This week I went to a debate at the British Library about ‘Biotech on the Farm’. A geneticist, an economist and a Friends of the Earth campaigner talked genetic modification, taxes and eating meat as part of the regular TalkScience series. There was far more which the panel agreed on than might have been anticipated, driven by the common understanding that we need to increase food production while protecting the environment.
The geneticist and Friends of the Earth campaigner found plenty of common ground, and plenty to disagree on. They both believe genetic modification is a distraction. Professor Sang believes the method of production is just a distraction – it’s the product that counts. She was keen to see regulations changed from process-based to product-based: if you produce a herbicide-resistant crop it should be assessed for safety in the same way regardless of how you produce it.
Vicki Hird from Friends of the Earth believed that GM is distracting us from the political issues preventing the distribution of the food we already produce.
I agree that GM and other options for increasing yield can be a distraction from tackling other causes of food insecurity, such as social inequality or logistical challenges. The people who seem distracted by GM are those who campaign against it. Around the world people are still going hungry; I wish those who put effort into convincing us that we only have a distribution and not a production problem would put their effort into tackling this distribution problem and not fighting against alternative solutions.
Other than some strange claims about golden rice (specifically that farmers didn’t want to grow it because Syngenta owned the patent), Vicki Hird from Friends of the Earth had some sound points to make. She only said one majorly annoying thing – she started by suggesting that she would annoy the audience by speaking about the political barriers to effective distribution of the surplus that agriculture currently produces. I begrudge the assumption that because I’m a scientist I’m not interested in political (and social) ways to increase food security. I really am.
Although she was dismissive of all current GM crops, she wasn’t closed to the idea that they could be beneficial in the future. It will be fascinating too see how many of the different communities of environmentalists become open to the possibility for using GMOs.