Alex Johnstone MSP in The Farmer [August issue] labels critics of GM technology Luddites who stand in the way of progress and lampoons the SNP Government as ‘puritans and technophobes’ for sticking with the precautionary principle. He unaccountably ignores that this is also the policy of many of our European neighbours. Of course for Alex, London knows best, that’s where Gordon Brown’s free trade views would stop any support for home agriculture in favour of cheaper, lower quality and potentially GM food imports. In short Alex ignores the widespread evidence that GM is not the silver bullet to dispel fears among Scottish farmers that they could incur an ‘unnecessary competitive disadvantage’ unless they embrace ‘cost saving’ GM technology.
Recently the NFUS turned up the decibels for GM as fuel, pesticide and fertiliser prices have sky rocketed. This may be drowning out reasoned debate when reducing producer costs is Jim McLaren’s main goal. It is noteworthy that he also displays apparent altruism with his claim that GM can feed the hungry world. But of course the inflated price of imported soya for animal feed is the main trigger for concerns among Scots livestock producers. Simultaneously pro-GM researchers offer genetic modification of blight resistant tatties. Could this be the tipping point for agribusiness to break the loose consensus on the precautionary principle that the Scottish Parliament has adopted broadly since devolution?
Hard evidence is widely available that GM technology is expensive, destructive to the environment and leads to dependency on huge seed and chemical corporations. Let’s turn to the agricultural equivalent of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) whose former director is now director of the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). This body, initiated by the World Bank, was formed by UN co-sponsors FAO, GEF, UNDP, WHO and UNESCO. Nowadays even Tories in Scotland accept the facts of global warming so why don’t Alex Johnstone and his friends accept the findings of the IPPC’s agricultural equivalent?
The IAASTD has concluded that data on a range of genetically modified crops shows highly variable yields, greater in some places and less in others. It doesn’t rule out safe GM crop development in future but rightly concludes that if the multi-million pound investment by corporations in transgenic research and development had been applied to improving conventional methods of local food production and distribution then the current world food crisis would have been more successfully addressed.
The overwhelming conclusion of IAASTD is that small-scale farming and ecological methods provide the way forward to avert the current world food crisis. That’s why my Parliamentary motion lodged in June welcomes the UK Government’s approval of the IAASTD reports without reservation as confirmed in a written Commons statement by Douglas Alexander MP.
I believe that 400 world scientists in the IAASTD are a formidable peer group to assess agricultural knowledge, science and technology. So I concluded my recent motion by encouraging the Scottish and UK governments to mainstream the thrust of the IAASTD report in agricultural policy development.
In the meantime Charles, Duke of Rothesay has been accused of an ignorant rant against GM crops which he dubbed ‘the biggest environmental disaster of all time’. As pro-GM scientists lined up to slate the Prince the raw nerve of the multinational biotech industries and their cheerleaders was exposed. In fact after 25 years of its development 2.4% of global agricultural land is under GM crops. Despite billions spent on GM research and development, GM crops have not improved yields. Even in the USA, the only partner in IAASTD to demur from its conclusions had two thirds of its agricultural land growing non-GM crops in 2007.
The crunch issue for Scottish producers and consumers is to heed the science, not ignore it. That suggests to me that the Scottish Crop Research Institute should be at the cutting edge of the reorientation of agricultural science and technology towards agro-ecological sciences, more organic, smaller scale and focused on producing good food locally, as advocated by IAASTD.
Here are a few practical suggestions. First, test the GM-free blight resistant Hungarian tattie, Sarpo Miras. Also evaluate and collaborate with Welsh and Irish research into developing their GM and blight free varieties. Second, how about toting up the costs to see how much protein production at home can be achieved? Is it dearer than the total environmental, human and transport costs of soya from Brazil or Argentina? Does the huge mark up by the major importer get counted? Are Scottish produced feed costs including lorry and ferry costs to transport winter feed any more expensive? Thirdly, if intensive pig and chicken production is too costly, why not extensify? Finally follow the example of the farmers who are restarting muck spreading, growing clover and planting triticale to fix nutrients ahead of other crops.
Alex Johnstone claimed that ‘at every stage in the development of modern agriculture there has been one group of another who have objected to progress’. Surely not the IAASTD? For it is the best guide for Scottish farmers who should also heed the Scottish Government’s pro-science precautionary policy that deems cultivating GM crops in Scotland is unacceptable and undesirable. Protecting a clean and natural environment to underpin a Scottish National Food Policy, this can’t be the sole property of producers. After all, the key question asked by the NFUS is ‘what’s on your plate’?
Rob Gibson MSP for Highlands and Islands