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Is the green movement part of the problem?

Justin Rowlatt | 18:01 UK time, Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Outside San Francisco, California - It is a modern miracle. There are now over 6 billion people on earth (more than double the number when I was born), yet very few go hungry. In fact, despite the vast increase in population, the world still produces more food than it consumes.


This is in large part a result of the industrial manufacture of nitrogen fertilisers. Since World War II, the increasing use of nitrogen has helped swell crop yields year after year.

But it comes at a price. It takes a vast quantity of energy, and therefore fossil fuels, to fix the nitrogen in modern fertiliser. But the biggest atmospheric impact of nitrogen fertiliser is from nitrous oxide, a by-product of fertiliser manufacture and use and itself a very potent greenhouse gas, 296 times as powerful as carbon dioxide.

In Cool Farming, a report on the climate impacts of agriculture, Greenpeace estimates that the emissions from the production and use of nitrogen fertilisers contribute the equivalent of two and a half billion tons of CO2 to the atmosphere every year.

That is the same amount as the pollution from all the power plants in the US, according to another Greenpeace report.

So you might expect that Greenpeace would welcome a new technology that could dramatically reduce the need for nitrogen fertiliser. Not so.

At a biotech company outside San Francisco I was shown a technology that could do just that. It does not look that impressive. A few rice plants huddled in the back of a growing chamber in a research lab, in a building on what, in Britain, we would call an industrial estate.


But these plants really could be revolutionary. They have been genetically engineered to be dramatically more efficient at using nitrogen than normal plants. What they are designed to do is allow farmers to cut fertiliser use dramatically while maintaining crop yields.

This is no pipe-dream. Arcadia Biosciences, the company which created these plants, says the genetic modification can be used for all the main crop species. Its research suggests crops containing its modified genes require half the fertiliser of normal plants.

Arcadia has licensed the technology to a number of big seed and biotechnology companies, and says crops containing the genetic modification will be on the market within a couple of years.

Developing nitrogen efficient plants to mitigate climate change is something Greenpeace specifically recommends in its Cool Farming report.

"The crop could have a greater water or nutrient use efficiency", the report argues, "increasing the yield at the same input, or enabling a reduction in external inputs, and the associated energy required to supply this input whilst maintaining the same yield".

However, when I discussed this technology with Rolf Skar, a senior Greenpeace campaigner, he said the organisation does not support using genetic engineering to cut carbon.

He said the technology is unproven.

"The history of GMOs [Genetically Modified Organisms] is riddled with unintended consequences and promises that have not been met," he told me.

Greenpeace has drawn up a plan for cutting emissions based on using more traditional renewable technologies, wind, solar, tide and wave power. The problem is that the plan will, as Skar says, require a huge investment of public money and the support of government.

Eric Rey, the founder and CEO of Arcadia, argues that he is an environmentalist too. He is a life-long member of the America's oldest and largest environmental organisation, the Sierra Club, and believes his genetically engineered plants are entirely consistent with his green beliefs.


Indeed, he argues that his technology is truly sustainable in the sense that it does not need any subsidy or political support. He argues that farmers will want to use his plants - and thereby reduce greenhouse gas emissions - not because they want to save the planet but out of their own self-interest.

Nitrogen fertiliser is a major expense for farmers, sometimes their main outlay. Because these new plants require less fertiliser for the same yield they will save farmers money.

Genetic engineering is a life-altering technology. It goes without saying that no genetically modified organisms should be used that pose a significant risk to health or to the environment but, I asked Skar, given the potential catastrophe of climate change, surely it is prudent to explore any technology that could cut emissions?

He told me no.

"Could be is not good enough for me", he said, "I want to know that it is actually going to work."

Is he right?


  • Comment number 1.

    No, he's wrong. Arguing that GM is unproven is fatuous. If this plant can be shown to do what it claims without side effects, then this particular GM technology is proven.

    There's a general tendency to panic about genetic modification - I wonder whether it can be traced back to fictional depictions of genetic change. Do we imagine that the plant's engineered mutation will turn it into Sylar?

  • Comment number 2.

    I think it is telling that the CEO of Arcadia has details of why his technology would work, and the Greenpeace activist has only scary adjectives, not an informed response. I think it is clear that GMO/transgenic technologies can and are currently helping to reduce the impact of agriculture (think reduction in pesticide used on Bt cotton as example) and a knee jerk negativity gets us nowhere.
    A more interesting question is this: if the technology is self sustaining (ie can pay for itself) then are there sectors of the world who will not afford it? Perhaps these are the same groups who could not afford fertilizer anyway, and its a moot point! But this is why public funding of agriculture work must continue to grow, to provide tools for those who are left out of technology advances.

  • Comment number 3.

    The fight against genetic engineering is fuelled by unsubstantiated arguments akin to superstition. Mankind has developped new crops and influenced the evolution of species since the early days of agriculture and animal taming, several thousand years ago. New capabilities in the lab extend the process, only in a more focused way and faster.
    Given an appropriate set of precautionnary measures, all available solutions will be welcome to face the (untested) challenge of accomodating ten billions humans on this small planet.

  • Comment number 4.

    Producing nitrogen efficient rice might be good to mitigate climate change consequences,however manufacturing Genetic engineering crop can create the monopoly of big corporations on agriculture. Owning the patent of life form can devastate the lives of millions of small farmers in long run. One needs to remember that majority of farmers in this world are dependent on small size farms . Genetic modified crops will only bring brutal market forces and corporate greed in lives of majority of farmers in developing countries.
    I think we do have other better way to mitigate the consequences of climate change than changing current form of agriculture. In long run renewable energy based farming and sustainable organic agriculture can bring benefit to the world.We need to frame the discourse on genetic engineering differently than bringing the unknown and unproven benefits of technology promoted by few rich farmers and biotech firms.

  • Comment number 5.

    It's all too easy to paint genetic engineering as some sort of miracle worker to reduce hunger/poverty/green house gas/etc. That was the promise of GM crops decades ago and none has been delivered.

    Instead, big corporations like Monsanto has essentially privatized the advances we have made in improving crops, where only those with the resources (companies that do factory farming, big monocultures, those lucky few family farms in the developed world that haven't died out) can afford the patent-riddled seeds.

    Unless Mr. Rey gives out his companies seeds to poor farmers freely and with patent indemnification, I would remain sceptical.

  • Comment number 6.

    I'd like to hear a Greenpeace activist explain to a poor farmer that he can't have plants that need less fertiliser to grow. The population is increasing. If we don't grow higher-yielding crops we either have to plough up more land or people have to starve. Any volunteers from Greenpeace to stop eating?

  • Comment number 7.

    Of course Mr. Skar is wrong. (But then, he's a member of Greenpeace, so I'm not really surprsied.) I've never understood what the anti-GM crowd have been so afraid of. This technology only helps, well... everyone. Scientists, it seems to me, don't seem to be against GM foods. In fact, it's the scientific community that has been responsible for developing this stuff. The resistance comes mainly from activists who in many cases don't understand the science. This makes them no different from religious fundamentalists who refuse to accept evolution.

  • Comment number 8.

    Right, So we come up with an elegant solution to the the issue of chemical nitrogen fertilizer. And, we come up with elegant solutions to deal with our urine and feces. Perhaps if we found a safe way to return our humanure back to the soil then a cycle would be closed and we would not need to be toying with the unknowns of genetic modification.

  • Comment number 9.

    I am a farmer from Yorkshire. Quote "fertiliser is a major expense for farmers, sometimes their main outlay. Because these new plants require less fertiliser for the same yield they will save farmers money". I spent £70,000 on fertilizer last year, so lets say that this GM plant saved me 10% of my fertilizer costs, that is £7,000, so the GM company is going to let me walk away with an extra £7,000 every year?? sorry but I live in the real world, they will see my saving and push up the price of there seed and I will be back to same margins as before. On the environment side of things I hope it works, but lets not pretend they are going to save me money...

  • Comment number 10.

    kfishy: I agree that the benefits haven't really been proven yet but there are indeed some success stories, some plants are now indeed more drought resistant

  • Comment number 11.

    'There are now over 6 billion people on earth (more than double the number when I was born), yet very few go hungry.' Justin Rowlatt

    Tell that to the families of the 25000 or so who die each day through hunger or hunger related causes.

  • Comment number 12.

    Justin should be ashamed of falling for the hype. Just look at the language: "This isn't just a pipe dream", "This is a life altering technology". So many of these silver bullet projects are "just a couple of years away" (the kind of time period that keeps the investors interested) but compare all the promises to actual delivery. After more than 25 years of research and over 12 years of comercialisation, what have we got? The vast majority of GM crops (80%) are for herbicide resistance, so farmers can pour the company's proprietary weedkillers all over the crop grown with the company's proprietary seed. Nearly all the rest have just one other trait engineered in - a built in pesticide (Bt). Although Time magazine had golden rice on its cover saving a million kids a year from blindness in 2000, nearly a decade later, it still hasn't happened. The next most hyped project is the virus resistant sweet potato for Africa - Dr Florence Wambugu was declared one of the great pathfinders of the 21st century by Forbes magazine for that project. But when the multi-year trial results finally came out, it became clear that the project had gone belly up. Then there was Red Detect, the GM plants that were going to change colour and so detect landmines safely. Despite all the column inches, at the end of last year the company finally admitted it was throwing in the towel and going into real estate as a safer investment! Such failures barely get any coverage. Just as neglected are the non-GM projects that are delivering - often many of the things it's claimed only GM can deliver, but where's the coverage of that? They are less hyped, being less tied in to patents and profits, and churnalists like Justin are too busy gee-whizzing over Arcadia-type spin to go find them.

  • Comment number 13.

    Once the seeds to this great plant are sold the ownership must pass to the person that is growing the plant so that they can save part of the crop for the next year just as farmers have done for thousands of years. No ownership by giant companies such as the Monsanto corporation. Companies have sued farmers for saving seed corn and planting it for the next year. There is also the problem of cross pollination via wind to a farmers seed. These problems must be solved before we allow genetically engineered seed into the world.

  • Comment number 14.

    #9 -- Suppose your the GM company in your hypothetical prices its seeds so it costs you 3500. You would save (read, make) 3500, the GM company would make 3500, and the nitrogen-efficient plants will help alleviate climate change. Why can't you envision a scenario where everyone wins? Are you so cynical that you can't imagine that possibility? Or is it that you just fundamentally dislike captialism and, therefore, assume that anything a corporation does will necessarily harm you?

  • Comment number 15.

    Make a plant a more efficient user of nitrogen is, more or less by definition, an evolutionary advantage. In short, these plants are far more competitive than their neighbors in that one respect.

    One can see two or three possible consequences: first, the plants overrun their habitats like kudzu, second, other plant species figure out how to 'borrow' this particular gene pattern (this goes on all the time with bacteria), and third, the far more efficient plant becomes a prime target for species up the food chain. What makes it a more advantageous plant for us may apply as well to gophers, geese, and goldfish.

    One would have to ask, rhetorically, 'Had these particular adaptations ever occurred before, and if so, when and where?' And if they did and they no longer exist, why?

    We might discover that this more efficient biomass soaks up the excess CO2, only to wake up every morning to a foot thick lawn.

    Over time, of course, all this returns to equilibrium. Of course, the human species may no longer exist after that equilibrium is restored.

  • Comment number 16.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 17.

    Hi Noliving,

    I agree with you about the scientific advances we have made in improving food crops (for drought resistance, etc.)

    The point I was trying to make is when those advances are, as they are now, privatized in the hands of a few mega-agricorps, those who really need such improvements ie. developing countries having trouble feeding their population, would not benefit.

    I'm a firm believer in science and its ability to bring improvement and progress to humanity; at the same time, an increasing number of people are being left out of the advances because of intellectual property laws and the monopolistic holds that big corporations have on such technologies.

    It almost makes it rhetorical to say that advances in science would benefit the poor and the disenfranchised in the world.

  • Comment number 18.

    Let me start off by saying that I am an engineer and that I work in the life sciences field, thus I have particular predispositions to a wide range of topics, including GM crops. Like everyone else here, I need to keep a roof over my head, food on my table, and keep the lights on for part of the evening. All of this takes money, which I earn from a corporation. If I work at a big, evil bio-tech company developing a GM crop, and the process takes 4-7 years to develop a seed, test it for efficacy, safety, and environmental impact, and convince the relevant regulatory bodies that our claims are valid.
    Having dealt with the FDA approval process, I can tell you that this is not a matter for lobbyists in suits, but rather lots of scientists and engineers meticulously documenting everything that they have done to arrive at their conclusions. I would like to add that this process is wholly different from high school chemistry, where one might fudge the data, or somehow alter the results to falsely present a more favorable outcome; someone, or several someones, is about to read every word that was written -- and question it. Why do regulatory agencies do this? because they are protecting the public -- it is their job and they take it very seriously. This process is long, and expensive, and my big evil corporation is footing the bill.
    Now some years down the line every pertinent regulatory agency has been convinced that the evil corporation's seed is safe for consumption, use, and lives up to its claims. The big evil corporation can sell their GM crop seeds. Yes, they will be expensive, because there was a big paragraph above this one attempting to summarize an expensive process that still needs to be paid for. I need to get paid for every year I work on a project, and the only reason I get paid to work on something that won't be sold for years is because the potential for profit resulting from that project is enough to pay my wages back and then some to my employer.
    This is the free market.

  • Comment number 19.

    Hi bubbathegoat, thanks for the insightful post. I am fine with companies making a profit from their investment and research, which then allows people like you to make a living. My problem is when the PR departments of those same companies try to convince everyone that in fact, their goal in developing those products is to save the world, eliminate poverty, cure all diseases, and so on.

    If they make it clear, as you did, that they're motivated primarily by profit and self-interest, I would at least acknowledge their honesty. But I fail to see how expensive patent-protected GM products would help the world in the way those companies described. So I find it reasonable to critique them, just as I would for others with such suspicious claims.

    Incidentally, much of the expensive R&D that you described are funded publicly by governments or quasi-governmental entities (NIH, USAID, direct subsidies, etc).

  • Comment number 20.

    In the year 1900, were you to ask the average person what Chemical Pollution looked like, they would not have any concept. By the year 1999 if you were to ask the average person what Chemical Pollution looked like, they would cite Oil Spills off the coasts of Alaska that took a decade to clean up, Poor Air Quality in most major cities, Factory wastes dumped into rivers and streams, acid rain, and so on.

    If you were to ask someone in the year 2000 what Biological Pollution looked like, they would not have any concept....

  • Comment number 21.

    I believe that reducing the need for nitrogen fertilizer by genetically modifying crops to be more efficient at using nitrogen is very important. Not only will it reduce CO2 emitions, but it will reduce the size of the Dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico of the coast of Louisiana. All that extra fertilizer from the Great Plains eventually ends up in the Mississippi River and causes a severe algae bloom every summer; when the bloom dies it removes oxygen from the water creating dead zones that kill any slow moving or small animals that cannot escape it, hurting the fishing and shrimping industry, among others. Last year’s dead zone off the coast of Louisiana southwest of the mouth of the Mississippi River was the size of the State of New Jersey.

  • Comment number 22.

    Humans are doing all these GM stuff artificially in the last 2 decades and did so naturally for the past say 5000 years by natural methods (plant breeding). Already our rapacity has led to wiping out thousands of known species of organisms, and many more unknown ones. To believe that nature was incapable of doing these in the past 3.5 bn years of evolution is fool-hardy and speaks volumes about our total lack of philosophical understanding of Nature.

    I agree with folks above who say that the long-term repercussions of GM crops are unknown (remember long term on a real scale, not on the GM Company's scale, which may equal just 15 years). Also most of the GM stuff tried out do fail to reach fruition. So spending humongous amounts of public money (yeah the money's public, no entrepreneur is born with wads-out-of-the-womb) is not worth it ... better spend it on more tested methods like crop rotation, mixed cropping, rain-water harvesting and drip irrigation techniques, and they are mostly reversible. GM crops doing well in the green-house is one thing, their performance in the fields out there is fraught with unknown pitfalls, you don't have as many competitive species in the greenhouses ...

    Lastly, but definitely not the least is the author's total hubris:
    "There are now over 6 billion people on earth ... yet very few go hungry" ... who is he kidding ??? There are 6-800million in each of Africa, India and China who are malnourished by "western standards". Does Mr Rowlatt really think that if the whole world consumes food and energy as the average Westerner does there will be enough for all ? Or is his worldview so parochial as to ignore the bottom 40% of the world.
    This is to my mind pretty shameless journalism, if you can at all call it that .. or is he doing some profitable PR for the GM companies ?

  • Comment number 23.

    Haven't we been here before, with the whole Green Revolution? The problem is you have technologists who focus on producing cool new stuff that works in the lab, but then gets licenced to seed manufacturers and biotech companies. The Monsantos of this world then tie farmers into buying their expensive, sterile seed. Those that don't buy in get hounded - eventually they'll be sued because inevitably GM crops spread and a lone plant will be found in a non-GM field and the farmer will be breaking 'copyright'.
    Great technology, but this model whereby nature is privatised and monopolised and we end up with vast uniform monocultures just isn't clever.

  • Comment number 24.

    Between the author's original post, and the comments that have followed in the thread, I'd like to thank all involved for a... sadly rare... instance where a difficult subject has been outlined in a balanced way and debated in a civilised manner. Sadly, no clear answers as yet, but my level of knowledge is enhanced.

    It is often worth remembering that not all that is green can be viewed in black and white.

  • Comment number 25.

    Have to respond to bubbathegoat's claims about the meticulous regulatory processes of the FDA etc. The FDA are of course responsible amongst much else for the Vioxx debacle, only exposed by the courageous FDA whistle-blower David Graham. But when it comes to GM crops their pharma regulation looks magnificent.

    US regulators rely almost exclusively on information provided by the GM crop developer, and those data are not published in journals or subjected to peer review. The companies may put their dossiers together with great care but bacause of the lack of independent testing, as long as they do it's essentially a rubber-stamp "approval process" designed to reassure the public, not ensure the safety of GM foods.

    The system was put in place back in 1992 - it hasn't changed since, and guess what? It was designed with the help of Monsanto. A Monsanto lawyer actually moved between the company and the FDA, and then back again, to head up the process. There was a lot of unhappiness amongst FDA scientists over what occurred and the risks that weren't going to be investigated, as papers released as a result of a law suit exposed. It was essentially a political decision - not a scientific one.

    The European Food Safety Authority is little better, again relying on dossiers prepared by the companies who want to market the products. To quote Prof Patrick Wall, until 2008 the Chairman of the EFSA, "Obviously, the companies would present data that are more favourably disposed to their varieties and products. We have in the scientific literature a thing called publication bias - that literature with positive findings is more likely to be published than issues with negative findings... We probably need much more publicly-funded research." On top of that, most of the regulators appointed are known to be GM sympathetic - something else Prof Wall's admitted.

  • Comment number 26.

    So....25% of the population use 75% of the resources, but the answer is GMOs; which either means non-sterile GMOs being released into the biosphere, or sterile GMOs that farmers have to get the next crop of seed from the biocorp for....

    The answer couldnt be anything like not being as greedy? Noooo, far too simple and it doesnt make enough profit

  • Comment number 27.

    Of course there is a danger of companies abusing their position but farmers have the choice of using non-patent owned crops. And also patents generally only last 20 years so it's not like famrers need to be tied into buying from a particular company for eternity. Could not patents for the best crops be bought by the UN or the WFO and made "public domain"? It's not beyond the wit of governments to come up with such a system. Indeed they're doing something similar with patented AIDS drugs.

  • Comment number 28.

    It strikes me that the only reason risky techno-fixes like GM high-nitrogen uptake crops are even suggested is that many people these days know little or nothing about the natural and organic ways of growing things in the absence of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. Have a look at Badgley's Univ of Michigan research (2007), which calculated the potential nitrogen production by leguminous plants via intercropping and off-season cropping (common organic practices) to be 154 million tonnes, a potential which exceeds the nitrogen production from fossil fuel by far and which is not fully exploited by conventional farming techniques. Organic ag is self-sufficient in nitrogen.

  • Comment number 29.

    I completely agree with RayZablackflag. Someone on this planet dies every five seconds from hunger related causes. Sure, there is an abundance of food, but that doesn't mean all the 6 billion people on the planet actually have access to it. That mistake alone lost him all his credibility.

  • Comment number 30.

    The reason that bees in the USA are dying is because of GM foods. Bees are not getting enough nutrients and also GM crops are damaging bees digestive areas. The lack of nutrients the bees are receiving is making them prone to disease. I sure it will be profitable for GM companies to be the only ones who can grow most crops in the USA when all of the bees are done.

  • Comment number 31.

    If GM crops are killing bees, it is the Bt in them, not the GM.

    It would be nice to know that all GM crops are properly tested so we do not release a monster. The FDA approval process might not be adequate.

    Finding a way to stop sewage from being dumped into rivers and seas, would clean up more waterways than anything, so I am all for humaure. As long as we have a fool-proof method of keeping toxic compounds like, paint, cleaners, and brake-fluid from being flushed.

    If crops modified to fix more nitrogen, are safe and the most cost effective way of scaling up organic practices to meet the needs of large agri-biz, then I have no objections.

  • Comment number 32.

    Giving up the routines of past lives for bad diets and a rushed, convenience-based existence presumably skews our perspectives as to what is "right". Without respect for the alternatives to these alternatives, it is once again all about the best option, and not about the broad canvas of grass roots cultivation. Industrialized agriculture scorns small local organic until the trends begin to show change, claims to be the only food option until biofuel incomes alter their focus, shrug off degradation caused until production costs exceed the 'income' from free market prices enabled by subsidies, and deny the monopoly and "terminator gene" reputation despite their bond to fossil fuel industries.

    Using less fuel, water and ceasing addiction to supplementary chemicals all have merit. So do the healthy exercises of greenhouses and gardens attached to homes and villages, city gardens and allotments, living roofs and composting, exercise and heirloom variety foods, activity based travel and experience based education, and small, local farming and growing efforts which set standards for quality and prices where they should be so that understanding food and that we are what is available to eat helps been the Amazonian Rainforest beef patties with the nutrition-free lettuce, hormone packed cheese irradiated pickle food mile onion on a gmo seeded chlorine bleached flour bread product . . plus the adjectively spun sauce of course.

    The alternatives to these alternatives are also plagued with problems - quite literally - through history but as a human activity and in addition to contributing to our ingested diets bring appreciation on many levels and benefits in many ways to our lives, although the real estate phrase 'low maintenance' is a big seller in many cases - but sharing the produce from part of your garden that someone else wants to work, whether family or friend, does not mean that we sacrifice ourselves to socialism, rather, that we reconsider our fortunes in ways that utilize existing resources and adjust our isolationism, perhaps reduce our anti-socialism and gain fresh produce and somewhere to compost in stead.

    Gardening does take time to get going, and effort, and time and effort to keep going. But unless it is the hopping in the car, driving to the gym, sweat, treat and drive back which constitutes our balanced diet, the garden will provide the exercise, incremental change, privacy and social interaction (plus the produce to consume, store and occasionally barter for fish and eggs perhaps) without the travel, the annual fee and the instant gratification admittedly, until this dependency is cured by the green shoots of progress and the evident responsiveness to careful cultivation. Kids like it too.

    The "Big Fix" is ever prevalent and always gets into the news, especially as we exacerbate the crisis, while all the smaller way-of-life do-ables which have got us through the centuries seem to lack the glamour. Except to those who help to solve their problems by doing them. As Greenpeace tend to draw on premier scientific and economic resources, we would do well to remain alert to such resources which are attempting to invest in the quantification of each "Big Fix" claim, while encouraging our own education and applied experience for our offspring through practical active enablers such as via

    So fine, keep trying for the big wins but realistically the sum of many smaller efforts connects with what people can do and gain benefit from within the realms of their imagination and communities. And eat a dish of sliced, heirloom tomatoes for a taste of a change. Ever since being gifted a large, cotton wool turbot grown three times natures pace in the waste hot water from a UK nuclear power station needing to be left in the shed for three days to gain some flavour as the next "Big Fix" the impression that something inorganic has got into some people's judgement systems has been hard to shake.

  • Comment number 33.

    'There are now over 6 billion people on earth (more than double the number when I was born), yet very few go hungry' - (quote) - Ethical Man

    Sorry to read this, not good. Check your facts with Oxfam and others Ethical Man; this has to be your worst moment. There are allegedly around eight hundred million obese people, and also around eight hundred million people slowly starving to death on this small planet, as at 2009. Ponder over 'slowly starving to death'.

  • Comment number 34.

    When people hear the word "genetically modified" they picture in their minds mutants and science fiction monsters.

    What we need is more people to be educated on the realities of what GM foods actually are, so that they don't jump to the conclusion that secret government agencies are growing man-eating runner beans, or exploding carrots.

    I've no problem eating GM foods, so long as they have been properly trialed and tested first, just as I've no problems taking a drug that has been through the proper testing process before being sold to the general public.

  • Comment number 35.

    ***It is a modern miracle. There are now over 6 billion people on earth (more than double the number when I was born), yet very few go hungry.***


    Here, let me help you out a bit:

    Unless a billion people are presently defined as "very few," I think that you may be a tad bit off on your statement. But, then again... a billion people could be wrong!


  • Comment number 36.

    Getting back on track about speculative and known issues and what we think we can depend on, please refer to page fifteen of the current edition of The National Trust Magazine which can be found and read in digital form via a Google search. The guest columnist is Patrick Holden who is Director of the Soil Association which is based in Bristol, UK. That is his day job. In addition, though, he has had a small, mixed organic dairy farm in West Wales producing milk, cheese and carrots for more than thirty years.

    Mr. Holden had already achieved a significant reduction in emissions as well as farming organically for so long. Presumably drawing on experience and in the pragmatic preemptive spirit of avoiding complacency and potential risk, he asked himself how long his farm could keep going in the event of a major disruption to the supply of fossil fuels. In less than a page and in a quiet, credible tone he reports clearly, and thereby gives us the perspective in the context of the vital activity of a viable farming practice, which presents us with the sober path, in contrast to the certainly questionable and very possibly incredible "Big Fixes" - and that whatever the quests for the "Big Fixes" are, there remains the massive proven need for grounded, well worked out small scale natural farming and gardening, along with the willing sharing of knowledge.

    Such quietly stated, factual reporting is the invaluable resource available from people everywhere, to shorten our journey without the cutting of non-existant corners, people who have tackled the problems and also formulated their solutions by 'doing it' - and this is the realm of exceptional practicality to be found in this amazing land of settlers which, thus far, Ethical Man has mostly not managed to encounter or report on.

    Ethical Man's 'Hunting of The Jackalope' did achieve his second largest number of response 'comments' though, just a bit of fun, chosen instead of gathering the macro picture relating to his quest at the Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado, and awareness of the number of real people 'solving it by doing it' accessible through HomePower Magazine (near where he is presently located in Sand Francisco) in Ashland, Oregon.

    So it's not too late, just getting late, for this visit unless it gets extended. Probably better though to use the remaining time wisely and then get back to Britain and then in touch with the people there and here who can refine the purpose of his next trip around the non-monopoly, non-patented, and existing knowledge based efforts and technologies here which many people here could apply and, crucially, so could others elsewhere.

  • Comment number 37.

    Is the green movement part of the problem? Well yes...I think the alarmist response to whether GM is safe or not is looking at the problem completely the wrong way. The real issue is that genetically modifying seed allows corporations to patent the seeds, which I believe they weren't able to do beforehand...I don't think you can patent nature...but genetically modify it and patent away...

    If people can't see the danger in having our food supply patented by large corporations such as Monsanto (the inventors of the "terminator" seed), then I feel we can't see the forest for the trees.

  • Comment number 38.

    Genetically modified plants undergo extensive testing to ensure that there are no deleterious effects, to the extent that is humanly possible. Because we can never have perfect knowledge life is a trade-off between benefits and risks.

    On the one hand we have the risk posed by nitrates in the water which have accumulated to the extent that we were told not to feed our newborn children with formula made from well water in rural areas because of nitrate contamination of the groundwater. On the other hand we have the benefits of being able to feed more of the world's population.

    If biotechnology offers the opportunity to reduce nitrate use by one half there is a very significant benefit with minimal risk, assuming that the requisite tests have been done and the hurdles set have been met. It would be inexcusable not to pursue such a technology.

  • Comment number 39.

    Thanks mnpoor. I was going blind reading all the comments. Glad you finally brought it with looking centuries in the future. There's really no telling what the consequences will be of GM good intentions. It seems there are some real personal and studied accounts here of GM hopes ultimately being dashed. I agree with the one who wants to imagine a good outcome, however, as a landscaper I feel a personal responsibility not to plant an invasive species. I also realize that a planted tree in New Mexico must be done so with a century of forethought.
    I know that all plant health starts and ends with soil.

    And Star Trekker, there is little to say beyond that. The forbidden fruit has been tasted. What do we do with this knowledge? It cannot be abandoned for the irresponsible and impulsively well-intentioned to market for financial nor egotistic profit. My first reaction to Eric Rey's conviction was just this: good intentions paving the road to hell...Sorry, too dramatic. I more saw it as reactionary without good consideration of consequences. Perhaps some more discovery into Mr. Rey's future studies should be imposed. Each cynic's concerns should be addressed and placed to rest by way of past examples and parallel, contemporary, experiments.

  • Comment number 40.

    Ooops! Linkus2009 beat me to some of the things I just said. However, I still hafta give props to Ethical man and his discoveries. As I write to you from the land of the Jackalope (here for over 10 yrs) I commend him for taking on the people of my home town of Muskegon, MI. I cut my teeth there till age 24 and can't express how far away it is from California. These people are famous for cutting off their own noses. They are my family and friends and I will never deny what I have learned by growing up there, but when it comes to a real world view, I would be surprised if a lot of them know what BBC means. Kudos for taking on the real people of the world, Justin.

  • Comment number 41.

    But I guess the problem here is that the likes of Monsanto would then padlock the 'intellectual property' of these plants.

    This is like the debate about the human genome and 'DNA sequence patenting' and all the problems when corporations try to maximise profit.

    It is like the question of 'basmati rice' in India, and the poor people having to pay more for seeds. And the coffee farmers and 'intellectual property rights' in their deal with Starbucks..

    The problem with so much of this is that it relies on 'corporations' doing the 'right thing', whereas some control and regulation is required as they can only ever be in it for a 'short-term profit'.

    A way needs to be found of harnessing technology safely without the short cuts which corporations would inevitably take. Nowhere is this more important than for nuclear power technology.

  • Comment number 42.

    He is right - implementing a technology with unknown outcomes on this kind of scale could be catastrophic.

    Historically, we have had nature to rely on; we trust nature and if it all goes wrong, we blame nature. Natural events, acts of God, Mother Nature in action, are all phrases that have been used when things go wrong outside of our control

    It is, however, human nature to want to take control. We are arrogant, and plough on thinking that we are better than nature. In some ways, it could be argued, that we have bettered the natural selection of some species - dogs, horses, pigeons - bred for particular attributes. There have been some failures too, in those specific fields; failures that only become apparent as either time goes by, or attitudes change. Dogs that develop eye-sight problems or arthritic complaints due to human interference, for instance.

    The other side of this arguement is that we have already gone too far down the road of taking control. Man interferes on a grand scale each and every day from pest control, bird control, domestic animal 'neutering', and then fertilisers and chemical animal feeds, recycled animal feeds and genetically modified crops.

    On balance, I feel we've gone beyond the point of no return, and so while I agree that we shouldn't implement any crop technologies without fully understanding the knock-on effect and possible repercussions of such action, we are at a point now where we have to trust in our own technology.

    We cannot pick and choose which technologies 'man' pokes his fingers into. Every action has a reaction, and it's not always equal and opposite. We have to be all, or nothing. Since we're already on board, we need to take the reins totally.


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