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Todhunter's response to Professor Trewavas exposes a prominent fault in the GMO

Cindy Boesel | 04.08.2015 10:52 | Bio-technology | Health

The problem of GMO growth and import is making headlines in British newspapers yet again. Prompted by the publication of an open letter by a pro-GMO researcher, Tony Trewavas, the British public instantly saw a heated response issued by Colin Todhunter, who famously criticised a speech made by a former UK Environment Minister, Owen Paterson, in Pretoria at the beginning of this year. Following the exchange of Trewavas, Todhunter and Paterson, it becomes clear that the debate is still lacking and that the language all parties use to talk about GMO doesn’t allow the public opinion develop proper tools to assess the value or danger of introducing GMOs to any market in the world.

It's clear that the topic of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is still sizzling hot on the British scene. On July 31, Colin Todhunter – an independent writer and former social policy researcher based in the UK and India – responded to an open letter published by Professor Tony Trewavas, a plant scientist from Edinburgh University and an active GMO proponent, which made quite a few headlines recently. Here's the gist of the story.

The original message of Paterson

It all started in February 2015, when The UK Telegraph printed a news piece concerning the activity of a former UK Environment Minister, Owen Paterson, who at that moment planned to accuse the European Union and organizations such as Greenpeace of condemning people in developing countries to death by refusing to accept genetically modified crops.

"I call them the “Green Blob” – a reference to a 1950s Sci-Fi movie starring Steve McQueen in which a blob-like alien attacks earth and swallows everything in its path: the environmental pressure groups, renewable energy companies and some public officials who keep each other well supplied with lavish funds, scare stories and green tape,” he was to say.

The report featured several passages from Paterson's planned attack on anti-GMO attitudes present all across the European environmentalist spectrum, including a note on the controversial genetically modified Gold Rice which Paterson claims could save the lives of 6000 African children every day.

"This is a time of extraordinary opportunity for Africa. Progress in the plant sciences is opening up the promise of a second Green Revolution, one that can not only feed the 9 to 10 billion people that will inhabit our planet in 2050, but feed them well – one that can finally end the shame of the nearly one billion who still go to bed every night hungry and malnourished,” he was to say.

Todhunter's response

Two days later, Todhunter published an article in response to Paterson's criticism of environmentalist organizations and their attitude towards the import and cultivation of GMOs – not only in Europe, but also elsewhere, in this case Africa.

Quoting several criticisms of GMOs made by Viva Kermani or Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, he quoted a Statement signed by 24 delegates from 18 African countries to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization in 1998 opposing the actions of “giant multinational corporations to push a technology that is neither safe, environmentally friendly nor economically beneficial”.

According to Todhunter, Paterson's discourse represents “a history of engaging in the type of emotional blackmail and smearing of critics” typical of the pro-GMO lobby. In his article, Todhunter points to a common feature of the contemporary GMO debate – the problem of poverty and huger, which proponents of GMO claim can be solved with the application of accurate technologies.

Those who oppose GMOs, however, suggest that this is a technique meant to divert the public's attention from the real causes of poverty and hunger – Todhunter never states what they are exactly, instead pointing to a report from The Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN) showing how GM crops don't decrease pesticide use as promised and aren't a means necessary for increasing crop yields. Apparently, we're already producing enough food to feed all humans on the planet.

Even if Todhunter's criticism is partly valid, one report from an organization that can hardly be described as objective doesn’t provide enough support for his claims. And that's when Professor Trewavas came in.

Professor Trewavas's open letter and Todhunter's response

Speaking from the standpoint of a scientist and an academic, Professor Trewavas's main point was that the anti-GMO discourse employed by environmentalist organizations, ranging from Greenpeace to WWF, doesn't include the idea of choice – a selection of alternative options, which are chosen in accordance with local needs of farmers.

At the same time, Professor Trewavas exhibited an unfailing trust in science as an objective enterprise: “Science is by its nature not politics or political propaganda or anything like it. It deals with evidence not superstition, or political or social philosophies. If you have a political programme then please stop trying to justify it by claiming it has scientific support; it does not,” he said.

Todhunter's response, much longer and written in a decidedly less amicable tone, is a perfect example of anti-GMO reasoning in short. What Todhunter believes in is the existence of a large agribusiness lobbying agency dominating over global economy, politics and, unsurprisingly, scientific enterprise.

“There is an authoritarian, political agenda behind the GMO project – not set by some environmental group (as you say) that you like to use as a whipping boy – but by the agribusiness concerns behind GMOs and petro-chemical industrial agriculture,” he said.

And added another part on science: “When peer-reviewed science is provided by critics to support their claims, the onslaught by the GMO agritech industry and its mouthpieces against those who legitimately and scientifically contest the claims about the efficacy of GMOs is relentless”.

What can we learn from this exchange?

There are several aspects of this debate that immediately catch the eye: the problem of social trust, or lack thereof, in science, belief that science works at the service of large corporations, as well as a lack of proper understanding of the local context of the debate – the large and varied continent of Africa.

Paterson's accusations of environmentalist organizations as being opposed to social and technological progress reflect the kind of technological utopianism that is inherent in the discourse of pro-GMO parties. On the other hand, Todhunter's distrust in science and Professor Trewavas's perhaps sightly naïve view of science expose the underlying problem of the debate on GMOs as a scientific practice.

Instead of theorizing about the existence of a global lobbying agency, we should focus of the immediate reality of GMO introduction – talking about its risks and benefits to African nations, the first step to do would be to include their own choice in the matter and incorporate their voices into the debate.

Cindy Boesel
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  1. Some clarifications and points for Cindy Boesel to consider — Colin Todhunter