TT raves from the grave! (23/3/2004)

Anti-organic/pro-GM enthusiast Tony Trewavas garnered a series of headlines back in the autumn by announcing he was retiring from the GM debate in the face (he claimed) of threats and intimidation.

But, Lazarus-like, since then he has been quoted  supporting GM in the press and tomorrow will be giving a talk on organic faming - item 2

Rumours of TT's demise have obviously been greatly exaggerated and, as ever, it's TT that has supplied the misinformation!

In item 1 TT attacks a recent book by Dr Colin Tudge, 'So Shall We Reap, an analysis of world food production'.

You can catch the flavour of the review from this excerpt: 'Tudge reserves his venom for GM crops, condemning the scientists who produce such "monstrosities" as obviously corrupt, as well as mad, bad and dangerous. I found this chapter to be a muddle of politics and naturalism, failing to adequately distinguish objective scientific knowledge from subjective assessments of Western agribusiness and nature.'

The "muddled" Dr Tudge is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Philosophy at the London School of Economics and a three-time winner of the Glaxo/ABSW Science Writer of the Year Award, as well as the former features editor of New Scientist. He is, in fact, a scientifically conservative critic of the technology who has written "The prime task for people seriously interested in humanity's food problems is to help the world's small farmers. Technical up-grading is desirable, and could include GM." It is the current wholesale transition to this type of agriculture that Colin Tudge, like many development groups and experts, argues could prove disastrous for poor farmers.

Yet Tudge is dismissed by TT as a species of zealot and with jibes such as, "Antipathy to economics is common among those of Tudge's persuasion"! Antipathy to economics? Here is an excerpt from one of Colin Tudge's recent articles:

"...extra productivity can be harmful, while profit is achieved primarily by cutting labour, which is the most expensive input. In Britain and the US, only about 1% of the labour force works on the land. In India, as in the third world as a whole, it's 60%. If India farmed as the British do, 594 million people would be out of work. India's IT industry, flaunted as the hope for the future, employs 60,000 - which falls short of what would be required by 10,000 to one. To replace the status quo with hi-tech, low-labour, industrialised agriculture would create social problems on a scale that mercifully has not yet been seen. For the foreseeable future the world's economy has to be primarily agrarian." http://www.guardian.co.uk/life/opinion/story/0,12981,1152631,00.html

This is not antipathy to economics but caution about the wholesale application of the brand of free market economics to which TT and Truth About Trade subscribe.

Unusually for a book review, TT's review not only fails to give any publication details, it doesn't even name the book being reviewed! Could it be that TT was someone might actually compare what he'd said to the content of 'So Shall We Reap' and draw their own conclusions?

Sowing Seeds of Discontent
Anthony Trewavas

A common method of political and religious persuasion is to dwell on the virtues of belief for the follower and damnation for the unbeliever. Science writer Colin Tudge uses the same approach in this book, which is devoted to what he calls 'enlightened agriculture'. The prospects for humanity "are somewhere between glorious and dire", we are told; glorious if you follow Tudge's proscriptions, hell if you don't. The book's subtitle hammers this home: "How everyone who is liable to be born in the next ten thousand years could eat very well indeed; and why, in practise, our immediate descendants are likely to be in serious trouble". And as if to emphasize the religious origin of such dichotomous futures for humans, the book is liberally spiced with biblical quotations.

Tudge regards food production as something that should be above the ordinary, grubby business of economics. He regards capitalism as acceptable provided it doesn't involve competition! He sees a future in which most of us return to the rustic idyll, happily tilling the land -- although he does not say who will generate the cash to pay for education or health, or the other trinkets we have got used to and that people enjoy. Whether any of us want to return to that way of life is not considered. And because it is generally agreed that there isn't much money to be made in farming, the prospects for most of us do not look good.

Antipathy to economics is common among those of Tudge's persuasion, but unless fine-sounding sentiments are properly underpinned with an understanding of economics, immense damage can result. It has been estimated that for every 1% increase in income, mortality is reduced by 0.05%. The converse is equally the case. Scepticism about the motives of large global agribusiness is reasonable, but assuming that they are populated with shadowy figures out to control the world's food supply is not. Most UK citizens (probably including Tudge) invest heavily in the success of such enterprises through pensions and other financial plans. From Malthus onwards, the history of agricultural prediction has been a history of failure. Tudge's poorly based views will probably fare no better.

In Western countries a few decades ago, agricultural policy was simple. Production was all that was needed, and objective knowledge (science) was wheeled in to ensure its success. But abundance has produced new problems. Food security is no longer an issue, although rapid global cooling could quickly push it up the agenda. Instead, agriculture and, in Britain at least, the inevitable intermingling with the environment, have become contentious moral affairs. These are now areas of subjective knowledge in which disagreement, which merely reflects individual taste, is inevitable. Tudge claims that biology is the basis of his book, but chapters covering such issues as morality, aesthetics, genetically modified (GM) organisms, cash and values belie the claim.

It is a pity that authors such as Tudge and most environmentalists do not talk to farmers, as a more realistic appraisal might then surface. Farmers could tell them about responsible farming based on integrated management, conservation agriculture and animal-welfare principles, but also about the necessary business of running the farm at a profit. For the public, competition produces cheap fruit and vegetables, and by thus encouraging consumption has produced a healthier population with lower cancer rates. Tudge is more objective on organic farming and sees the regulations of this movement as dogma rather than common sense.

Tudge reserves his venom for GM crops, condemning the scientists who produce such "monstrosities" as obviously corrupt, as well as mad, bad and dangerous. I found this chapter to be a muddle of politics and naturalism, failing to adequately distinguish objective scientific knowledge from subjective assessments of Western agribusiness and nature.

Vitamin A deficiency in developing countries results in the premature death of about a million children a year and leaves another five million permanently blind. The primary reason for this situation, according to the World Health Organization, is poverty and ignorance about vitamins and diet. But Tudge claims instead that recent Western agricultural influences are the cause, as if these deficiencies did not happen in much earlier times. GM rice enriched with vitamin A to help counter this deficiency is a humanitarian scientific endeavour that demonstrates how valuable GM technology can be in improving life expectancy in the face of ignorance.

Tudge also fails to mention that both India and China now have proven examples of the benefits of GM crops to poor farmers. Herbicide-tolerant GM crops (produced by agribusiness) lead naturally to no-till agriculture, which has enormous environmental advantages over any kind of ploughed agriculture, including organic farming. These benefits are likewise not mentioned. GM food vaccines? Guess what. Not mentioned. The list of omissions is very long. In a pluralist society you do not ban useful products.

Mad? Bad? Dangerous? The only real danger is those who use subjective ideology to corrupt good objective sense.

Anthony Trewavas is at the Institute of Cell and Molecular Biology, University of Edinburgh, Mayfield Road, Edinburgh EH9 3JH, UK

2. Please note this is a public meeting so it's open to all
What is environmentally friendly agriculture?
Wednesday 24th March 2004 at 7.30pm

Public meeting - University of St Andrews, Lecture Theatre D, BUTE Medical (enter via St Mary's Gate, South St. or Queens Gardens)


Introduction & Chair - Prof W.C. Russell FRSE,  University of St-Andrews

Parameters of sustainable agriculture - Dr Alyson Tobin, University of St-Andrews

Is organic farming really green? - Prof Tony Trewavas FRS, FRSE, University of Edinburgh

Are there advantages in not ploughing? - Dr Geoff Squire-SCRI

LEAF, meeting the needs of farmers, consumers and environmentalists - Edward Baxter, LEAF

There will be plenty of opportunity for general discussion.

Refreshments in the Bell Pettigrew Museum.

LEAF (Linking Environment And Farming) is a charity helping farmers improve their environmental and business performance and creating a better public understanding of farming through a nationwide network of demonstration farms and the LEAF Marque Scheme.  To find out more or to arrange a visit to a LEAF Demonstration farm either go on-line www.leafuk.org or phone 02476 413911.  

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