Pro-GM Minister needs to see the bigger picture say Environmental proffessionals

GM.A letter to media editors on behalf of the 20,000+ members of the Environmental Policy Forum [EPF]raises concerns in regard to the UK Minister of State Owen Patterson’s apparently uncritical public support for Genetically Modified Food [GM]. Following in the wake of a number of high profile cases of access and lobbying from interest groups the letter calls into question the minister’s vision and awareness of the wider context improving future food security.

I raised in my blog of 21.03.13 the disquiet among environmental observers of the UK on the Government’s short term goals for economic growth and their potential consequences for long term environment management. The same concerns have emerged again twice in the past week, firstly over what appears to be an unseemly race to embrace fracking for shale gas and now in the context of the GM.

The EPF letter, endorsed by the Chartered Institute of Ecologists and Ecological Managers, calls for a debate on  GM in the context of the wider issues and opportunities such as; addressing the huge food wastage in the current supply chain; addressing human dietary issues including obesity; and managing population growth; where there would be in all cases clear direct benefits of improvement and less ‘downside risk’.

While the letter doesn’t oppose GM in principal it does highlight the results to date of  its development being driven by vested agro-industrial interests which have focused their efforts fairly narrowly; primarily on introducing genes for biocide-resistant traits. This is not without risk; there is for example growing evidence pointing to the potential of actually selecting for resistance in precisely the pest and weed species that the technology is designed to control – in a way which is analogous to the emergence of antibiotic resistance under poorly prescribed human medical practice. The letter points to related concerns of the risks of over-spraying of  chemicals with the consequential risk of harm  to the natural environment, in particular soil, water and invertebrate biodiversity.

A primary argument for GM is around simple efficiency within a mechanised production system – hence its attraction to the agro-chemical industry. However, nature is complicated and natural systems are evolutionary and ecologically adaptive. There are a multitude of  ‘chaotic. non-linear’ interactions where natural systems could bite-back on what in biological terms is a very simple piece of genetic snipping – something which has happened throughout evolutionary history aided by the lateral gene transmission capabilities of viruses, bacteria, and prions. This raises the question of the long-term robustness of GM solutions where we need to see serious, long-term studies applied.

However, there is also perhaps a more immediate and significant question about the general direction of this agricultural approach and the need for bio-diverse and environmentally sensitive solutions aimed at delivering and maintaining the whole range of natural environmental services upon which we rely. While we do need to improve food security, and part of this may need to be through increased production, there are sound assessments that conclude that proper management of existing land under cultivation,  alongside better supply chain management and equitable distribution can feed the projected 9 billion people on the planet by 2050 without needing to put more land into production. What we do know is that food security at the expense of water security, proper soil management, collapsing pollination services and so on is a false goal.  GM is part of an agro-intensification approach based on the argument that by containing the production space then we protect nature by leaving it untouched elsewhere – this is the land sparing argument. There is the alternative land-sharing argument; that we can create agro-ecosystems built on sounder ecological principals in order to deliver multiple services and environmental outcomes. While this may have a consequence of lower production yields, there are great compensatory benefits in maintaining more environmental services and resilience to change alongside incorporating space for nature within these systems.

There are big questions here, intensification systems are usually very mechanical technology dependent, usually employ fewer people, need high levels of fuel, fertilizer and bio-cide input and result in larger emissions of green house gases and effluents in leachate. What needs to be scrutinized in this argument are these ‘boundary effects’ – how do intensive systems affect the ecosystems around them? The EPF letter refers to water contamination for example, but this is only one aspect of the issue. There is a recognised need within the England White Paper on Environment for wider landscape level ecosystem integrity including healthy ecological networks and better managing  supporting ecosystem services. The evidence points towards the boundary affects of intensification systems being more significant than previously supposed and this is likely to be particularly so for GM.

The Land-sharing agro-ecological approach is often (but not always) typified by multiple outcomes; often with  inter-cropping and rotational cropping of several crops such as corn, beans (for nitrate fixation)  and squash, which provide supportive synergistic micro-climates and conditions for growth. Similarly coffee grown in agro-forest systems can improve coffee quality and protect nature. These systems can maintain soil fertility, reduce inputs of water, nutrients and pesticides and be more ‘wild-life’ friendly. However they can be more difficult to cultivate and harvest and often need higher labour input (so can increase rural employment but at a low wage and/or increased cost). Land sparing methods are being considerably emphasised in the developing world where family farming and economic models around local communities are being supported, and there is increased suspicion of the influence of multinational agro-businesses.

There is no simple right or wrong option encapsulated in the ‘Land sharing v. Land sparing’ debate. In areas of low ecological sensitivity there may well be a good case for intensification as much as there is a case for land sharing approaches at the boundaries of sensitive ecological systems.  However there is another anomaly which is more difficult to discern in the Minister’s apparent keenness to embrace GM. The Defra is not just responsible for food production; it is responsible for the wider environment including forestry. In the case of its advice on future forestry the department had recognised significant future environmental uncertainties and its advice to foresters is to diversify to avoid risk. It particularly supports investment into temperate broad-leaf and to ‘hedge bets’ by planting a wide range of species to cover a variety of potential climatic futures and to reduce the potential impact of new diseases and pests. Maybe this is more apparent as a way forward where the longer-term life cycle of forestry systems where trees may be harvested over anything from 30 and 130 years. Surely the same risks apply to agriculture where we need to ensure productive systems for the decades and generations to come. Investing in large-scale mono-culture GM is precisely the opposite; more akin to putting eggs into one basket. There is no reason to suppose that GM crops will cope well with uncertain change, they are selected for specific conditions. Given the level of inputs they are likely to be vulnerable to the economic and resource circumstances which many experts forecast – such as the declining in availability of  PK fertilizers over the medium term, and therefor increasing cost of production. Secondly even if fracking supplies fuel for another couple of decades this approach still leaves us depending on a highly vulnerable if we are not investing in approaches that build ecological resilience. It would seem that at a minimum Defra should be encouraging a greater diversity of approaches; food security, as with other environmental questions needs to be addressed on many fronts.

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