GM Food Fight breaks out

Jason Ball on the Natureheads blog

Jimmy Doherty’s GM Food Fight is available on BBC iplayer for a few more weeks. But it might become a classic, played on the web for years to come. A classic for the wrong reasons.

Because right now a refreshed scientific debate is growing, following a challenge to all GM opponents from Phil Woolas (the UK government’s former Minister for GM). The pressure is on to reopen the science, because the government has virtually closed its case. Not only does the programme miss out major aspects of the debate, it is also accused of bias, and of portraying things it knew were no longer true.

For example, a project in Uganda was sold as success story for GM solving a food security problem, but that GM banana project was announced as a failure in June. Horizon knew and so did the BBC Trust, because GM Freeze wrote to them about it prior to transmission.

Unfortunately, it would seem that Horizon set the scene for a bipolar argument. The BBC introduce the programme like this:
We need to double the amount of food we produce in the next fifty years to feed the world’s growing population. Are GM crops the answer? Or are they a dangerous Frankenstein technology that could start an environmental catastrophe?

Frankenstein or Manna. Why does the media tend to present us with an apparently simple, stark dichotomy?

Look who’s talking…

Various commentators have reacted to the GM Food Fight. Perhaps the phrase “food fight” becomes more apt – resources that could be better used… clumsily thrown… people end up looking silly… innocent bystanders get egg on their face… (jumpers for goalposts).

Patricia Wynn-Davies wades in for the Telegraph apparently as their GM TV expert…. “Jimmy Doherty, scientist turned green-inclined pig farmer and TV personality, turns out to be well-qualified to present this documentary on whether GM crops could save an increasingly hungry world.

Patricia dumbs it down for us. “Doherty is familiar with the organic side of the argument – that cross-pollination from GM crops grown in proximity to organic farms will taint the latter. But he also has an open mind.” (Not like your usual green-inclined type?)

Give over Pat, cross pollination is a scientific fact, not an ‘organic argument’ – and just one of several ways GM genes can be transferred into a non-target part of living systems. Read up. I’d recommend everyone to look out for the forthcoming book by Professor Jack Heinemann. The professor introduces the science behind gene flow here…

Arts reporter Andrew Billen writing at Times Online seems to roughly agree with Jimmy’s conclusions. Sky’s TV review reckons this was “informative, well-researched and objective to the last inch”. Farmers are discussing it here and so are the downsizers and grow-your-own fans. Blogger David Cokayne is very critical of the mixed messages in the programme.

Jay Rayner at The Guardian thinks using JD was a masterstroke, “I underestimated both Horizon and Doherty. This was a smart, cleverly crafted piece of documentary television. I can’t deny that it lacked the true scientific heft…

I know what you’re thinking – where are the reviews by Science correspondents? Just you try to find any. Let me know if you have any success!

Attack on content

Jonathan Matthews – an editor at GMWatch – wrote an article for The Ecologist website. His early lines seem to suggest Jimmy Doherty might not be much of a farmer nowadays.
Last year celebrity pig farmer Jimmy Doherty kept 1000 organically reared pigs, while this year apparently he’s raised barely 200. But if Jimmy’s farm is on the skids, the same cannot be said of his career as a media celeb. Read more

I’m not sure it’s fair to slate Jimmy’s farming for the sake of attacking this programme – surely criticism should be aimed at the programme makers? It’s a well-known fact that pig farmers in the UK have had a very difficult time during the last year or so.

Matthews writes a long article about the failings of the Horizon programme. His list of points include the IAASTD report – a collossal achievement published this year – which reviewed agricultural knowledge and technology. It concluded that the globalised food production system needs to take better care of its environmental and social impact. The IAASTD does not suggest GM crops are the answer.

Matthews points out a huge omission: “And then there was Monsanto – the invisible ghost at Horizon’s GM feast. The M word never once sullied Jimmy’s lips. The PR problem created by the toxic legacy and ultra-aggressive behaviour of a giant corporation that controls over 90% of the world’s GM crops was simply airbrushed away. Instead, GM was represented by scientists from Uganda and the John Innes Centre (JIC) – an institute described by Jimmy as “independent” even though it’s had tens of millions of pounds in funding out of the GM giants it’s jumped into bed with.

Here’s a big issue. Commerce has a lot to do with feeding the world. And a lot to do with paying scientists, too. Many have accused the media of being weak in journalism when it comes to challenging the huge (huge) multinationals that might, after all, be major advertisers.

The BBC should not have to worry about that, so why not discuss the influence of the fat GM controllers? Do you think they might have got distracted by yet another downside, or do they simply not see how feeding the world is connected with patent-controlled genes (most patents being in the USA), chemical farming and globalised commerce?

A complex issue

Is the complexity of the GM debate what made them cut so much of what intelligent critics like Lord Melchett had to say about the problems with GM crops as they stand today? Did they approach Oxfam? What about the 2008 UNEP report about the clear advantages of ecological farming to feed the world’s poorest?

Jimmy Doherty travelled the world but he didn’t attend the recent conference in London, entitled “Feeding the World… is GM fit for purpose? If not then what?” This GM conference explored much more science than Horizon. Note that The Ecologist has just published a GM special edition. Both of these information sources seem to have come out too recently for the Horizon team to have responded in editing a better-informed episode.

He does say some inaccurate things. Jimmy blames the ‘small minority’ protestors who disrupt crop trials as the reason for a lack of GM crop adoption in Europe. He doesn’t seem to pick up on the fact some farmers actually don’t want it, despite seeing them rip up those GM crops. (Perhaps due to fear of patent litigation, or contamination, as experienced in Canada.)

The Great GM Debate in the UK during 2003 encouraged science-based discussion in a public arena and the answer was decisive – the British rejected GM (several other European countries did too). But the Woolas Challenge is the result of indifference to the public opinion and, in my view, a determination to cradle GM and nurture the UK’s stake in the biotechnology and gene patents industry.

Promised benefits

Watch the episode and you’ll notice that he doesn’t convince anybody to eat the sausages fried in GM oil until he comes up with… unscientific and unproven ideas! That’s the key. You can bet the big GM food companies realised this a long time ago: they can’t win the people over with hard science, they must use meaningful messages and ideas. Even if they are not based on fact… they can talk about potential facts, like Jimmy did!

What if I said that this one… could potentially, the technology, could feed a lot of people around the world?
Go on then…

Now, this one could, potentially, be better for the environment, the GM one.”
It could be better?
Yes, could be better, because there are less pesticides used on the land, the herbicides, there’s less herbicide on the land for this production system than the conventional one.
Then I would change my mind. I’ll go for a GM, and eat it triumphantly.

So is science really what they need to deal with, after all? That’s what Horizon purport to do, using a figurehead like Jimmy Doherty, who has a science background. That doesn’t make him a genetics expert, but neither does that make him a culprit in the editing suite – I won’t attack Jimmy for an unbalanced episode of Horizon. But was he a GM Jim before he made the ‘open minded’ Horizon programme? Or just a curious farmer?

What was the question?

Were the Horizon team intent on answering the question -‘Do we need GM to feed the world?’- or was the aim to cause a stir by exposing what they see as a celeb with a controversial view? Jimmy says GM crop trials must ‘come out of the dark’. (Telegraph 24 Nov). The truth is there isn’t much controversy in that.

What reviewers should be appalled about is that his final words on the show ought to have been the start of their exploration and debate – not the apparent conclusion of the documentary. As for the misleading claims about the GM banana project which didn’t work, the bitter aftertaste may last for a while yet.

Jimmy is expected to be interviewed about the programme on You and Yours on Radio 4, Monday at noon.


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14 Responses to “GM Food Fight breaks out”

  1. Environment and nature » Blog Archive » GM Food Fight breaks out Says:

    […] Read the rest of this superb post right here […]

  2. Ed Harris Says:

    Good analysis – I was left similarly frustrated at the lack of balance and constant implication that by rejecting GM we are wrecking the food security of other countries. Hopefully someone will question Jimmy about this lack of a broader view of food security when he’s interviewed tomorrow.
    More here.

  3. natureheads Says:

    Yes, Jimmy related things to his perspective on globalised markets more than anything. What about the crop biodiversity needed by farmers in unstable climates?


    How does GM gene contamination and seed ownership alter the prospects of feeding yourself, if a USA company can dictate which seeds you are allowed to keep?

  4. Complaints to BBC on GM Food Fight « Feeding the World Conference Says:

    […] the BBC. Criticism of how the Horizon programme presented the case for GM Crops was in contrast to warm reviews from TV critics, while very few science correspondents seem to have written about […]

  5. Ruth to reply? BBC GM debate… « the natureheads blog Says:

    […] natureheads Yesterday on the BBC Green Blog, there was strong support for the Horizon GM programme Jimmy’s GM Food Fight by the blog’s sub-editor, Ruth […]

  6. natureheads Says:

    Sorry – the BBC Radio 4 interview didn’t happen this week, so I guess that rumour was wrong. Perhaps another time…

    According to Locate TV – – there might be a late night repeat – Sat 13th December 2:40am – BBC1? Meanwhile it’s still on the BBC iplayer at the moment.

  7. ::[ edam ]:: » Jimmy Doherty’s GM Food Farce Says:

    […] If you want to read another rant about this program, this article is very good: GM Food Fight breaks out  the natureheads blog […]

  8. GM bias on BBC? « the natureheads blog Says:

    […] one thing – my impression was that Sir David King was in the same camp as the BBC Horizon programme Jimmy’s GM Food Fight, which seemed to set basically the same theme as above – i.e. that anti-GM sentiment might be […]

  9. natureheads Says:

    another review…

  10. db Says:

    Can I just correct one thing. There are more inaccuracies in your article (I don’t know about the comments regarding the programme, I haven’t yet managed to find it to watch it)

    Here it is. There’s no difference between a ‘GM gene’ and any other type of gene. They are the same thing.

    The only reason people can detect genes introduced by genetic engineering is that there is a record of what genes have been introduced.

    I don’t doubt that this programme is biased, misinformed, whatever. But your article displays (apparent) scientific illiteracy, and that is unjustifiable.

  11. natureheads Says:

    Good point. Perhaps I should have written ‘GM sequence’ – because it’s never a single gene, of course.

  12. db Says:

    Hmm that’s not really what I was trying to say, but yeah that’s worth mentioning; there’s usually at least the functional gene and a marker of some sort to tell whether it’s in there, without having to wait for the plant to grow.

    Of course, the markers are exactly the same as those used in conventional breeding (marker assisted selection).

    My point was, that you talk about cross pollination, and the idea that ‘GM genes’ will become mixed with, well, non-GM genes, yet the only difference is in people’s minds. There is no biological difference between introducing a gene by direct engineering, by marker assisted selection, by radioactive mutation or by spending decades slowly selecting for crops.

    I’m convinced, that people have ideological objections to the principle of GM. I’d be interested to know if you have an ideological opposition (in addition to the technical concerns).

    Oh, and I managed to get a copy of the programme.

  13. dylan Says:

    db, the difference is you wouldn’t get fish genes directly into a tomatoe, that’s not the same as conventional breeding.

  14. db Says:

    @dylan Yes, that is different. But the idea of a fish gene is slightly misleading, as most of the genes in higher organisms are the same.

    Besides, its unlikely that a gene would be taken from a fish and put into a vegetable. Usually genes are transferred within a species, or at most within a kingdom.

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