Well, thanks to those of you who commented on my recent annual vs perennial grains marathon. I invited Tim Crews of the Land Institute to respond, and he said he might, but it looks like he’s decided not to. So I guess the whole thing goes the way of many academic debates before it: ‘you’re wrong’, ‘no, you’re wrong’. And only time will tell. Though I’m quietly confident that in fact it is me who will ultimately prove to be right – a conclusion to which my research has pointed with remarkable consistency over the course of my career. Meanwhile, I think Ford Denison may be writing something about the debate, so it’ll be interesting to read that (STOP PRESS: here it is).
Anyway, now it’s time to move on – and what better topic to choose than plant breeding’s Scylla to the Charybdis of perennial grain breeding? Yep, you guessed it – GM crops.
OK, OK, I know I vowed to avoid this issue – one that’s so balefully polarised as to make any kind of productive debate with the other side seem impossible. On GM, I have engaged amongst others with the ingenuous, the angry, the emotive and the merely vapid without worthwhile result. No more, I have said solemnly to myself, no more. But there are some new angles to explore, so the time is right for just one more whirl. Well, two in fact – I need to descend slowly from the giddy heights of those multiple linked perennial grain posts, so I’m going to acclimatise to normal service with a GM two-parter.
Part One concerns glyphosate, which isn’t intrinsically linked to GM technology in and of itself – except that, well, it kind of is, on account of the fact that glyphosate-resistant crops constitute about 80% of the GM crops grown worldwide1. All the talk of golden rice, Hawaiian papaya, Bt cotton etc somewhat blinds us to that brute fact. So if there are problems with glyphosate, then basically there are problems with GM crops, at least as they currently manifest.
And it looks like there may be some problems with glyphosate. One that’s received a lot of attention lately is a possible link to raised cancer incidence, as reported in this study. But there’s another set of interesting potential problems which have been outlined by Thierry Vrain, a retired Canadian government agricultural scientist.
Vrain has set out his thesis in an open letter to the Canadian minister for health. I précis it as follows:
1. Glyphosate is sufficiently persistent and ubiquitous in the environment for it to find its way into the human body
2. Glyphosate’s main action is to interfere with an enzyme possessed by plants and some bacteria and fungi but not by animals, so it doesn’t have acutely toxic effects on people.
3. However, glyphosate does have a toxic effect on the microbial population of the human gut, and may therefore cause chronic human ill health through impeding normal gut function
4. Glyphosate also has chelating properties, which may result in reduced availability of trace metals essential to a healthy human diet
Well now, I don’t know if he’s right but it strikes me as an interesting line of argument – albeit one that’s quite difficult to prove without costly chronic morbidity studies, which I don’t believe have yet been undertaken. I can think of various reasons why Vrain’s fears may prove unfounded, but I don’t think there’s yet any conclusive evidence against – a trawl through the internet reveals various dismissive screeds about his views such as this and this, which for the most part ignore his actual reasoning in favour of generic appeals to the ‘science’ in support of GMOs, while ridiculing the discredited ‘pseudo-science’ that Vrain invokes.
I’ll say more in my next post about science, pseudo-science and the discreditable practice of discrediting studies. But when it comes to a scientist raising questions about the wisdom of a mainstream agricultural technology and then getting this kind of blowback from the technology’s proponents, I get a funny feeling of déjà vu. Doesn’t it all sound a bit Rachel Carson – vilified in her time for daring to raise even the possibility that there might be a problem with DDT, but ultimately proved right? Whether Vrain will turn out to be right or not is of course unknown, but if he is then given the ubiquity of glyphosate we have quite a problem on our hands. So I assume that everybody would support the establishment of rigorous, independent, long-term studies to look into the issue. Well, everybody but those with a vested interest in GM. Monsanto is already calling for the cancer study to be retracted. Now why would that be?
Let me just reiterate my point about independent chronic toxicity studies. GM proponents like Steve Savage and Graham Strouts have invoked the spirit of Rachel Carson to their cause, implying that GM crops and/or glyphosate are safer than the biotechnologies of yore and Carson would have supported them. As I’ve argued previously, this strikes me as a somewhat sneaky tactic to appropriate an environmentalist icon to their own particular agenda and thereby clothe it with the reflected legitimacy of her name. And, being dead, Carson conveniently lacks a right of reply. Well, I don’t have the temerity of Strouts to ventriloquize with such confidence what Carson would have supported, but given the nature of the battle over DDT I suspect that if she were alive today she might well be calling for rigorous, independent, long-term studies to investigate a possible association between glyphosate and chronic human morbidity. So I’d hereby like to invite Steve and Graham to gather together with me in homage to the spirit of the woman that we all revere and join me publicly in that call so that Vrain’s thesis can be tested.
Meantime, I think I’ll put my plans to incorporate glyphosate into organic farming on ice…
1. Or at least it did around 2008, according to this paper: http://www.agbioforum.org/v12n34/v12n34a10-duke.htm. If anyone has some more up to date figures, I’d be keen to see them.