Hear no Evil, See no Evil: IOFGA oppose GE spud trials for fear they get the all clear

{Update 31-08-12: Legal challenge refused over first GE Irish potatoes}

First tweet I read this morning was from the Journal.ie with a story about renewed activist opposition to the GE potato trials that Teagasc have recently been granted a license for:

GREEN PARTY COUNCILLOR Malcolm Noonan is one of a number of people involved in raising a legal challenge against the EPA-approved Teagasc genetically modified (GM) potatoes trial.

Going to Noonan’s website I read that

I believe that this decision will do untold damage to Irish farming just at a point when it was showing signs of real recovery. Overwhelming scientific evidence is showing that GM technology is of no real benefit to sustainable agriculture or food security. Consumers in the EU have rejected it outright and we should be paying attention to their needs rather than the interests of large industry players

Now that statement “Overwhelming scientific evidence is showing that GM technology is of no real benefit to sustainable agriculture or food security” needs some unpacking: what does he mean by “sustainable agriculture?” What doe he mean by “food security?” But by any reasonable definitions of either, his statement is surely false, as shown in the links from my last post we know that the vast majority of scientists attest to the safety and usefulness of the technology.

The Green Party has been invited to work alongside other national groups such as the Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association

Via the IOFGA website I found this interview with IOFGA’s Gillian Westbrook, John Spink from Teagasc and potato farmer Tom Keogh.

Spink carefully explained that the role of Teagasc was purely to provide information, and they had no role in producing a commercial GM potato; that these are just trials, to be done over a 4-year period with a further four years of testing afterwards; and he made the rather excellent point that if the trials showed there is an environmental hazard to growing GE potatoes here, “anyone who is anti-GM would have some very strong data to back up their arguments.”

Westbrook talked about Monsanto lawsuits in Spain and cross-pollination issues (she actually says “cross-contamination”) and eschewed the point that Spink made for her about data to support the anti- position should it emerge, instead going onto make the startling statement that

IOFGA supports evidence-based policy… say it does show positive biodiversity effects, where does it end up, because the biotechnology companies will be using this evidence as a lever to actually have Ireland look at accepting GM crops… we want quality food in this country, we dont want a race to the bottom, and that is the consumer perception of GM..

So she does not want the trials to take place because they might prove that the dreaded GM potatoes are actually OK and do not pose a threat to biodiversity, and we might have the option to actually grow them and benefit from their reduced need for synthetic sprays to control the blight, and then possibly go on to grow other GE crops with improved traits and the whole country could benefit from the enhanced agricultural sector on this island that this would result in. An extraordinarily incurious and conservative position, to say the least, as if science should not be done in case we find out that the world is really safer than we fear. Westbrook is clearly stating: no GE here under any circumstances, whatever the benefits.

In a way what the farmer Tom Keogh said was even more interesting, because he did not take an absolutist “ban the technology at all costs” position:

“we need to look at the long-term, how we will market ourselves- we need to be seen as the agricultural island, the Green Island- over-seas completely different-world population growing 15x the size of Ireland each year, while crop yields have grown over the last 50 years they have been leveling off in last 10 yrs; there are places in the world where GE is key- but not so much in Ireland where we are blessed with rich fertile soil and a climate good for high yields- we dont really need it here.”

It is hard to understand this position: one might indeed feel that the urgency for biotech in Ireland is not as great as say in Asia where they are developing Golden Rice to help tackle vitamin A deficiency, which is estimated to cause the death of some 125,000-250,000 children each year– but that doesn’t in any way explain a position that wants a total ban here, and opposes even conducting trials. Why wouldn’t Irish farmers want to reduce spraying and have higher yields due to reduced loss from blight?

“It is the consumers who tell us what to grow, and I don’t think any of your viewers want to buy GM foods” explained Keogh. But with the organic industry firmly entrenched in a “hear no evil see no evil” attitude, and volumes of misinformation being repeated endlessly about “Terminator seeds” and supposed health risks, it isn’t hard to see why the public’s attitude is wary of the new technology. If people do not understand it very well and public scientists are being opposed in doing their job, I think spokespeople like Westbrook should take some of the responsibility for that. After all, there is no good reason why GE should not be part of the quality Green food image that we would all like see Ireland continue to have; the improved traits that GE could bring could give Ireland a competitive advantage and be the envy of Europe. It is all in the marketing.

Keogh’s point about TV3 viewers not wanting to buy GM foods is also wrong. Although I don’t have a TV, I for one am very curious to try an Irish GE spud- the Teagasc trials are the first step I hope.

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2 thoughts on “Hear no Evil, See no Evil: IOFGA oppose GE spud trials for fear they get the all clear

  1. To paraphrase some naval guy, “Damn the facts, full speed ahead!”

  2. SayNoToFearmongers

    As well as being blatantly pro-ignorance, it also seems extraordinariiy insensitive for these self-appointed arbiters of good and evil to be rejecting chemical-free methods of controlling late blight in Ireland.

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