"Father of GM Food" Receives a TKO on BBC's "One Planet"?
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"The father of GM foods, bolivian seeds and wildebeest
Dr Roger Beachy, the father of GM foods on scientific ignorance and our moral obligations
Read full summary, ListenDuration: 28 minutes"
By way of introduction, I would like very much to hurriedly draw your attention to this programme, and pray, you make it a point not to miss it, while it is available.The accuracy or otherwise of the following transcription is still verifiable. Currently running on the website of the BBC is an important humiliation of the arrogant "Monsanto scientists" President Obama seems to rely upon to take charge of US Department of Food and Agriculture. You may want to call it the most up-to-date public debate (last broadcast, Sun 10 Oct 2010, available to listen online for a few more days) on allowing genetically modified organisms into our food chain. Another claim one can successfully make about this debate is the fact that it brought together, some of the best brains on the opposing sides of the issue in a broadcast that was beamed to millions of people across the globe. I have decided to write about this as an introduction to a special focus on the threat of GMO invasion on the African continent. The reason why I urgently want to bring this out is because even though I have improvised a transcription, owing to the importance of the issue the debate covers, it is still possible to listen to the discussion online. It goes off forever after a few days!
On "One Planet", a BBC World Service "Factual and Science and Nature Programme", Dr. Roger Beachy, the man reputed to have made the first genetically food crop, also described by the presenter as "the father of GM Food", "the man appointed by Barack Obama to head the National Institute of Food and Agriculture" (www.csrees.usda.gov), answers the following question from BBC's Mike Williams. I like very much the style of the presenter. He takes his time to let his listeners know the experience and qualifications of the people he is interviewing. To Dr. Beachy he asks:
"You have been called 'the father of GM food' how does that feel like?", Dr. Beachy confirms with admirable humility, "But then so have a number of other people, I am one of the members of the club, I guess, of those of us who adopted the science nearly twenty five years ago. And I was privileged enough to be at the right place at the right time with the right idea."
"And with the help of the company, Monsanto, you made the first genetically modified food crop?" Mike wants us to know whom he is talking to,
"We did, successfully," Dr. Beachy's answer is in the affirmative, "and then had the first field trial of genetically engineered food plant, that was a tomato that was resistant to a virus disease. The field trial was held in 1987."
Then comes the long-awaited question:
"Does it bother you that there is resistance, people are scared, some people, are scared of this technology, concerned about it?"
Here is Dr. Beachy's answer:
"You know, there is a recent article that was published about why people make decisions about accepting cell-phone technology, or driving a fast car,, or GM crops, or having a vaccine for measles. And there are always some who will choose against all facts, against all knowledge, simply not to participate for some other reason, reason in their hearts, in their heads, in their souls, they choose not based on science. so, maybe you want to turn the question around. How have they taken those attitudes, where do those attitudes come from?
"If they hold those attitudes strongly and honestly," an obviously surprised Mike Williams would only mildly ask, "It's, I'm sure, you would accept that it's not your job, not trying to change that?"
"Exactly right," Dr. Beachy responds, "the job of the scientist is to discover new solutions. What we would hope is that decisions that are made by the public are based upon their knowledge and understanding of the science. And, clearly, we know that that is not happening in many cases. We know in the case of vaccines, that some people simply wont take vaccines for reasons that are not based on science but for something else."
"Forgive me, if I..." Mike tries to intervene without success.
"Then on the other hand, we know that people will not take new food, who will not accept a new food variety because they believe that it should be grown in a certain way. And I think those decision-making process is often in the absence of science. Now, one could say that, perhaps, we should have started fifty years ago, and maintained our level of science education, so that when new facts come along, it would be more understood and so forth, but we haven't done that."
At this stage, I simply can't wait to bring you with me to Mike, back in London, inside the laboratory of Dr. Michael Antoniou, as a molecular geneticist, surely a man no one can call a "scientific illiterate", whose opposition to GM food is not only "based on science", but also has a ring of credibility completely absent in Dr. Beachy's hocus pocus on the reasons why there is resistance to the attempts to impose GM crops on the world. What makes the rebuttal of Dr. Antoniou so sweet is not simply because he happens to be an expert in the field, but also the manner in which he tears the arguments of Dr. Roger Beachy and Mr. Jack Bobo, "Senior Advisor for Bio-Technology in the US Department of State.". So, I continue with the interview in Washington before we come back to London.
"Can I just bring you back to that reference to vaccines which the science shows to be beneficial to them? what you can then do is to put the vaccine in the water and I think one of those arguments people make about GM crops is that there are concerns that those genes would spread and end up ingesting genetically modified material. That is what they are concerned about."
"You know," Dr. Beachy replies, "I gave a talk in Dublin a number of years ago, and a young man was really, really concerned about potatoes. And we said we were mostly talking about corn and cotton. He said the corn pollen would contaminate the potato. He didn't know that the corn pollen couldn't pollinate potato. Which gets us back the issue of illiteracy about science. It is very easy to promote fear and distrust when there is lack of knowledge in those who are reading or listening. So in the case of cross-pollination as issue, if you had a guy who was exporting organic weet corn, and somebody next door is producing commercial corn for cows and other uses, the sweet corn has a different pollination time than does the commercial corn. So, the chances for contamination in that example are non-existent or can be managed very nicely. If the farmer, that is, one or the other, says I am going to plant my crop a little bit later, then, yes, there is no cross-pollination. My point is by knowing about the biology of organisms and how they are grown, one can find ways that side-by-side, we can have a safe organic production or commercial production and bio-tech,. It is straight science knowledge and the inability not to vilify but to get along with each other."
"Joining us here is Jack Bobo, Senior Advisor for Bio-Technology, US Department of State," Mike turns his attention to Jack Bobo, "Erm, Mr. Bobo," Mike asks, "can I just ask you about United States policy? I mean, it seems clear that the United States is interested in promoting genetically modified food world-wide, tell me why?"
"Actually, I would say that the United States is interested in promoting agriculture world-wide, and bio-technology just happens to be one of those. We promote organic agriculture, and bio-technology. But as an export issue and as a development issue, I think there is a particular importance though, trying to address the issue of acceptance of bio-technology both from a farmer perspective, and consumer perspective."
"I wonder whether you would agree", Mike fires, "that, we are, in the West, exporting Western consumerism to the rest of the world, and the GM crops is, perhaps, an attempt to export a solution to that particular problem?"
"The fact is, we need a double food production between now and 2050. that is a huge challenge." Mr. Bobo confidently explains, "Climate change means there is going to be a 27% decline in productivity. We need to double production and we have declining productivity. How are we going to do about that? And so we need all the technology that are available in order to do that, and so the developing world desperate need of technologies that are going to reduce the variability of yields, and that would allow them to produce their own food. this is not about exporting consumerism. This is about production and self-sufficiency."
"I would like to add," Dr. Beachy interjects, "that I think this is an area that the developed nations must collaborate on. This partnership in knowledge sharing and in building the ability of countries to feed themselves is our responsibility, it's your responsibility, and should be based on science. It should not be based on a demonization of technology per se. It should be based on the best science that meets the needs of the world. And I think that is a responsibility that goes beyond philosophy, whether it is GM, organic, or conventional. It becomes a moral obligation of not feeding people but educating them so that they can feed themselves."
"Do yo think that the technology has been demonized?" Mike asks.
"I think it has been, largely." Dr. Beachy replied. "In our country, it has been demonized because it is a way to value something else more. An organic product costs more than conventional product. That 20, 25, maybe even in a hundred per cent premium on an organic banana compared to conventional, allows somebody to make more money. It is about finances in that case. And I would like to see this come down to what is safer for the environment, safer for people, and more economic so that those who don't have as much as you and I have, sitting here around this table, with a biscuit and a cup of tea, can say that the woman who has less, has the same capabilities of feeding herself and her kids, as we do sitting around the table. And I think that's only going to come when we adopt the safest and best technologies of whatever type, to help to make things happen. And then we can put that responsibility behind."
"Some of the problems you are fighting to overcome through genetically modified food seem to many, to have come about because of monoculture and that monoculture has caused the problem and that GM monoculture isn't going to provide the solution."
"Modern agriculture is by definition a monoculture." Dr. Beachy would surrender no grounds, "You can drive around through - I love driving through - the southern parts of England and watching the fields of wheat. That is monoculture. Don't pretend it's not. But don't blame that on GM, blame it on modern, high output agriculture. The wheat is cheap because we grew them in the wheat fields. Our beef isn't expensive because they grow a lot of corn in large monoculture so that we can feed at lower cost than if we had it in small plots. So, it is agriculture that you are talking about. You are not talking about GMOs or conventional agriculture."
Thus it was that my hopes that this could be an opportunity to hear what I needed to know to understand the best and the most current argument making the case for GM food passed by in vain. Unfortunately, instead of squarely confronting the real issues surrounding the biology, politics, and the economics of GM technology the advocates only insult our intelligence. If I was looking for any insight or argument that would have effectively addressed my own apprehensions about GM crops, I was alarmingly disappointed. Dr. Beachy is no doubt a brilliant geneticist, but as an advocate of his wares, he is certainly not the best in town. The fundamental choice of ignoring the highly informed and science-based opposition to the current push to promote genetically modified organisms into our food chain with lower and lower restrictions, and the erosion of the precautionary measures installed to safeguard against possible hazards must be rightly considered a crime against humanity.
I call on all the people's of the world to uphold the precautionary approach contained in Principle 15 of the "Rio Declaration on environment and Development" as relates to the current uncertainties surrounding GMOs. The principle states:
"Lack of scientific certainty due to insufficient relevant scientific information and knowledge regarding the extent of the potential adverse effects of an LMO on biodiversity, taking into account risks to human health, shall not prevent a Party of import from taking a decision, as appropriate, with regard to the import of the LMO in question, in order to avoid or minimize such potential adverse effects." Annex III on risk assessment, which notes that "Lack of scientific knowledge or scientific consensus should not necessarily be interpreted as indicating a particular level of risk, an absence of risk, or an acceptable risk." (Article 10.6 and 11.8).
I was expecting answers that go beyond questions raised by advocates of GMO particularly in Africa, such as summarized in the following abstract: "Even after more than 15 years of the emergence of modern biotechnology in agriculture, much of Africa remains reluctant if not hostile to it. Some view modern biotechnology as the new messiah to lift Africa from starvation and food insecurity while others hold the contrary view and advise Africa to stay away from the technology for reasons ranging from health and environmental concerns to economic considerations. They fear that the unfolding ‘gene revolution’ is destined to fail on its promises because of the existing complex economic, social, and political circumstances in Africa as was the case in the green revolution." (Presented at the SIEL 2010 Conference in Barcelona., Birhanu, Fikremarkos Merso, Biotechnology and the Future of Africa’s Agriculture (June 30, 2010). Society of International Economic Law (SIEL), Second Biennial Global Conference, University of Barcelona, July 8-10, 2010. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=
In his response to the question, "Does it not bother you that there is resistance, people are scared, some people, are scared of this technology, concerned about it?" Dr. Beachy chose to blame the resistance to what he calls "scientific illiteracy". Said Dr. Beachy:
"You know, there is a recent article that was published about why people make decisions about accepting cell phone technology, or driving a fast car, or GM crops,or having a vaccine for measles, and there are some who wil choose against all facts, against all knowledge, simply not to participate for some other reasons, reason in their hearts, in their heads, in their souls, they choose, not based on science. So maybe, you want to turn the question around. How have they taken those attitudes? Where do they come from?"
It is a pity that Dr. Beachy had clearly not read Crossed Crocodiles, "Why Is Kofi Annan Fronting For Monsanto? GMO Assault On Africa". If he had done that, he would have been ably to give a more intelligent response, or at least one that is not as stupid and insultingly arrogant, as as this one. I am not a geneticist, and I do not cease to be amazed by the brilliant contributions to knowledge particularly in fighting disease, but I bet I know where my concerns about GM food are coming from! These have nothing to do with "scientific illiteracy"! They are coming from the bitter experiences of over twenty five thousand farmers in India who committed suicide with Monsanto''s pesticides after being misled into the believing that genetically modified cotton was the key to higher yields and bigger profits.
They are coming from reports that scientists working for Monsanto refused to drink the milk that they themselves had helped to invent. As Jeffrey M. Smith puts it, "former Monsanto scientist said that after company scientists conducted safety studies on bovine growth hormone, all three refused to drink any more milk, unless it was organic and therefore not treated with the drug. They feared the substantial increase of insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) in the drugged milk. IGF-1 is a significant risk factor for cancer." - Monsanto: The world's poster child for corporate manipulation and deceit, Friday, July 30, 2010. http://www.naturalnews.com/
Our fears also come from the fact that GMOs remain inside of us. "The only published human feeding study revealed that even after we stop eating GMOs, harmful GM proteins may be produced continuously inside of us; genes inserted into Monsanto's GM soy transfer into bacteria inside our intestines and continue to function.(64) If Bt genes also transfer, eating corn chips might transform our intestinal bacteria into living pesticide factories."
"Un-recallable contamination: In spite of the enormous health dangers, the environmental impacts may be worse still. That is because we don't have a technology to fully clean up the contaminated gene pool. The self-propagating genetic pollution released into the environment from Monsanto's crops can outlast the effects of climate change and nuclear waste."
For Dr. Beachy to simply brush all these legitimate, and many more science-based concerns aside, with the ridiculous claim that opposition to the acceptance of GM crops in our food chain is largely based upon our ignorance is the cheapest way to avoid the hard questions which tip the debate against GMOs. What makes this particular programme very interesting is the fact that the "One Planet" also interviewed a molecular geneticist, Dr Michael Antoniou, Kings College London (www.kcl.ac.uk). The beauty of this lies in the fact that Dr. Antoniou is himself a genetic engineer and as such can not be deemed to be "scientifically illiterate".
"Dr. Antoniou, what is it do you do here?" The question was asked whilst inside a laboratory of King's College, where Dr. Antoniou works.
"What we do in my research group", Dr. Antoniou responds, "is to investigate fundamental mechanisms of how human gene systems are controlled, and then we exploit those discoveries to design safe and efficacious gene units to be used within a therapeutic context, within a human gene therapy context, for treating for example, inherited diseases such as immune deficiencies, thalassemia, sickle disease, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, and so on."
"The people who create GM crops use very similar techniques to yours, different applications though, are you comfortable with that?"
"I am not comfortable at all with the way that GM is being used in agriculture". Dr. Antoniou answer categorically, "because compared to what we do in a clinical context, where not only research is done under contained genes, they are non-replicated. They can't reproduce and spread and cause harm. In agriculture the same technique is used in open fields, the organism can spread in an uncontrolled way and we suffer with the consequences of that forever."
"You use this technology to device medical therapy to help people to live longer and healthier lives, to keep more of us on the planet for longer, what is wrong with other scientists using these same techniques to fed those extra millions and billions? They say - you heard the argument - that there was a need, a moral moral obligation?", Dr. Antoniou responds:
"Indeed, the world has a moral obligation to feed itself. What is invariably ignored by advocates of GM crops in explaining why almost a billion of people in the world go to bed, each day, hungry, is that actually, we have more than enough food to feed everybody now. In fact, we have have doubled the amount of food to feed everybody in the world now, but people don't have access to food. And in terms of meeting future food needs, specifically in the face of climate change, then the latest United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation sponsored report clearly pointed that the future in meeting future food needs lie in applying agro-ecological methods. They said that genetic engineering would play little or no role in meeting immediate food needs of the world and future food needs of the world. Which is why the Americans were not signatory. But 62 other nations, actually signed up, including the UK, signed up to that report. We have to take on board, the report compiled by 400 independent scientists from around the world, in all manner of expertise and discipline, which said go forward with low-input, agro-ecological, sustainable agriculture, not GM, because GM simply does not fit the bill."
We shall be focusing on Bolivai and the GMO debate soon.
This is what I call, a "technical knock-out"!
And the winner is...
Bravo! Dr. Michael Antoniou!!!
Thanks, Mike, and the BBC for this eye-opener!