Anti-Biotech Superstition Being Beaten Back In Europe?


Greenpeace biohazard suit

Many European governments have succumbed to anti-science zealotry when it comes to the safety of genetically modified (GMO) crops. The superstitions are being purveyed by the quacks and shamans who infest leading environmentalist groups. But perhaps science may triumph over superstition even in Europe. One such sign is that the Guardian today is running an op/ed by plant biotechnologist Jonathan Jones defending the safety of biotech crops.

Jones begins by pointing that 25 years and €300 million of European Union research into the biotech crop safety has flat-out concluded that there is "no scientific evidence associating GMOs with higher risks for the environment or for food and feed safety than conventional plants and organisms." In fact, no other independent scientific body has ever found that current versions of biotech crops were not a net benefit to both people and the environment. 

Nevertheless, anti-biotech know-nothings just this past month vandalized transgenic wheat test plots in Germany and Australia. What evil biotech spirits were the looting witch doctors trying to exorcise? In the case of Australia, the government-funded researchers are developing one variety that boosts yields; another more efficiently metabolizes nitrogen; a third triples levels of amylose, a starch that doesn't spike blood sugar levels. The horrors! 

In his Guardian op/ed Jones is pleading with would-be vandals to let researchers work on developing varieties of potato that resist Phytophthora infestans, the fungus responsible for the Irish Famine in the 1840s and which destroys $3.5 billion in potatoes each year today. Jones explains what the new biotech potatoes might achieve:

Phytophthora has evolved to circumvent all the 100s of resistance genes in most cultivated potato varieties. Resistance genes exist to recognise pathogens, enabling the plant to activate its natural defence mechanisms. The aim of the trial is to test whether resistance genes from wild potatoes will give commercial varieties the ability to detect when they are under attack by UK pathogen races, and then activate defence.

Because of the difficulties of potato genetics, it is essentially impossible to breed a useful trait such as disease resistance from a wild inedible potato into a well-defined variety such as maris piper or desiree while retaining all the characteristics that the market loves in these potatoes. GM is a particularly useful tool because it enables us to introduce a desirable trait without at the same time breeding in unwanted ones.

Naturally, the self-appointed anti-biotech exorcists refuse to meet with the scientists to learn about the research. Nevertheless, hope springs eternal:

Meanwhile, the benefits of GM technology are becoming clearer to all. Insect resistant GM cotton and maize has reduced insecticide applications and lowered mycotoxin levels in the maize we eat. Genetic engineering in microbial research has produced new antibiotics and other natural products. JIC's purple tomatoes contain elevated levels of health-promoting anthocyanins.

Food insecurity and climate change highlight the challenges of sustainably feeding a growing world population. Further research using GM methods opens new possibilities for raising and stabilising yields, improving resistance to pests and diseases and withstanding abiotic stresses such as drought and cold.

But in Europe, while taxpayers' money is still paying to develop useful GM crop traits, taxpayers are not benefitting from their deployment. In contrast, Canada, China, the US and South America are blazing ahead with GM and India is not far behind. The latest figures from theInternational Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications report 15 million farmers planting GM crops on around 150m hectares in 2010. Many promising GM traits exist, often discovered by academics, but the commercial risks are too great, the costs too high and the rewards too low for the European private sector to invest in taking them forward.

To get around this problem, I suggest that it is now time to establish a private/public partnership to put GM traits into favoured crops. The top priority should be wheat, but barley, potato, rapeseed and tomato should also be supported. We could test which available GM traits actually do something useful in UK varieties, in UK conditions, and then evaluate them for deregulation in the public sector. If the UK were the first European country to wholeheartedly re-embrace the technology, we could attract substantial inward investment.

The argument has to be made that the benefits of the technology far outweigh any hypothetical hazards. We need to think about the cost ofnot adopting GM as well as the risks, and we must not spurn the great opportunities created by embracing it.

The plain fact is that with respect to biotech crops, Europe is becoming an increasingly isolated island of anti-science primitivists. Jones' op/ed (in the Guardian of all places) suggests that there is some hope that superstition can some day be banished from the old continent. 


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  1. I came for the article, I stayed for the alt-text.

  2. Does anyone remember talkboys? They weren’t anything special, just a nifty looking tape recorder. They came out roughly around the same Christmas that Home Alone 2 was released, there was a whole load of hype over them, remember the trailer where Kevin plays back his hotel order down the phone after recording it? He uses the function that let’s you slow down the voice, posing as his dad. I thought that was awesome, I figured if I had one of those I’d be able to fool adults with ease, calling people up and ordering a new TV and stuff for the house?maybe my dad would even keep it, he’s pretty forgetful ? you never know!

    I never got one that Christmas, never really knew why but the huge collection of presents that Santa did bring me were enough to distract me from it’s absence, I was pretty happy with my new bike, that was the obsession of the moment. I forgot all about asking for it, actually, although I do remember seeing the ads on TV for a while. Instead I just let the snow clear and spent the next few months obsessing over the toys and games that I was given.

    My birthday came in November much later the next year, I remember turning eight and having a party thrown for me at the house. Thankfully, the talkboy came too ? along with Home Alone 2 on video of course. It was great unwrapping it, I mean I was never selfish and I didn’t really demand much as a kid but getting what you’ve asked for is a fantastic feeling. I ripped it out of the box straight away, tore off the packaging and carefully lifted it out in front of my friends. I was so pleased with it, it even looked cool. The microphone was extended towards you and it was so easy to hold, I grinned and laughed and pressed the record button.

    “Hello!” I yelled into it before rewinding and playing it back.


    My voice sounded so odd, I’d never actually heard myself speaking before, it was such a strange sensation to hear how different it seemed. I looked at my dad, puzzled, and he laughed. Everybody laughed and I eventually joined in. I remember that Andrew reached over and tried to take it off me, demanding a chance to play with it but I pushed him away and shook my head.

    “Nuh uh, I’m not done yet.” I lifted the receiver again and spoke into it:

    “Andrew smells!”

    He huffed and folded his arms, pouting and looking angry with me but I wasn’t phased, this was why I’d wanted it so badly in the first place. I rewound quickly, flicked that little black switch to make the talkboy repeat what I had said in the slow, deep voice like in the movie, I held it up so that everybody could hear me insulting Andrew in slow motion.

    “Yes, he does,” said the talkboy.

    1. Most people have the decency masturbate in private.

  3. That costume is from the original Scooby-Doo, isn’t it?

  4. What’s with the copypasta today?

  5. This right here is the ultimate outcome of genetically modifying food:

  6. That accompanying pic is RACIST. And the alt-text is HOMOPHOBIC.

  7. The primitives will continue vandalizing other people’s property until they are locked up.

    That is all.

    1. Or shot in the act. A better solution in my opinion.

  8. I think it would help if there were a strong open-source GMO movement. Or homebrew GMOs.

  9. The best part of the op-ed is watching the activists descend en masse into the comments section. They should be here shortly.

  10. I guess this is an improvement. At least the Europeans aren’t murdering humans in their quest for genetic purity like they used to.

    1. I assume that you are not taking into account the effects of the Anti-GM crop hysteria that they have succeeded in implanting in sub-Saharan Africa.

      1. Wow, good point, Aresen. Damn those environmentalists.

  11. The science doesn’t matter to the anti-GMO movement because it’s not about the science.

    It’s about not allowing yields to rise and lower crop prices.

  12. Ron had that piece earlier this week about Mark Lynas, who “admits that he and his fellow environmentalist ideologues have been scientifically wrong about a lot of things including nuclear power and biotech crops.”

    The thing that always cracks me up about these idiot Anti-GMO protesters is that they completely ignore the reality that without GMO crops we couldn’t even come close to feeding the world. The Ehrlics and other malthusians of the world would’ve been right about mass starvation were it not for people like Norman Borlaug (still the #1 Best all time Human ever, in my opinion) who used GMO crops to literally save billions of people from starving to death.

    It’s the whole “we must destroy the village to save it!” mentality.

    Absurdity on stilts.

    1. Can anyone name a person who outranks Borlaug as #1 Best All Time Human Ever…’cause I can’t. Seriously. Who else would be in contention ?

      1. I’ve thought of this before and I can’t either. You could maybe go with Alexander Fleming for discovering penicillin, but there is much disagreement over who really “discovered” it from a medicinal standpoint, and supposedly the use of bread with a blue mould (it is presumed, penicillium) as a means of treating suppurating wounds was a staple of folk medicine in Europe since the Middle Ages, so I don’t know if that counts either.

        Jonas Salk and the polio vaccine would certainly be in the running too, but I would still go with Borlaug for sheer numbers alone.

        1. Pasteur, perhaps. Vaccination and pasteurization both have saved an awful lot of people.

          1. Jenner gets credit for vaccination (although there were apparently some who anticipated Jenner.)

            Pasteur developed a rabies vaccine.

            1. I thought about Pasteur, and Genner too and they are both good arguments. The problem with comparing these folks to Borlaug is that it’s sort of apples to oranges. One group was either healed or vaccinated from getting sick and dying, and the other was saved from starvation. It’s hard to estimate the number of people Pasteur or Genner saved, whereas it’s easier to show that without food X number of people were definitely going to die of hunger.

              1. I was thinking Gutenburg but his invention was more oblique in helping humanity. Jenner and Flemming are more a one-two punch in taking out the two biggest killers of humans; viruses and bacteria.

                1. I’d just like to say I wish more arguments on the internet were over things like “who is the best human ever”.

              2. How about we do away with the saying “comparing apples to oranges”?


            2. I have to add Thomas Savery, Thomas Newcomen, James Watt in order who invented and perfected the steam engine giving rise to the industrial revolution and increasing the wealth of humanity by an order of magnintude.

      2. “Whoever makes two ears of corn, or two blades of grass to grow where only one grew before, deserves better of mankind, and does more essential service to his country than the whole race of politicians put together”
        Jonathan Swift

      3. “Can anyone name a person who outranks Borlaug as #1 Best All Time Human Ever…’cause I can’t. Seriously. Who else would be in contention ?”

        I’m going to go with Jessica Alba.

      4. Mainer et al: Meeting and getting to know Norman Borlaug was one of the greatest joys of my life. Here’s the link to my obit for this truly great man.

        1. So Ron, do you vote for Borlaug for greatest human ever or do you have another in mind?

      5. Jack Kilby comes to mind…

  13. Pure speculation, but I’ll bet those anti-biotech people have never gone to bed hungry.

    1. Or taken a science class outside of high school.

  14. Go read the comments on the Gaurdian article. They’ve already changed their story to say it was all about the corporate control and the patents, all along.

    1. That was just one line of attack.

      We can expect Organic Girl to show up here shortly to fill in the gap, although she will undoubtedly spout the anti-corporate line as well.

      1. Nah. She got sand (presumably, non-native and non-organic) in her panties and ran off.

        1. Of course sand is non-organic. If I remember my organic chemistry correctly, “organic” meand that it contains carbon, and sand is SiO2.

          1. Fuck you I.

          2. Actually, beach sand also contains substantial amounts of crushed shell and coral depending on the location. This, of course, means significant amounts of Calcium Carbonate.

            On Florida’s east coast and the Keys it’s quite high. On the Gulf Coast it’s less. IIANM the Panhandle beaches are nearly pure SiO2.

            I’ve tried to make jokes about Florida’s organic beaches but they never work out.

  15. All the best, long-lasting superstitions come from Europe, don’t they? I mean, Africa and the Far East have some whoppers, but they never really leave home and travel.

  16. Nice alt text.

  17. I’ve always thought it was interesting so many Europeans criticize America for like 40-50% of the population not believing in evolution, (which is a pretty alarming statistic) while anti-science organic-lovers in Europe are burning and vandalizing GMO crops. At least fundies over here aren’t burning down museums of natural history. (yet, anyway)

    1. Nah. They just build Creation Museums.

  18. Europe is ten times as secular and scientific then the religious nuts of the U.S, so the writer’s insinuation “old continent” is simply a pathetic twist of reality. Europe’s stance against G.M. crops is SCIENTIFIC, not religious or conspiratorial. The reason for the dissent is simple. 1. Independent studies HAVE show in mice; birth defects and reproductive issues. 2. The conglomeration of Science and big business. Once research and scientific endeavors are funded and developed for profit, the independence and integrity of the science is lost. I’m happy that Europe is one of the few continents that constantly reject this hack science.

  19. As Bt Cotton turns 10 in India, observational data certifies it a Super-Flop

    2011-12 will mark ten years since the GoI permitted the commercialization of transgenic cotton commonly known as Bt cotton. The issue of transgenic cotton had been and continue to be one that generates heated controversy with claims made by civil society and counter claims made by Bt seed manufacturers. This paper, in 3 parts, tries to analyze whether 10 years of observational data gives us any clues that can dampen the fires of this controversy. Specifically, it tries to answer two questions, both related to the main touted claims of the Bt industry:

    a. Is Bt either a necessary or a sufficient explanation for increased cotton productivity?

    b. Have Bt succeeded in decreasing pest infestation in cotton to indirectly boost productivity and consequently bring about reduction in pesticide expenses?

    Read more: http://devconsultancygroup.blo…..ional.html

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