The assembled great and the good of the National Farmers Union must have been absolutely delighted to hear Chris Smith, Chair of the Environment Agency, extol the benefits of GM technologies earlier in the week.
He stressed that he was speaking in a ‘personal capacity’, despite the fact that he was invited as Chair of the Environment Agency, and presumably had plenty to talk about in that capacity which might have been of more immediate interest to farmers.
Reflecting on this, it seems to have become a mandatory test of credibility for people like Chris to declare their enthusiasm for GM. The pro-GM lobby has done a fantastic job in persuading the media and politicians that even the most modest GM-scepticism is tantamount to extreme science-hating emotionalism.
To express any reservations about the notional sustainability benefits of current GM crops, let alone about the massively hyped potential benefits of future GM products, is to open oneself up to the charge of debilitating technophobia. Shades here of George Bush beating up his NATO allies over the Iraq war: “If you’re not with us, you’re against us”.
Sorry, Chris, but that’s really not the deal. Interviewed on Radio 4’s Farming Today, he suggested that anti-GM campaigners would really have to ‘move on’ in terms of their opposition on both environmental and health grounds – given that the balance of the available evidence would appear to indicate a relatively clean bill of health for GM on both counts.
If only it were that easy. Once judgement about ‘the balance of the evidence’ depends largely on where that evidence comes from, and even pro-GM advocates are very uneasy about the stranglehold that the big biotech companies have over access to data and transparency of the data used by regulators. I wonder how content Chris is, as Chair of the Environment Agency, about the quality of that evidence, and the credence that should be attached to it?
Furthermore, I wonder what Chris means by ‘environmental concerns’ in this context? I’d be astonished if he is not worried about the biggest environmental concern of all: the fact that even the next generation of GM ‘solutions’ promise little if anything in terms of reducing the dependence of modern intensive agriculture on fossil fuels and hydro- carbon based inputs. On broad sustainability and governance grounds, GM-scepticism still seems to me to be the most appropriate response to the latest surge of evangelism for all things GM. But balance in this debate seems to be entirely lacking. As the IAASTD (International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, Technology for Development) Report in 2008 so eloquently pointed out, there are so many things that can and should be done right now to address issues of food security and increased yields without casting all our eggs in the GM basket. (Don’t ask, incidentally, what happened to the IAASTD Report, which has, to all extents and purposes, ‘disappeared’. Some would say precisely because it was so sceptical about GM.)
But for reasons I still can’t fathom, people like Chris get hugely over-excited about GM whilst remaining resolutely underwhelmed by all those other aspects of sustainable food production and distribution that would make a far bigger difference to an infinitely greater number of people in a far shorter period of time.
This is clearly not a rational process, whatever GM advocates may say. Indeed, I’d go so far as to suggest that Chris is only the latest ‘big name’ to have given into the phenomenon of what I can only describe as ‘GM fetishism’.
President Sarkozy recently accused his fellow world leaders of having given in to ‘GDP fetishism’. By which he meant (I assume!) that their obsessive preoccupation with GDP at the expense of every other measure of prosperity, wellbeing and quality of life, was seriously impairing their judgement.
By the same token, it is clear to me that the elite of today’s farming establishment (plus a few misguided Greenies) have clearly given into a form of GM fetishism, which overshadows every other measure of innovation, sustainable yield improvement and resource efficiency in farming today.
I am sure Chris doesn’t see himself as a GM fetishist, but then he has also converted to the pro-nuclear cause over the last few years, and I have noticed that this is rich ‘two for one’ territory: go nuclear and throw in GM evangelism for good measure. Or vice-versa. That, it would seem, is the only way to demonstrate one’s serious scientific credentials these days.
Or so some sad people say.