GENET archive


8-Misc: NLP UK report on GE myths

-------------------------- GENET-news ---------------------------

TITLE:  Are GMOs essential for effective sustainable agriculture
        in a hungry world?
SOURCE: Natural Law Party, UK, by Mark Griffiths
DATE:   January, 2000

----------------- archive: ------------------

Are GMOs essential for effective sustainable agriculture in a
hungry world?
Dismantling the myth of genetics as the principal constraint on
responsible global agricultural production

Two days before the last Christmas of the second millennium the
London Times, as if firing a final parting salvo from the rapidly
retreating values of the 20th Century, reported on the indignant
retirement of Professor John Beringer as chairman of the
government committee overseeing the release of genetically
modified organisms into the environment in the UK [1]. Clearly
angry at the poor public reception that genetically modified
crops have received in the UK Professor Beringer was reported as
saying that those who oppose their use in agriculture were
consigning billions of people to a future of hunger and

John Beringer is Professor of Molecular Genetics and Dean of
Science in the School of Biological Sciences at Bristol
University. Unlike some of his colleagues in the scientific
community [2] he has so far come under little fire from critics
of genetic engineering for making false claims about the
'benefits' and risks of the technology.

The Times quotes Professor Beringer as saying that organic
agriculture and "spreading around a bit of manure" were not going
save the planet, feed the hungry or conserve wildlife. According
to Professor Beringer: "In a real, hungry world, there are no
solutions other than technological ones."

The implication arising from this bold assertion is that the main
or only solution to such problems is 'improved' genetics.
Beringer was of course making two important assumptions. The
first is that the principal problem with global food provision is
one of low yields, rather than issues of distribution, poverty,
social conflict and waste. The second assumption is that genetic
'improvement', primarily the use of genetic modification, is
essential if we are to increase usable crop yields and to farm
more sustainably.

At a time when 78 percent of all malnourished children under the
age five in the developing world live in countries with food
surpluses, much has already been written about the weaknesses of
the first assumption [3]. Less investigation has been made into
the second.

Just how bad are our existing crop genetics and is their further
improvement the only way forward? To solve these vital human and
environmental problems should we be exclusively focusing on
Professor Beringer's specialism of molecular genetics? Or should
we be looking at factors affecting productive output from a wider
scientific perspective? Are inadequate genetics really the
limiting factor here? Or do they just simply seem so only from
the specialised outlook of molecular geneticists dedicated to
their own discipline, but not necessarily working as a practising

In an article printed in the UK's Farming News in the spring of
1999 [4] Yorkshire agronomist Ian Chalmers highlighted the
existing gap between the genetic yield potential of many existing
non-transgenic wheat varieties - more than 21t/ha in some cases -
and the actual UK average wheat yield of around 7t/ha.
Highlighting better crop establishment as a key factor, he
pointed to one of his own clients in Lincolnshire who had
achieved 18t/ha using an early sowing regime.

Under the headline "Agronomist casts doubt on growers'
intelligence" Mr Chalmers expressed his long term belief that the
limiting factor for improved production was not the genetic merit
of the crops concerned, but rather the average grower's mental
ability to understand the physiological traits of the particular
varieties being grown. In other words the source of the problem
was not technical but human. It would seem farmers needed to have
a better understanding of plant husbandry, not access to better

Whilst most of Mr Chalmers' advice related to seedbed preparation
and time of sowing a subsequent article in the UK's 'Arable
Farming' in the autumn of 1999 [5] expanded the debate about the
productive capacity of UK agriculture into even wider management
horizons. Crucially it began to explore the issue of microbial
soil management, rather than plant genetics, as the principal
limiting factor in farm production. It might be said that if any
farming publication in the UK was interested in the technological
approach to 'solving' agricultural production problems as
advocated by Professor Beringer, 'Arable Farming' is that
publication. But this article by another farm adviser Bill
Butterworth was refreshingly different in raising matters that
the 'miracle' of post-war agriculture has so far largely

Bill Butterworth's article focused on the need to address soil
management issues as a powerful tool to improve output, reduce
inputs and prevent plant disease. In an approach parts of which
would be recognised by many organic farmers Mr Butterworth was
quietly pointing out that soil health is crucial to the
performance of crop plants and ultimately to low-input high
output agriculture. Whilst dismissive of the notion of 'going
organic' (perhaps not entirely surprising given the nature of the
readership he was addressing) he nonetheless focused on matters
which also reside at the heart of organic farming: "When I was a
student at Reading in the early '60's, there was a 'standard'
textbook called 'Soil Conditions and Plant Growth' by E.W
Russell. I still have it. It is a weighty volume. Maybe this is
what we have glossed over for 25 years; the right soil conditions
to unlock the genetic potential of the plant."

Much, though not all, of Bill Butterworth's successful
experimentation with soil management has come from the use of
biosolids (sewage sludge) on clients' farms. The use of biosolids
in agriculture is often a source of much heated debate,
particularly because of the potential for the unwelcome inclusion
of industrial contaminants such as heavy metals - although the
controversy is as much about the inadequacies of the way our
sewage systems are managed as it is about the principle of
returning human waste to the fields from which it originated as
food [6].

Nonetheless Bill Butterworth's experience in this area is
exposing some important principles for farmers which are likely
to have relevance in a much wider context. He identifies the
nurturing and development of soil mycorrhiza, the small fungi
which surround plant roots, as the principal trigger for improved
plant health and output: " These mycorrhiza are bound up with
plant nutrition and diseases..... The soil is like an enormous
rumen, it is similarly complex and it is the plant's 'stomach'.
The connection between this soil rumen and the plant is all the
soil micro-organisms and it appears to be substantially the soil
mycorrhiza which are the last link in the chain. You can grow
plants without them but it is much easier and more secure with

Butterworth also quotes Wellingborough crop consultant Peter
Wright: "It is this biological activity which, if encouraged by
good husbandry, will allow the full potential of growing crops to
be expressed, year after year, resulting in more profit for the
grower." This, of course, is to say nothing of the implications
of this type of approach for the production of more food for and
by the world's hungry.

Genetically modified crops have been presented by molecular
biologists such as Professor Beringer as the way to reduce
industrial agriculture's chemical inputs and produce higher
yields. In practice, however, the hoped for reduction in inputs
from many such crops are proving temporary at best, and non
existent at worst [7, 8]. Even more disappointing, yields from GM
crops are frequently lower than from conventional varieties [8].

So given their unfavourable risk-benefit profile [7-11, 30] why
are scientists like Beringer advocating the prevalent use of
transgenics in agriculture rather than the more holistic approach
gradually being discovered by practical mainstream advisers like
Butterworth. Probably the reason is that scientists will always
inevitably tend to draw from the 'knowledge' of their own
specialisms when trying to develop solutions to problems, rather
than from a wider spectrum derived from parallel branches of
knowledge. This is simply because theirs is the area they know
and understand best (or as in the case of genetic engineering the
one that they claim they do!). Inevitably specialists are often
ignorant of potential solutions to problems from other branches
of knowledge. Not surprisingly in this context, therefore,
genetic engineering in agriculture has sometimes been described
by its critics as 'a solution in search of a problem.' An equally
apt description might also be: 'a problem in search of a

Nonetheless could it be that alternatives to the genetic
modification 'panacea', such as those uncovered by Bill
Butterworth, are effective only in favourable growing conditions
such as those found in the UK, without a realistic chance of
success in more demanding circumstances? Well, not if the work of
Professor Jules Pretty, Director of the Centre for Environment
and Society at the John Tabor Laboratories at the University of
Essex, is anything is to go by.

Pretty has demonstrated that placing soil management at the core
of farming techniques using little or no artificial inputs is
producing consistent and frequently massive increases in output
on millions of hectares in parts of the world as diverse as
Africa, Asia and Latin America [12]. These truly transforming
results go largely unreported. This is because they are not being
achieved through rapid turnover 'one-size-fits-all' technology
promoted by high profile corporations utilising questionable
business methods [13,14]. They are being achieved by individual
farmers benefiting from self-reliance based regenerative projects
which encourage thoughtful approaches to long term management.

When it comes to counting the social costs can genetic
engineering really compete with such a 'dependency-free' approach
to agriculture? It might still be argued that only the hi-tech
approach of genetic engineering can have any hope of offering the
necessary agronomic robustness required for crops to function
productively in some of the world's more extreme growing

A couple of recent research studies raise some interesting
questions about the validity of such assumptions. 'New Scientist'
reported in November 1999 [15] that far from increasing output
Monsanto's genetically modified soya beans were prone to stunted
growth and excessive stem splitting in high temperature field
conditions. This was apparently due to unintended changes in
plant physiology caused by the addition of genes making the beans
resistant to glyphosate, the herbicide marketed as 'Roundup' by
Monsanto. It resulted in up to 40% yield losses compared to
traditional soya beans grown in the same conditions.

Research results released at more or less the same time have also
demonstrated that organic soya crops grown in high-stress drought
conditions in the United States were in fact dramatically more
productive than 'conventional' high-input crops. Their yield was
almost double [16] thanks to less compacted and more water
retentive soil characteristics arising from their higher organic
matter content.

As if to make matters worse for the advocates of 'technology
only' solutions to world food production problems, additional
research [17-25] (the most recent of which was published in
December 1999) suggests that certain types of GM plants may in
fact have damaging effects on those very soil micro-organisms
which Bill Butterworth identifies as being the key to unlocking
the genetic potential of existing varieties.

Under conditions of global warming ironically this suite of
findings would place organic production at the top of the list in
terms of solutions for global hunger, genetic engineering at the
bottom, and 'conventional' techniques somewhere in the middle.
Certainly it is recognised that the addition of organic matter to
poor soils can improve many of their properties including reduced
susceptibility to erosion [26]. Soil erosion is an critical issue
of immense proportions influencing the future of food production
in many parts of the world, and one which is often exacerbated by
short-termist agricultural policy-making and practice.

Given the large gap that has opened up between what was promised
from transgenic crops and what is actually delivered in practice,
is more intelligent soil-biology management a better and more
reliable alternative to genetic modification when trying to
develop a sustainable strategy for unlocking latent productivity
in global agriculture? Certainly the results Bill Butterworth's
farmer clients in the UK have been getting seem to overwhelmingly
outshine anything that America's blindly unscientific [27]
adoption of GM crops has been able to deliver. Butterworth claims
up to 80% reductions in fertiliser costs, yield increases of 45 
70%, and simultaneous falls in crop disease. This latter factor
is especially interesting because with 'conventional' high-input
agriculture top yields have typically gone hand-in-hand with
increased risks of plant disease and higher applications of
remedial fungicides, insecticides and growth regulators.

Bill Butterworth concludes his article in 'Arable Farming' with
the following words: "Those who pay more attention to soil
biology get higher yields and lower costs consistently. It does
seem clear that not only can we sometimes get close to double the
national average yield in a variety of crops, we may be able to
do it consistently, across the farm and under a wide range of
farming types. The pieces of the jigsaw are beginning to fit into
place and it is the balanced management of the soil rumen which
is going to deliver."

The truth here is that for decades the industrialised approach to
agriculture has principally focused at most on only half the
picture - what goes on above the surface of the soil, rather than
beneath it. The key to unlocking the power of this additional
realm of nature's bounty is of course intelligent holistic
management, not the genetic modification of plants. By contrast
in many parts of the world there has been a relentless mental
'dumbing-down' of modern farming for nearly half a century based
substantially on the deployment of chemical and related
'technologies' which in practice move management intelligence off
the farm and into the factory laboratory.

With the attention of advisers like Messrs Chalmers, Butterworth,
and Wright, now turning to redress the on-farm biological and
human balance have we finally reached a truly progressive and
defining point in farmland management as we leave the 20th
century and its urbanised reductionist models of agricultural
production behind us? Perhaps as some suggest [28-30] the time
has come to welcome back the special intelligence of the farmer's
own consciousness to its rightful place at the centre of global
agricultural practice. If so, the time would seem ripe to
rediscover its unique connection [31] to the vast organising
power of the natural processes which sustain both it and the soil
from which our own physical existence is constantly re-created.

Whether or not to chose this farmer-empowering route, or whether
to settle for corporate dependency engineered through the
industrial intellectual property rights that attach themselves to
the Beringer model of farming's future, is the most critical
issue facing global agriculture at the dawn of the third

In the final analysis it may not be such a difficult choice to

Mark Griffiths BSc FRICS FAAV

Environment Spokesman
Natural Law Party (UK)

12 January 2000


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"condemns world to starve" '
( )
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( )
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( and
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