GM crop opposition is ‘wicked’, says Owen Paterson

Guardian – Monday 14th October 

In the debate on the value of GM ‘golden rice’, as with all things GM-related it would seem, hyperbole and sensationalism reign. Owen Paterson’s recent comments that opponents to ‘golden rice’ are ‘wicked’ is a case in point. The debate on the value of ‘golden rice’ and its potential to solve a major global health problem is bound to incite passionate rhetoric, but it really serves no one.

What is overlooked in the debate again and again, is that GM ‘golden rice’ has yet to evidence that it is effective in treating vitamin A deficiency, and isn’t currently licensed for use. So to brand anyone who doesn’t rush out in support of a speculative technology as ‘wicked’, is misguided at best. The Guardian’s ‘Ecoaudit’ gives a good overview of the issues at stake with an informed debate, representing a range of perspectives on the subject, following Karl Mathiesen’s introduction. Anyone taking a position on the subject should have a detailed read of it.

Respectful critical debate should be the cornerstone of all decision making. That means listening to a range of perspectives on a topic and assessing the validity and robustness of the positions. This is almost always neither clear-cut nor easy, and it’s often deeply personal. It’s difficult to deny that both sides of the ‘golden rice’ argument make a compelling case – the potential to easily solve the persistent and devastating impact of malnutrition in children must be recognised, but so should Greenpeace UK executive director John Sauven’s argument that ‘You can’t just genetically modify your way out of poverty.’

In the insecticide wars, GMOs have so far been a force for good

Grist – Tuesday 8th October

Round-up ready, aim, spray: How GM crops lead to herbicide addiction

Grist – Monday 14th October

Nathanael Johnson’s continuing series on GMOs has recently tackled the impact of pesticides and herbicides in combination with pesticide and herbicide resistant pests and plants. Are they increasing the spread of so-called ‘super bugs’ and ‘super weeds’?

Johnson comes to two different conclusions for pesticides and herbicides. He is, perhaps, a little easy on the pesticides in which he argues, as the title says, that ‘GMOs have been a force for good.’ They have decreased pesticide use. But this is potentially just a short term win. As resistance spreads (which we are seeing increasingly widely), pesticide use will increase again and there will be a need to continue innovating new genetic modifications and new pesticides. It doesn’t seem, to us, a long term answer. And when you get to herbicides, it all gets a whole lot more concerning.

Pesticide and herbicide residues have recently been shown to be present on a huge amount of our food, and in our water supply, at levels significantly above those considered to be ‘safe’. Shouldn’t we be moving towards eliminating those chemicals from our food chain? Eliminating their use in farming systems is a cornerstone of sustainable food production. So perhaps what is needed is new thinking about how to manage pests and weeds, which considers the complexity of our environmental ecosystems and finds ways to work with nature, instead of against it?

Why GMO labelling won’t increase food prices

Grist – Sunday 13th October

As Washington state goes to the polls next month to vote on GMO labelling, the GMO lobby is once again raising fears that the cost of food will increase as a result. This is a tried and true argument regularly used to resist regulation – ‘oh, but if you make us do that, your food is going to cost a lot more.’ On the whole, it’s been a pretty effective tactic; it’s what brought down California’s labelling initiative, Prop 37. 

The price rise is not, as you might assume, because those producing GM food will have to spend a lot of money to re-label their packaging and they’ll pass that on to the consumer. The price rise will come because those GM food producers, apparently, will substitute non-GM or organic ingredients in order to avoid having to label their products and these are more expensive. Grist asks, but won’t this increase in use of non-GM and organic ingredients lower their price? Increased demand will lead to an expansion in the production of non-GMO and organic ingredients, driving price decreases. So the price increase is, perhaps, an illusion

It’s interesting that rather than proudly stand by GMOs, which are widely believed to be safe, GM food producers are going to back away because they don’t think consumers will buy GM. It’s just this lack of confidence in the consumer, by big bio-tech companies, to make appropriate decisions about their food that has fed the wide spread mistrust of GMOs. However, the threat of price rises is still a compelling argument as cost of living pressure remains a critical issue in both the US and UK.

We shall see…

How to Feed the World

The New York Times – Monday 14th October

Mark Bitman’s intelligent commentary on how we might feed the world into the 21st century is important to reflect on. The need to move towards sustainability in our food system is summed up in one startling statistic that he cites: industrial agriculture uses 70% of the resources to produce 30% of our food whereas small-scale ‘peasant’ farming uses 30% of the resources to produce 70% of our food. That’s really something when you think about it – we’re all led to believe that industrial agriculture is the only way to feed the world, but actually it doesn’t feed that much of it and for the small proportion it does feed, it destroys our environment and contributes to the significant rise in obesity by focusing on the mass production of corn, soya and sugar beets which are key in the production of processed food.

Bitman makes a strong argument that there are better ways to feed the world than what industrial farming offers and we need to attend to these. As he notes, our current system is ‘…geared to letting the half of the planet with money eat well while everyone else scrambles to eat as cheaply as possible.’ It doesn’t provide a road map to food equality nor to sustainability, so perhaps we need to re-jig our thinking? In addition to the fact that nearly a billion people in the world go hungry, a further three billion are eating poorly, both over-consuming unhealthy food on one end of the statistic and micronutrient deficient at the other.

Making small scale ‘peasant’ farming systems a model for the future of our food production will demand more than just the will to ‘make it so.’ It also needs, in the words of Raj Patel, ‘…the freedom to shape the food system on fair terms…’ As is widely known, most small-scale farming is not economically viable and it sits within a system which overwhelmingly subsidises industrial farming, so ‘peasant’ farmers aren’t getting any help. This has to change if sustainability is to get a real foothold in the future of our food.

High rate of farm suicides in France

Farmers Guardian – Tuesday 15th October

In France, farmers kill themselves more frequently than the general population. That’s sad, but not really surprising. Cattle farmers are particularly susceptible and it appears that the problem may be economic stress. The margins for farmers, even in France where production is heavily subsidised, remain very slim and making a viable living through intense, physical labour is really, really hard. We should give a thought for this as we blithely gobble up all the lovely food on our table.

The Forgotten Blizzard?

Modern Farmer – Friday 11th October

This is a heart breaking story that will hit home to hill farmers in the UK, which were similarly hit by a freak spring snowstorm last year, suffering devastating livestock losses. The scale is much bigger with losses of cattle running to 100,000. Keeping in mind the story above on rising suicide rates amongst French farmers, it’s just this kind of setback that can financially and emotionally cripple a farmer.

One of the reasons the storm was so damaging was that it was so much earlier than expected. Cattle had yet to grow their winter coats, farmers hadn’t moved them into winter pastures with more cover. It’s more extreme unexpected weather, just as it was last spring in the UK, something we are told to expect as the climate changes.

Sadly this story didn’t get much coverage in the US because the government shutdown was hogging the news and because South Dakota, where the blizzard hit worst, is one of the most rural places in America. It deserves some acknowledgement of its hardship. Dawn Wink, whose father is a South Dakota cattle rancher, tells the story.

Red Cross to launch winter food aid plan for Britain’s needy 

The Telegraph – Friday 11th October

UK food poverty is spreading at an alarming rate. The Red Cross’s announcement that it will launch the first winter food programme since World War II is a testament to how bad things are getting. It’s been widely reported that this winter will see many more people having to choose between heating and food, and Radio 4’s PM recently reported that poverty is spreading into lower and middle class working families because the cost of living is rising faster than salaries. The government’s cuts to social benefits are further feeding the run on food banks.

It’s a sad state of affairs when one of the wealthiest countries in the world can’t keep pace with the spread of hunger within its borders. The burden of care is falling on the Third Sector, but isn’t this something that government should be making a number one priority?

Somerset badger cull extension confirmed

Farmers Weekly – Monday 14th October

The Somerset badger cull is being extended through October to allow marksmen to come closer to  their target of a 70% reduction (currently, there has been just short of a 60% reduction). The extension of the cull in Gloucestershire is currently be debated. With 850 badgers dead in Somerset, the government’s chief veterinary officer has promised that this will deliver ‘clear disease benefit.’ Well, let’s hope that all the killing has not been for nought.

Photograph by IRRI Images

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