Scientists opt for diplomatic silence on GM foods

Anyone writing about global food security knows that a sure-fire tactic for grabbing attention is to discuss the role of genetically modified crops, spiced up with tales of biopiracy and unethical patenting of life forms.

You’d expect a gathering of scientists to relish this topic, especially at a major London conference, ambitious for media exposure, with food security high on its agenda.

But I searched in vain for a scheduled opportunity to debate genetic modification in the otherwise wide-ranging programme of Planet Under Pressure 2012 which starts on March 25th. A Food Security policy brief, published in advance of the event, likewise studiously avoids any reference to advanced biotechnologies.

Why this reticence to engage? Is this science for sissies or just the English capacity to avoid talking about sensitive issues?

One possible explanation is the alignment of the aims of the London event with the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development in June. The Rio negotiations wouldn’t touch genetic modification with the longest bargepole in Brazil.

There’s just too much division on the issue. The addiction to GM crops in US and some Latin American countries is countered by the allergic reaction to them in Europe.

Developing countries tend to sit on the fence, beset by well-founded fears of loss of food sovereignty to the global corporate giants, at both national and community levels.

The Future We Want, the draft Rio outcome document, is shaped by the lowest common denominator of potential global agreement. Although it gives top billing to food security in its framework for action, negotiators have no interest in attempting to reconcile polarised positions.

The scientific community itself is not exactly united on GM issues, a considerable inconvenience for one of the “major groups” recognised by the UN negotiating process.

The vibrant and global anti-GM movement has no difficulty in publishing a stream of science-based reports questioning the yield performance or exposing collateral damage of the products of companies such as Monsanto and Syngenta.

Leaders of the science establishment tend to be more in favour, citing the challenge of feeding an extra 2 billion people by 2050, in a world troubled by water scarcity and rising temperatures.

Professor Sir John Beddington is UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser and a prominent speaker at the Planet Under Pressure conference. He made his views plain in 2011 at the time of publishing The Future of Food and Farming, an encyclopaedic analysis of global food security published for the UK government.

“It is very hard to see how it would be remotely sensible to justify not using new technologies such as GM,” Beddington was quoted as saying. There may be many scientists at the conference who would wish to challenge his position.

Moreover, since the London conference programme was published, there has been a development which might justify a late agenda promotion for the GM debate. Just over a week ago, the UN announced a new partnership between its International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Bill Gates has never made any secret of his enthusiasm for genetic crop technology, not just as a solution to global food security but also to address the very specific and difficult problems of small farmers in the poorest countries.

This enthusiasm has been pursued by the Gates Foundation through co-founding the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) with the aim to “transform smallholder agriculture.” Critics accuse AGRA of infiltrating genetically modified crops into Africa through the back door.

Gates has now taken his genetic campaign through the front door of the Rome-based global food establishment. There’s talk of $200 million for IFAD, most of it targeted at research into new climate-tolerant seeds.

“Smallholders must share in the digital revolution in agriculture” is the Gates mantra, an inventive spin which avoids using the GM words.

Use of obfuscating language has become a disreputable feature of the GM debate. It’s why I hope that the Planet Under Pressure conference will give time to the subject. For example, its policy brief uses the phrase “sustainable intensification of food production,” without really explaining what this means.

Does this refer to the miracle seeds of bioscience? Or to the traditional husbandry at which smallholders excel, given appropriate support and infrastructure?

The same worrying phrase has crept into the Rio+20 draft outcome document. The London conference would perform a valuable service if it can deliver a definition of “sustainable intensification of food production.”


this article was first published by OneWorld UK