And my response..........
George Monbiot's periodic eruptions of green bile on the subject of GM crops call to mind the question Steve Jones asked of him at the Westminster Hall Guardian debate; "Is he a fool? Or a liar? Probably both". By invoking an undefined and imaginary environmental impact, George defends vandalism against poplar trees designed to reduce pollution associated with papermaking. He doesn't need tests to be done to evaluate whether GM rapeseed damages the environment; he knows the answer already. Why will it be a disaster? Because it's done by big business. Guilt by association; the cheapest and crudest trick in the rhetorician's handbook; George has so convinced himself that he needs no further justification. He rails against genetic "contamination" but doesn't have the wit to recognize that the only consequence of weeds acquiring herbicide resistance is that sales of that herbicide will decline, since it will no longer work. If he thought about this for more than a nanosecond he might find this a cause for celebration. He deplores public policy being shaped by business interests but fails to see any contradiction between that position and his support for the Soil Association, which stokes the fires of anti-GM frenzy in order to increase the organic market share.
Most people buy organic food to reduce the pesticides they ingest. The fact that GM will reduce pesticide consumption is seen as a threat by the organic lobby, so they adopt the scientifically indefensible position that organic crops cannot use genetics to control disease. Why would they prefer to control disease by spraying crops with copper sulphate , or with elemental sulphur (often recovered from lead and zinc mines without strict controls on heavy metal composition) when they could use a gene that abolishes the need for either? (And isn't it strange that organic farmers prefer inorganic chemistry?)
George purports to be the friend of disenfranchised people thoughout the world. Why then does he not want to help poor farmers by allowing them access to a dwarfing gene that increases yields of basmati rice plants by stopping them from falling over? Why not engineer resistance to viruses that devastate yields of rice in Africa and Asia? Isn't it a good thing to reduce the amount of mycotoxins in maize flour by engineering corn borer resistance, thus reducing the wound sites through which the toxin-producing fungus gains entry? Why not hugely reduce insecticide applications to cotton, maize and potatoes? Why not help third world farmers grow better crops on acid soils by engineering aluminium tolerance? Because George Monbiot and his bigoted, myopic, mystical, anti-scientific, organic farming business interest friends say so, that's why not. They know what's best for us. Don't confuse them with the facts.
In the 1910s Robert Koch discovered that bovine tuberculosis could be passed to humans through cow's milk. The tubercle bacillus is inactivated by pasteurization. This procedure was immediately adopted in the US; infections plummeted. Not so in the UK; deeply resonant bleats of "it's not natural", "we've not done this before" and "it makes the milk taste funny" were heard. Twenty years later, thousands of children were evacuated from London to the countryside during the Blitz and promptly developed TB. Pasteurization of milk was belatedly adopted in the UK. Let's hope it doesn't take so long to overcome this latest example of fear of science and the new, scurrilously fanned by Monbiot and chums.
GM is a profoundly more benign and environmentally friendly approach to agriculture than those that it will replace; it's better to protect crops with genetics than with chemistry. What could be more organic than DNA? Herbicide resistance is a sideshow, providing a marginal improvement in weed control for some crops, but otherwise a trivial example of the crop improvements that GM can provide. The real value is yet to come, but don't let it be once again only the Americans that benefit from the first 20 years of its deployment.
Jonathan D G Jones researches plant resistance to disease at the Sainsbury Laboratory, John Innes Centre, Norwich. The views expressed here are his own; for more see www.jic.bbsrc.ac.uk/sainsbury-laborator