An inconvenient truth

February 12th, 2013 at 12:00 pm by David Farrar

Sue Neales at The Australian reports:

LAST year, Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates gave $US10 million to British scientists to crack a problem he hoped might help solve the looming world food crisis.

Unusually, this time the philanthropy of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was met with howls of outrage from left-leaning politicians and environmental groups that previously had welcomed its efforts to eradicate malaria and alleviate global poverty and hunger.

The reason? The Gates Foundation had dared to suggest that if British scientists could transfer the genes that give some root bacteria the ability to produce nitrogen from soil and air into wheat, corn or rice plants, it might help feed the nine billion people who will inhabit the planet by 2050.

How evil. They want to feed the planet.

Success would potentially allow wheat, rice, corn and other global food staples to be grown in even the poorest soils of Africa, Asia and South America without the need for costly fertilisers, greatly expanding world food production.

The potential is enormous.

Australia’s sustainable agriculture adviser Richard Widows immediately called the donation misplaced. He accused the Gates Foundation of feeding not the world but the profits of its biggest biotech and chemical conglomerates.

One can have a company make a profit, and help feed the poor. But the real sin is that the use of science conflicts with the near religious devotion some people have against science such as genetics.

“It’s the precautionary principle: that where the results of a new technology are still unknown, or where there is a lack of scientific knowledge or consensus regarding its safety, it’s smarter not to use it,” Greenpeace exhorts.

If one applied the precautionary principle the way Greenpeace does, we’d still think the world was flat as no one would have sailed too far in case they go off the edge.

It was this attitude towards GM crops that prompted two Greenpeace activists in July 2011 to climb over a fence at CSIRO’s plant research centre in Canberra and whipper-snip an entire trial plot of pioneering new wheat varieties bred using techniques.

The destroyed wheat plants had been genetically enhanced using a naturally occurring barley gene to modify starch and fibre levels and enhance nutritional value and human bowel health.

By accident, some genetic changes had also produced a wheat variety that has since taken the agricultural world by storm, promising growth and grain production 30 per cent higher than normal yields.

This is what they are trying to stop!

But while such anti-GM rhetoric was commonplace in the 1990s when the use of novel gene technology by the scientific community exploded, there are signs its ferocity is waning. Early this month, a British environmentalist, Mark Lynas, one of the first leaders of the anti-GM movement in the mid-90s, regretfully admitted to a farming conference in England that he had been wrong.

How long will we have to wait to hear the same here? I won’t hold my breath.

Lynas, a leading author on climate change issues, said he had slowly realised it was inconsistent with his reliance on evidence-based science and scientific knowledge to argue that climate change is a reality while simultaneously leading an inherently “anti-science” movement that demonised genetic modification of crops.

A point I often make. You can’t claim to be on the side of science for climate change and demonise science when it comes to fracking and GM.

Lynas told the conference this month that GM crops such as cotton, corn, soybeans and canola growing in the Americas and Australia had resulted in less pesticide and chemical use, reduced the costs of inputs to farmers, cut water usage and boosted food production.

And with three trillion meals containing food derived from GM-bred plants in 29 countries eaten in the past 15 years without one substantiated case of harm, Lynas is now certain it is safe.

Those who still cry out about the precautionary principle are just putting religious belief ahead of science.

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31 Responses to “An inconvenient truth”

  1. infused (636 comments) says:

    Good post.

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  2. Lance (2,451 comments) says:

    The only point I would concede is a fuck up in this field could be very nasty.
    However as long as any new GM product was carefully checked at a number of reputable facilities then indeed there is no problem. The rest is indeed hysteria.

    I allow drugs into my body on the basis they have been tested, thoroughly and at great expense.
    Can’t see why food would carry a higher risk?

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  3. Cunningham (817 comments) says:

    Ship those Green bastards to some African country where people are starving and get them to say to those people that they would rather they die of starvation then resolve the problems of a lack of food.

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  4. RRM (9,467 comments) says:

    A point I often make. You can’t claim to be on the side of science for climate change and demonise science when it comes to fracking and GM.

    Dare I day it… that kind of thinking is part of the problem too. Science isn’t a “side” that you decide to be “on”, or “against”.

    Some people have written up some research work they’ve done on climate change.
    Some other people have written up some research work they’ve done on GM corn crops.

    One might be correct, while the other might be wrong. They are two independent things.

    It would be extraordinary to decide you believe both, or either, or neither, just on the basis that you are “on” the “side” of “science”.

    (And by “extraordinary”.. I mean STOOOOOPID :-P )

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  5. berend (1,634 comments) says:

    DPF: If one applied the precautionary principle the way Greenpeace does, we’d still think the world was flat as no one would have sailed too far in case they go off the edge.

    It’s probably worth pointing out that the belief, that once people believed the earth was flat, was known as the number two historical fallacy. That was pointed out in 1945. Sadly, teachers continue to perpetuate this myth, and popular blogs are no exception.

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  6. scrubone (3,048 comments) says:

    berend: beat me to it.

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  7. krazykiwi (9,189 comments) says:

    If you separate the reason for the concern, from the concern itself then there’s a bit more truth on offer.

    The Greens believe that humans are an evil plague, and anything that purports to support more of us must be opposed. Their concern is not the evil of GM itself, but rather the prospect of it being successful.

    On the other hand quite a few, including kk and Lance (above) are concerned that the desire to monetise new GM technologies may sideline ‘user’ safety. Lance’s analogy of the pharmaceutical industry is spot on – there’s rarely a day that passes without some story surfacing of big pharma being sprung for dodgy stuff en route to FDA (or equiv) approvals.

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  8. Paulus (2,502 comments) says:

    Because of MMP Greenpeace will form an important part of our next Government after 2014 when they will control the Labour Party.
    Frightening thought, but not at all beyond the realms of possibility.
    Middle class, sickly white (part white) liberals, well educated, having beliefs that they are the only ones in the world that are always correct.

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  9. Bullion (74 comments) says:

    It would require longitudinal studies to calm everyone down regarding GM.

    Something that should have been done with Thalidomide and Neonicotinoids (with bees), also to add that we grow enough food to feed everyone in the world currently.

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  10. joe bloggs (126 comments) says:

    good to give this sunshine.

    Ironically, there is nothing about GM that is incompatible with organic farming principles FFS – successfully growing crops in sub-Saharan soil without using fertilisers? drought-resistant forage crops that conserve water? crops that enhance nutritional food value without chemical intervention?

    All sounds perfectly sensible – unlike the Greens.

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  11. toms (301 comments) says:

    Curia polling must have the Greens up?

    Anyway, just as fracking simply ensures we will have enough fossil fuels to fry ourselves even quicker than previously thought, so addressing issues of food supply when we don’t address issues of population control simply ensures that by the time Malthus finally gets the last laugh the human race will have occupied every corner of the planet and wiped out every other species we share this planet with that is larger than a rat or breeds slower than a rabbit.

    Earth isn’t just for us. We share this planet with tigers and blue whales, pied stilts and penguins. They need room to live and thrive as well. Feeding 20 billion humans would be an amazing technological achievement, but at what cost to those species we co-habit with and who for whom we are effectively God?

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  12. flipper (3,563 comments) says:

    Ahaaaa..
    The unbiquitous “precautionary principle”. The self important, Green List MP Kennedy Graham, recently copped an earful from my colleague (not university related), and Oxbridge Don, RCEW, when Graham made (via email) a snide remark about Christopher, Viscount Monckton of Brenchley and the AGW/CC BS, thus:

    ” Mr. Graham

    “You have just commented. Let’s too get to the real reason for the Greens’ avoidance of open debate – er, with Monckton or anyone else. It is that, on the few occasions on which they have summoned up the courage to do so, they have invariably been eviscerated. I was at one such debate myself in London, involving such illuminati from your side as Prof. Mike Hulme. It was embarrassing albeit, from my perspective, an enjoyable example of shadenfreude.

    “Your comment relating to the ‘precautionary principle’ is illuminating. It has always seemed to me that the ‘principle’ is a rather sanctimonious contrivance that allows people of your claimed persuasion to continue to engage in the delightful task of self-preening without the need to temper this indulgence with any obligation to think. I make no comment on what might have been the condition of mankind had this foolishness prevailed throughout human history.
    RW

    “PS In passing, I use the word ‘claimed’ because, to be frank, I do not believe that it is intellectually possible to promote Green claims with honesty of purpose.”

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  13. gazzmaniac (2,317 comments) says:

    Bullion – Thalidomide was originally developed as a drug to control seizures, which it is very good at. It was never meant to be given to pregnant women to control morning sickness. Pregnant women were not the target market.
    Because it was used in a way it wasn’t designed for and is now banned, millions of people with epilepsy and other conditions that cause seizures are unable to access a drug that would help them.
    Hate to let some facts get in the way of your story.

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  14. wreck1080 (3,732 comments) says:

    “How evil. They want to feed the planet.”

    Come on, even you know they are not against feeding the planet but against the risks of genetic modification.

    I’m no green and I don’t agree with them on this but I still recognise their argument.

    And, it is good to have a watchdog raising concerns on behalf of the people so that the scientists are at least made to provide assurances.

    The greens should be more worried about scientists attempts to engineer the flu virus. … eg…

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2077232/Scientist-deliberately-created-Armageddon-bird-flu-virus-lab-says-publish-details.html

    I am strongly opposed to this. Ever seen a movie where science goes wrong?

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  15. Australis (99 comments) says:

    David, you have this curious view that some people are “on the side of science for climate change” whilst others are not.

    The climate science debate is over ‘equilibrium climate sensitivity’ (ECS), or the magnitude of AGW (whether it is dangerous or trivial). Scientific opinions range between 0.4°C and 6.0°C and all participants claim to be “on the side of science”. How could they not? The debate itself is a scientific one.

    Perhaps you have swallowed the well-orchestrated PR campaign by green activists, claiming that virtually all scientists agree that the ECS value is 3°C? Have a look at Wikipedia on the origin of this number!

    [DPF: I agree the debate is over what the magnitude will be. There are some though that claim there is no impact at all]

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  16. queenstfarmer (747 comments) says:

    Yet more proof that the Greens are anti-science – deniers, if you will.

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  17. Manolo (13,376 comments) says:

    Ah, the Left, the despicable Left, which in its Luddite incarnation would send us back to the Dark Ages and abolish science by decree.

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  18. Manolo (13,376 comments) says:

    [DPF: I agree the debate is over what the magnitude will be. There are some though that claim there is no impact at all]

    We know you’re an AGW believer, and in your eyes that justifies the ETS tax, DPF

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  19. adamsmith1922 (888 comments) says:

    Lynas in a recent HardTalk programme broadcast on the BBC World service recently admitted that he based his views on GM on no scientific evidence or research whatsoever

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/ht#playepisode6

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  20. krazykiwi (9,189 comments) says:

    Toms 1:04pm – that’s a tragic world view you have there, old chap. There are solutions like faith and hope. Or failing that you could join, and then become an inspiration to, the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement

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  21. hinamanu (2,352 comments) says:

    Here’s a direct quote: “If you put a label on genetically engineered food you might as well put a skull and crossbones on it.”
    Norman Braksick, president of Asgrow Seed Co., a subsidiary of Monsanto, quoted in the Kansas City Star, March 7, 1994

    http://everybodyeatsnews.com/2011/04/monsanto-executive-says-labelling-gmo-products-skull-crossbones/

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  22. bhudson (4,734 comments) says:

    I’m sure Greenpeace’s rationale here will be every bit as comprehensive and robust as “The Future is Here” report they released for NZ yesterday

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  23. andyscrase (89 comments) says:

    Patrick Moore left Greenpeace in the mid 1980s when they decided to try to put a ban on Chlorine. As he said at the time, “I don’t think it is our jurisdiction to ban elements of the periodic table”

    He has since gone on to describe them as “anti-science, anti-intellectual and ultimately anti-human”

    Greenpeace and other self-serving NGOs infest the IPCC and other “scientific” processes to the point that I don’t trust any official body in environmental science. Greenpeace’s claim that 10,000 jobs could be created by displacing the remaining non-renewable element of our electricity industry is also probably pure fantasy

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  24. Griff (6,803 comments) says:

    Australis
    You are failing to mention two small points
    1. Climate sensitivity is more likely to be over 4 than under 2 in most models.
    2. Most methods of modeling climate suggest that a most likely result for doubling c02 is 3. C
    http://www.pik-potsdam.de/%7Estefan/Publications/Book_chapters/Rahmstorf_Zedillo_2008.pdf
    http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/publications_ipcc_fourth_assessment_report_synthesis_report.htm

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  25. Manolo (13,376 comments) says:

    Crossposted from GD:
    This is peculiarly an age in which one of us may, if he do but search diligently, find the literature suited to his mental powers. Grave and earnest men, at school and elsewhere, had tried Griff with Greek, Latin, and with English, and the sheep-like stolidity with which he declined to be interested in the masterpieces of all three tongues had left them with the conviction that he would never read anything.

    And then, years afterwards, he had suddenly blossomed out as a student. Only, it is true, a student of An Inconvenient Truth by Al Gore, but still a student. His was a dull life, and Al Gore was the only person who brought excitement into it.

    Existence for Griff was simply a desert punctuated with daily oases in the shape of reading about global warming and smoking pot.

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  26. andyscrase (89 comments) says:

    There are quite a few recent studies of ECS that show a lower climate sensitivity. Forster and Gregory is based on empirical data from Pinatobu and has a value centering around 1 degree.

    The IPCC fiddled with the results of this by applying a uniform Bayesian prior that elevated the central value and fattened the tail of the distribution.

    There has been quite a lot of commentary from statisticians recently that the use of uniform priors in ECS studies are wrong and that the IPCC should not use them. This happens to include a good percentage of the studies.

    Real world temps have flattened over the last decade or more (even James Hansen concedes this point) and the temps are deviating from the models, suggesting that a very rapid warming will have to occur at some stage to “catch up” with the projected temps

    James Annan, a respected climate modeller and key contributor to IPCC studies, has claimed that ECS greater that 4. degrees in looking very unlikely. Yet we still get reports from the World Bank etc that tell us that we are on track for this. Do we believe scientists and statisticians, or do we believe banks and activist organisations?

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  27. itstricky (1,569 comments) says:

    Lance

    The only point I would concede is a fuck up in this field could be very nasty.

    Agree.

    I allow drugs into my body on the basis they have been tested, thoroughly and at great expense.
    Can’t see why food would carry a higher risk?

    Because, presumably, you put a lot more of it down your gob. There’s many drugs to cure many nasty things that are, in themselves, very nasty. But you don’t take them every day of your life. You don’t each them for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

    Hence the, if this is stuffed up, it will be very nasty thing.

    It’s the whole moderation thing.

    And completely agree with the posters regarding “for” or “against” science. This has absolutely nothing to do with random other hypotheses on global warming, smoking, coke consumption or whatever else. Just convieniently fits the bring on the rants wave of the hand. You can see the global warming conversation warming up already…

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  28. Mary Rose (393 comments) says:

    >Success would potentially allow wheat, rice, corn and other global food staples to be grown in even the poorest soils of Africa, Asia and South America without the need for costly fertilisers, greatly expanding world food production.

    They’ve been messing about with GM crops (planted freely across North America and in India and other places) for 30 years or so now.
    Every few months, someone comes up with the idea that GM crops will cure this, save that, sort the world’s problems….

    World’s still waiting for any of those promises to actually be achieved.

    And introducing new species into eco-systems never goes wrong, does it?

    Still, if you think this time it will be any different, maybe I could interest you in a nuclear fusion reactor I’m sure will power the country any day now.

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  29. andyscrase (89 comments) says:

    The Golden Rice issue has been one to watch. the Guardian has a story here

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/feb/02/genetic-modification-breakthrough-golden-rice

    Mark Lynas, noted environmentalist and former anti GM campaigner has had an about face on the issue, as noted in the article.

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  30. krazykiwi (9,189 comments) says:

    [DPF: I agree the debate is over what the magnitude will be...]

    Then you’re jumping the gun. There is :-

    (a) no proven model showing how much of the increases in atmospheric CO2 can be attributed to anthropogenic sources, and;

    (b) no proven model showing the impact of all/any CO2 emissions on global climate, and;

    (c) no proven model showing the cost/benefit of attempting to change vs adapt to the global climate change, noting that our climate has changed, often quite radically many, many, many times over the history of mankind in the absence of any anthropogenic influence.

    But taxing and trading carbon makes sense, right?

    Spending billions on confirmation-bias driven research makes sense, right?

    Climate change is a manufactured crisis designed to keep an unquestioning public fearful and ready to assuage their imposed guilt by opening their wallets. Our wealthy grandchildren will laugh at our stupidity. Our poor grandchildren will weep asking how we could have been so blind and so selfish.

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  31. Azeraph (603 comments) says:

    What a pack of idiots! if can’t irrigate it’s a poor harvest anyway. Poor soils? change the soil. I want to change ours with a soil from south america, all natural and takes millenia to grow a few inches but the return is a thousand percent.

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