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June 27, 2000


Educative exchange with Marcus Williamson


AgBioView - http://www.agbioworld.org, http://agbioview.listbot.com

[I discussed this with Prakash earlier]

As a result of a previous posting of mine, where I raised the prospect of
hidden agenda in the anti-GM food debate, Marcus Williamson contacted
me and we had, for me, an interesting exchange, as follows
(lightly edited to remove my potential libels).

But first, a comment on Malcolm Livingstone's plea for scientists to be more
involved in advocacy. Gene Namkoong, a tree geneticist, had the same problem
over the low profile of real science in the biodiversity debate and wrote
(marvellously) `By hesitating to enter the debate, we only accede the field
to the biologically naive and find ourselves able to serve only as
peripherally significant technicians in pursuit of the objectives of the
uninformed.' and `We might ask if we have been forced into this position
by vociferous advocates of the extremes or if we have simply abdicated the
position by our silence.' (Namkoong, G. 1991 Biodiversity--issues in
genetics, forestry and ethics. The Forestry Chronicle 68:438-443).

Marcus Williamson wrote:

Unfortunately, the myths of increased yields and "feeding the world"
are just two of those which are put about by the GM industry in their
desperate attempt to sell this stuff to us.

For more information on these and other myths, please see :


Hope this helps.>>


Marcus - Thanks for the tone of your comment.

For most of the past thirty years I have been working in tropical
agricultural development, mainly living in semi-arid arid countries (and I'm
moving to India for several years next month). For most of this time we were
subject to constant attacks by the anti-Green Revolution activists, at least
some of whom had a hidden agenda. Yet I believe that the core of the Green
Revolution did in fact revolutionize national food security - certainly in
India. The alternative was for India to import a 100 million tons of wheat
from the US each year.

Twenty years later, in almost exactly the same way, everyone has now piled
into GM, from every direction - with claims of more food/food
`contamination', more/less environmental damage, more/less impoverishment,
etc.. And the hidden agendas are still there (on both sides). As with the
Green Revolution, not much of this debate is important to the big developing
countries. What will happen is that high-science developing countries like
China, Brazil, Mexico and India will press on with or without multinationals
and extend their biotech/GM food production (and then export the
locally-adapted technology to their neighbours). China is already doing this
unstoppably - as it did with hybrid rice technology. And hybrid seed is one
of the lost causes of past seed activism - Chinese hybrid rice, using
male-sterility to produce seed, is now grown extensively in Vietnam (with
excellent yields of 15t/ha), and is being imported into Britain 300 yards
from where I am now, on the Medway in Kent. And we already eat `terminated'
bananas - sterile triploids produced thousands of years ago - and bread
wheat - an intergeneric cross of six thousand years ago. And traditional
vegetables in Kenya can cause spina bifida, and sorghum stomach cancer:
there are no certainly harmless foods.

If Europe and North America want to include GM food in their posturing over
agricultural protectionism and subsidies, so be it - but leave developing
countries out of it. If only for pest control, their present alternatives
are far worse than any GMOs. Any NGO activism against GM-food in
developing countries is an unwarranted interference with the food security
of sovereign states.





I'm puzzled by your claims of a hidden agenda on behalf of those
opposing GM crops. The facts are clear to see :

* GM companies want to increase profits by expanding their markets
into the third world.

* GM companies want to increase the use of pesticides and herbicides
by selling these as a "package" together with their own seed.

* GM companies want to privatise life itself by patenting crops which
have been grown for centuries by local populations.

* GM crops are already contaminating conventional crops in Europe and
elsewhere in the world.

As you're aware, the world's food problem is not about lack of food,
it's about distribution and about the North having the political will
to actually help starving people, instead of trying to create
"solutions" to make more money out of them. Food security now is
ensuring that farmers are able to grow their own traditional species
without having to pay yearly licensing fees to those who are patenting
their own crops!

You are also well aware that none of the traditional crossbreeding of
which you speak involved transgenic mechanisms. Nature protects
against taking genes from fish and splicing them into tomatoes. The
biotechnologists are releasing the results of their experiments onto
the world without due testing.



Marcus, there are so many people piling onto the anti GM food wagon that
there is no message clear reaching me - rather the opposite - I just see
confused and contradictory arguments. You need to strip away the
camp-followers. Please read my last posting for at least one agenda: North
American export interests do not, emphatically not, want biotech companies
exporting `their' technology to competitors (cheap labour, good farmers) in
India, Brazil etc. It's considered as `treasonable'. This was the basis of
the `terminator' debate, from a Canadian NGO actually located on the
prairies. The anti-biotech lobby has been infiltrated and used by some very
clever people. You could send these people a bill for pushing their
propaganda, and then send them packing. Please think about it: your movement
is being used.

Your facts are not facts that actually prove anything: for example, if the
public sector works on GM crops, they are not remotely interested in
packaging varieties with pesticides etc. First strip away the
anti-multinational feelings - Is it OK for the public sector to promote GM
foods? If yes, lets go ahead: If not, then use another argument not
involving your distaste of multinationals (which I share in part). Your only
significant argument is then the `unnatural' nature of transgenics - but
this is a matter of degree - and who decides? I'd prefer the hungry to do
it. If your other arguments boil down to wanting a greater role for the
public sector: fine! I agree, but if this is so, say it clearly, rather than
hide it within a anti-technology argument. Your conclusion then becomes that
you feel transgenics are unnatural (and possibly dangerous) and you would
let others starve to maintain this point (or fool yourself that we just need
a bit more political will in the North and all would be well!). And we have
been through all this `unnatural' talk 60 years ago, with the organic
agriculture movement. Inorganic fertilizer was unnatural - and didn't have
the `vital principle' found in manure (known then as `muck and magic'
movement). We would have a better idea of your standards on what is natural
if you shared your views on inorganic fertilizer: natural or not?? Crop
production itself is unnatural: about 70% of all crops are grown away from
their continent of origin - including most crops in the UK - you can't get
much further from nature than that, yet you eat them.

Multinationals cannot patent crops that have been used by local
populations - they have to patent derivatives of them, and this can never
ever stop people using the original variety themselves - this is one of the
hoary myths that people like to believe in. What example can you put
forward? Surely not the old chick pea fuss that the prairie NGOs used to
discredit Australia? And why are you eating `patented' plants yourself?
Most of our food in developed countries comes from varieties protected under
Plant Breeders Rights (always transposed by NGO to `patents' for impact) and
all these varieties are originally based on farmers landraces. If you eat
this food (and it would be difficult not to) you are clearly a hypocrite,
not doing yourself what you preach to others. And if you actually know of
examples of patent pirating, you would be best advised to take this up with
the relevant patent office, rather than tar all multinationals with the same

All this is massively neo-colonialist: Third World farmers have a right to
choose. You are trying to deny them that right. You are well-fed, they may
be starving, sending their women and children to work ten hours in the sun
weeding and picking caterpillars (no school, no recreation). Do you allow
tractors? Surely some evil multinational is making a profit - let's ban
tractors (exactly the same argument as you have been using - exploiting
farmers, destroying the environment, unnatural etc.). And, the main issue -
who are you to decide (or me, for that matter). My problem is that I have
seen people starving to death in Africa - try telling them about the
temporary lack of `political will' in the North, and the evils of
multinationals. Developing countries have to get on with it without
interference - and we are all of us trying to interfere.

And what has all this to do with political will in the North? They are
desperate for markets - look at the CAP and US subsidies which are the real
source of `too much food'. Certainly there may be enough food to go round,
but it is in North America and Europe, as a result of feather-bedding
farmers (and destroying our own environment and using the very best
technology), and not where it should be. To increase national food
security (and stop political meddling and top-down conditionality -
i.e. me and you) developing countries need to push up their own crop
yields, with the help of multinationals transferring technology if need be.
And countries certainly will, no matter what you or I think.

Best wishes,



Marcus: sorry, I ran out of steam about 1.00 this morning - to continue.

I accessed your web site [ http://gmfoodnews.com ]: predominantly nothing
to do with future food production in developing countries (my interest).

The news reports are mostly a `battle of the giants' slugging it out for
market share over GM crops - a continuation of the EU/US battle over surplus
wheat, which, as you will agree, with the current levels of subsidies, is
not a sustainable or secure food source for the developing world. If I was a
Minister of Agriculture in Africa who read all that, I'd be on the phone to
my Research Service setting-up my own biotech lab.

More seriously, your point about farmers needing to grow their own
traditional crop species for food security: they don't! For example, in
Malawi, 99% of the field crop production is from crops from other continents
(maize, potatoes, rice, bananas, common bean, peanut, sugar cane, tea, etc,
etc.). Except in rice countries, this is the predominant pattern of global
agriculture (animals too, and plantation forestry). Moving crops around (the
business the multinational seed companies are in) is an excellent way -
discovered by farmers - for maintaining yields against pest and disease
pressure. If GM crops enhance this movement, so much the better.

Also your bit about nature protecting against the movement of genes: of
course if a fish crossed with a tomato, the many thousands of genes from
each partner would really mess things up - most would be lethal rubbish.
Species can't cope with this genetic soup, which is why there are all kinds
of mechanisms to prevent interbreeding. This is because Nature cannot
select the genes it `wants', except by the long, slow process of natural
selection, and a few at a time (just as one plant cannot physically pull up
another that is competing with it - it has to slog it out over time: but we
can and do rapidly chuck out weeds. This is not so much unnatural as a
sensible use of our `natural' human abilities). What you are missing is that
we now have the capacity to sort through the soup to find the useful bits;
then incorporate just the useful bit - rather than a lethal genetic mixture;
and THEN select and nurture the viable offspring - a continual process of

This is exactly what farmers do every day with clonal species such as hops.
Clonal propagation maintains the genetic integrity, seed production messes
everything up (a mini-version of an over-wide cross): therefore don't let
hops (and most fruits, nuts, roots and tubers) seed. And when there is an
accidental seedling, farmers' `unnatural' ability for strong selection comes
to the fore - for example, Mr Golding selecting from a cast of thousands the
Golding hop variety in 1790. It was these kind of selectional skills of
farmers (not Nature) that gave us our crops and landraces. Nature can
neither sort through the soup, nor apply the strong selection pressure, nor
choose to nurture the desired plant. We can, but this is invariably based
on Nature and natural models - a question of degree, rather than absolutism,
and of speed, rather than a slow `natural' pace. Plant breeding has been
slow in the past from the need to get rid of what you don't want: now we can
take only what we want, avoiding all the toxins and rubbish that has dogged
breeders for a century and farmers for almost ten thousand years. And
English hops now depends for quality and disease resistance on crosses with
American wild hops: nothing natural about moving species thousands of miles
to cross with a species it lost genetic contact with millions of years ago.
Who decides what is `natural'?

Around six thousand years ago, the most important cross in agriculture took
place between a tetraploid crop species of wheat and a wild diploid species
of another genus to give us the vastly important hexaploid bread wheat -
this was by definition, trans-genomic (and the genetic soup was stabilized
in the hexaploid - a feature of other crops). This particular cross would
not have happened in nature, where there would be no crop and wild species
coming together in a farmer's field - but, much more important, it would
have been lost unless an extremely astute farmer was around to pick out and
nurture one plant in literally billions as the future of our bread wheat
production. It is this profound discriminatory ability that we have, and
Nature cannot have at the pace now needed to feed people, that contributes
to the potential of GM food supply.

Although it is a bit lateral to the GM-food debate, rather than being
negative about the depredations of multinationals patenting landraces, I
prefer to be positive - let's find a way of giving comparable rights over
varieties to the individual farmers who selected them. I have spent a lot of
my own time and money as an activist on this. I suspect that you may tell
me that individual farmers should never own varieties (the `no patents on
life' rhetoric that throws all farmer-varieties into the public domain or
global heritage: guess who that benefits) or that communities, rather than
farmers, should own varieties. This is all part of the pattern of NGO
mythology. But I'd prefer (wouldn't you?) that every time I drink a beer I
could reward the genius of Mr Golding and support an individual reward
system to encourage others (farmers!) to do the same, hands on, for all
crops. This idea will be resolutely blocked by at least one of the `agendas'
you are unable to recognize as infiltrating the anti-GM movement. What is
your position on rewarding individual farmers for varietal innovation? I use
this as a litmus test between real concern and posturing. And what do you
think of mutation breeding - a feature of public-sector and UN plant
breeding for ages: is this sufficiently `natural' to be permitted (and we
are now back to the question of who decides?).

By including all this lateral argument, and allowing intellectual
infiltration of your position, you have lost what could have been a rational
focus on economic impact and environmental dangers of GM-crops. Developing
countries will discount the noise and go ahead under their own steam. Suits
me if the US and EU fall behind in the biotech stakes: their export
promotion has been damaging small farmers in developing countries and
leading to a loss of valuable genetic resources for decades (but the vast
subsidies will have to stop under WTO). The agricultural technology of
developed countries - now threatened by all the GMO fuss - was their best
hope to compete globally. Look forward to a thin diet as all tropical crops
become GM - pineapple, pawpaw, tea, coffee, the lot - and all non-GM
temperate crops go under from pest and disease (or environmental pollution
with pesticides, or lack of nutrients). It's your choice - but include me
out: I'm going to live in India, where they are getting things right (and do
not have the luxury to get things wrong).

Written in haste: I need to go out to pay homage to the selective genius of
Mr Golding and Mr Fuggle.

Best regards,