a project of the British Department for Business Innovation and Skills (aha! what a giveaway!). This project aims “to ensure closer interaction between scientists, industry and government [and] identify future opportunities and threats for science engineering and technology.” Thanks, Devinder, for pointing out the man behind the curtain.
No wonder the pesticide industry group, Crop Protection Association, welcomed the report so warmly. There is no need for the rest of us to do likewise.
Listen to the UN Food Rapporteur as he calls for a boost to small farms on BBC.