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June 4, 2000


Anthony Trewavas - GM is the best option we have


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GM is the best option we have

Anthony Trewavas FRS.FRSE
Institute of Cell and Molecular Biology
University of Edinburgh.

I have been a plant biologist for 40 years. What drew me to the subject
was love of the organism. All those
that deal with plants will know this feeling of pleasure and peace that
comes from contact. We use plants in
many different ways; for food, clothes, timber, cooking and drugs and to
beautify our environment. To improve these uses for human benefit we must
first gain better understanding of the way such complex
organisms work. My respect has grown the more I have come to understand
the beautiful and intricate way in which plants function. Our role on
this planet is to act the good gardener. Like all such gardeners or
stewards we seek to provide a planetary garden which survives in harmony
with itself. But this garden can
only be in harmony when all our fellow men and women, the other stewards
of this planet, can enjoy a complete and fulfilling life enabling the full
flowering of the potential in all of us.

There are some people in this country that stereotype scientists without
ever knowing any of them; that ascribe ulterior motives to scientific
endeavour and surround themselves with acolytes of similar limited
experience. These people commonly rate the wisdom of nature as superior to
human ingenuity and survival.

But we investigate nature so that we can stop the natural things that
destroy our lives and curtail our stewardship. I am talking about natural
things like child death, leprosy, disease-ridden water, starvation or
floods that are clearly part of nature and nature's wisdom. Human
ingenuity, which our opponents cast so easily aside, has given us
antibiotics, anaesethics and warm houses to prolong and protect life,
security of
food supply, transport to places so that we can share in the pride and
glory of human achievements in arts, music and architecture; and has even
taken us to the moon. All these ingenuities derive from knowledge of the
world in which we live and result from experimentation and improvement of
nature, the 'good gardening' which opponents denigrate. There is a desire
by some to reverse history, to recover some mythical golden age when life
expectancy was under half what it is now; when people died needlessly and
painfully from a variety of unknown causes (some most certainly from
diseases in their poor quality food) and when, for example in the UK, half
the young men called up for the Boer war were refused on the grounds of
serious underweight, height and poor health identified as resulting from
malnourishment. When problems develop we must continue to rise to the
challenge to tackle them as we have done in the past with
nobility and intellect. Do not listen to the siren voices that say "stop
the world I want to get off". There are many such voices in the UK at

A decade ago, as a university plant biologist, I thought that genetic
manipulation GM would be publicly funded and used for the benefit of
mankind. Indeed I share in the general distrust of GM commercialisation
and I know this is a major complication in the UK. But this is the world
we live in; if you don't like it change the economics, don't demean the
knowledge. We can't eliminate knowledge simply because someone makes a
profit out of it.

Two recent reports of publicly-funded, university GM research now indicate
its true potential. US scientists in collaboration with Japanese workers
have genetically improved (GM) rice to increase seed yield of each plant
by 35%. Why is this important?

One of the most certain facts about the human population is that it is
increasing. By 2025 there will be 2.3 billion extra souls on mother earth;
50 times the current population of the UK and they will have to be fed.
Our current numbers of some six billion have already placed dangerous
burdens on the ecosystems of spaceship earth and threaten our
bio-diversity on which we are all interdependent. Global warming may
indeed be global warning. So ploughing up wilderness to feed these extra
people is no option. We can also eliminate organic farming as a meaningful
solution. Organic farmers rely ultimately and only on soil nitrogen
fixation to provide the essential nitrate and ammonia for crop growth and
yield. Rainwater provides the other minerals. Since the maximum yields of
fixed nitrogen have been measured numerous times we can estimate that by
taking another 750 million ha of wilderness under the plough we could feed
just three billion. When Greenpeace tell us to 'go organic' I ask myself
which three billion will live and which three billion will die; perhaps
they can enlighten us when they have finished tangling with the courts.

Clever plant breeding in the early 60's produced rice and wheat plants
with well over double their previous
yield; such progress enabled a parallel doubling of mankind, without
massive starvation. But this option is
now exhausted. Ignoring the problem, leaving billions to starve in misery,
the worst of all tortures
according to Amnesty International, is not an option either. "Every man's
death diminishes me because I
am part of mankind; ask not for whom the bell tolls..." is a philosophy I
know many here will share with
John Donne. So where one grain grew before we now again have to ensure
that two will grow in the future.
Currently GM is our best option to achieve this difficult task. This first
report is very encouraging.

Critics say to me there is enough food to feed the world and they may well
be right; at present. We
produce sufficient to feed 6.4 billion people but the excess is largely in
the West and it is far easier for
scientists to conjure more food from the plants we grow than to persuade
the West to share its agricultural
bounty with its poorer neighbours. But the excess will not last long; our
population increases by 1.3%
/year, current annual cereal increases are only 1.1%. We live on the
residual excess produced by the green
revolution. At some point catastrophe beckons.

Our second report deals with a problem that kills one million young
children in the third world every year
and leaves many millions permanently blind. For a variety of reasons,
babies can be prematurely weaned off breast milk. It's not a problem in
the West, a variety of other foods and milk are available. But in the
backwoods of the Far East, the usual option is rice gruel. Rice however
contains no vitamin A and such
babies rapidly become deficient. Either eye development is permanently
damaged, (we all need vitamin A
for sight), or they succumb to childhood diseases that any western baby
shrugs off in a week. Scientists in
a Swiss university in a 'tour de force' have genetically improved rice to
make vitamin A. This golden rice
has been given to the International Rice Institute in the Philippines for
distribution to help ameliorate this
serious problem and ensure a better life for parents and children.

There are some Western critics who oppose any solution to world problems
involving technological
progress. They denigrate this remarkable achievement. These luddite
individuals found in some Aid
organisations instead attempt to impose their primitivist western views on
those countries where blindness
and child death are common. This new form of Western cultural domination
or neo-colonialism, because
such it is, should be repelled by all those of good will. Those who stand
to benefit in the third world will
then be enabled to make their own choice freely about what they want for
their own children.

But these are foreign examples; global warming is the problem that
requires the UK to develop GM
technology. 1998 was the warmest year in the last one thousand years.
Many think global warming will
simply lead to a wetter climate and be benign. I do not. Excess rainfall
in northern seas has been predicted
to halt the Gulf Stream. In this situation, average UK temperatures would
fall by 5 degrees centigrade and
give us Moscow-like winters. There are already worrying signs of salinity
changes in the deep oceans.
Agriculture would be seriously damaged and necessitate the rapid
development of new crop varieties to
secure our food supply. We would not have much warning. Recent detailed
analyses of arctic ice cores has
shown that the climate can switch between stable states in fractions of a
decade. Even if the climate is only
wetter and warmer new crop pests and rampant disease will be the
consequence. GM technology can
enable new crops to be constructed in months and to be in the fields
within a few years. This is the unique
benefit GM offers. The UK populace needs to much more positive about GM or
we may pay a very heavy

In 535A.D. a volcano near the present Krakatoa exploded with the force of
200 million Hiroshima A bombs. The dense cloud of dust so reduced the
intensity of the sun that for at least two years thereafter, summer turned
to winter and crops here and elsewhere in the Northern hemisphere failed
completely. The
population survived by hunting a rapidly vanishing population of edible
animals. The after-effects continued for a decade and human history was
changed irreversibly. But the planet recovered. Such
examples of benign nature's wisdom, in full flood as it were, dwarf and
make miniscule the tiny
modifications we make upon our environment. There are apparently 100 such
volcanoes round the world
that could at any time unleash forces as great. And even smaller volcanic
explosions change our climate
and can easily threaten the security of our food supply. Our hold on this
planet is tenuous. In the present
day an equivalent 535A.D. explosion would destroy much of our
civilisation. Only those with agricultural
technology sufficiently advanced would have a chance at survival.
Colliding asteroids are another problem
that requires us to be forward-looking accepting that technological
advance may be the only buffer
between us and annihilation.

When people say to me they do not need GM, I am astonished at their
prescience, their ability to read a
benign future in a crystal ball that I cannot. Now is the time to
experiment; not when a holocaust is upon
us and it is too late. GM is a technology whose time has come and just in
the nick of time. With each billion that mankind has added to the planet
have come technological advances to increase food supply. In the 18th
century, the start of agricultural mechanisation; in the 19th century
knowledge of crop mineral
requirements, the eventual Haber Bosch process for nitrogen reduction. In
the 20th century plant genetics
and breeding, and later the green revolution. Each time population growth
has been sustained without
enormous loss of life through starvation even though crisis often
beckoned. For the 21st century, genetic
manipulation is our primary hope to maintain developing and complex
technological civilisations. When the climate is changing in unpredictable
ways, diversity in agricultural technology is a strength and a necessity
not a luxury. Diversity helps secure our food supply. We have heard much
of the precautionary principle in recent years; my version of it is "be

But how do these examples compare with the scepticism shown by the UK
public over GM food; doesn't it
harm human health? What about those apocalyptic visions of damage to the
environment propounded by
green organisations. If these views had any real substance I would share
them, but they are totally
contrary to all experience.

The testing of GM food is exemplary in its detail and takes at least four
years. Sir John Krebs, Head of our
new Food Standards Agency concluded that GM food is as safe as its non-GM
counterpart. If eating
foreign DNA and protein is dangerous we have been doing so for all of our
lives with no apparent effects.
Each GM food will be considered by regulatory authorities on its own

As for GM environmental effects, many countries provide us with details of
reduced use of herbicides and
pesticides of 15-100%, of increased crop yields, less insect damage, a
return of non-target insects to fields
and reductions in fungal toxins in food. Even the flurry over the Monarch
butterfly has been capped by
record numbers on migration last year. Over 20 laboratories have now
shown the original Monarch fears
were groundless. Within five years, vaccines against the killer E.coli,
hepatitis B, cholera and other
diseases will all come in GM food. Even now they are in human trials.
These vaccines will be very stable, be easily distributed world-wide, need
no refrigeration or injection; merely consumption. The great campaign to
eliminate world-wide disease, as we have with smallpox, will be well under
way. Apocalypse now? Hardly.

Many of you may think that environmentalists are synonymous with
ecologists. You would be mistaken.
Let me read out for you extracts from what has become known as the Aachen
declaration made by a large
number of ecologists.

"Today's campaign against gene technology has no base in ecologically
sound science. In the case of
gene technology there is substantial evidence for positive environmental
effects with decreased pesticide
use and healthier food. The campaign neglects the beneficial effects of
these plants for the environment.
Unfortunately many environmental activists have chosen to publicise only
potential adverse effects of GM
crops during their campaign, natural phenomena like gene transfer or
pollen movement between organisms
are declared as a phenomenon related only to GM crops although this
happens throughout nature". Patrick
Moore, a founder member of Greenpeace, has said the present Greenpeace
campaign is junk science and
pagan myth.

We have in recent years been treated to flag wavers like "superweeds",
"genie out of the bottle" and
"frankenstein food"; statements as empty of meaning and content as those
who mouth them. Superweeds
are merely herbicide resistant weeds. There are over 100 weeds world-wide
with resistance to some 15
different herbicides. There are even four crops with natural herbicide
resistance from conventional
breeding. These include oil seed rape and are used by farmers.

If you sow a rape crop with natural herbicide resistance, only marginal
regulations apply and the crop could
be grown alongside an organic farm without objection. The herbicide
resistance genes would spread to
surrounding weedy relatives by so-called gene flow although as we now know
at a very low rate.
Furthermore pollen from this crop could be spread by bees up to a
kilometre away although it would
probably not be viable at this distance. The chances of such pollen
successfully competing with local
sources and producing seed would be extremely remote. Perhaps more
important there would be no
objections from green organisations.

However in one case this natural herbicide resistance gene has been
isolated and inserted back into oil
seed rape by GM. Planting this GM crop necessitates satisfying 50 pages
of regulations, four years of
safety tests, 3-4 committees for approval with detailed examination and at
the end of the day the likelihood
of getting your crop trampled by unthinking activists. You would also get
objections from organic farmers
miles in every direction. Yet the spread of resistance genes to weedy
relatives would be identical between
the two crops and spraying both fields with herbicide would lead to
identical ecological effects. Common
sense is called for here and certainly there is certainly a lack of common
sense in current attitudes with
supposed contamination by GM.

If rape is removed from the field, the herbicide resistance gene in feral
weedy relative would disappear
within a few years. If the cultivated field is left fallow, both GM and
non-GM rapes would disappear within
a few years. Like any other crop plant, domesticated rape cannot compete
with weeds. The genes we put
into crops are for our benefit and not for survival in the wild. Crops
last no longer than a domesticated
chiuhuahua would last in the company of wolves. Populations of weeds are a
sea of natural mutant
variants. I am unable to think of any gene they could acquire from our
efforts that would improve their
weediness. Certainly in ten thousand years of plant breeding and gene flow
into weedy relatives none has
ever been discovered.

The "genie out of the bottle" is really attached by elastic and is easily
re-corked when required. When I
asked the BMA for the evidence for their genie out of bottle statement
made by Sir William Aesscher I was
told that a lot of people were saying it!

The main goal we are told by GM opponents is to 'go organic'. Was this a
thought-through policy or made
up on the hoof? It is quite clear to me it was the latter.

Experts tell us that cancers that occur under the age of 65 are avoidable.
30% of these cancers are thought
to result from poor diet. Over 200 detailed investigations have shown
that a diet high in fruit and
vegetables cuts all cancer rates by at least half. But only 10% of us eat
the recommended fruit and
vegetable requirements. Increasing the price of these essential foods
will reduce consumption; particularly
in the poorest families for which the food bill is a much higher
proportion of their weekly wage. The
consequence, higher avoidable cancer rates, premature death and soaring
health bills.
Organic food, whatever it's supposed environmental merits (and
incidentally these merits are shared by
many conventional farms), is less efficient and more wasteful of land.
For a variety of reasons it comes at a
much higher price and will continue to do so. Any attempt to 'go organic',
to thus increase the price of fruit
and vegetables and thereby reduce consumption will have the consequences
on cancer and death I have
listed above. Let us hope it is not your child. My fear is that
unsubstantiated claims and incorrect
assumptions about organic food will lead those who strive upwards on weak
incomes to buy organic but
eat less fruit and vegetables because of the expense. The only
justification left for buying organic food is
that farmers apply less pesticide in its production. But that is
precisely what the current GM crops offer us
but at conventional food prices or even lower! Whose food is the real
benefit now?

I am often asked what do I want to see in agriculture. Variety is
probably the spice of stability. My own
preference is for Integrated Crop Management (ICM), a sustainable but
efficient technology organised in
the UK by LEAF and CWS farming systems amongst others. ICM requires the
farmer to use his
intelligence whilst delivering on the so-called environmentally- friendly
front. In fact ICM with its emphasis on crop rotation, integrated pest
management, zero tillage and precisely timed manure and mineral
application is nicely placed between two extremes. The organic farmer that
does what he is told by the Soil Association, (something I tell students
is best described as authoritarian farming), and the conventional farmer
who merely does what he is told on the instruction leaflets by companies.
As for many of our students with lecture information, the instructions and
rules pass through, with out stopping in the brains of either. The goal
must be to train the farmer to view his farm as an ecosystem and then
leave it to the individual and his particular circumstance to construct
his own farming system. Advantageously a variety of agricultural styles
would result which should improve the stability of food supply in the
uncertain years ahead.

Anthony Trewavas FRS
Institute of Cell and Molecular Biology
Mayfield Road
University of Edinburgh
Edinburgh EH9 3JH
Phone 44 (0)1316505328
Fax 44 (0)1316505392
email Trewavas@ed.ac.uk
web site http://www.ed.ac.uk/~gidi/main.html
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