West London Humanists and Secularists

Making sense of GM - Meeting 27/04/11

Dr. Michael Black, who is a biologist and Emeritus Professor of Plant Physiology at King's College, London gave a talk entitled "Making sense of GM". Dr. Black spoke rationally and engagingly on a subject that can become distorted when presented by the media. Dr. Black was able to puncture the myths and the hype that surround this issue - dispelling instantly the image of "Frankenfoods" that seems to get so much press coverage when discussing GM. He reminded us that actually we have been genetically modifying for centuries in agriculture, horticulture and in the domestication of animals. The passage that led from the wolf to the Chihuahua through selective breeding for desirable traits is just a form of genetic modification. Dr. Black also highlighted the vital role GM bacteria play in producing nearly all the insulin used for human medical needs.

Ever the scientist, Dr. Black admitted his bias from the start, openly stating that he saw GM as a great positive that would open a Brave New World for science. Dr. Black did not believe that it is right to give blanket support or blanket condemnation to GM, each case must be evaluated on its own merits and he was determined to present all the arguments involved so that we could make up our own minds. Dr. Black was able to explain the science involved both simply and coherently, making what can be complicated science very easy to understand. He explained that a gene is nothing more than a chemical, a stretch of DNA which contains the blueprint for the structure of a protein. Scientists can insert new pieces of blueprint into plants which can then produce novel proteins. Thus cotton can be imbued with the ability to withstand attack from insect pests by insertion of a gene for a protein toxic to them. This means that farmers are no longer required to use vast quantities of pesticides, benefiting both the crops and the environment. Dr. Black showed pictures displaying how effective GM is in the flourishing of cotton bolls able to withstand attack from insects. He also described how beneficial this could be in countries such as Egypt where cotton pickers would not have to damage their health spending hours in fields contaminated with pesticides.

Given the potential answers these advances in science could provide for a world ravaged by famine, Dr. Black told how the hype surrounding GM is affecting the ability of the world to feed itself. Despite the fact that not a single study has shown results of GM food causing any damage in over 25 years of existence and that almost all maize grown in the United States is genetically modified, Zambia and Zimbabwe will turn GM food consignments away and Malawi Government officials will uproot GM maize plants. Fortunately, the benefits of GM are being harnessed to bring aid to a number of third world countries. Dr. Black described how shipments of "Golden Rice", that had been genetically modified to contain pro-vitamin A, with yellow beta-carotene giving the rice a golden hue, have been given to poorer countries, including India, and to the International Rice Research Institute. This project will soon introduce invaluable vitamins into diets deficient in them, while doing so in a food that is commonly available to and accepted by the populace. With the world facing a dilemma over how to feed a population that is increasing exponentially, the Royal Society has come to the conclusion that GM will be an important component to meeting these needs.

Dr. Black was also able to identify some of the global benefits of GM, for example low tillage has reduced green house gas emissions by 17.7 billons tons of carbon dioxide, pesticide usage is down by 393 million kg, yield gains are in the tens of millions of tonnes for soybeans, maize and cotton, and there is greatly reduced worldwide soil erosion. The future of GM will provide greater crop yields of food that has a higher nutritional value in countries where crops struggle to grow. Of course nature has evolved over millions of years to produce a finely balanced biosphere, and any change to this equilibrium may well have far ranging consequences. GM Farmers have had to consider these consequences to avoid any unintended adverse effects on their local environment. A case in point, described by Dr. Black is found in the refuges of non-GM crops at either side of a GM field. These provide a sanctuary of plants for pests to feast upon, allowing the food chain of animals that rely on these insects to remain unaffected whilst crop yield booms.

Dr. Black was also optimistic about the way in which GM research is increasingly being made public in the fight against food poverty. The development of Golden Rice was financed mostly by the public sector (e.g. universities) and charities (e.g. Rockefeller Foundation). Industry, universities etc. permitted the use of over 70 patented techniques. Times have changed since companies such as Monsanto held all the cards and were able to exert total control over GM exploitation. However, members of the audience claimed that there are many parts of the world (e.g. USA) where they are still able to bully farmers into buying seed only from them.

With something as necessary and basic as food, people will naturally have an emotional response that can be easily manipulated by persuasive news articles looking to provoke. However, Dr. Black's informative and engaging talk succeeded in punctuating the media hype, offering us a valuable reminder to maintain a rational outlook on issues, and to base our views on the scientific evidence.

Chris Waplington 09 May 2011