Coffee House

Science or starvation

6 May 2012

1:20 PM

6 May 2012

1:20 PM

Here, for CoffeeHousers, is an extended version of the leader
column in this week’s magazine. It takes on the green fundamentalism which stupidly aims to put a stop to genetically modified foods:

At the end of the month, a group of shrieking protestors are planning to descend upon a field in Hertfordshire and, in their words, ‘decontaminate’ (i.e. destroy) a field of genetically
modified wheat. The activists, from an organisation called Take the Flour Back, claim to be saving Britain from a deadly environmental menace. But in reality, these self-appointed guardians of Gaia
are threatening not only to undo hundreds of man-years of publicly-funded research but also helping to destroy one of the best hopes we have of avoiding catastrophic famines in the poorest parts of
the world in future decades. It is eco-snobbery on a global scale.

There has always been a nasty whiff of elitism about the Green movement, and the way it taxes the poor out of the sky or off the roads. It proposes greater carbon taxes, for example, piling more
pain on to the increasing number of households who struggle to balance the grocery bill with the fuel bill. The global food price hikes a few years ago were caused, in large part, by Western
governments obsessed by ethanol — so growing crops to feed cars, rather than people. The genetically modified food debate also has global implications, allowing the qualms of the rich retard
the farming technology needed to feed poor countries.

Those opposing transgenic technology have been given an easy ride by an often gullible media for the last 20 years. But there is now growing anger among scientists and even some formerly anti-GM
green activists that a technology that may represent our only real hope of feeding the extra three billion mouths expected on our planet is being stymied — in the name of
‘purity’. This is a nonsensical idea in a world which already depends on intensive, industrialised agriculture to feed itself, consuming plants and animals which bear little relation to
their ‘natural’ antecedents.


This planned Hertfordshire protest is against a strain of wheat that has been genetically modified to create its own aphid repellent, a chemical that smells like mint. The scientists behind it, who
work at the Rothamsted Research Institute, hope that the new wheat will require far less pesticide to grow than conventional varieties. If the technology works, they will not patent it and let the
world’s poorest farmers have access to the new wheat at minimal cost. This is the type of science, with real-world benefits, that this government is so keen to encourage
In Norwich, another group of scientists, at the John Innes Centre, is developing a strain of wheat resistant to a devastating new fungus which is sweeping across the Horn of Africa and into
southwest Asia, a region which will be the engine of global population growth in the 21st Century. If the ‘Ug99’ stem-rust fungus reaches the Punjab, it is feared that 200 million may
die. The scientists would love to be able to test this wheat in the field to see if the technology works, but there is little chance of that as nearly all African governments have forbidden
transgenic plants to cross their borders.

This has happened because in Africa, and elsewhere, Western campaign groups like Greenpeace have set up well-funded and professionally managed offices to lobby against GM. So successful have these
campaigns been that a decade ago we witnessed the obscenity that was the refusal by the Zambian government to allow the donation of transgenic corn to feed nearly three million people hit by
drought and famine.

It is an obscenity, too, that the greens are happy to see children lose their sight rather than consume the hated GM. In Switzerland, a deeply humane and now extremely angry scientist called Ingo
Potrykus, who in a sane world would be clutching a Nobel Prize, has devoted his life to the creation of a new variety of ‘golden rice’ that, unlike the natural variety, is rich in
Vitamin A. Deficiency in this vitamin is thought to cause 400 million cases of malnutrition, 2 million deaths and 500,000 cases of child blindness every year. Thanks to the success of anti-GM
campaigns the introduction of golden rice has been delayed by more than a decade.

Transgenic technology has not caused a single human to become ill, nor has there ever been a single case of environmental damage caused by this now-mature technology in three decades of trials and
commercial farming. Opposition to GMOs has nothing to do with science and everything to do with a strain of green fundamentalism that is more akin to a religion than rationality. Myths abound that
GM crops will cause allergies and sickness, that the genes will leap across to other species and create mutant monsters and unstoppable superweeds. All have been proven to be false.

In 1798, Thomas Malthus argued that mankind’s expansion would be halted by the planet’s finite resources, and the world population would be ‘kept equal to the means of
subsistence, by misery and vice.’ Since then the world population has grown sevenfold, and global poverty levels have never been lower. What Malthus did not consider was mankind’s
ingenuity in inventing ways to combat starvation. But we may have reached the limits of conventional farming technology to feed our burgeoning species. The United Nations projects that
Africa’s population will treble over this century. The continent can barely feed itself now.

Transgenic farming technology is not a panacea, but nor is it a hazardous luxury. If we are to avoiding another humanitarian crisis, there is no alternative but to take that next step. The decadent
opposition to ‘Frankenfoods’ must stop.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.

Show comments
  • T Green

    From the recent GM-free Forum in Adelaide – an excellent explanation of plant breeding.

    Phil is a scientist with 30 years experience in applying biotechnology to crop breeding. He has an Honours degree in Agricultural Science and a PhD in Genetics. In 2003 Phil co-founded the Institute of Health and Environmental Research, a not-for-profit research institute with a scientific interest in the safety of genetically manipulated (GM) foods and crops.

    Thank you to Madge Australia:

  • Paul Roberts

    This is a false dichotomy.

    Many scientists are opposed to GM (eg Professor Bob Watson, the director of IAASTD and now chief scientist for DEFRA, was asked if GM could solve world hunger, and he said: “The simple answer is no.”)

    Many people in the global south are resisting GM because they are experiencing it first-hand as being damaging (eg African Biodiversity Network, Karnataka Farmer’s Association, Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa and Via Campesina, which represents over 2 million peasant farmers.)

  • T Green

    To Eric
    I believe your statement to be incorrect, please consider:
    “Conventional’ breeding involves many practices that aren’t ‘natural’, so why the fuss about GM?

    It is true that non-GM techniques such as marker assisted selection and mutagenesis do not occur naturally, and it may well be that there are problems with them that have not yet come to light. GM involves introducing genes from a different species, usually by means of a bacteria or a virus, this is an extremely haphazard process and one that can have unpredictable consequences.”


    Your statement is a common misconception (even by those who should know better), spread by powerful vested interests and the incompetent (yes even the FSA!!!! and FDA), you might want to research Michael Taylor, substantial equivalent and revolving doors. If you have the time to research safety issues, you could start with GM Freeze and Testiobiotech. You might want to sign up for the GM Watch newsletter.

    In order to put this all into context you have to have some background knowledge of corporate lobbyist power and geopolitics.

    Please also consider:

    Please consider alternatives – may I suggest researching Agroecology and Permaculture – the Soil Association might be a good starting point.

    Another interesting link:

    “The Green Economy is a false solution to climate change and water scarcity. The supposed answers to the crises: the commodification of water, of carbon and of biodiversity; nanotechnology; geo-engineering; and GMOs represent new opportunities for neo-liberal economic expansion. Despite the fact that these technology-driven and market-driven responses are the main cause of the environmental and social chaos that we are suffering, neo-liberalism’s headlong rush continues. The industrial model of production, with its monoculture and its agro-chemicals, has polluted our water and endangered our health.”

  • daniel maris


    Crossing major species boundaries e.g. putting mammal genes in plants is certainly meddling with nature and should be viewed with suspicion, especially since it is unnecessary.

  • Eric

    Telemachus – “Meddle not with nature”

    So your suggestion is what exactly? That we take all crops back to their ‘natural’ forms? Virtually every single crop we eat has been selectively chosen over generations for preferential characteristics.

    ‘Organic’ foods may not be grown using pesticides etc but they’re certainly not natural.

    Opposition to GM crops because of some idea that it is meddling with nature is daft. Everything you eat, even if you’re the most insanely hardcore of vegans or fruitarians, has already been meddled with.

  • daniel maris

    PFM –

    Er – only problem is I don’t agree with that man-made global warming has been proved, so the vast majority of Delingpole’s arguments are wasted on me.

    Plus I don’t believe in what I call hairshirt environmentalism – seeking to reduce us to a kind of medieval poverty level.

    However, that said, I am fully in favour of green energy, recyling, and optimal self-sufficiency for economic, social and political reasons. Britain as a trading nation is in a very vulnerable position in terms of globalisation and we should reposition ourselves, using the latest technology, to replicate the self-sufficiency of a country like the USA.

  • daniel maris


    I’ve already said it. I think policy should be geared to a population of maybe 30-40million rather than 70 million as at present.

    That means for one thing disincentivising large families whereas at present we have no upper limit on the incentives.

    In terms of our ageing population it is absurd to create a situation where people live for 10,20 now 30 years in what would normally be described as great ill health, often in pain, with no mobility and little social life. We shouldn’t be prolonging the agony. There should be a point beyond which society does not sanction anything more than palliative care, and let nature takes its course as it did mercifully in the past.

  • Peter From Maidstone

    Daniel Maris, if you believe that the optimal population is lower than it presently is then why not come out and say that, as many other left-wing activists have explicitly done, you think that large numbers of people should be culled.

    But not you of course.

    Delingpole is spot on. He has understood the ideology you espouse very clearly indeed. I note that you are not able to criticise his arguments, but, as he points out, those on the left always play the man rather than the ball.

    There are too many people, the world needs organising properly, I am one of those who can do the organising – this is one of the central themes of socialism.

  • Peter From Maidstone

    Noa, why should the UK have been self-sufficient in food production since 1840? You make it sound as if it is a problem when it is clearly not. It would be possible for the UK to become self-sufficient in food production if it needed to, but it does not need to.

    I am not self-sufficient in building or plumbing expertise. This is not a problem for my household as I can buy in such services from those who have them. Likewise my own skills allow me to earn a living because I can sell them to those who need them. We sell things, we buy food.

    I don’t think I have said that Malthus must always be proved wrong, but he has been so far, and there is no reason to think that he will not continue to be proved wrong. Population growth is the driver for much of our technological advances.

    As it is, the population of the world could fit into Texas at not greater density than that of New York. Population growth always rises when death rates fall, and with greater life expectancy and health, falling birth rates follow.

    Those places where birth rates are highest are usually also those were death rates are highest. The danger for the UK is allowing millions of immigrants who have high birth rates to come to the UK where they have a low death rate and therefore rapidly outgrow the British population.

  • T Green

    I am puzzled by this article as there is plenty of information out there giving a wider perspective. Information which could have been checked out with a quick google search. Without wishing to sound rude – but constructive – I would say the article is really misleading and poorly researched.

    For example:

    More recent article:

    There is much much more but I don’t want to make the comment too long.

  • Fergus Pickering

    Godalmighty, imagine a world full of old people. Ghastly, isn’t it? Leave the children alone. Cull the old. Not me of course, just those with no money.

  • daniel maris

    PFM –

    It’s absurd to suggest that Malthus will always be proved wrong as that is to imply there is no rational upper limit on population. Well, yes, you could stack us 100 storeys high across the whole surface of the globe – but who wants that?

    It’s pretty clear to me that the optimal population across the planet is far less than what we have at present.

    As for Delingpole, his wisdom is that of a previous age. In the modern era there is nothing to stop the Chinese economy competing with us in ALL sectors, including our beloved financial sector.

    The key to future prosperity is going to be
    rapid exploitation of new technology to support self-sufficiency. We see that with green energy which is such a boost to the German and Danish economies. But it will also apply to agriculture, mining, metallurgy and manufacturing.

  • daniel maris

    Peter Close to Maidstone,

    I was slightly apologetic because in contrast to many of these ignorant third world farmers I have a much less demanding lifestyle (although it is also true that in some third world cultures it is the women who do the real work).

    However, the point stands: let’s get them plugged into the modern world so they can receive plenty of advice on cultivation which will increase yields without dangerous transgenic experimentation.

    Maybe there are 2million villages worldwide which need PV panels, satellite dishes and internet connection. Let’s start getting them plugged into the globe that way.

  • Dimoto

    I wonder who wrote this article, a lobbyist for one of the big seed companies perchance ?

    Whilst the “intellectual property rights” to genetically modified seeds are tightly held by a small group of shady and rapacious corporations, they will never be acceptable, whatever the science.

  • Noa.


    You appear to be mistaking me for a Green!

    We, that is the UK, have not been self sufficient in grain and meat since the 1870’s. The optimum population for self sufficiency is, if I re-collect correctly, 40 million.
    North sea oil production is in swift decline, as are, possibly, world oil reserves.
    Generally, UK visible imports have consistently exceeded exports for many years. It is invisibles, which literally, have fed our complacency, up to now.
    The UK’s, Europe’s and the world’s total resource requirements cannot be met indefinitely from finite resources against the background of an infinitely expanding population and new expansionist global powers are already challenging Europe for the control of key resources.

    You rightly identify the UK’s current problems as over population, exacerbated by atrocious structural government policies. On which point I believe we are in complete agreement.

  • T Green

    I agree with Cedric Harben. To list some of the concerns of the protesters (source GM Freeze):

    ….What else could go wrong?

    In 2010 hundreds of UK farms grew over 1.9 million hectares of wheat – equivalent to 90% the area of Wales.

    If GM wheat is approved and grown on just a few farms, it could cause problems:

    Aphids may be pushed onto neighbouring non-GM wheat crops.
    Any change in aphid behaviour could have big impacts on the wider ecosystem, especially on birds and insects that eat aphids.
    There will always be a chance of the GM wheat getting mixed into harvested crops during transport, storage or milling and processing of food or animal feed. In 2009 an unauthorised GM flax from Canada contaminated global supplies. No one is clear what went wrong, and it still isn’t cleaned up.
    GM-free seeds are the only way to guarantee a GM-free crop, but keeping GM out of wheat seed would be very difficult if GM wheat is grown. The wind will always blow pollen, and people will always make mistakes. In 2010 the very first planting of GM Amflora potato in Sweden had to be destroyed because another GM potato was accidentally illegally mixed into the seed tubers, but no one knows how this happened.

    There is no law in the EU to hold anyone liable for any problems caused by GM food or feed, and he main insurer for UK farmers will not provide cover for growing GM crops.

    Finally the article seems partly based on material straight from the PR company.

    Please let’s widen the debate

    Improving food production – can I recommend John Pilger (views on World Trade Organisation), Raj Patel, AGRA Watch and The Soil Association for further information.

  • telemachus’

    Peter From Maidstone
    Maidstone old chap.
    You should go lie down.
    This excitement is not good for you.
    This my child is England.
    We do not do conspiracy or revolutions.
    We just have the inept and incompetent-Farage, Cameron and Clegg.
    And also the caring-Miliband, Balls and Burnham.

    Suggest you crawl back and foment revolution in your new UKIP Mordor.

  • DZ

    Surely the plan must be to buy electricity from France through the existing interconnector cables. Nuclear power from some of France’s 83 nuclear power stations.

  • Peter From Maidstone

    Noa, there is no shortage of power, for instance. The approaching crisis is deliberately caused by politicians. An energy crisis allows them to extend their control over the population even further.

    There is plenty of coal and gas, and we should already be building new nuclear power stations. There is no energy crisis apart from deliberate sabotage of British society.

  • Peter From Maidstone

    Noa, have you read Watermelons by Delingpole?

    Britain could feed itself, but it has no need to, it can also buy food from elsewhere. If immigration were not bringing in 600,000 people a year then there would be even less of possibility of a prospect of a problem.

    That there is a possibility in the future of a problem is of course always the case. But there is no reason to expect that the world, and the UK could not feed itself into the future. Apart from immigrant birth rates being so high, the ordinary British birth rate is not racing away. A fairly static and technlogically advanced population has no problem feeding itself.

    The threat is the uncontrolled growth rate of the immigrant population.

  • EC

    telemachus’ May 6th, 2012 4:39pm

    “Meddle not with nature.” Check!

    “That is the route that leads to Frankenstein”
    Or worse Farage”

    And are you also Igor?
    If you don’t want the monster, then don’t throw the switch!

  • Noa.

    Peter From Maidstone

    “Noa. Malthus has always been wrong and will always be wrong…”.

    That is the conventional view, Peter. There is no certainty that it will prevail indefinitely. And I refer to the totality of resources; agricultural, mineral and intellectual.
    Are you really saying that, in the event the UK is unable to feed, cloth and heat its population, that the rest of the world will see it as its responsibility to do so?

  • EC

    Despite the large biomass that he talks about wind turdbines, I have some sympathy with the concerns that Daniel Maris has expresses about GM farming. Very few of the experiments, for that’s what they are, have been a unmitigated success and some have backfired in a spectacular way.

  • peter close to maidstone

    Daniel Maris,

    ” many farmers there are illiterate and, not to be too PC, completely ignorant. They go out and scratch the land with the equivalent of a garden tool and have little idea what they are doing.”

    Why apologise for stating facts? That’s why they’re the third world, and we’re not.

  • Chris Morriss

    Far more important than all of this would be for governments all over the world to stop funding people from having too many children. Announcing that all forms of child benefit in this country would cease in 9 month’s time would be a good start.
    The only long-term solution is to get the world population to increase, in spite of all the the left-wing voices who claim that is is the right of everyone to have as many children as they feel like.

  • Peter From Maidstone

    Noa. Malthus has always been wrong and will always be wrong. Indeed just as he suggested that disaster would afflict the world new methods of agriculture multiplied agricultural output, and have continued to do so.

    The problem that the poor of the world face is bad government and corrupt government. Our own is rapidly trying to reduce us to a Third World status so that we can become recipients of other’s Aid.

  • Fergus Pickering

    telemachus, do you know anything about farming? Have you heard of fertiliser? Meddle not with nature? There is nothing natural about the English countryside.

  • Noa.

    Given the ever increasing world population and the consequent demand on finite resources, the question is a simple one: when will Malthus’ prediction become reality? In this century or the next?

    Nor will it be clear cut. Which of Europe, Africa Asia or the Americas be the worst, or least worst affected?
    Twenty years ago one would have considered Europeans to have a good chance of survival. Given adverse cultural, economic, population and political changes the odds must be considerably reduced.

  • telemachus’

    Meddle not with nature.
    That is the route that leads to Frankenstein

    Or worse Farage

  • Dennis Churchill

    Not just food but energy as well.
    We simply can’t support the world’s human population other than as a technologically advanced civilisation with massive energy consumption and intensive farming.
    The Green agenda would result in famine and death on a scale we have never experienced in our history as a species and with a technology that will enable us all to see it.

  • Axstane

    Robert Christopher

    Be assured that the Third World will prefer to eat than to starve to death.

  • daniel maris

    The kind of emoting on display in this article has nothing to do with science.

    How many times have the public been assured something is “safe” only to find some years down the road that it was highly dangerous.

    Thalidomide was safe.

    Pesticides were safe.

    Making cannibals of cows (feeding them cow carcasses) was safe.

    This isn’t about stopping people starving. That could be achieved overnight through subsidies to poor country.

    The truth is there are plenty of ways of increasing food production without indulging in risky trans-species experimentation. We should be putting money into polytunnels, fish farming, lab meat production, farm towers and bringing marginal land into cultivation. Improved education will go a long way to increasing yields in poor countries – many farmers there are illiterate and, not to be too PC, completely ignorant. They go out and scratch the land with the equivalent of a garden tool and have little idea what they are doing.

  • simon

    The future will have us eating more non-food – that is to say protein synthesised in vats, processed seaweed, soy fabricated meat, fermented fungal or bacterial products, then there are fish from fish farms and so on – its all about man’s ingenuity you said so yourself and ingenuity doesnt stop!

  • Cedric Harben

    Correct me if I’m wrong but the whole line that GM foods are some kind of humanitarian thing has been brought in to cover up the fact that it started as an entirely profit motivated science. The companies involved originally tried to sell “terminator gene’ seeds to the third world with the aim of the farmers having to buy new seeds every year. Also if insecticides are so bad for us that we’re supposed to wash fruit and veg thoroughly (as is legal requirement to state on packaging) then how do you wash out chemicals that are wired into the plants? And what happens to the insects that need to live on the now poisonous plants? Or the birds that feed on them etc?? I’m not a greenie but this kind of one sidedness doesn’t befit a leader column

  • Robert Christopher

    I’ll wait until it has been tested in the Third World first: the growing and the eating.

    The Third World need to be given an informed choice as well though.

    But better ask them soon, before we are the Third World!

  • Frank Sutton

    The scientists at Rothamsted are reported to be “pleading” with the protestors not to destroy their work.
    Have we come to the point where our only defence against criminals is to plead with them?
    Are the police not interested in this vandals’ plot?

  • Heartless (Romantic) Curmudgeon

    How about doing something REALLY useful – and trying to put a stop to the ridiculous WIND FARM and GREEN FUEL SCAMS – and finding how many more mouths can be fed when arable land is freed FOR production of food not fuel?

    Only then start to mutter about the GM issue (which, by the way, leaves many unanswered questions).

    But first things first. Try and shift the ridiculous H2B towards sensible simple doable ideas.