Pete Ritchie: Empowering farmers rather than GM is best way to feed the world

THERE’S been a predictable chorus of protest from pro-GM scientists in Scotland and beyond at the Scottish Government’s decision to convert the moratorium on growing GM crops into a ban.

Nourish Scotland supports the ban, and here’s why. GM technology, and the way it has been applied over the last few decades, has over-promised.

It has over-promised in the claims it has made about how this technology will ‘feed the world’ or ‘reduce pesticide use’.

There are still 800 million people going hungry in the world, because they cannot afford to buy food, not because there isn’t enough food to go round.

Most of the world’s cereal crop goes to feed animals or make biofuel rather than feed people directly.

The best way to feed the world is to empower small farmers, especially women, with credit, storage, diverse local seeds, routes to market and techniques for working with nature and looking after the soil.

Small farms are more productive per acre than large ones, just as a well-kept garden or allotment is more productive per acre than a farm.

Of course it has delivered revenue and profits to agribusiness – bundling seeds up in a package with glyphosate has led to a four-fold increase in glyphosate use in the last 20 years. About 45 per cent of this is on GM crops, which are grown on about 12 per cent of the world’s cropland.

We now use 100g per person each year – and it doesn’t just vanish like fairy dust – it’s detectable in our food and our bodies. The International Agency for Research on Cancer recently categorised glyphosate as ‘probably carcinogenic’.

We are used to regular announcements about the next GM breakthrough providing the technical solution to a perceived food problem. This week, we’ve heard about inserting genes from algae into camellina plants so they produce more fatty acids to feed farmed fish.

Given Scotland’s superabundance of water, we could instead grow the algae (which is where fish naturally get their fatty acids from in the first place).

And we’ve heard about the GM blight-resistant potato: but it’s unlikely to get shelf space in the supermarket among the dozens of blight resistant potatoes already on the market.

WE’VE heard less about the GM wheat which failed to repel aphids, while the conventionally bred superwheat from the National Institute of Agricultural Botany could significantly increase yields.

But the Scottish Government decision is scientific in a much broader sense than “does this particular technology work within a limited frame of reference”.

Instead, it takes a much broader look at the evidence. Does the Scottish and UK public want to eat GM food? No, by a majority of 4:1 – so there’s no local market. Do our export markets want GM whisky, GM seed potatoes or GM salmon? No. Is there a competitive advantage to marketing Scottish produce worldwide as GM-free? Yes. Could Scottish farmers adapt in 10 or 20 years’ time to growing GM crops if the technology was open source and there were universally accepted environmental and commercial benefits? Yes. For now, is GM in Scotland a hammer in want of a nail?

Pete Ritchie is Director of Nourish Scotland

Colin McInnes: ‘We should embrace key new technologies not prohibit them’ 

EXACTLY 250 years ago James Watt invented the separate steam condenser while ambling through Glasgow Green. His quite brilliant insight led to a three-fold improvement in the efficiency of steam power, arguably pushing industrialising Britain 60 years into the future. 

But in contrast to Watt’s free-thinking inventiveness, we now seem to have lost our way. Scotland has a de facto ban on new nuclear power, a moratorium on shale gas extraction and now a clear prohibition on the planting of GM crops. For a nation that was at the forefront of the 18th century rationalist enlightenment, we now seem curiously unable to grapple with some key technologies for the 21st century.      

While technologies such as nuclear power, shale gas extraction and genetic modification exist, it does not of course mean that we need to use them. However, we do need to conduct public debate based on that rationalist world-view which Scotland was so instrumental in creating. 

For example, as an argument against nuclear power in Scotland it’s claimed that nuclear is not low carbon and is no cleaner than gas. Not the case; the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) who we apparently trust on climate agree that it’s a key technology for de-carbonisation. 

Similarly, anti-fracking campaign posters invariably show drilling just below a shallow water table rather than in deep shale bedrock; the intent is clearly to spread fear and doubt. And on GM it’s interesting to note that the scientific consensus on safety is apparently stronger than that on human-driven climate change, yet we deny the former and accept the latter.

Instead of prohibiting key technologies, with vision Scotland could embrace

and re-shape them for the future; inventiveness with Scottish characteristics if you will. Here’s some idle speculation. 

As an alternative to the huge new nuclear plants planned in the south we could be pioneers of small, modular plants using so-called 4th generation technologies. For example, the PRISM reactor consumes rather than produces waste and could have been a bold solution to utilise the spent fuel left over from Dounreay’s closure, generating low carbon electricity for years to come.  

SIMILARLY, rather than railing against shale gas extraction, we could be pioneers of novel, emerging technologies such as water-less fracking and pulse plasma methods which dispense entirely with the need for chemical agents. 

We also need to be honest with ourselves that natural gas will be needed for years to come, including as an industrial feedstock for plastics production at Grangemouth, if not to fuel gas power plants which are essential to load-balance intermittent wind power.  

Lastly, rather than simply prohibiting GM agriculture, with vision we could invest heavily in GM research but open-source the results of field trials in Scotland. We could be leaders in the development of a global GM Wikipedia that puts new technology into public rather than private hands. This should be one for enthusiasts of a networked post-capitalist society.   

In Gulliver’s Travels the satirist Jonathan Swift writes: “Whosoever could make two ears of corn or two blades of grass to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together.” Following the recent GM ban Swift’s words are perhaps even more relevant today than when he put pen to paper in 1726. 

Rather than recoiling from key technologies, we need bold ideas to re-shape them for the future; a future imprinted with a progressive, enlightened world view.  

Colin McInnes is James Watt Chair, Professor of Engineering Science at the  University of Glasgow

Lochhead pressed to drop GM ban bid