Sunday, July 20, 2008

Well-fed John Gormley: Anti-Science on GM Foods - Pro-Science on Climate Change

The Greenpeace flagship, Rainbow Warrior, arrives in Sydney in April 2004, to promote a future free from genetically engineered (GE) food.

In early July, Green Party leader and Minister for the Environment John Gormley gave support to a French plan that could enable member states such as Ireland to establish themselves as GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) free zones in the EU.

This move would be as much of a fraud as sham neutrality and the opportunity to breast-beat about Ireland being a nuclear-free zone while importing electricity from the UK that may be nuclear generated.

At a meeting of environment ministers in Paris, Gormley was reported to have told his fellow EU ministers that the union needed to respond to citizens concerns in the area of GMOs - i.e pander to the misinformed. Brave politics indeed and no big surprise as Green Party politicians are well practiced at jumping on passing bandwagons, some powered by the extremism of environmental activists.

Gormley said the rejection of the Lisbon Treaty in Ireland had demonstrated there was a real need for the union to take action to address a disconnect between the EU and citizens, and signalled that GMOs were a prime example.

“I heard some of my colleagues talk about the disconnect between the people of Europe and the European project in the context of the Irish No vote,” he said.

Gormley told The Irish Times after the meeting. “When you have a situation and the perception exists that the majority of people in Europe and the majority of member states oppose GMOs, and are then overruled by the Commission, this is undoubtedly contributing to that problem.”

Gormley acknowledged that Irish farmers currently use GMO animal feed for their cattle and he said there were no immediate plans to change that policy. But he said he felt it was essential that the Government kept its options open in relation to the issue.

“We are conscious of the strength of consumer demand for GM-free products. We are also conscious of labelling initiatives being introduced, including those in other member states, which will facilitate consumer identification of food products derived from animals fed a GM-free diet,” he said.

So this well-fed European politician wants to follow the misinformed Europeans and prevent development of the next generation of GM seeds that will provide greater tolerance for salt and drought prone lands in regions of the world, beyond Europe.

Anti-multinational sentiment has been a big factor in the scaremongering about GM food. Of course, the US firm Monsanto shouldn't have the potential of a monopoly on global seed production but in Europe, the anti-science environmentalists have politicians on the run and public research institutes are subject to threats of violence to prevent them from engaging in research.

In fact, these people are more dangerous than the anti-science climate change deniers.

Despite the scaremongering and the violence to prevent scientific experimentation - in June for example, 35 masked intruders destroyed genetically modified wheat being tested by researchers near Zurich and threatened staff with harm - there is no evidence that GM foods have had any negative impact on human health.

The Irish Government's Chief Scientific Adviser Prof Patrick Cunningham, who issued a formal report to the Government on GM foods last summer, which looked at safety, benefits and risks, this week told an Oireachtas Committee that he believed GM was of value to Ireland: "The answer has to be yes," he said.

"[ GM] is not going to go away and it is advancing at a hell of a rate," he said. Countries around the world were growing about 100 million hectares of GM corn, cotton, soyabean and rice.

Genetic modifications impart resistance to herbicides and insect attack, providing cost and yield improvement for the farmer, he said. "This has given a tremendous competitive advantage to those using [ GM]."

Speaking in the wake of food giant Nestlé's call for the European Union to review its opposition to GM, Sir David King, former UK Chief Scientific Adviser told the Financial Times in early July: "There is only one technology likely to deliver [the yield increases needed] and that is GM."

A comprehensive feature report in the Financial Times this month, noted that herbicide tolerance still dominates the GM market. The biggest brand is Monsanto’s Round­up Ready. This enables the farmer to eliminate weeds by spraying with Roundup, an inexpensive broad-acting herbicide, without harming the crop.

The second trait in widespread use is insect resistance. A gene from a microbe called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is transferred into the crop, which produces a toxin that kills voracious pests such as corn borers and bollworms. A study released last month by PG Economics, a UK-based agricultural consultancy, concludes: “Biotech crop commercialisation has resulted in significant global economic and environmental benefits and is making important contributions to global food security.”

The FT report says that while today’s GM crops are designed to resist what scientists call “biotic stress” – pests and weeds – the second generation, currently under development, will focus on “abiotic stress”. This encompasses non-biological factors such as drought and floods, heat and cold, salinity and acidity. The biggest research effort is to make plants use water more efficiently.

“Abiotic stress reduces yield in major crops by 65-80 per cent,” says Michael Metzlaff, head of crop productivity for Bayer of Germany. His company’s experiments show that “gene silencing” technology can reduce the production of a key enzyme called Parp, which controls plants’ response to stress. As a result the plant grows better under adverse conditions. Companies plan to launch drought-resistant maize varieties between 2012 and 2015. Chris Zinselmeier, head of water optimisation research for Syngenta of Switzerland, says the aim is to produce a strain that yields better than conventional maize in drought years but “carries no yield penalty when water is plentiful”.

In addition to drought resistance, the industry is working on several other traits. One product, Syngenta’s Corn Amylase, shows how GM could help the biofuels industry. It is maize genetically modified to produce high levels of an enzyme, alpha amylase, that is a critical ingredient in the production of bio-ethanol. John Atkin, Syngenta’s head of crop protection, says Corn Amylase will improve the efficiency of bio-ethanol manufacturing from maize by 5-10 per cent.

Monsanto is meanwhile working on adding genes that enable crops to use nitrogen more efficiently. Nitrogen fertilisers represent one of the largest input costs in agriculture: in the US alone, farmers spend more than $3bn a year applying nitrogen fertilisers to maize fields and at least half of the nitrogen is wasted because it is not taken up by the crop.

Well-fed anti-GM campaigners in Europe are unlikely to be impressed by the latest developments. Extremists can always google to find some argument to support their prejudices and their familiarity with tropical countries may only extend to packaged or backpacker holidays.

So to the people in countries that are most exposed to the risk of climate change, it's a simple message: Let them eat cake!

As for the craven Minister Gormley, at the climate change conference in Bali, Indonesia in December 2007, he said that he had difficulty getting used to the humidity. It's a fair bet that he knows little or nothing about the challenges for agriculture beyond his world of Ringsend, South Dublin.

The renowned father of the Green Revolution, Dr. Norman Borlaug does not see GM as a panacea but one very important tool for increasing food production.

France, which holds the six month presidency of the union, is aiming to reform the process of GM food approval in the EU and has proposed allowing some member states to become GM free zones.

“We want to make rapid progress, because citizens expect it, and our demands are high,” French junior minister for the environment Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet said in a statement after the July meeting.

EU environment ministers agreed to establish a committee to study the issue. A final decision on a new EU policy on GMOs is to be taken at the summit meeting of EU environment ministers in December, she said.

So finally back to John Gormley the politician. To the public, he is simply anti-science on GM foods and pro-science on climate change.

Comment - Lisbon Treaty Aftermath: The case of European politicians confusing concerns of "people" with the anti-science opponents of Genetically Modified (GM) food

Global Food Crisis: Malthus, Food Price Surge, Climate Change and a 42% rise in World Population by 2050 - includes information on the contribution of Dr. Norman Borlaug. Professor M.S.Swaminathan, President, National Academy of Agricultural Sciences of India, said at a Congressional Medal of Honor award ceremony in July 2007: "The impact of the Borlaug-led Green Revolution symphony will be clear from the fact that during 1964-68, Indian farmers increased wheat production in four years by an order greater than that achieved during the preceding 4000 years."