Street Science: David King on GM crops

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David King on GM crops

BBC Radio 4, Street Science, Programme 3 - GM Foods (first broadcast 3 Dec 2008)


Will an eminent scientist be able to persuade sceptical cafe customers that genetically modified crops could save thousands of lives? We're off to Oxford to find out, in Street Science, next... Today the subject's GM food and the scientist is the former chief scientific advisor to the government, Sir David King.

David believes passionately that GM crops could save the lives of millions of malnourished people around the world. He's worried that anti-GM sentiment in the UK is ruining Africa's chances of benefiting from this technology. But will he be able to convince breakfasters at the Magic Cafe in East Oxford, bearing in mind that the cafe was a hotbed of anti-GM activism back in the 90s, when campaigners took direct action against GM crops...

King: I'm expecting a rather hostile audience. Possibly an anti-science and technology element likely to be there, a belief that what is nature-given is what we live by. And of course that to me is like taking us back into the eighteenth century. I haven't walked blind into a cafe like this before and met people out of the blue. It's the kind of challenge I think I enjoy. But I'll tell you afterwards.

[To member of the public] I am sorry to disturb your breakfast but we'd love to hear your views and have a discussion with you about your approach towards crop development and GM technology in particular. Do you have a view on that?

Member of public: I do. Having done reading like everybody else you pick up all your information from the newspaper or radio, and isn't the main underlying thing that you get twice as much out of them?

King: But also you reduce the use of pesticides...

Member of public: Yes, sorry. You reduce the use of pesticides and get twice as much out of the crop. So you can eat better in Africa or there's a bigger supply of maize.

Yes. It's something we've got to try. But everybody was worried that it was going to flow into normal crops. Am I talking nonsense here?

King: No. As a matter of fact in the United States and in South America there's no requirement to even label GM products. The product is all just mixed together anyway and Americans are perfectly happy to eat it like that. And I don't know of anyone--do you?--who has ever suffered from eating a GM product.

Member of public: No but I thought that was one of the themes, that we don't know what's down the line.

King: Americans have been eating substantially GM crop products for about 15 years and there's no certifiable example of anyone suffering.

Member of public: I'm with you but I wouldn't say America has the best image on food.

Another member of public (woman): I definitely buy out of choice non-GM foods, including soya milk, and I don't believe it's a great way to be cultivating our relationship with nature. And I think it's quite dangerous because we don't know the impact it's going to have. I have an opinion on it.

King: You certainly do. And if I just say to you, there are now six million farmers around the world who farm virtually nothing but GM crops, there's almost half a billion people who eat it every day, and for example in the United States, there is no labelling of crops so what that means is that for 15, coming 20 years there's a very large number of people who've been eating these crops and there's no certifiable case of anyone suffering from eating these crops. Does that change your view at all?

Member of public (woman): I think really my decision making comes from my relationship with nature as opposed to the effect it might have on the human body. It's more like, how does that affect the natural balance within the natural world if we're playing about with...

Unknown woman: We're already doing that, of course. We've been doing it for a long long time.

King: You're talking about plant breeding techniques, there are no natural crops in production at the moment.

Member of public (woman): The thing that worries me is the things I've heard about the third world and farmers being put in a situation where they can only purchase seeds from companies doing GM, and that puts them in quite a position financially because they are not able to gather their own seeds from the crops, they have to buy fresh seeds every year.

King: Very good point, let's move to the third world. If I said to you, the company that is responsible for stating that they could produce crops with a terminator gene, which means that the farmer would have to keep buying every year, has never taken that to the marketplace. So there is a belief that Monsanto are marketing that but they've never marketed it, actually they've never produced it. It's still theoretical.

Using GM technology there are now varieties of major crops, rice, wheat and maize being produced that are drought resistant, flood resistant, saline resistant and disease resistant, which could transform Africa's ability to feed its people.

Member of the public (woman): Yes I understand this is the other side of trying to produce enough crops to feed the world and that's the other side of the picture isn't it. I don't know enough about it yet.

Member of the public (man): But you're trying to carry this argument in an environment in which people by and large have major distrust of big corporations and governments. So a lot of people, including me, are not necessarily going to believe what I'm being told right now because suddenly it will be different next year or the year after.

King: So if I told you that the products I am talking about have not been produced in the private sector, they've all been produced by government and international research laboratories. So for example, the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines is responsible now for producing a rice crop based on the discovery of a wild rice plant that is flood resistant but it's not very tasty and then by genetic techniques discovering what makes it flood resistant you can then develop marketable rice that has that flood resistance. So you can actually save millions of people from starvation by these techniques – nothing to do with the private sector. Would you then...

Member of the public (man): Well, that sounds fantastic. And we sit here at this table and I'll believe you, David King, that's what you're telling me, that's what you believe, it all sounds fantastic, but it doesn't really remove this nagging doubt of, "Well hang on a minute, maybe we've heard this kind of stuff before. What's going to happen in five or ten years down the road? That's not to do with you, it's not necessarily to do with GM or non-GM, it's about not having a great faith in the powers-that-be, whether they're big corporations or governments.

Member of the public (woman): From what I've heard, these GM crops haven't even been developed yet, that are supposed to do all those things. They haven't actually done it yet.

King: Some products have emerged, for example from South Africa. They are now planting drought resistant crops that have increased the yield by 30% and these are GM products.

From my perspective the problem was the opposition, the notion of Frankenfoods, the desire not to give Monsanto such a strong lead. The outcome for the United Kingdom was actually that the two British companies that started producing products that gave an advantage to the consumer, such as tomatoes that would assist you to avoid getting cancer - those companies actually shut down their GM laboratories totally because of the adverse reaction of the British public so we have left it to Monsanto and Syngenta to effectively dominate the market.

Member of the public (woman): Yes I think there's been a bit more public awareness in this country than in other countries.

King: More opposition.

Member of the public (woman): Yes, well, awareness first and then in response to the growing awareness, people's response was opposition.

King: What is the opposition to? Why are you opposed?

Member of the public (woman): I think people are suspicious of -- my impression of science is that it's increasingly corporate-driven. A lot of even academic scientists are being controlled by their funding which is often coming from companies. And therefore science isn't independent any more. And that goes through to the GM food issue. People are suspicious of food that is coming from corporate-driven science. Whereas research into, say, soil, which is absolutely the most fundamental thing that we could be working on, is not being done. If we haven't done the research on our most basic resource, then we haven't done the most important research.

King: Every society that has moved its population from abject poverty, from malnutrition--1.4 billion people suffering today from malnutrition--every society that has moved away from that has done it through modern agricultural technologies. And I do not see why we should turn that away.

Member of the public (woman): No I think agricultural technology is a great thing but I think that GM, which is highly technological, is not sufficiently developed yet to answer those problems.

King: It's massively developed, it's been planted for 15-20 years around the world. Millions of us are eating it every day.

Member of the public (woman): If you are, as I understand it, scientific advisor to the government--

King: Until the end of December I was government chief scientific advisor.

Member of the public (woman): And now you're a politician. Where's your standpoint, is it meant to be neutral or is it...

King: It's a very very important point. I do not believe any science advisor can work within government without taking an ethical position. Certainly one part of the ethics is to see that any product that is brought to the marketplace in Britain is not going to threaten human health, is not going to cause damage to the environment. That is very obvious. But the second part of the ethical argument is: Are we taking account of other people's views and discussing it with other people? That's why I'm here now.

Member of the public (woman): But you are also here to give us your viewpoint and it's quite clear it's not from a completely neutral perspective. And some of this conversation has been education in terms of you describing some of your knowledge base to us.

King: Aren't we having an exchange of--

Member of the public (woman): Oh we are, absolutely, and I'm glad to be part of that.

King: I am talking about an exchange of knowledge. I think that scientists need to understand that they are only one part of the knowledge system, so I'm very keen to see that we engage with the public, not telling the public about it but listening as well.

Member of the public (woman): Yes. I feel listened to.

King: Good.

Member of the public (woman): Thank you.

Member of the public (man): Naturally a personal chat with somebody is very reassuring - somebody who knows the facts, which of course I don't. Yes, I'm relying on you. ...

Member of the public (man): The thing that I learned is that this stuff's been knocking around in America for 15 or 20 years and that it isn't labelled over there as a separate item from the non-GMO. That has surprised me.

Member of the public (woman): Well it certainly wouldn't change my opinion overnight. I'm still very cynical about GM crops. But it has made me think more about the position of the third world. But it hasn't changed my mind right now.

King: I know from my own reaction to a discussion that it takes me a while to think things through. So I'd rather get back to them tomorrow. I expected the views on Monsanto and I also expected the ethical principles driving towards religious principles in favour of just natural products. But what was unexpected for me was the general openness of the discussion. There was a much better to-and-fro than I could have anticipated. I'm up for it.