Interview: Jonathan Matthews from GM-Watch on Channel 4's 'Animal Farm'
Author: Mark Anslow
The Ecologist newsletter, 22 March 2007
This week marked the start of Channel 4's three-part documentary, 'Animal Farm'. We asked Jonathan Matthews, founder and editor of the GM-Watch website, whether Channel 4's reporting was fair.
Ecologist: Channel 4's documentary accused anti-GM lobbyists of luddism, wanting to hold back scientific progress, even when, in the case of 'golden rice', it is thought to hold significant health benefits. Is this the case?
Jonathan: No, it's complete nonsense. GMOs are no more 'science' than washing machines, cars, DDT or nuclear weapons. They're technological products. They may draw on scientific knowledge but they need to be evaluated on their own merits. If we judge nuclear weapons to be a dangerous misappliance of science, that doesn't involve us in rejecting the laws of physics!
Winston Churchill got it spot on when he said, 'Scientists should be on tap, not on top' and that's still more the case when so many biotechnologists are in bed with big business. It should be for civil society to decide what are the most desirable avenues for future technological development, not researchers and corporations with massive vested interests.
The same goes for 'golden rice'. It should be evaluated alongside the many other alternatives by the people who will be most directly affected - for instance, through citizens' juries, which have already happened in relation to GMOs amongst poor farmers in India, West Africa and Brazil.
What few people realise is that among the alternatives for tackling Vitamin A deficiency is biofortification of foods by non-GM means. In fact, non-GM biofortification seems to be well ahead of 'golden rice', which despite all the hype - and the misleading claim in the programme that it is 'banned' - is actually still stuck in the lab after all these years.
And this is often the case - that much hyped GM 'solutions' that attract tons of media attention are actually expensive hi-tech distractions from simpler and far less risky ways of tackling the problem.
Ecologist: The programme's GM advocate, Olivia Judson, argued that today's supposedly 'natural' landscape is anything but. Selective breeding and grafting has made it very much a human creation. GM is merely the next step. How would you respond?
Jonathan: This is classic sleight of hand. There's all the difference in the world between traditional breeding techniques and crossing the species barrier in the way GM does.
Selective breeding operates within established natural boundaries which allow reproduction only between closely related forms that have been fine tuned over millions of years of evolution. But genetic engineering allows the insertion of genes from one species into an entirely unrelated one - you can stick human genes into corn, for instance, or a bacterial gene that has a pesticidal effect into potatoes. This means we can create novel foods that may look familiar but contain proteins that have never previously been part of the human diet.
On top of that, there's still more potential for unexpected consequences because the process of genetic engineering is so crude, involving the random insertion of genetic traits. It's sometimes compared to using a sledge hammer to adjust the intricate mechanism of a watch.
Ecologist: Animal Farm's GM 'sceptic' is food critic Giles Coren. He was depicted by the filmmakers to be an almost squeamish traditionalist. His arguments on the manipulation of animals' genes were countered by claims that if animals could be made more comfortable - such as by breeding featherless chickens - or indeed cut out of the farming process altogether - such as by growing petri-dish burgers - then GM could be the most humane process available. Does GM contribute towards animal welfare?
Jonathan: Some of the things shown in the programme actually don't involve GM, but still involved very doubtful logic. The presentation of musclebound Belgian Blue cattle as the future of meat production, and featherless chickens as the future of mass poultry farming in warmer countries, has already led to a complaint to Channel 4 from Prof Bob Orskov, whose specialty is livestock research.
Prof Orskov points out that all calving from Belgian Blue cows has to be via cesarean section due to the calves' large hind quarters. He also notes that in the tropics there are just as many chickens as in the temperate zones but the indigenous chickens are adapted to the hot climate even with feathers. He also says they taste a lot better than the introduced intensively bred birds. In Indonesia, for instance, they're apparently worth twice as much per kg!
I think you need a peculiarly narrow lens to see radically reshaping animals to fit inhuman conditions as an advance in animal welfare. The real future lies in learning how to work better with the grain of nature. That's not some romantic notion. It's actually the most effective way to protect the environment, animal welfare and human health.
Ecologist: At one point in the documentary, the commentary suggested that 'GM scientists only ever have the good of other people in mind throughout their work'. Is this your experience of genetic modification?
Jonathan: Absolutely not, and it simply flies in the face of common sense. Would we accept such a statement if it were made about priests or policemen? How about lawyers or psychiatrists?
It's also a profoundly unscientific statement because there's plenty of evidence of false claims being made and of data being manipulated, not to mention scientific researchers being seduced by the material charms of industry. There are also GM scientists working on biological weapons!
And the fact that there's so much money riding on this technology raises particular dangers, not least when so many GM scientists seem to be in a state of denial.
Ecologist: The day after the documentary was aired, news broke that a GM mosquito had been developed which was unable to transmit the malaria parasite. It was suggested that a 'field trial' - a release of the mosquitos into the natural environment - could be just five years away. Are there any dangers involved in releasing GM organisms into the environment?
Jonathan: Yes, with GMOs we're talking about living, reproducing organisms that once released cannot easily be retained or recalled. We've seen this with the repeated contamination of non-GM food crops by GM crops that in some cases are still experimental and have not even been approved for human consumption. With GM mosquitoes the key unknown is the ecological consequence of wiping out wild mosquitoes, which is part of the plan.
We're increasingly turning the planet into an open air laboratory despite the fact that our knowledge of biology and ecology is still extraordinarily limited. This is why concerned scientists are warning that we risk a catastrophe.
Jonathan Matthews is the founder and an editor of the GM-Watch and Lobby-Watch websites.
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