As part of the exhibition, the museum organised a debate at the Dana Centre to give the public a chance to debate GM crops and the food crisis with some key scientists. I chaired the event and picked up on a few issues I thought might be worth sharing.
The panel of experts included Bob Watson, the chief scientist at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), who in previous incarnations has been a Nasa scientist, an adviser to the White House and chief scientist at the World Bank. He was joined by Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University in London. Tim used to be director of the London Food Commission, director of Parents for Safe Food, and has also spent time as a hill farmer in Lancashire. Rodomiro Ortiz, director of resource mobilisation at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre in Mexico, completed the panel.
I’ve been at GM debates before, sometimes on a panel and sometimes in the audience, and I’ve always been disheartened by the deeply polarised views I hear. There are those who overstate how useful GM crops could be, while others write off the entire technique, claiming it is inherently dangerous. It’s hard not to feel the truth is somewhere in between.
Tim Lang spoke first and stressed that our way of producing food has to change from the post-1940s push for quantity. Yes, of course quantity is still important, he said, but water usage, environmental impact and nutritional content have to be considered now more than ever. Tim doesn’t see GM as a technical fix that will put food in the mouths of the hungry, especially while it is in the hands of multinationals. He called for public ownership of GM technology, with the transparency and distribution of benefits that comes with it.
Rodomiro spoke next, describing the work his organisation is doing to genetically modify wheat to grow under drought conditions. The crops are in trials at the moment and if they are a success, similar strains of rice, maize and barley could be next.
Bob Watson spoke last. He began by explaining that today the amount of food available per capita has never been higher, how costs are still low, and yet still around 900m people go to bed hungry every night.
The major problem, said Watson, is not one that GM crops will solve. He stressed the need for good roads to get crops to markets, and simple technologies that will help reduce post-harvest losses in Africa, which currently stand at between 30 and 40%. “GM is a totally oversold technique,” he said.
The debate that followed covered some interesting ground, but it seemed easier to identify the problems than the solutions. How can we ensure GM foods are safe when some countries do not have sufficient procedures for testing and evaluating any health issues, let alone the impact of novel crops on the environment? How do you ensure that farmers in the developing world can plant higher-yielding GM crops without becoming dangerously reliant upon a company that has the power to hike prices or withdraw seeds without notice? The problems are recognised, but I’m not sure anyone at the meeting had concrete ideas about how to solve them.
Though GM crops are common in many parts of the world now, they are still absent from the UK and resistance to them is strong in many parts of Europe. Sir David King, the government’s former chief scientist, said last year that Africa’s ills are largely down to Western do-gooders who oppose GM in favour of organic food. He argued that organic food is a luxury Africa cannot afford and that modern agricultural technology is needed urgently.
It’s striking that the views of King and Watson are so diametrically opposed. If these two have such differing positions, is it any wonder that the public is confused?