Experts clash over organic growing and use of GM crops

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CHAMPIONS of organic growing and genetic modification lock horns in a new publication by the Food Standards Agency.

Patrick Holden, who left the grower-based Soil Association to become director of the more broadly educational Sustainable Food Trust, and Giles Oldroyd, senior plant scientist at research organisation the John Innes Centre, get three letters each in a special edition of the FSA’s quarterly magazine Bite. But they only get as far as agreeing to continue their disagreement elsewhere.

The publication also includes contributions from government ministers, Food & Drink Federation, NFU and a South African scientist saying GM is not as good for Africa as the West seems to think. See

The following extracts are edited ...

Patrick Holden to Giles Oldroyd: “I read on your website that having discovered the mechanism by which leguminous plants fix nitrogen, you hope that transferring this to non-legumes will result in ‘farmers no longer having to rely on expensive nitrogen fertilisers’.

“Speaking as a farmer who has used no nitrogen fertiliser for over 38 years on my Welsh hill farm, which produces grass and oats for 75 dairy cows, I can honestly say that nitrogen availability is not the limiting factor to the productivity of my farming system. The single most important unifying feature of sustainable agriculture is building soil fertility through crop rotation. If one gets this right, I can testify from direct experience that yields steadily increase over time.

“GMOs lock farmers into a cycle of corporate-controlled dependency on monoculture and herbicide use, without increasing yields or delivering any other public benefits.”

Giles Oldroyd replies: “We face the unprecedented challenge of feeding nine billion people in a time of global climate change. The choice is stark: expand arable areas or increase productivity.

“I fully support the principles of organic farming. But organic farming alone cannot feed nine billion people.

“Peas and beans have evolved a fantastic way of getting their own nitrogen, making them self-fertilising. Why should we not use this natural process, through GM, to make cereal crops more sustainable?

“GM has been tested for 30 years and is proven safe.”

PH: “You didn’t respond to my point about soil fertility rather than nitrogen being the limiting factor to increasing yields.

“Rather than engineering nitrogen fixation into grain crops, why not use marker-assisted techniques to improve the qualities of existing strains?

“On safety, I have seen evidence from, as yet unpublished, GM animal feeding trials which identify negative health outcomes not previously observed.

“To proceed further down the GM path will also risk a further narrowing of the agricultural gene pool and cause other ecological damage, such as outcrossing to non-GM varieties.”

GO: “There is a big difference in farming practices for grass and oats on a Welsh hill farm and in the major wheat, maize, rice and soy producing areas of the world.

“We cannot rely on the farming technologies of 200 years ago to feed nine billion people.

“GM has much more potential than simply addressing the nitrogen problem.

“There are GM solutions being developed for pathogen resistance, drought resistance, salt tolerance – all targeted at preserving our natural resources and reducing the use of pesticides, fungicides and irrigation water.”

PH: “I was disappointed by your somewhat patronising dismissal of my ‘antiquated’ farming practices on my Welsh hill ... given your failure to respond to my substantive points about the relationship between soil fertility and yields, concerns about narrowing of the gene pool and the potential risks to environmental and human health. Your beguiling proposition that GM crops will produce bumper yields from drought-stricken saline soils is a dangerous distraction from the urgent challenges confronting agriculture.”

GO: “For years you have promised that GM crops will lead to ecological catastrophes and human health crises, but there is no case for either.”