New Green Party leader on GM and Rothamsted

Robert Wilson and Mark Lynas picked up on a Pod Delusion interview with the new leader of the Green Party, Natalie Bennett. James O'Malley spoke to her about GM and the Rothamsted trial (that me and Sue responded to at the time with this open letter). Natalie’s response is troubling, for reasons I’ll discuss below – and not just her position on GM. Many of the usual tropes appear (some of which me and Sue targetted in the open letter), especially regarding corporate control. I’ve transcribed the key bits here with the time location for the mp3. Discussion after the transciption. She notes to start with that:

The Green Party doesn't whip. We allow divergent views and if something does come up I don't agree on, I just need to say, my personal view is that but the party line is that and the party has no problem with it.

But of course, she’s the leader of the party now and so her views on this stuff do matter – not least for my own choice at the ballot box. I’ve voted for the Greens in the past, but with recent events over Rothamsted? This interview as it stands, I think, rules me out of voting for them again – though there’s `dialogue’ mentioned, perhaps that could change. Somehow I doubt that, but we’ll see.

Anyway – James gets straight into the Take the Flour Back protest. Natalie’s first thoughts (14'):

My first degree is agricultural science, so that's where I come to from this. I think that GM crops and the release of GM crops into the environment is the wrong way to go because the fact is GM crops as currently instituted represent a further expansion of industrial agriculture, enormous scale corporate agriculture that's just utterly the wrong direction to be going in, in terms of the future of farming that we need.

I have a particular obsession with soils, and we're utterly trashing the planet's soils. Soils are absolutely critical and essential and we barely understand what's going on with them. We can't replace them easily, and huge industrial scale agriculture that's just ploughing across the landscape in huge fields that relies on a very small handful of seed companies who don't allow farmers to save their own seeds - it's entirely the wrong model of agriculture. So GM for me is tied up with an entirely wrong model of agriculture and is entirely the wrong way to go. // And there are safety concerns in terms of the risk factors - what you could be releasing without really understanding what you're doing.

Asked about the Rothamsted trial in specific (15'30''), James points out that you can oppose corporate control of the food system and support GM. Natalie skipped straight past that:

The nature of that experiment was, you were letting loose something into the environment. There'd been experiments in greenhouses that no-one had a problem with, but it's a genie that once you let it out of the bottle, it's out there. I know the scientists were claiming there was a very very tiny chance of cross-contamination, but actually there were some other figures produced from different peer-reviewed papers published in journals that said the figures were a considerable order of magnitude higher than they were saying. And there simply wasn't the evidence that this was necessary or pointing us in a direction that was useful.

Asked the specific question (16'15''): "would you align yourself with Take the Flour Back? If they had succeeded in smashing the experiment up, do you think they were doing the right thing?"


Nice and clear. James also read out an email question from ‘a Rothamsted scientist’ specifically for her (16'25''):

Agriculture uses land, energy and other natural resources. With increasing demand for food and other agricultural products, its environmental impact will increase. To avoid this, improved crops that give better yield using fewer resources like pesticides, fertiliser and water can help. How can the Greens and GM science folks find a way to dialogue so that a case-by-case applications of GM could be evaluated for environmental benefits?

Natalie's answer:

I'd certainly be very happy to talk to them and I think I've got the foundation so that we can talk the same language, and I'm always happy to talk to scientists and people of good will who are coming from a place where they want to solve the sort of problems he's talking about. What I'd say is, plant breeding is terribly important, but there's also issues of the way you manage the land, the way you ensure you haven't got soil erosion - huge numbers of issues that simply aren't being tackled. And that focus simply on plant breeding comes from a very strong commercial focus.

So. The first thing that leapt out at me was her getting straight in there with her scientific credentials: coming at from an agri science background, she claims to be not just your average crop-trashing reactionary. It also gives her, she says, a common scientific language to talk to Rothamsted with. On Rothamsted’s arguments about contamination (e.g. in their Q&A), she references “some other figures produced from different peer-reviewed papers published in journals that said the figures were a considerable order of magnitude higher than they were saying". That’s something to follow up: no-one expects actual references in an interview, but I wonder what she’s talking about? At any rate, again, she’s keen to present herself as an agricultural scientist who accepts the validity of peer review. I wonder where these papers will turn out to be directly relevant to the Rothamsted trial, or the same contamination arguments you can see on Take the Flour Back’s own website? (Also, I wonder how many orders of magnitude she has in mind?)

Specific question for Natalie then: what peer-reviewed papers are you referring to when you claim Rothamsted are wrong about the contamination risk by `orders of magnitude?’

This illustrates a point that climate 'skepticism' also shows very clearly: you'll rarely hear people say, "I think x, but there's absolutely no scientific basis for it. I just happen to think that." Science is like motherhood and apple pie in that respect. But doing as Natalie has done here - say "I am scientifically literate" - doesn't make you scientifically literate. She clearly thinks its important, getting straight in there with "I have a science background, so..." But how does she do on her substantive science knowledge? And, actually, can we prise the science from the politics on this one? I'd argue yes, but...

There’s also a murky confusion here that was present in a reply I got from Caroline Lucas too (haven’t checked if I can use any of that publicly yet): there are x, y problems with GM or the corporate food system ; therefore I support trashing the experiment. It’s weak and unreasonable. I’ve said before, I fully support the need for direct action, but – as with James Hansen (and notice that wasn’t even destructive of property) – you need to be putting a helluva lot more work into your reasoning than any of the Rothamsted attackers or attack-supporters have mustered. It’s perhaps what I find most annoying about Green Party members supporting the destruction of the crop: you’re making arguments about problems with the global food system. How did you get from there to “let’s trash their experiment?" (This was roughly Caroline Lucas’ take as well: here are x,y arguments about the food system. Also, direct action has a valid place in a democratic society. None of which I disagree with.)

The key argument, though, is one that many of us have headbutted repeatedly: “GM for me is tied up with an entirely wrong model of agriculture and is entirely the wrong way to go." Her whole argument pivots on that – but is it true? The point me and Sue made says no – any more than computer code is tied up with entirely the wrong model of computing. Obviously, code is dominated by corporate players – we live in a largely capitalist world. Does that mean we should attack all coders, open source as well? The coding I’m doing at the moment is to help understand the economic impact of energy cost changes. Am I microsoft? Am I Apple? No. Obviously. This isn’t a difficult point, is it?

Equally, does the existence of Monsanto mean we should attack all GM? Right now, Natalie appears to say, unequivocally, “yes". She has, however, said she’ll talk to Rothamsted and other scientists, and that’s something I’d love to see happen. Take The Flour Back notoriously refused to openly debate the scientists. If the Green Party takes a different approach, perhaps something will come of it. We all have a network of ideas and unquestioned assumptions and they don’t change if they’re not challenged. Ben Goldacre nailed this one perfectly (and of course this applies to me as much as anyone else):

People make mistakes. What distinguishes you from the morons is what you do when the mistakes get pointed out.

She attacks the focus on plant breeding also: it ‘comes from a very strong commercial focus’ that, she believes, neglects other agricultural issues. My first thought on hearing that was: ‘as if good yields were only a capitalist concern’. There are, of course, complex issues of access to food and the way in which scale and profit-making may effect the structure of food production – but we need to remember how many mouths there are to feed, and that the need for scale isn’t going away. I think the approach people like Natalie want is what economic geographers would call `Jacobs externalities’ – a rather bland and mathematical description of the fact that certain kinds of localised production networks can produce more than the sum of their parts. That is true, they can. But they’re not the only way to be more productive, and Jane Jacobs fully recognised the vital role that standard, boring economies of scale can play. It’s an interesting abstract question whether those different kinds of scale outcomes must be at odds with each other – I would argue not. But at any rate, this ‘small is beautiful, big is evil’ heuristic is not going to help us understand how to progress.

The same applies to GM and many, many other things we need to try and keep our minds open about. So much has to change, and so rapidly, our body politic needs to be developing a much stronger ability to properly assess all options. We don’t seem to be showing much sign of doing that – possibly the reverse, in fact. Trite arguments about corporations and “GM is further expansion of enormous scale corporate agriculture that's just utterly the wrong direction to be going in" = major fail. We need to start by understanding GM as one technology among many, including (some links here) the history of mutagenesis and the way we’ve historically introduced plant species into different ecosystems. (Some more of my starting questions here, the first two being the most relevant; no closer to answering them, perhaps.)

Just to finish, Natalie does categorically say (following all the Jeremy Hunt kerfuffle) that homeopathy is 'a scientific nonsense' that only ever works because of the placebo effect. However, she then goes on to say that, actually, that effect gives it a place in publicly funded medicine, if all other approaches haven't worked and someone might actually benefit if that person "believes in it and trusts in it and, because of the placebo effect, it works... psychology is part of medicine".

Which is actually close to Jeremy Hunt's own take (see the link above): if you're focused on patient outcomes and - as she says, you've ruled out all other serious medical conditions with known effective treatments - a placebo might give you value for money. Interestingly, I'm having difficulty finding a flaw with that. Also, it implies that people saying “Jeremy Hunt believes in magic water" are wrong – at least going by his ‘patient centring is the point’ argument. To deny someone an approach that might help them because you want to wrestle their comforting illusions off them and cuff them round the ear might make you feel intellectually superior. But if that leaves them medically worse off, what's actually been achieved?

The answer might be - as James goes on to say in the podcast - that you've reinforced the message that evidence doesn't matter in health outcomes. But of course the evidence also shows this placebo approach can work for some, so it isn't quite as clear cut as that. It's annoyingly murky, not sure what to think.

However! To end on an emphatic note: dialogue between Green Party / anti-GM / scientists = yes, let’s see that happen please. And someone please record the outcome. It needs to be ongoing, not just debating-society point-scoring nonsense. The issues are hard, and changing one’s own assumptions is not always an easy or speedy process.



"huge industrial scale agriculture that's just ploughing across the landscape..."
ignoring the fact that GE RR crops make no-til easier; Bt crops help reduce use of pesticides; yields have increased. As always, Bennett talks as if GE technology is just more of all the problems that big ag has caused hitherto- why is it so difficult for people to understand that it can actually help ameliorate those very same problems?

Possibly for the same reasons

Possibly for the same reasons that some people think tomatoes don't have genes and GM is just polluting our food with the little blighters. Or, to generalise, there's a helluva lot of scientific confusion out there in the wilds of people's noggins.

The industrial agriculture vs

The industrial agriculture vs "sustainable" agriculture (whatever that actually is) debate reminds me of ecological adaptation. In a fiercely competitive ecosystem, such as a rain forest, most species become specialist to best and completely exploit a particular niche. They have no choice. If they're not perfectly adapted to do what they do, something else will outcompete them. Industrialised farming is a bit like that. Its a massively overbred greyhound: fit for 1 very specific purpose. But "sustainable/organic/low impact/diversity based" farming is more like a generalist species. In theory this should make it a more robust system. It could cope better with changes in environment because no eggs are in one basket. Presumably farms would be working along agro-ecology lines so exploiting diverse cropping and growing a variety of things and using animal for fertilisation etc. So that system might be more robust than highly specialised industrial, monoculture farm. But I would speculate that you're going to pay a high yield cost. The cost of robustness is yield.

There were some experiments aimed at increasing plant photosynthetic yield in Arabidopsis. Turns out it's possible to do it, as long as you buffer the plants in a cosy greenhouse. The plants can do more efficient photosynthesis OR they can cope with environmental challenges. They can't do both. You have to turn off all their environmental stress coping mechanism to get more photosynthesis out of them. Industrial farming has tried to minimise everything that will interfere with crops producing high yields at the price of making a HIGHLY brittle, unrobust system that won't cope with climate change, salination and the other massive pressures on it. But as I say, I think making a more robust system will be at the price of yields.

Are we prepared to pay that price? Its not like we're terribly egalitarian with what we currently produce.

Grammar, man

"that me and Sue responded to"

Aie! That *I* and Sue responded to.


the grammar Nazi

Hmmph, you appear to be

Hmmph, you appear to be right.. "Here's a good tip; just remember 'me' never did anything."

"That me responded to"...? Hmm. Damnation.