Reporting on the GM Debate
Ultimately, the most critical issue for sustainable farming is whether we can grow enough food to sustain the human population
“I see my role as applying a scientific scalpel to vexatious issues,” says Dr Elizabeth Finkel. As a former biochemist and now award-winning journalist, Dr Finkel is well placed to guide the public through the vast amount of information on the contentious topic of GM food.
For many people journalists are their primary source for the major issues, so as a proxy for the concerned public, she has been invited to reveal the process behind her work at a Faculty of Land and Food Resources Dean’s lecture on the 6 August.
Dr Finkel’s piece Organic foods exposed – published in the popular science magazine COSMOS – won the 2007 Bell Awards’ categories for Best feature writer and Best analytical writer.
To address this issue, Dr Finkel posed two questions:
What is the healthiest way to produce our food – for us and for the environment? And what is the most sustainable way to produce our food – organics or technological solutions like GM?
“My conclusion, is that the mass migration to organic food has not been on the back of scientific evidence, but based on the ideology that ‘natural is best’,” says Dr Finkel.
Her search through the literature revealed that data on organic food is predominantly from non-refereed or very low-ranking journals, and is often used in distorted ways.
“I found it important to steer away from highly polarised people from both sides of the debate. My technique is to peel away the layers of the onion by being guided by the science. To write this article, it took three months of reading articles in high-ranking peer-reviewed journals and interviewing the academics themselves.
“One of the most useful journal articles I came across was a comprehensive review of some 400 scientific papers on the health impacts of organic foods, published by Faidon Magkos and colleagues in 2006 in the journal Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, which concluded there was no evidence that eating organic food was healthier.
“The bottom line is that there is tremendous variation in the nutritional make-up of fruit and vegetables regardless of whether they were grown by organic or conventional means.”
In her article Dr Finkel notes that it is so difficult to support the claim that organic food is healthier that the
“The next step in my search was to ask: If the end-product isn’t healthier for us, is the actual process of growing food organically better for us and for the environment? Organic farmers are bound to an ideology that demands they use only natural techniques. In some cases, such purism gets in the way of practices that are better for the environment and more sustainable for farmers.”
She uses the example of organic farmers using litres of BT spray (BT is a ‘natural’ pesticide made by the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis), yet they often demonise the genetically modified (GM) cotton crops that carry an inbuilt supply of BT, and which therefore require less spraying, sparing farmers – and the environment – from the risks of pesticide overuse.
Dr Finkel agrees that there are historical reasons for concern with conventional farming, including the widespread use of the pesticide DDT and fertiliser run-off which led to algal blooms and soil erosion.
“But these days, modern farming techniques have evolved after decades of pressure from the environmental movement and decades of work by a generation of scientists inspired by environmental awareness. In fact, conventional farming is starting to look a lot like organic farming.”
Ultimately, the most critical issue for sustainable farming is whether we can grow enough food to sustain the human population.
“I sought the views of many agricultural scientists. According to Norman Ernest Borlaug, the American plant geneticist who won a Nobel Peace Prize: ‘This shouldn’t even be a debate. Even if you could use all the organic material you have – the animal manures, the human waste, and the plant residues – and get them back on the soil, you couldn’t feed more than four billion people’”.
So when asked how to move this issue forward, Dr Finkel says, “I have had an amazing response to this article; people earnestly want answers to the question of sustainable farming.
“We need a combination of scientists and regulators involved in future discussions to articulate the benefits of GM crops and show how we deal with the risks.
“The precautionary principle is a good one, but that doesn’t mean paralysis