GM - and one-legged chairs
The voice on the other end of the phone line was quietly delighted. For good reason.
Less than 14 hours before, Professor Jack Heinemann had backgrounded me on results of a survey he had directed at the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Canterbury. That study was a significant comparison of American farming with GM against European non-GM production.
The result showed that non-GM crops in Europe were outproducing equivalent American GM planting.
As Professor Heinemann summed up: "Despite the strident claims for GM, North American crop production has fallen behind western Europe through US farmers using genetically modified (GM) seed and more pesticide, compared to non-GM use in Europe."
In a major strategic move - unwittingly supporting the Canterbury survey findings, and very topically, GM giant Monsantos had announced overnight that it was withdrawing all but one of GM products from Europe. The company said they were "not economically viable".
In our session the previous day, Professor Heinemann had urged that the survey findings should be a guide to New Zealand's attitude towards GM.
"GM gets the credit for yield gains in crops since the introduction of GM - but actually, those gains come from better breeding and management," he had said then.
"Not only our research paper but others have shown that, at best, GM makes neither a substantial, reliable nor unique contribution to production efficiency."
A UN study has shown that the poor farmers and their community benefit most from adopting ecological agriculture over conventional GM-type cropping. Professor Heinemann: "In contrast, science-based ecological agriculture (including organic), spending far less, has shown potential to be part of agriculture's bright future.
"I don't think all GM products are harmful and that no product of GM would ever be useful. But it's also clear that to have more nutritious food for the future will need sustainable production and less waste, not just more production.
"GM is not making a contribution to either of these necessities. While it might in the future, how long can we wait for it to prove its worth?
"Our data and that of others also show that GM is not compatible with traditional agriculture that shows greater potential in yield improvements and sustainability.
"The powerful IP (intellectual property) instruments and incentives behind GM-led agriculture concentrate providers and drive out smaller scale but more effective agribusinesses. Imbalance in investment in this form of technology over other science for agriculture could make GM-led biotechnology our only tool - to our detriment."
What about claims that GM food is edible and safe?
"I am not aware the World Health Organisation nor any royal society or national academy that I am aware of has stated that all GM organisms are, or would be, safe to eat or release into the environment.
"Instead, the WHO and UN FAO have established guidance for ongoing food safety risk assessment of GM organisms through Codex, Alimentarius and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety provides guidance for environmental risk assessment."
The Codex Alimentarius (Latin for "Book of Food") is a collection of internationally recognised standards, codes of practice, guidelines, other recommendations on foods, their production and safety. The Cartagena Protocol aims to protect biological diversity and human health from risks through import and export of living modified organisms.
"We must continue to monitor science reporting on the health and environmental impacts of existing GM crops and those to come and regardless of who makes them, be it a New Zealand or an overseas, private or public company."
Reader Ian Buchan disagrees: "While thought-provoking, your earlier opinion piece on GM food was, at best, about as balanced as a one-legged chair. On the pig study, what you fail to mention is that a number of scientists had issues with both the experimental design and poor husbandry of the pigs used in the study (eg virtually all the 168 pigs in both feed groups had some degree of ulceration).
"Check where the Journal of Organic Systems is published. This does not appear on the PubMed website. This site is usually a scientist's guide as to the seriousness and integrity of the journal.
"Interestingly, it's sponsored by the Organic Federation of Australia which doesn't exactly smack of objectivity given the subject. This all suggests the findings might need closer inspection.
"I won't go into Professor Heinemann's findings except to say his research interests are very much focused on the risks of GM, probably not the best person to ask for a balanced viewpoint.
"Don't confuse selective breeding with GM. Selective breeding carried out for thousands of years has provided the world with a number of high yielding economically successful cultivars. This has been at the cost of genetic diversity. This has not been driven by GM crops but rather the food producers and consumer desire for fruit/veges of uniform size, taste and nutritional qualities. Genetic research carried out by the same scientists you describe as ‘New Zealand Monsantos' are now beginning to understand the importance of this diversity and how best to use and preserve it.
"Local Monsantos? Well hardly, these are government-owned Crown research institutes where the New Zealand government is the shareholder. The science they do is for the benefit of New Zealand agriculture and horticulture profits stay in the country and they represent valuable export dollars.
"GM is not anti-organic, the two can exist together. Some labs are transferring genes from wild crop ancestors to confer resistance against fungi which would otherwise require tons of copper-based sprays or synthetic fungicides.
"If organic is about the unadulterated genes of the plant we'd have to turn the clock an awful long way back and eat pretty much inedible fruit. Is GM safe to eat? The World Health Organisation, the American Medical Association, the British Royal Society and the American Academy of Sciences all seem to think so.
"The long and the short of it is, we face a world population now nearing seven billion and it's predicted to hit nine billion by 2050. Arable land is steadily shrinking, gobbled up by expanding cities. GM is not a silver bullet to solve this but is part of the solution as we cannot funnel yet more precious resources into agriculture in order to feed more people.
"I'm all for letting people make up their own mind but that requires people to be well informed about the technologies involved. Sadly articles such as this don't really help either side very much. That said, I do usually enjoy your column."
Gee, thanks. So much for one-legged chairs.