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July 5, 2000


Serious responses


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

Subj: Serious responses
Date: Wed, 5 Jul 2000 12:45:46 PM Eastern Daylight Time
From: "Jill Lenne and Dave Wood" <113077.3244@compuserve.com>

Marcus Williamson rightly asks for `serious responses' on the list.
A week ago I asked him some questions:

1) Is it acceptable to him for the public sector to research GM food
(given his obvious antagonism to the biotech `industry')?

2) Is inorganic fertilizer `natural' (for example, remedial application
of micronutrients to soils)?

3) Does he himself eat `patented' crops - i.e. those protected in
developed countries under Plant Varietal Rights? (or, indeed, vegetables
produced from the hybrid seed of the multinationals?)

4) Should individual farmers be able to protect their new varieties (and
if not, why not)?

Could he please reply, and on the list? We all try to answer his
questions, often at great length. I now need `serious responses' from him.

And as a person always interested in `agendas', I think it could be very
much in the interests of the biotech conglomerates to sponsor an
`extremist' opposition - a straw man or two for all of us to spend a
satisfying time knocking down. This role increasingly fits Marcus (and Ho
and Shiva)!

And another question: Marcus decries biotech companies as being in it for
the money. ActionAid has just loosed an anti-GM activist (Wakeford) onto
the Royal Society (The Ecologist vol. 30, p. 56), and is spending
thousands on a `sick-ad' - their terminology - against a 1997 US patent
application on a basmati-type rice variety. This is simply fund-raising
opportunism. The Board Chair of ActionAid is a fund-raising professional,
and the Board has three Chartered Accountants. My question to Marcus: why
is s(l)ick
money-making acceptable in an anti-biotech NGO, but not in a biotech
company? And ActionAid's attempt to undermine science could backfire. We
are not a few paid superficial hacks of the biotech companies, as Marcus
has suggested, but a very many people deeply committed to ensuring that
self-interest campaigns by the privileged will not impede scientific
advances needed to help the poor and hungry.

Re: Organic farming.

Without extremists, there could be accommodation over organic farming.
Garth wrote "Indeed, if we can get past our hang-ups about GMO's, genetic
manipulation of crops might even help organic methods to become more
competitive as an alternative method of production.' And we had an
excellent and informative piece from Klaas on organic agriculture in the
US. Organic farming, if done by reasonable people, could accommodate GM
practices to save pesticide applications (and avoid toxins like copper).
(But fallows or green-manuring will never be an option in
three-crops-a-year rice systems).

The problem we have in Britain is the Soil Association - they are scared
stiff that GM agriculture will undermine their ambitious claims for
organic agriculture - healthier food, in a healthier environment. Rather
than decry this position, we must accept it as economically logical (in
Marcus's word - `MONEY'). It GM agriculture can be shown to produce
healthy food and healthier farms, organic farming can no longer expect a
premium for their crops, nor claim increasing government subsidies. The
Soil Association could
go bust (unfortunately with the farmers it guided): it HAS to fight. But
why should taxpayers accept the Soil Association's founding dogma of a
`vital principle' in manure that gives us better health when an equivalent
and organic `vital principle' in cattle feed gave us BSE?

With a more responsible and less dogmatic certifying agency, and less
lobbying for special treatment from state subsidies, British organic
farming could play an important part in our choice of food supply.


Everyone and their dog uses `monoculture' as a term of abuse in the GM
food debate. GM technology is damned as contributing to monocultures (as
was the Green Revolution); monocultures stop people growing green
vegetables (Marcus's claim); Ho claims `Ecologists are increasingly
finding that the more biodiverse the ecosystem, the greater the carrying
capacity ... and hence the more people and wild-life it can support'.

As with organic/GM crops, we are not talking about an either/or situation
with monocultures, which can easily be combined with fallows, green
manures, rotations, organic production etc.. Nor are we just talking about
`advanced' agriculture. The most prevalent traditional cropping system in
the world is irrigated rice - always a monoculture, but one which can
maintain phenomenal biodiversity.

But the most common combination in food production globally is the field
(agriculture) and garden (horticulture). Fields may be monocultures, but
gardens (certainly traditional gardens) are most commonly polycultures.
Gardens, like `Mother's Day' are a `good thing' worldwide, and should
never be knocked. They produce a diversity of fruit, green vegetables,
chickens, and get lots of household waste as nutrients, are
labour-demanding but efficient, a useful hobby, even a money-earner. BUT
gardens are NOT fields,
and will not feed the expanding cities. Many of the claims for ecology,
nutrition, `naturalness', organic production, diversity and the rest
indisputably apply to gardens. This does NOT establish that the same
technology can be applied to fields. We should not argue against organic
production technology appropriate for gardens, but we should try to
prevent techniques for garden management being applied uncritically to
field-scale production.

As a biologist, I have a big problem with the major emotional claim made
by the Hos, Williamsons, Shivas, etc that monocultures per se are
unnatural. That is, are never found - indeed cannot be found - in nature,
as they in some way ecologically dysfunctional and unproductive. These
people are wrong: there are numerous `natural monocultures'. For example,
vast beds of the giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera) which Darwin enthused
over in 1834, considering this monospecific vegetation to be richer in
animal species than
forests in any country (and by then Darwin was familiar with tropical
forest). This is exactly the opposite to Ho's claim of diversity being
needed for high carrying-capacity (she may have embroidered her reference
a bit). Examples closer to home include Spartina marshes, and Phragmites
reed beds. These are stable and biologically rich `natural monoculture'
systems, and monoculture rice farming is an excellent mimic of the
richness and productivity of wild rice vegetation of the
seasonally-flooded rivers of S. Asia.

While monocultures can be damagingly intensified (as can polycultures or
organic fields) they are not intrinsically bad, and these people would be
sensible to stop using `monoculture' as a slogan (as with `Monocultures of
the Mind'). It's another example of the anti-GMO lobby piling-on too many
arguments (anti-monoculture; anti-patents; anti-capitalist; anti-science).

Dave Wood