Why I’m sad to see the European Greens persisting with anti-GMO myths

I have become something of a fan of the Greens recently. Although my party membership lapsed years ago, here in the UK our Green Party MP Caroline Lucas has been an eloquent and passionate defender of pan-European values of tolerance and diversty in the post-Brexit political chaos.

That’s why it’s so sad to see the Greens in the European Parliament making fools of themselves by persisting with a policy on GMOs that is based on ludicrous misinformation and internet myths. Here’s a Twitter exchange I had with them this morning:

I was gratified to see a quick reply and wanted to take the opportunity to flesh out my concerns in more than 140 characters. There’s too much trading of soundbites and rhetoric on this issue. Possibly – hopefully – we’ll find out we have #moreincommon that we originally thought!

The Greens’ document is titled “6 reasons to ban GM plant cultivation in the EU” and you can read it here. Let’s go through the six reasons one by one, and see how much bearing they have on reality.

1. “EU citizens don’t want GMOs”

“54% of EU citizens think GMOs are not safe for them and their family (only 30% think they are safe). This alone should be enough to ban GMOs in the EU, both from the field and food. Citizens have the right to decide what technologies are used in their own society.”

Hmm. Is hiding behind public ignorance really sound evidence-based policy? If, say, a majority (via polling) of the public was against child vaccination – thanks to some determined mythmaking by the likes of Andrew Wakefield – would the Greens want that banned too?

It’s a serious point. Evidence needs to come from the scientific community on issues like this. And the scientific community is crystal clear – there is no health issue at all regarding GMOs. This was most recently concluded in an enormous literature review by the US National Academy of Sciences. I’m sorry, Greens, but this debate is over, and you need not to be on the wrong side of science. Don’t join Trump and Farage in being post-truth politicians! Leave the cherry-picking and consensus-denying to the climate sceptics!

There’s another point too. I agree that “citizens have the right to decide what technologies are used in their own society”, within reason. If you have religious or cultural objections to molecular biology being used in crop breeding, so be it. (But please be consistent – no grandfathering in of mutagenesis should be allowed!) But outright prohibition of entire technologies should require a pretty high bar. Shouldn’t the market otherwise decide? Even if 54% think GMOs are unsafe, that means 46% think they’re safe – should they be denied the choice?

2. “Biotechnologies allow privatisation of life”

“This allows the privatisation of life and the monopolization of nature itself by a handful of global agrochemical companies, but also the privatisation of food by private interests, a dangerous trend in terms of food sovereignty.”

There’s a germ of a point here. I agree that patenting can be problematic – not least because plant breeders themselves can be held back by multiple licensing requirements of patent holders when using new molecular techniques. (Witness the current unhelpful patent battle going on regarding Crispr.)

But what’s the logical corollary here? If you think that intellectual property should not be applied in biological inventions, does this mean you aim to ban the application of the entire technology? Isn’t that like banning computers because Microsoft dominates (or used to at least) operating systems? Why not push for open-source, non-patented, public sector applications of the technology? Let’s ensure it serves the poor – rather than banning everything.

3. “Co-existence between GMO crops and non-GMO crops is not possible”

Sorry, but this is just a myth. I know why you’re using it – to justify an all-or-nothing position. Cross pollination only matters in seed production, and is an issue that the seed-producing community works with already in order to protect the integrity of different varieties. It doesn’t make any difference whether the MON810 genes are in there or not. Maintaining segregation of different varieties needs to be done whether you’re producing organic, conventional or any other seed. You don’t want unlimited cross-pollination ending up with a mish-mash of traits.

Cross-pollination doesn’t matter if you’re not keeping seeds. This is the case with pretty much all maize growing, which is why no-one in Spain cares about MON810 being used so extensively. Why? Because all maize is F1 hybrid (even the sweetcorn I grow on my community allotment!). You don’t keep seeds from F1s because they don’t breed true. Producing hybrid seeds is difficult, which is why they are more expensive – but the resulting crop is much more vigorous, which is why everyone uses them.

Cross-pollination also doesn’t matter if pollen flow is minimal, or non-existent (such as with clonally propagated crops like potato). Also: remember there is no more reason why transgenic sequences of DNA should propagate than any other of the tens of thousands of genes in the average plant (or even more, if they have multiple sets of chromosomes, like many do). This comes down in my view to intuitive superstition that there is something unnatural about transgenic DNA, that makes it more likely to spread dangerously.

Or give a plant teeth:


4. “GMO cultivation means pesticides in our environment”

All farming means pesticides in our environment. Europe has no GMOs (outside Spain), yet pesticides are used more extensively than North America. That also goes for glyphosate, which is the subject of much furore in Europe at the moment. Yes, glyphosate has been overused on herbicide-tolerant crops in the US and elsewhere. Yes, this has led to the emergence of resistant weeds. (Please don’t call them ‘superweeds’. That’s dumb.) But do you really think this is a recent phenomenon? Resistance will always evolve in response to the selective pressure of a pest control strategy.

Here’s my position on glyphosate, by the way:

Organic farmers also use pesticides. (Whether they’re classed as ‘natural’ or ‘artificial’ doesn’t tell you anything about toxicity or environmental impact.) They have to: drop the pesticides and you drop the yield (because pests eat the crop. That’s why they’re pests). Drop the yield and you have to cultivate more land. Cultivate more land and you have less space left for wildlife. It’s a complex but well demonstrated tradeoff.

GMO insect-resistance traits like Bt have also dramatically reduced insecticide use. I’ve seen this myself with poorer farmers in Bangladesh spraying less poison on their aubergine crops because they have Bt brinjal. The same has applied on a vaster scale in the entire US corn belt. (See this meta-analysis on environmental impact.) Remember: if you can’t use biological controls such as genes expressing non-toxic proteins like Bt, you have to use chemical controls like sprays. Is this what Greens should be seeking? I don’t think so.

5. “They are creating ‘superweeds’ by breeding with wild plants

I said stop calling them ‘superweeds’! The Greens in the EP helpfully tweeted a reference on herbicide-resistant weeds, which you can find here. It lists 33 resistant weeds, sorry, SUPERWEEDS, in France, where no GMOs are grown. Do these superweeds also have big teeth, like the GMO ones?

“We have evidence of superweeds originating from GM herbicide resistant plants that have bred with their wild relatives, leading to hybrids that are also herbicide resistant, so that tougher, more dangerous pesticides are used to control them chemically.”

Do we really? That’s odd, because the massive NAS scientific review on GM crops didn’t find any evidence of this. Perhaps the Greens need to publish this evidence in the scientific literature for us all to examine! True, there’s the odd example of volunteer crops popping up in fields or by the roadside, but honestly, who cares? All herbicide resistance means is that you won’t be able to spray a plant with the said herbicide and kill it. Since when was this a massive environmental problem? Especially when you don’t like herbicides anyway? People… we’ve got real environmental issues to worry about: don’t create fake ones to justify silly policies.

Another thing that bugs me here is that herbicide tolerance is not a GMO issue. There are herbicide tolerant crop lines generated using targeted mutagenesis (like BASF’s Clearfield – billed as “herbicide tolerance based on traditional plant breeding techniques”) that no-one seems to care about. Call me autistic, but that’s inconsistent, and it therefore bugs me! Also: selective herbicides like atrazine (e.g. atrazine is used on corn because it hits broadleaved weeds, leaving the corn undamaged) fulfil the same purpose but attract none of the controversy.

6. “There are alternatives”

Yes! At last one we can agree on. The more diversity, the better. Integrated pest management is awesome. Many of the Bangladeshi farmers I interviewed last year used pheromone traps as an additional way to manage fruit and shoot borer as well as the Bt trait.

But it’s not either-or! To encourage diverse farming practices doesn’t mean you have to ban the ones you don’t like. Isn’t this obvious? We don’t need farming by bureaucratic diktat – we need to do what works, producing most food at minimum environmental impact. There will of course be many ways to do this. The science is clear that in general GMO traits have contributed to sustainability (even the hated herbicide tolerance trait helps promote no-till and soil carbon retention).

So… where does this leave us? In need of a sensible conversation, that includes caveats, uncertainties and changing information. I would very much hope that the Greens can be included in this, and that their implacable anti- position might soften as the scientific consensus continues to strengthen on this issue. (And no I don’t claim to speak for science! – that’s why I’m quoting the latest meta reviews.) Remember the pragmatic point here: being perceived as an anti-science party will not help your cause in other important areas, like climate change. If you use scientific evidence selectively to justify existing policies, in what way are you better than other parties you criticise for climate change denial?

Ultimately, I’m not pro-GMO, I’m pro-science. If there are scientifically well-documented concerns about any GMO trait (that is unique to its GMO status, rather than being something that applies throughout agriculture already), I’d be delighted to be the first to admit it. Hit me! That’s what being evidence-led means.

In closing, I’m grateful to the Greens in the European Parliament for engaging on this issue and – Brexit notwithstanding – I’m ready to engage or debate with you on this issue at a time and place of your choosing. Meantime, let’s remember and celebrate all the values that we have in common, especially at this difficult time. I write this with respect and appreciation for all your good work in other areas.

© Mark Lynas
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