The Age: GM food debate & empty promises

The feature below by Maarten Stapper was sent to The Age but was NOT PUBLISHED. He was  interviewed though, and an article appeared ten days later in The Sunday Age of 27 May 2007 (see under Media), a special report in the GM Food Debate with the following passages:

… “I could have continued working for the CSIRO but I would have to give up all my beliefs about good agriculture and keep my mouth shut about GM,” he said. “I didn’t want that because I have a connection with the farming community and they trust me.”

… Dr Stapper said experience as a farming systems agronomist had taught him that most problems started with the soil, and that was where the solutions were. “GM solutions won’t solve our problems,” he said.

… Dr Stapper said he was sceptical about claims that GM plants improved crop yields and called for more studies on the safety of GM stockfeeds.

… “We can learn to use the power of nature rather than fighting it with synthetic chemicals and unproven new technologies in a war we can’t win,” Dr Stapper said.

The following is the letter to the editor in response to an article in The Age of 16 May 2007. There Dr Jim Peacock is furious about those that dare to stand up against GM, calling them “unprincipled minorities, self-serving organic farmers and ill-informed environmental activists”.

Who is unprincipled? Maarten questions the GM promises that remain promises. Some are based on false assumptions and not part of the real world, such as GM required to feed the world. He asks the chief scientist to support national independent health testing to finally get some scientific answers.

Empty promises

The chief scientist of the country Dr Jim Peacock has again criticised the opponents of genetic modification (The Age 16 May), describing them as “unprincipled minorities, self-serving organic farmers and ill-informed environmental activists”. I am a respected, internationally experienced farming systems agronomist who belongs to that group and have publicly questioned pro-GM scientists since the inception of GM research. Jim was my boss for many years.

For nearly 20 years the GM promises have been for higher yields, herbicide tolerance, insect/salinity/acidity/drought resistance, improved quality, health benefits etc. Thus far only varieties with herbicide and insecticide genes have been released for a limited number of crops. Higher yields are not necessarily achieved by the GM-gene but are associated with other genes that are stacked with the GM one. Where has the breeding gone for high-yielding non-GM varieties? (‘Big Agribusiness’ The Age 13 May) There is still no GM wheat released in the world as there is resistance even in the USA.

GM is not the solution to solve the problems in our food production systems. To reduce our hope to the hype of GM solutions seems one step too far. The continued industrialisation of agriculture is not in the best interest of the environment nor for human health. GM crops don’t ameliorate our degraded soils, so salinity, acidity and dust storms will continue. Currently GM crops are only tested with animal feeding for 30 to 90 days, often on mature animals only. Healthy food has to be checked over several generations to ascertain growth, fertility and longevity. Long-term GM crop studies of impact on animal and environmental health are non-existent.  

Every district has already one or two landholders with the (w)holistic approach of biological/organic agriculture, using less to none synthetic inputs in productive, sustainable systems with less insects and diseases. GM science just tries to stop the productivity slide in our industrialised production system, which worldwide needs more and more inputs to get the same output as soils are degrading. We need to improve soil health which will then increase the productivity of our current genes using biological inputs.

We don’t need GM to feed the world. This GM blackmail doesn’t help the 800 million people that go hungry every day, as they don’t have the money to buy the food that is stored in nearby silo’s, such as in India. Farmers in eastern India are rejecting GM cotton and are returning to the pre-Green Revolution ways of farming. Industrial farming had ruined their soils and increased their financial risks to catastrophic (suicidal) levels.

GM-critics call on Dr Peacock to support national independent health testing of GM foods for allergies and over multi-generations. The Western Australian government has already taken the lead in this direction. Independent field trials are required to evaluate GM crops against best current varieties before their release.

The public won’t get a better understanding of gene technology if the issues raised are not dealt with. Sir Gustav Nossal made a good point with his “Even if we never deploy a genetically-modified food” statement.

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