Rural round-up

January 8, 2018

They need to be able to have a life’: Mother’s plea after farmer son’s death – Kelly Dennett:

Last month Gail Harris spent a night with her sons watching movies, cooking dinner, and listening to them play video games while she dozed on the couch.

As her youngest, Colby Harris, left the Hamilton home for the Huntly farm he worked on, she said a sleepy goodbye. Opening her eyes shortly afterward she realised Colby was still there, watching her.

“I said, ‘Are you okay, Son?’ And he said, ‘Yup’.”

It was the last conversation they had. The only inkling of something amiss. . . 

Westland Milk – closing the gap on dairy’s big brother – Jamie Gray:

Hokitika-based Westland Milk fell behind its far larger competitor, Fonterra, in 2016. Under new chief executive Toni Brendish, the co-op is closing the gap.
Extreme volatility in world dairy markets has taken its toll on companies around the world, and Westland Milk has been no exception.

The co-op turned in a $17 million loss over 2016/17 and its payout — at $5.18 per kg of milksolids — was the lowest of all the Kiwi dairy companies. . . 

Farming for the next generation – Michael Grove:

The age of acceleration
For anyone wondering what the focus of this year’s Oxford Farming Conference might be, it was The Archers provided an answer just before Christmas.

Brian Aldridge asked his step-son, Adam, whether he might be attending the conference. Adam replied wearily. ‘I think I’ll give it a miss this year. It’s probably going to be all about Brexit. I get enough of that at home.’

I know how he feels.

I suspect everyone in this room knows how he feels.

And, of course, I’ll say something in a moment about the specific opportunities and challenges for agriculture on leaving the European Union. . .

Yes we have no bananas but monoculture wasn’t so easy to avoid – Steven Savage:

In 1923, Frank Silver and Irving Cohn published a song that became a major hit for the Billy Jones Orchestra, with the signature line “Yes, we have no bananas; we have no bananas today.” It turned out to be sadly prophetic as, in the 1950s, the banana trees that supplied the entire global banana export business were wiped out by a soil-borne fungal disease known as “Panama Wilt.”

The industry at that time was almost entirely based on a single banana cultivar called “Gros Michel” (meaning “Big Mike”), and it was susceptible to infection by a strain of fungus called Fusarium. Once the soil of a given plantation was contaminated with that strain, any Gros Michel tree grown there would soon die.

By good fortune, a different banana cultivar that was being grown in the South Seas was able to substitute for Gros Michel as a commercial line, and this new “Cavendish” cultivar became the new banana of international commerce, as it remains to this day. . .

Speech to the Oxford Farming Conference – Mark Lynas:

Five years ago, almost to this very day, I stood before you and offered an apology for my earlier anti-GMO activism. Today I want to do something different.

Whereas my 2013 speech was something of a declaration of war against my former colleagues in the anti-GMO scene, today I want to offer an olive branch, to map out the contours of a potential peace treaty.

For me it’s been a very intense five years. The 2013 speech really did change my life in ways I had never anticipated. I was accused of having been the global founder of the anti-GMO movement, and my stance was compared with being a rapist by one well known activist.

I don’t like to run away from a fight, so since then I’ve devoted myself pretty much full time to the GMO issue. I’ve been to numerous countries in Africa and Asia and met farmers, scientists, activists and others on both sides of this very contentious debate. . . 


Rural round-up

December 13, 2017

SFF forecasts record spend – Sally Rae:

Silver Fern Farms is forecast to spend more than $230million on livestock this month – its biggest monthly livestock spend so far – as high volumes caused by dry conditions and high prices make their mark.
In an update to suppliers, chief executive Dean Hamilton said the warm weather being experienced throughout the country had pushed stock processing levels higher than normally seen in December.

Plants had been brought on early because of the rapid dry-off after good spring growing conditions and the company had recruited more than 1000 new seasonal staff, who had been trained over the past month. . .

Droughts are not ‘declared’ – so what makes a drought ‘Official’? – WeatherWatch:

WeatherWatch.co.nz head forecaster Philip Duncan speaks with the Ministry for Primary Industries to make sense of it all.

Parts of New Zealand are very dry now, which is concerning many farmers and growers up and down the country with many asking us if we are going into a drought.

But what actually is a drought and who decides if we are in one?

The process may not be quite what you think:

It’s a myth that the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) “declares a drought”. In fact, the Government doesn’t declare a drought is present just like they don’t declare a river is flooded, or that there is snow on a mountain. However the Government may provide recovery assistance if it is requested, when it meets the criteria under the Primary Sector Recovery Policy. . .

Sometimes we’re mean to our cows – Dairy Carrie:

Well this is awkward. I have spent the last two years talking about our farm and how much I love my cows. If you have read more than a few posts here I hope that you understand my deep love for the cows in my care, “my girls“.

That being said sometimes I am mean to my cows. If you were to ask me if I have ever hit one of my cows I couldn’t tell you no without lying.

I am going to let you in on a secret, PETA and Mercy For Animals have shown you some truth in their undercover videos on dairy farms. The truth is sometimes as a dairy farmer I am mean to my cows.

I think it’s time we talk about “down” cows. . . 

Italian farmer wages lonely battle against a continental tide of superstition – Mark Lynas:

Near the north-eastern Italian town of Pordenone, where the fertile plain stretches between Venice on the Adriatic coast and the foothills of the Alps, one man has been waging a lonely battle against superstition.

Giorgio Fidenato is an unlikely warrior. He is a small-holder farmer, growing maize (corn), tomatoes and soybeans on just five hectares of cultivated land that was handed down to him from his father.

But Fidenato is also a campaigner. As chair of the local farmers federation he pushes for more sustainable agriculture and lower pesticide use — an effort that has driven him into an unlikely confrontation with environmentalists and even the Italian state.

Maize is an important food in the region. The local staple is maize-derived polenta rather than the more famous Italian pasta, which is derived from durum wheat. . . 


Science when it suits

July 5, 2016

More than 100 Nobel laureates have written an open letter to Greenpeace, the United Nations and governments around the world urging Greenpeace to support science and end their campaign against genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The United Nations Food & Agriculture Program has noted that global production of food, feed and fiber will need approximately to double by 2050 to meet the demands of a growing global population. Organizations opposed to modern plant breeding, with Greenpeace at their lead, have repeatedly denied these facts and opposed biotechnological innovations in agriculture. They have misrepresented their risks, benefits, and impacts, and supported the criminal destruction of approved field trials and research projects.

We urge Greenpeace and its supporters to re-examine the experience of farmers and consumers worldwide with crops and foods improved through biotechnology, recognize the findings of authoritative scientific bodies and regulatory agencies, and abandon their campaign against “GMOs” in general and Golden Rice in particular.

Scientific and regulatory agencies around the world have repeatedly and consistently found crops and foods improved through biotechnology to be as safe as, if not safer than those derived from any other method of production. There has never been a single confirmed case of a negative health outcome for humans or animals from their consumption. Their environmental impacts have been shown repeatedly to be less damaging to the environment, and a boon to global biodiversity.

Greenpeace has spearheaded opposition to Golden Rice, which has the potential to reduce or eliminate much of the death and disease caused by a vitamin A deficiency (VAD), which has the greatest impact on the poorest people in Africa and Southeast Asia.

The World Health Organization estimates that 250 million people, suffer from VAD, including 40 percent of the children under five in the developing world. Based on UNICEF statistics, a total of one to two million preventable deaths occur annually as a result of VAD, because it compromises the immune system, putting babies and children at great risk. VAD itself is the leading cause of childhood blindness globally affecting 250,000 – 500,000 children each year. Half die within 12 months of losing their eyesight.

WE CALL UPON GREENPEACE to cease and desist in its campaign against Golden Rice specifically, and crops and foods improved through biotechnology in general;

WE CALL UPON GOVERNMENTS OF THE WORLD to reject Greenpeace’s campaign against Golden Rice specifically, and crops and foods improved through biotechnology in general; and to do everything in their power to oppose Greenpeace’s actions and accelerate the access of farmers to all the tools of modern biology, especially seeds improved through biotechnology. Opposition based on emotion and dogma contradicted by data must be stopped.

How many poor people in the world must die before we consider this a “crime against humanity”?

The names of the 110 signatories, all Nobel laureates, are here.

L. Val Gidding, senior fellow at The Information and Technologies Innovation Center. He previously served as vice president for Food & Agriculture of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) and at the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and as expert consultant to the United Nations Environment Programme, the World Bank, USDA, USAID, and companies, organizations and governments around the world,  writes:

The website accompanying the release documents the global scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs (recently reaffirmed by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society of the United Kingdom, and virtually every other authoritative scientific body on the planet). It also documents the abundant and widespread environmental and economic benefits confirmed by the experience of more than 18 million farmers around the world, the vast majority of them small farmers in developing countries.

Other sections explain what GMOs are (describing them, more accurately, as a component of precision agriculture) and describe how scientists learned to make them by mimicking completely natural patterns of gene exchange found everywhere in nature. A section documents and corrects the false and misleading statements used by Greenpeace in its propaganda campaign to raise unwarranted fears and money to support its multinational organization, and the efforts of some governments to hold Greenpeace to account.

The Laureates’ website also documents former campaigners for Greenpeace and other environmental groups who examined the facts, discovered the truth, and broke with Greenpeace and other groups opposing innovation in agriculture, including Richard di Natale, Greenpeace Australia; Steven Tinsdale, Greenpeace UK; Patrick Moore, Greenpeace Canada & Greenpeace International; Mark Lynas, Greenpeace UK & the Soil Association); Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Catalogue & the Long Now Foundation; Bill Nye, the Science Guy; and Bizarro creator Dan Piraro. Additional materials provide further information from credible and independent third parties.

The organizing force behind this project is Sir Richard Roberts (Nobel Prize, 1993, Physiology or Medicine).

It is clearly past time for Greenpeace and others opposed to GMOs to follow the data and adopt a truly “green” and science-based position on genetic modification. The challenges facing society require a shift from political correctness to scientific correctness. Governments and other parties should do likewise.

 

Greenpeace is not the only organisation guilty of going for emotion rather than science over GMOs.

Hastings District Council is promoting itself as GM-free.

And of course the Green Party, which urges everyone to back the science on climate change, ignores it on GMOs:

The Green Party says it will not soften its anti-genetic modification stance despite a plea from some of the world’s top scientists, who say opposition by green groups is blocking GM foods that could help reduce disease in third-world countries. . . 

The open letter prompted Act Party leader David Seymour to call on the Green Party to abandon its “outdated” position on GM.

“The Green Party needs to catch up with science, and modify its position on genetic modification, especially when Golden Rice has the ability to give sight to thousands of babies struggling with a lack of Vitamin A,” he said.

Green Party GM spokesman Steffan Browning said the party re-evaluated its GM policy regularly, but it would not be making any changes as a result of the open letter. . .

Science isn’t foolproof. New evidence can challenge and change what were thought to be facts and it is sensible to be cautious about any new developments.

But GMOs have been in wide enough use for long enough to make continued blanket opposition to them a triumph of emotion over science.

Using science only when it suits your prejudices and beliefs is at best hypocritical. In the case of continued opposition to  GMOs it is preventing developments which would be better for the environment and provide economic opportunities, and it’s costing lives.

 


Rural round-up

June 18, 2015

Winning vet ever on the go – Sally Rae:

Oamaru-based veterinarian Dave Robertson has been described as ”someone who lives and breathes sheep and beef”.

Mr Robertson, a partner at the Veterinary Centre, has received the inaugural sheep and beef cattle vet of the year award from the sheep and beef cattle branch of the New Zealand Veterinary Association. . .

Never too busy for trialling – Sally Rae:

Newly elected New Zealand Sheep Dog Trial Association president Graham White may have a big year ahead of him – but he will still fit in some dog trialling.

”Too right”, Mr White (64), who already has several judging appointments for the next season, said. His involvement with dog trials spans more than 40 years and he has been vice president of the association for the past four years. . .

Tech expos for everybody – Sally Rae:

From the technophobes to the techno savvy, all farmers will be catered for at technology expos in Otago this month.

The Beef and Lamb New Zealand farming for profit technology expo is being held in Tapanui on June 25 and Alexandra on June 26.

The focus was on profiling innovative technologies designed to make farming more efficient, profitable and easier, AgFirst Otago agricultural business consultant Nicola Chisholm said. . .

Scientists reveal underpinning of drought tolerance in plants – American Society of Plant Biologists

Regions all over the globe are suffering from severe drought, which threatens crop production worldwide. This is especially worrisome given the need to increase, not just maintain, crop yields to feed the increasing global population. Over the course of evolution, plants have developed mechanisms to adapt to periods of inadequate water, and as any gardener can tell you, some species are better able to handle drought than others. Accordingly, scientists have invested much effort to understand how plants respond to drought stress and what can be done to increase the drought tolerance of economically important plants. . .

 

Africa must modernise its farms in order to fight hunger and poverty – Mark Lynas:

Africa desperately needs agricultural modernisation. With the most rapidly growing population in the world and hundreds of millions still suffering malnutrition, African leaders cannot afford to close the door to innovation.

Poverty is endemic and “yield gaps” mean that African farmers commonly harvest less than a tenth of the global average in maize and other crops.

Part of the problem has been political resistance to adopting new and improved technologies, particularly in seed breeding. Some of this unwillingness has been home-grown, but much has been imported to Africa by rich-country NGOs with a colonialist ideological agenda that see poverty as dignified and want to keep farmers permanently trapped in subsistence lifestyles. . .

Farmside to offer rural 4G:

Faster 4G internet is coming to parts of New Zealand previously denied access to the latest technology, and Farmside is happy to help roll it out.

“We are the leading rural supplier of 3G through the Government’s Rural Broadband Initiative (RBI) that gets in to some of the country’s most hard-to-reach places. Now Farmside, through Vodafone, can offer this next generation technology in selected areas,” says General Manager of Sales and Marketing, Stuart Cooper. . .

 

 


Where’s the science?

May 24, 2013

People who oppose genetic engineering will be protesting in several cities around New Zealand in support of a global March Against Monsanto.

But where’s the science which supports their contentions?

Can they refute the claim by former anti-GMO activist Mark Lynas?

I think the controversy over GMOs represents one of the greatest science communications failures of the past half-century. Millions, possibly billions, of people have come to believe what is essentially a conspiracy theory, generating fear and misunderstanding about a whole class of technologies on an unprecedentedly global scale.

This matters enormously because these technologies – in particular the various uses of molecular biology to enhance plant breeding potential – are clearly some of our most important tools for addressing food security and future environmental change.

I am a historian, and history surely offers us, from witch trials to eugenics, numerous examples of how when public misunderstanding and superstition becomes widespread on an issue, irrational policymaking is the inevitable consequence, and great damage is done to peoples’ lives as a result.

This is what has happened with the GMOs food scare in Europe, Africa and many other parts of the world. Allowing anti-GMO activists to dictate policymaking on biotechnology is like putting homeopaths in charge of the health service, or asking anti-vaccine campaigners to take the lead in eradicating polio.

I believe the time has now come for everyone with a commitment to the primacy of the scientific method and evidence-based policy-making to decisively reject the anti-GMO conspiracy theory and to work together to begin to undo the damage that it has caused over the last decade and a half. . .

It shouldn’t be hard for scientific methods and evidence-based policy making to triumph over a conspiracy theory, generating fear and misunderstanding about a whole class of technologies.

But emotion beats facts which is why people will be marching.

 

 

 


Calling out the anti-GMO conspiracy theory

May 2, 2013

Since Mark Lynas gave his speech in Oxford in January supporting GMOs he has been subject to a co-ordinated campaign of intimidation and hate, mostly via the internet.

He’s not giving in to the bullies.

. . . I have been encouraged by emails and other support from globally-renowned scientists who are experts on this issue, and who all said basically the same thing to me: ‘You think you’ve got hatemail? Welcome to my world’.

I think these scientists are the unsung heroes of this saga. They carried on with their important work and tried year after year to fight against the rising tide of misinformation, while people like me were belittling and undermining them at every turn. I won’t mention names, but they know who they are. Some of them are here today, and I would like to give them my deepest thanks.

So for me also there is also a moral dimension to this. The fact that I helped promote unfounded scare stories in the early stages of the anti-GMO movement in the mid 1990s is the reason why I now feel compelled to speak out against them. I have a personal responsibility to help put these myths to rest because I was so complicit in initially promoting them.

My activism, which I wrongly thought of at the time as being ‘environmental’, has done real damage in the world. For me, apologising was therefore only the beginning. I am now convinced that many people have died unnecessarily because of mistakes that we in the environmental movement collectively made in promoting anti-GMO fear. With that on your conscience, saying sorry and then moving on is not enough. Some restitution is in order.

Following a decade and a half of scientific and field research, I think we can now say with very high confidence that the key tenets of the anti-GMO case were not just wrong in points of fact but in large parts the precise opposite of the truth.

This is why I use the term conspiracy theory. Populist ideas about conspiracies do not arise spontaneously in a political and historic vacuum. They result when powerful ideological narratives collide with major world events, rare occasions where even a tiny number of dedicated activists can create a lasting change in public consciousness. . .

. . . The anti-GMO campaign has also undoubtedly led to unnecessary deaths. The best documented example, which is laid out in detail by Robert Paarlberg in his book ‘Starved for Science’, is the refusal of the Zambian government to allow its starving population to eat imported GMO corn during a severe famine in 2002. . . .

Thousands died because the President of Zambia believed the lies of western environmental groups that genetically modified corn provided by the World Food Programme was somehow poisonous. I have yet to hear an apology from any of the responsible Western groups for their role in this humanitarian atrocity.

Friends of the Earth was one of those responsible, and I note that not only has no apology been forthcoming, but Friends of the Earth Europe is still actively promoting GMO denialism in the EU in a new campaign called Stop the Crop. Check out their Youtube video to see how they have learned nothing in ten years.

Another well-known example is that of Golden Rice, genetically modified to contain high levels of beta carotene in order to compensate for the vitamin A deficiency which kills hundreds of thousands of children around the world and blinds many more every year. One study on the prospects for Golden Rice in India found that the burden of vitamin A deficiency could be reduced by 60%, saving 1.4 million healthy life years.

Here the actions of Greenpeace in forestalling the use of golden rice to address micronutrient deficiencies in children makes them the moral and indeed practical equivalent of the Nigerian mullahs who preached against the polio vaccine – because they were stopping a lifesaving technology solely to flatter their own fanaticism. . .

I think this campaign is shameful and has brought the entire environmental movement into disrepute, with damaging consequences for the very beneficial work that many environmentalists do. Greenpeace’s campaign against vitamin A-enhanced Golden Rice should therefore be cancelled, and I call on everyone concerned about children’s health to lobby Greenpeace and demand that this happens immediately and without delay. . .

The anti-GMO campaign is based one motion not science.

It has an anti-business campaign which is not supported by facts.

GMOs aren’t a magic bullet that will end world hunger but they are one of the tools that will help feed the world.


Liberal resistance to science organised, destructive

March 22, 2013

If a large corporation was responsible for the deaths of millions of children it would be an international scandal.

But the actions of the well organised, well funded, liberal left wing political movements have done that through their emotional and non-science based opposition to genetic modification and it hardly gets a mention.

Glenn Garvin writes:

If this column appeared under the headline, “Massive defeat for the anti-science forces,” you would naturally assume I’m talking about some kind of setback for conservative Republicans, right? And you would be completely wrong.

The losers in this case are the Luddite shock troops of progressivism like Greenpeace. And the winners are the children of the Philippines, thousands of whom will not go blind or die because the anti-science wing of modern liberalism finally is getting some pushback.

The Filipino government has finally approved the planting of genetically modified rice that contains vitamin A. “Golden rice,” as the stuff is called, probably won’t make a splash in the United States, but in the Third World, it will be a godsend. Between a quarter-million and a half-million children go blind each year from vitamin A deficiency, the United Nations says, and half of them die within 12 months. Some studies put the figure even higher.

As many as 300 million of the people at high risk for vitamin A deficiency live in countries where the staple food is rice. For them, golden rice will provide a quick, easy and cheap fix: eating just two ounces a day will provide 60 percent of the recommended daily dose of vitamin A.

But that hasn’t stopped Greenpeace and other Luddite-left activists from fighting a scorched-earth war to stop golden rice. For more than a dozen years — or, if you prefer to keep score in the lives of children, 8 million dead — they’ve kept golden rice off the market by calling it Frankenfood and insisting that it will wreck the environment and spread dependence on Western capitalism.

What role does science play in the left-wing opposition to golden rice and other genetically modified crops? None. Study after study has shown no detectable deleterious effects on human health from genetically altered foods. And two studies published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition have shown that golden rice is an even better vehicle for delivery of vitamin A than spinach, the wonder vegetable.

Caution with anything new is advisable, even admirable. The anti-science, anti-business of the luddites is putting politics before health and economic wellbeing.

Every time some lone Republican nut from Hooterville makes a jackass statement about rape or evolution, it’s immediately ascribed as a doctrinal belief of the entire GOP and conservatives in general. But liberal resistance to science is far more organized, far more destructive and far less covered in the media . 

He continues with instances where assertions without science have had a huge impact:

— Millions of American parents refused to have their children vaccinated for diseases like whooping cough and measles after Robert F. Kennedy Jr. published an error-ridden tirade in Rolling Stone and the left-wing website Salon in 2005 linking vaccines to autism and other neurological disturbances.

Six years later, Salon retracted the article, yet many parents remain convinced of the linkage to this day — one of whom now sits in the White House. “We’ve seen just a skyrocketing autism rate,” Barack Obama said during his 2008 campaign. “Some people are suspicious that it’s connected to the vaccines. This person included.” Obama’s spurious worries about vaccines led to manufacturing changes that caused a shortage of flu vaccine in the winter of 2009.

— Virtually no nuclear-power plants have been built in the United States during the past four decades, the result of continuous left-wing scare stories. Australian physician Helen Caldicott has become a folk hero — 21 honorary degrees and a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize — for her anti-nuke campaign, the centerpiece of which is that the explosion at the Soviet Union’s Chernobyl nuclear reactor led to nearly a billion deaths and countless hideous birth defects.

Actual death toll, according the U.N.’s scientific committee on nuclear radiation: less than 100. Actual birth defects: zero. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences says that the chances of radiation-induced changes in human sperm and eggs are so low that it has never been detected in human beings, “even in thoroughly studied irradiated populations such as those of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” There may be good reasons for opposing nuclear power — mainly, that the industry is a bloated corporate welfare tick that cannot survive without massive government subsidy — but science isn’t one of them, which is why a 2009 Pew Research Center survey showed 70 percent of scientists support it.

But scientific consensus, invoked like clockwork whenever lefty activists and their journalist friends talk about global warming, is mysteriously irrelevant when they’re discussing nuclear power or genetically enhanced crops. In 2005, the International Council for Science — a coalition of 140 scientific organizations — reviewed more than 50 studies and declared flatly: “Currently available genetically modified foods are safe to eat.”

There are a few million dead Third World kids who wish that somebody had listened.

Mark Lynas made similar points at the Oxford Farmers Conference about which I posted here.

. . . This was also explicitly an anti-science movement. We employed a lot of imagery about scientists in their labs cackling demonically as they tinkered with the very building blocks of life. Hence the Frankenstein food tag – this absolutely was about deep-seated fears of scientific powers being used secretly for unnatural ends. What we didn’t realise at the time was that the real Frankenstein’s monster was not GM technology, but our reaction against it. . . .

These movements which are anti-science and  anti-business purport to be pro-environment but they use green causes for red political means.

Because emotion usually trumps facts they have been very successful but the sensible, science-based actions of the Filipino government give cause for hope that the tide is turning.


Science converts environmental activist to GM

January 21, 2013

British environmental activist Mark Lynas began his speech to the Oxford Farmers’ Conference with an apology:

I want to start with some apologies. For the record, here and upfront, I apologise for having spent several years ripping up GM crops. I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid 1990s, and that I thereby assisted in demonising an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment.

As an environmentalist, and someone who believes that everyone in this world has a right to a healthy and nutritious diet of their choosing, I could not have chosen a more counter-productive path. I now regret it completely.

So I guess you’ll be wondering – what happened between 1995 and now that made me not only change my mind but come here and admit it? Well, the answer is fairly simple: I discovered science, and in the process I hope I became a better environmentalist. . .

It’s hard to argue against good science but some people don’t let it get in the way of their emotional stories.

When I first heard about Monsanto’s GM soya I knew exactly what I thought. Here was a big American corporation with a nasty track record, putting something new and experimental into our food without telling us. Mixing genes between species seemed to be about as unnatural as you can get – here was humankind acquiring too much technological power; something was bound to go horribly wrong. These genes would spread like some kind of living pollution. It was the stuff of nightmares.

These fears spread like wildfire, and within a few years GM was essentially banned in Europe, and our worries were exported by NGOs like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth to Africa, India and the rest of Asia, where GM is still banned today. This was the most successful campaign I have ever been involved with.

This was also explicitly an anti-science movement. We employed a lot of imagery about scientists in their labs cackling demonically as they tinkered with the very building blocks of life. Hence the Frankenstein food tag – this absolutely was about deep-seated fears of scientific powers being used secretly for unnatural ends. What we didn’t realise at the time was that the real Frankenstein’s monster was not GM technology, but our reaction against it. . . .

He isn’t the first former insider to criticise the anti-science approach by some environmental groups.

For me this anti-science environmentalism became increasingly inconsistent with my pro-science environmentalism with regard to climate change. . .

I found myself arguing constantly with people who I considered to be incorrigibly anti-science, because they wouldn’t listen to the climatologists and denied the scientific reality of climate change. So I lectured them about the value of peer-review, about the importance of scientific consensus and how the only facts that mattered were the ones published in the most distinguished scholarly journals. . .

And yet, incredibly, at this time in 2008 I was still penning screeds in the Guardian attacking the science of GM – even though I had done no academic research on the topic, and had a pretty limited personal understanding. I don’t think I’d ever read a peer-reviewed paper on biotechnology or plant science even at this late stage.

Obviously this contradiction was untenable. What really threw me were some of the comments underneath my final anti-GM Guardian article. In particular one critic said to me: so you’re opposed to GM on the basis that it is marketed by big corporations. Are you also opposed to the wheel because because it is marketed by the big auto companies?

So I did some reading. And I discovered that one by one my cherished beliefs about GM turned out to be little more than green urban myths.

I’d assumed that it would increase the use of chemicals. It turned out that pest-resistant cotton and maize needed less insecticide.

I’d assumed that GM benefited only the big companies. It turned out that billions of dollars of benefits were accruing to farmers needing fewer inputs.

I’d assumed that Terminator Technology was robbing farmers of the right to save seed. It turned out that hybrids did that long ago, and that Terminator never happened.

I’d assumed that no-one wanted GM. Actually what happened was that Bt cotton was pirated into India and roundup ready soya into Brazil because farmers were so eager to use them.

I’d assumed that GM was dangerous. It turned out that it was safer and more precise than conventional breeding using mutagenesis for example; GM just moves a couple of genes, whereas conventional breeding mucks about with the entire genome in a trial and error way.

But what about mixing genes between unrelated species? The fish and the tomato? Turns out viruses do that all the time, as do plants and insects and even us – it’s called gene flow. . .

He then goes on to talk about the population growth, increasing GDP in developing countries, the need to produce more food and the environmental challenges from that.

But as a result of this growth we have very serious environmental challenges to tackle. Land conversion is a large source of greenhouse gases, and perhaps the greatest source of biodiversity loss. This is another reason why intensification is essential – we have to grow more on limited land in order to save the rainforests and remaining natural habitats from the plough.

We also have to deal with limited water – not just depleting aquifers but also droughts that are expected to strike with increasing intensity in the agricultural heartlands of continents thanks to climate change. If we take more water from rivers we accelerate biodiversity loss in these fragile habitats.

We also need to better manage nitrogen use: artificial fertiliser is essential to feed humanity, but its inefficient use means dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and many coastal areas around the world, as well as eutrophication in fresh water ecosystems. . .

He says the solution is technological innovation, moving rapidly and in the right direction for those who need it most.

 . . . So what did Norman Borlaug do? He turned to science and technology. Humans are a tool-making species – from clothes to ploughs, technology is primarily what distinguishes us from other apes. And much of this work was focused on the genome of major domesticated crops – if wheat, for example, could be shorter and put more effort into seed-making rather than stalks, then yields would improve and grain loss due to lodging would be minimised.

Before Borlaug died in 2009 he spent many years campaigning against those who for political and ideological reasons oppose modern innovation in agriculture. To quote: “If the naysayers do manage to stop agricultural biotechnology, they might actually precipitate the famines and the crisis of global biodiversity they have been predicting for nearly 40 years.”

And, thanks to supposedly environmental campaigns spread from affluent countries, we are perilously close to this position now. Biotechnology has not been stopped, but it has been made prohibitively expensive to all but the very biggest corporations.

It now costs tens of millions to get a crop through the regulatory systems in different countries. In fact the latest figures I’ve just seen from CropLife suggest it costs $139 million to move from discovering a new crop trait to full commercialisation, so open-source or public sector biotech really does not stand a chance.

There is a depressing irony here that the anti-biotech campaigners complain about GM crops only being marketed by big corporations when this is a situation they have done more than anyone to help bring about. . . .

He gives examples of how the bureaucratic burden is increasing in around the world then says:

. . . We well-fed consumers are blinded by romantic nostalgia for the traditional farming of the past. Because we have enough to eat, we can afford to indulge our aesthetic illusions.

But at the same time the growth of yields worldwide has stagnated for many major food crops, as research published only last month by Jonathan Foley and others in the journal Nature Communications showed. If we don’t get yield growth back on track we are indeed going to have trouble keeping up with population growth and resulting demand, and prices will rise as well as more land being converted from nature to agriculture.

To quote Norman Borlaug again: “I now say that the world has the technology — either available or well advanced in the research pipeline — to feed on a sustainable basis a population of 10 billion people. The more pertinent question today is whether farmers and ranchers will be permitted to use this new technology? While the affluent nations can certainly afford to adopt ultra low-risk positions, and pay more for food produced by the so-called ‘organic’ methods, the one billion chronically undernourished people of the low income, food-deficit nations cannot.”

As Borlaug was saying, perhaps the most pernicious myth of all is that organic production is better, either for people or the environment. The idea that it is healthier has been repeatedly disproved in the scientific literature. We also know from many studies that organic is much less productive, with up to 40-50% lower yields in terms of land area. The Soil Association went to great lengths in a recent report on feeding the world with organic not to mention this productivity gap.

Nor did it mention that overall, if you take into account land displacement effects, organic is also likely worse for biodiversity. Instead they talk about an ideal world where people in the west eat less meat and fewer calories overall so that people in developing countries can have more. This is simplistic nonsense.

If you think about it, the organic movement is at its heart a rejectionist one. It doesn’t accept many modern technologies on principle. Like the Amish in Pennsylvania, who froze their technology with the horse and cart in 1850, the organic movement essentially freezes its technology in somewhere around 1950, and for no better reason.

It doesn’t even apply this idea consistently however. I was reading in a recent Soil Association magazine that it is OK to blast weeds with flamethrowers or fry them with electric currents, but benign herbicides like glyphosate are still a no-no because they are ‘artificial chemicals’.

In reality there is no reason at all why avoiding chemicals should be better for the environment – quite the opposite in fact. Recent research by Jesse Ausubel and colleagues at Rockefeller University looked at how much extra farmland Indian farmers would have had to cultivate today using the technologies of 1961 to get today’s overall yield. The answer is 65 million hectares, an area the size of France.

In China, maize farmers spared 120 million hectares, an area twice the size of France, thanks to modern technologies getting higher yields. On a global scale, between 1961 and 2010 the area farmed grew by only 12%, whilst kilocalories per person rose from 2200 to 2800. So even with three billion more people, everyone still had more to eat thanks to a production increase of 300% in the same period.

So how much land worldwide was spared in the process thanks to these dramatic yield improvements, for which chemical inputs played a crucial role? The answer is 3 billion hectares, or the equivalent of two South Americas. There would have been no Amazon rainforest left today without this improvement in yields. Nor would there be any tigers in India or orang utans in Indonesia. That is why I don’t know why so many of those opposing the use of technology in agriculture call themselves environmentalists. . . .

Lynas asks where the opposition comes from and says there seems to be a widespread assumption that modern technology equals more risk.

Actually there are many very natural and organic ways to face illness and early death, as the debacle with Germany’s organic beansprouts proved in 2011. This was a public health catastrophe, with the same number of deaths and injuries as were caused by Chernobyl, because E.-coli probably from animal manure infected organic beansprout seeds imported from Egypt.

In total 53 people died and 3,500 suffered serious kidney failure. And why were these consumers choosing organic? Because they thought it was safer and healthier, and they were more scared of entirely trivial risks from highly-regulated chemical pesticides and fertilisers.

If you look at the situation without prejudice, much of the debate, both in terms of anti-biotech and organic, is simply based on the naturalistic fallacy – the belief that natural is good, and artificial is bad. This is a fallacy because there are plenty of entirely natural poisons and ways to die, as the relatives of those who died from E.-coli poisoning would tell you.

For organic, the naturalistic fallacy is elevated into the central guiding principle for an entire movement. This is irrational and we owe it to the Earth and to our children to do better.

This is not to say that organic farming has nothing to offer – there are many good techniques which have been developed, such as intercropping and companion planting, which can be environmentally very effective, even it they do tend to be highly labour-intensive. Principles of agro-ecology such as recyling nutrients and promoting on-farm diversity should also be taken more seriously everywhere.

But organic is in the way of progress when it refuses to allow innovation. Again using GM as the most obvious example, many third-generation GM crops allow us not to use environmentally-damaging chemicals because the genome of the crop in question has been altered so the plant can protect itself from pests. Why is that not organic?

Organic is also in the way when it is used to take away choice from others. One of the commonest arguments against GM is that organic farmers will be ‘contaminated’ with GM pollen, and therefore no-one should be allowed to use it. So the rights of a well-heeled minority, which come down ultimately to a consumer preference based on aesthetics, trump the rights of everyone else to use improved crops which would benefit the environment.

I am all for a world of diversity, but that means one farming system cannot claim to have a monopoly of virtue and aim at excluding all other options. Why can’t we have peaceful co-existence? This is particularly the case when it shackles us to old technologies which have higher inherent risks than the new.

It seems like almost everyone has to pay homage to ‘organic’ and to question this orthodoxy is unthinkable. Well I am here to question it today.

The biggest risk of all is that we do not take advantage of all sorts of opportunities for innovation because of what is in reality little more than blind prejudice. Let me give you two examples, both regrettably involving Greenpeace.

Last year Greenpeace destroyed a GM wheat crop in Australia, for all the traditional reasons, which I am very familiar with having done it myself. This was publicly funded research carried out by the Commonwealth Scientific Research institute, but no matter. They were against it because it was GM and unnatural.

What few people have since heard is that one of the other trials being undertaken, which Greenpeace activists with their strimmers luckily did not manage to destroy, accidentally found a wheat yield increase of an extraordinary 30%. Just think. This knowledge might never have been produced at all, if Greenpeace had succeeded in destroying this innovation. As the president of the NFU Peter Kendall recently suggested, this is analogous to burning books in a library before anyone has been able to read them.

The second example comes from China, where Greenpeace managed to trigger a national media panic by claiming that two dozen children had been used as human guinea pigs in a trial of GM golden rice. They gave no consideration to the fact that this rice is healthier, and could save thousands of children from vitamin A deficiency-related blindness and death each year.

What happened was that the three Chinese scientists named in the Greenpeace press release were publicly hounded and have since lost their jobs, and in an autocratic country like China they are at serious personal risk. Internationally because of over-regulation golden rice has already been on the shelf for over a decade, and thanks to the activities of groups like Greenpeace it may never become available to vitamin-deficient poor people.

This to my mind is immoral and inhumane, depriving the needy of something that would help them and their children because of the aesthetic preferences of rich people far away who are in no danger from Vitamin A shortage. Greenpeace is a $100-million a year multinational, and as such it has moral responsibilities just like any other large company.

The fact that golden rice was developed in the public sector and for public benefit cuts no ice with the antis. Take Rothamsted Research, whose director Maurice Moloney is speaking tomorrow. Last year Rothamsted began a trial of an aphid-resistant GM wheat which would need no pesticides to combat this serious pest.

Because it is GM the antis were determined to destroy it. They failed because of the courage of Professor John Pickett and his team, who took to YouTube and the media to tell the important story of why their research mattered and why it should not be trashed. They gathered thousands of signatures on a petition when the antis could only manage a couple of hundred, and the attempted destruction was a damp squib.

One intruder did manage to scale the fence, however, who turned out to be the perfect stereotypical anti-GM protestor – an old Etonian aristocrat whose colourful past makes our Oxford local Marquess of Blandford look like the model of responsible citizenry.

This high-born activist scattered organic wheat seeds around the trial site in what was presumably a symbolic statement of naturalness. Professor Pickett’s team tell me they had a very low-tech solution to getting rid of it – they went round with a cordless portable hoover to clear it up.

This year, as well as repeating the wheat trial, Rothamsted is working on an omega 3 oilseed that could replace wild fish in food for farmed salmon. So this could help reduce overfishing by allowing land-based feedstocks to be used in aquaculture. Yes it’s GM, so expect the antis to oppose this one too, despite the obvious potential environmental benefits in terms of marine biodiversity.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough. So my conclusion here today is very clear: the GM debate is over. It is finished. We no longer need to discuss whether or not it is safe – over a decade and a half with three trillion GM meals eaten there has never been a single substantiated case of harm. You are more likely to get hit by an asteroid than to get hurt by GM food. More to the point, people have died from choosing organic, but no-one has died from eating GM.

Just as I did 10 years ago, Greenpeace and the Soil Association claim to be guided by consensus science, as on climate change. Yet on GM there is a rock-solid scientific consensus, backed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Royal Society, health institutes and national science academies around the world. Yet this inconvenient truth is ignored because it conflicts with their ideology.

One final example is the sad story of the GM blight-resistant potato. This was being developed by both the Sainsbury Lab and Teagasc, a publicly-funded institute in Ireland – but the Irish Green Party, whose leader often attends this very conference, was so opposed that they even took out a court case against it.

This is despite the fact that the blight-resistant potato would save farmers from doing 15 fungicide sprays per season, that pollen transfer is not an issue because potatoes are clonally propagated and that the offending gene came from a wild relative of the potato.

There would have been a nice historical resonance to having a blight-resistant potato developed in Ireland, given the million or more who died due to the potato famine in the mid 19th century. It would have been a wonderful thing for Ireland to be the country that defeated blight. But thanks to the Irish Green Party, this is not to be.

And unfortunately the antis now have the bureaucrats on their side. Wales and Scotland are officially GM free, taking medieval superstition as a strategic imperative for devolved governments supposedly guided by science.

It is unfortunately much the same in much of Africa and Asia. India has rejected Bt brinjal, even though it would reduce insecticide applications in the field, and residues on the fruit. The government in India is increasingly in thrall to backward-looking ideologues like Vandana Shiva, who idealise pre-industrial village agriculture despite the historical fact that it was an age of repeated famines and structural insecurity.

In Africa, ‘no GM’ is still the motto for many governments. Kenya for example has actually banned GM foods because of the supposed “health risks” despite the fact that they could help reduce the malnutrition that is still rampant in the country – and malnutrition is by the way a proven health risk, with no further evidence needed. In Kenya if you develop a GM crop which has better nutrition or a higher yield to help poorer farmers then you will go to jail for 10 years.

Thus desperately-needed agricultural innovation is being strangled by a suffocating avalanche of regulations which are not based on any rational scientific assessment of risk. The risk today is not that anyone will be harmed by GM food, but that millions will be harmed by not having enough food, because a vocal minority of people in rich countries want their meals to be what they consider natural.

I hope now things are changing. The wonderful Bill and Melinda Gates foundation recently gave $10 million to the John Innes Centre to begin efforts to integrate nitrogen fixing capabilities into major food crops, starting with maize. Yes, Greenpeace, this will be GM. Get over it. If we are going to reduce the global-scale problem of nitrogen pollution then having major crop plants fixing their own nitrogen is a worthy goal.

I know it is politically incorrect to say all this, but we need a a major dose of both international myth-busting and de-regulation. The plant scientists I know hold their heads in their hands when I talk about this with them because governments and so many people have got their sense of risk so utterly wrong, and are foreclosing a vitally necessary technology.

Norman Borlaug is dead now, but I think we honour his memory and his vision when we refuse to give in to politically correct orthodoxies when we know they are incorrect. The stakes are high. If we continue to get this wrong, the life prospects of billions of people will be harmed.

So I challenge all of you today to question your beliefs in this area and to see whether they stand up to rational examination. Always ask for evidence, as the campaigning group Sense About Science advises, and make sure you go beyond the self-referential reports of campaigning NGOs.

But most important of all, farmers should be free to choose what kind of technologies they want to adopt. If you think the old ways are the best, that’s fine. You have that right.

What you don’t have the right to do is to stand in the way of others who hope and strive for ways of doing things differently, and hopefully better. Farmers who understand the pressures of a growing population and a warming world. Who understand that yields per hectare are the most important environmental metric. And who understand that technology never stops developing, and that even the fridge and the humble potato were new and scary once.

So my message to the anti-GM lobby, from the ranks of the British aristocrats and celebrity chefs to the US foodies to the peasant groups of India is this. You are entitled to your views. But you must know by now that they are not supported by science. We are coming to a crunch point, and for the sake of both people and the planet, now is the time for you to get out of the way and let the rest of us get on with feeding the world sustainably.

No-one is forcing anyone to consume genetically modified food.

Those who wish to get non-GM and/or organic food are free to do so. But when science finds no danger in GM then they have no right to prevent others benefiting from it.

They might argue, correctly, that the absence of proof of danger is not the same as proof of safety.

But life is a risky business and if we waited for 100% proof of safety before doing anything we’d do nothing.


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