An inconvenient truth

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.

Greenpeace 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 genetic engineering 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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