Monday, November 03, 2008

Interview: Adrian Ramsay on GM crops

Adrian Ramsay, one of the Green Party's best chances for an MP at the next election and our deputy leader has kindly given me this interview on GM crops.

The John Innes Centre in Norwich has created GM purple tomatoes - what's your opinion about this?

I think the GM tomatoes are unnecessary as the antioxidants they contain are already present in a wide range of non-GM foods. The researchers claim the tomatoes are healthy because they contain high levels of antioxidants called anthocyanins - but the idea that this is a new 'superfood' is hugely misleading. Anthocyanins occur naturally in most purple and red foods such as red grapes, blueberries, blackberries, aubergine, red onions and red cabbage – there is simply no need to manipulate tomatoes to produce anthocyanins when they are already abundant in other foods. What we really need is to increase public awareness of the importance of purple foods in the diet, which naturally contain these antioxidants.

The creators claim that these tomatoes have added health benefits, how could that be a bad thing?

The problem with these claims is that they mislead people into thinking that the health benefits can only be found in GM foods. Previous studies have already shown that anthocyanins in natural purple foods may help reduce the risk of cancer. We don't need GM tomatoes when a wide range of natural foods bring the same health benefits.

I find it highly unlikely that people who care about their health would choose to eat a GM tomato when they can get the same health benefits from non-GM berries, grapes and purple vegetables. There’s no substitute for a varied diet rich in fruit and vegetables, which brings a whole range of essential vitamins and minerals. The idea that people can replace a healthy range of fruit and vegetables with just a few GM substitutes is similar to suggesting that we can all eat junk food every day as long as we swallow a vitamin pill with it!

Is there really a problem with GM though - if people don't want to eat it can't they just buy non-GM products?

In the United States consumers are fighting for the right to eat non-GM foods - due to lack of labelling there’s no way to tell if a product is GM or not. Even in countries with mandatory labelling systems, there have been numerous cases of GM contamination of non-GM crops. Farmers are forced to go through lengthy and expensive processes to prove their crop is uncontaminated before they can be labelled non-GM. Even for GM products grown in greenhouses, there is always a risk of seeds or pollen escaping during transportation, through waste streams, or with insect movements.

Beyond the labelling issues, there are the wider questions of whether GM is necessary, beneficial or wanted by consumers. The pitfalls of GM products are well-documented: ecological impacts on biodiversity and soil quality, corporate control of agriculture and the food industry through patents on GM seeds and products, impacts on farmers’ livelihoods, and the strong public preference for non-GM foods.

The Labour Government has already spent tens of millions of taxpayers' pounds funding GM research, with little to show for it. If only that money could be re-directed to improving school meals and health education for our children, or bringing affordable fruit and vegetable schemes to deprived areas - then we might see some real health benefits for ordinary people.

What do you think the reasoning behind creating GM super foods is?

GM researchers (and their corporate funders) will always be looking for new ways to persuade us that we need GM foods. GM foods are deeply unpopular with consumers, so proponents of GM are continually searching for ways to make it more acceptable. First they tried to convince us that it was ‘better for the environment’. When ecological studies showed otherwise, they then claimed GM would ‘feed the world’. But the world food crisis is not caused by lack of GM food, but by the social, political and economic systems that prevent many people from affording or accessing their basic food needs.

Having failed to convince us that GM is the answer to environmental or world hunger problems, I suspect the next tactic is to portray GM foods as beneficial to health. I won’t be surprised if we see a string of unnecessary GM 'superfoods' cropping up in the next few years.

What direction would you like to see the food industry go over the next few years?

One of the biggest issues for our food security in the coming years will be oil dependency. Rather than the Government funding unnecessary GM research, I’d like to see far more investment in the development of local agricultural systems to ensure sustainable supplies of locally grown food. This would boost local economies and jobs, reduce oil dependency, lower carbon emissions, and make us more self-sufficient and secure in our food supplies.

In terms of international trade, I’d like to see fundamental changes in trade rules to make fair trade the norm, not the exception. I’d like to see international policies that support small-scale farmers and allow them to access local markets, rather than allowing a few giant corporations to monopolise food production and distribution. I’d also like international agreements to end the enforced economic programmes and crippling debt that have compelled developing countries to produce cash crops for export while their own people go hungry.

Thanks for this Adrian, and if readers have any suggestions for who I could interview next please do let me know.


Raphael said...

I have written to Adrian regarding this press release (before it appeared here) and he has not replied yet. I am sure some readers of this blog will do it for him...

Dear Adrian

I have read with interest the GP press release that you have authored about the purple tomatoes. I have to declare an interest: although I am not working on GM or on tomatoes, I am funded for my research by BBSRC, i.e. one of the three agencies that funded the work in question.

The title of your piece is that the tomatoes are "unnecessary". Now, if we accept the scientific evidence that points towards a potential significant health benefit associated with their consumption, then there needs to be a significant downside for them to be deemed "unnecessary".

You have then three types of arguments, some which are based on the precautionary principle, others which appear to be philosophical, finally, some which are societal.

Precautionary principle:
You write that "Growing GM tomatoes for commercial sale would pose a new and lasting threat to the environment and farmers because of the high risk of contamination of non-GM tomatoes and the wider effects on ecosystems. We also simply don't know what side effects on human health there could be from eating GM foods."

That is hardly an argument against research on all GM food. Genetic modifications encompass a large varieties of techniques that can be applied to generate a large varieties of new species. Generating new species for agricultural purposes is as old as agriculture itself. There are some specific problems associated with specific types of GMOs, but why the technology in itself could never be used to generate something which could be useful, e.g. to human health? In this particular case, have you, or someone else, identified any specific cause for concerns?

You write that "Scientists should [...] not interfering with nature totally unnecessarily and with unknown consequences".
We are interfering with nature all the time, as scientists, as policy makers, etc, etc. We should of course evaluate, minimize and balance risks and benefits taking unknowns into considerations, but the idea that out there is something called "nature" that would follow its own course if only the mad scientists were not to intervene does not stand upon examination. What about restoration projects? Should we also abandon them on the ground that we are interfering with nature? We are part of nature, for the best and the worst, e.g. climate change, we are necessarily interfering with nature. The question is to understand this interaction and to improve it. Most technologies, GM or others, can be as much part of the problem as they can be part of the solution.

You conclude your piece by switching to a completely different story about Monsanto. Now in the discussions about GM regulations, this is to my mind the most powerful argument. Agriculture should not be left to the control of one or a couple of giant companies. There are many safety issues related. etc etc We may well agree on a lot of things here.
BUT, what is the link with the purple tomatoe story? The study has been entirely funded by public funding (Nertherland, UK and EU). Do you have any evidence of Monsanto involvement in this?

My problem is that this kind of piece, if not seriously corroborated by evidence, appears to lead or comfort some sort of anti-science paradigm which is not particularly useful nor justified.

FYI, here is my professional weblog

Jim Jay said...

What press release are you refering to Raphael? (a link would be handy).

Raphael said...

an obscure website unknown to most Greens...

I am glad to report that Adrian has responded to me (thanks Adrian!). I guess he may post his response here too since I have mentioned to him that I reprinted my letter here.


Jim Jay said...

hehe - I hadn't seen this - thanks.