View from the fence

Social, environmental and economic issues surrounding GM foods, and the latest news


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New Scientist vs Soil Association – this week’s organic spat

New Scientist’s recent article ‘Stop buying organic food if you really want to save the planet‘ inevitably caused a stir, and the Soil Association fought back with the accusation of ‘unscientific’. As the title suggests, there were some sweeping statements from New Scientist. The Soil Association’s response also had some bold claims, so I’m taking the opportunity to comment on a few of the claims from both sides and point out some logical flaws. Continue reading


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The precautionary principle

Pretty much everyone with an environmentalist streak tends to be of a ‘better safe than sorry’ mindset when making decisions about the future of the planet. This even has an official term to make it acceptable in policy situations: the precautionary principle. It’s often used as an argument against GM crops.

Taking fewer risks with the environment sounds extremely wise to me, but life involves some risks, so do we need to move towards a thorough cost-benefit analysis?

This is being debated in London on Tuesday (1st April) and sadly I will be at a plant science conference so can’t come. Instead I’m going to persuade lots of people to go so they can tweet, and get my word in here.

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What is evidence?

The internet is flooded with information about GM, but as I walk the tightrope of the middle ground I need to decide what actually constitutes reliable evidence. There are lots of accusations that sources are unreliable because they are from people who are book-burning luddites, or in the pocket of evil corporations.  It’s a convenient way to dismiss evidence which doesn’t suit you, but how do you know when this ‘evidence’ should be dismissed?

I want the debate to be about evidence, not about insulting other people’s motives, but at the same time I need to decide which evidence is reliable, and the motives of people presenting it are part of that decision. I often wish that I could do all the experiments myself, but sadly I have to rely on what I read. Continue reading


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Bt crops – some background

One of the most widespread genetic modifications of crops is the addition of a Bt gene, so here’s some background on what it is and what it does.

A bacteria found in soil, Bacillus thuringiensis, produces proteins that are toxic to certain insects, and so has been used as a ‘microbial insecticide’ for well over 50 years.

More recently, crops including cotton, potato and corn have been modified to contain the gene for an inactive form of the Bt toxin. The plant itself is therefore producing the toxin which naturally occurs in bacteria. The Bt toxin becomes active in the gut of insects, which is an acidic environment with specific enzymes. Continue reading