In recent months, the debate that surrounds Genetically Modified (GM) food crops has been reignited by attempts around the world to deal with food poverty in developing countries and the ever increasing price of food across the globe (See The GM Food Debate). Concerns about both the availability and price of food has meant that people are now looking to viable agricultural alternatives to increase food production, including the potential contribution of GM technology. Jimmy Doherty (also seen on Jimmy Doherty’s Farming Heroes and Jimmy’s Farm) is a strong advocate for traditional and sustainable farming but, as he explains (Start – 00:02:00):
Horizon: Jimmy’s GM Food Fight is a BBC 2 programme first broadcast on 25th November 2008 at 9:00pm. There are also two clips from the programme available permanently online: ‘How to create a GM plant’ and ‘Amish farmers embrace GM crops’.
Summary of programme
This episode of Horizon follows Jimmy as he travels across the globe to investigate how GM technology may help increase food production and help the world’s poorest people. In its entirety, and in specific sections, the programme provides an excellent resource for teaching the issues that surround GM crops. Below is a list of topics covered by the programme:
- Arguments FOR GM crops – Argentina: Large-scale farming benefits farmers – increased crop yields and increased profits (00:02:00 – 00:08:18)
- Arguments AGAINST GM crops – Britain: Public opinion, misunderstanding and media coverage. Germany: Farmers are concerned that GM crops will contaminate their non-GM crops (00:08:18 – 00:17:31)
- Selected breeding – The breeding technique for plants that has been around for thousands of years (00:17:31 – 00:21:12)
- GM crop research – Definition of what is genetic modification and how scientists do it. Explanation of how scientists are developing GM crops for both increased crop yields and to provide health benefits (00:21:12 – 00:28:39)
- Arguments AGAINST GM crops – Interview with Lord Peter Melchett; concerns with the consequences of using GM technology (Also see The GM Food Debate) (00:28:39 – 00:30:20)
- Arguments FOR GM crops – An American perspective and an interview with a Amish farmer; GM crops helps protect crop from insects and it increases crop yields (00:30:20 – 00:35:13)
- The affect of GM crops on the Environment – reduced use of herbicides vs. Gene Flow contamination (00: 35:13 – 00: 00:40:42)
- Health – Is GM food safe to eat? (00:40:42 – 00:45:20)
- Africa – Jimmy investigates how GM crop technology could help farmers in Africa produce more food. He also explains how Europe’s precautionary approach to GM technology is affecting the uptake of the technology in Africa (00: 45:20 – 00:56:44)
- Conclusion – Jimmy suggests that he still has some concerns about GM crop technology but he also believes that without research into the technology the world will never be able to unlock its potential to significantly increase food production (00:56:44 – End).
At the bottom of the post there are some questions which would be useful to use when teaching about GM technology.
Argument FOR GM crops – The programme begins with Jimmy travelling to Argentina (00:02:00 – 00:08:18). In less than 12 years the country has gone from producing only a small amount of GM soya bean to now harvesting land the size of Britain. Jimmy comments on how the soya bean has been “genetically modified to be resistant to a particular weed killer. So you can put the weed killer down and it kills all the weed but not the crop. And it is that fact that has lead to a huge revolution in Argentina’s agricultural output”. This particular section illustrates the difference between a GM crop and a Non-GM crop before and after they have been sprayed with herbicides (00:03:51 – 00:04:14).
The introduction of GM technology has transformed Argentina’s agricultural industry. Farmers now produce huge crop yields which are returning good profits. However one major problem is the increased demand for usable farm land has lead to the burning and clearing of forests. Jimmy also points out that a substantial amount of Argentina’s GM soya bean is used for animal feed, which consequently may result in some people indirectly consuming GM food.
Arguments AGAINST GM crops – Nearly10% of the world food crops are now GM, however Britain has virtually no GM products on sale in its supermarkets (00:08:18 – 00:13:35) . Jimmy suggests that the public’s negative views about GM technology is the cause of this. In a very crude experiment to investigate people’s views about GM food, Jimmy offers people two types of sausage; sausages cooked in GM vegetable oil and sausages cooked in normal vegetable oil. Almost everyone chooses the sausages cooked in normal vegetable oil, voicing concerns of: “messing around with genetics is wrong” and “messing with Mother Nature is not natural”. However when Jimmy explains to people that GM food could help the environment or increase food production to help the poor, people become increasingly more positive towards the sausages cooked in the GM vegetable oil. Jimmy believes that in Britain there is a misunderstanding about the pros and cons of GM food.
Jimmy travels to Germany to watch an anti-GM protest (00:12:11 – 00:17:31). The campaigners are local farmers who are worried that the GM maize being grown near-by will contaminate their crops. He discovers that in a dawn raid, protesters had taken direct-action to destroy the GM crops. Jimmy comments that the risk of saboteurs has almost halted all experimental GM crops or cash GM crops from being grown across Europe: “I don’t think this is the right thing to do because you can never understand what the consequences of GM are going to be unless you do the experiments”.
Selected Breeding – The programme attempts to provide some context with regard to genetic modification (00:17:31 – 00:21:12). Jimmy: “modifying plants is nothing new, we’ve been doing it for thousands of years. None of the crops or vegetables we grow are truly natural, their mutated forms of wild plants that have been selectively bred over thousands of years.” He explains that the vegetables that we use today were once wild plants that have been selectively bred by humans. Using the example of wild cabbage Jimmy shows how selective breeding has generated several other forms of cabbage: loose-leaf cabbage, crinkly-leafed cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and sprouts.
Jimmy asks: “If you think about it man has been tinkering with plant breeding for thousands of years. And all the crops that we grow and eat are basically man made. So is GM just an extension of that process or is GM pushing the boundaries of nature to far?”
Arguments AGAINST GM crops – Jimmy speaks to Lord Peter Melchett, policy director of the Soil Association (00:28:39 – 00:30:20) (Also see The GM Food Debate). Lord Melchett explains that: “GM is a really uncertain, imprecise, risky technology… it’s an uncertainty with tremendous risks attached to it…”. He argues that GM technology has many risks: “they reduce wildlife, there are real risks to human health that haven’t been investigated and there are risks to every other sort of farming that doesn’t want to use GM, because it is going to be contaminated and it comes in and blasts away; organic for an example.”
Jimmy: “So far I have seen different stories regards GM. I can see how it could offer great potential for the future, I’ve seen how it has affected a countries economy. I’ve seen a bit of the bad side, but for me in theory at least, the science is absolutely amazing and it offers an element of hope. But there are a couple of things that really bug me; one is the affect on human health, over a long period if we are eating the stuff and two the affect on the environment, which we don’t really know about yet.” (00:30:20 -00:31:25)
Arguments FOR GM crops –
In the following section Jimmy travels to America and speaks with an Amish farmer that uses GM crop technology (00:30:20 – 00:35:13). The Amish community has a long history of using very traditional techniques to ensure sustainable farming. However they have opted to embrace GM crop technology. They have done this because “we have to keep farming in a way that our farms are both profitable and practical. As a church group we are not opposed to GMOs. It’s just a tool that we are using in the same way that we use pesticides”. The farmer continues to talk of how they use a specific GM corn called ‘BT’, which has been genetically engineered to resist insect attack. This allows them to produce better crop yields and better profits per acre. When Jimmy asks the farmer about GM causing possible harm, the farmer replies: “if we knew it was going to harm our soil, we knew it was going to harm our health, we would discontinue to use them. We are committed to passing on our farms onto the next generation and then passing it on to the next generation.” The following BBC clip is permanently available online – ‘Amish farmers embrace GM crops’. It shows the above section of the programme.
GM crops and the Environment – (00:35:13 – 00:40:42).
Good (Reduced use of insecticide) – (00:35:13 – 00:38:15 )
Jimmy: “One of the big fears about GM crops is the long term affects they may have on the environment”. Jimmy meets with Bruce Tabashnik, an Entomolgy scientist from the University of Arizona USA, who has been studying the affects of GM of the environment. Bruce makes the point that now farmers are using a GM cotton that is resistant to insects, this has massively reduced the amount of pesticide that they are using on their crop: “Its good for the environment, good for farmer workers health and its good for their bottom line, they save money every year that the farmers are saving millions of dollars from the insecticide that they are not spraying on cotton that they used to.”
Bad (Gene flow) –(00:38:15 – 00:40:24)
Jimmy: “It surprised me to find that GM crops can be better for the environment. But using so much less insecticide has got to be a good thing. But there are also other concerns about GM crops impact on nature. One of the biggest is gene flow. Pollen from GM plants can cross fertilise other related species and can spread the modified genes into the environment. Gene flow is a real concern and there have been documented cases of it around the world.”
Health: Is GM food safe to eat?
Jimmy meets Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist with the Union for Concerned Scientists an organisation that campaigns for greater regulation of GM crops (00:40:24 – 00:45:20). They discuss the public’s understanding of GM food and whether they are aware of its use in the food they eat. Doug explains that food is rarely labelled whether it is GM or not, and as they discuss the ‘burger and chips’ Jimmy has ordered, almost all of it is probably from GM produce.
Jimmy comments –
Africa – In the final section of the programme Jimmy travels Uganda to see how GM crops could help African farmers and African people 00:45:20 – 00:56:44). The extremely dry climate and diseased crops means that growing food is very difficult, leaving small farmers unable to produce profitable yields. Jimmy visits Africa’s first GM trial at the National Agricultural Biotechnology Centre in Uganda. Jimmy observes that the Centre has a lot of security to prevent people from stealing the GM plants and using them on their own farmers. The scientist there explains that GM technology would benefit African farmers because the insecticides used to prevent diseased plants are very expensive. However those that regulate GM crops in Uganda have followed the European precautionary approach when considering to licence the technology.
- Do you have an intrinsic issue with scientists inserting genes from one species to another? (BBC online clip ‘How to create a GM plant’)
- How would GM crops help large-scale farmers? How would GM crops help small-scale farmers?
- What is selective breeding? What are the similarities and differences between selective breeding and genetic modification?
- What is genetic modification? How do scientists carry out genetic modification?
- How might GM crops affect organic farming?
- How do you think GM crops might affect the environment? What might the consequences be?
- Are you confident that GM food is safe to eat? What safe guards would you expect for GM food production? What testing should done?
- How might GM crop technology help food shortages in Africa?
- Other than GM crops, how else could the world solve the world food shortage?
- Who are the winners and losers of GM crop technology? Small-scale / large-scale farmers? The consumers? The environment? The biotechnology companies? The government? World trade?
- What do you think the future holds for GM crops?
Jimm’y GM food fight is available in full on the BBC iplayer until 8:59pm Tuesday 23rd December 2008. It is being rebroadcast in the “sign zone” at 02:40 AM on Saturday 13th December.