Horizon: Jimmy’s GM Food Fight

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):

Jimmy Doherty "I love the way that I farm, but I am, I am a realist and I realise that the way that I produce food will not feed the world. A lot of people think that the only way to do that is to use biotechnology, GM crops and I'm not sure about that. I don't know if it is safe or not? I don't know what the consequences are? But what if the answer to feeding the hungry is using biotechnology?"

Jimmy Doherty "I love the way that I farm, but I am, I am a realist and I realise that the way that I produce food will not feed the world. A lot of people think that the only way to do that is to use biotechnology, GM crops and I'm not sure about that. I don't know if it is safe or not? I don't know what the consequences are? But what if the answer to feeding the hungry is using biotechnology?"

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’.

59pm 23rd December

BBC 2 Horizon: Jimmy's GM Food Fight. Full version available on the BBC iplayer until 08:59pm 23rd December

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).   

The ethical issues surrounding GM crops can be found extensively in both GCSE (AQA, Edexcel, OCR and WJEC) and A level UK Curriculum.

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).

GM soya bean (Left) and normal soya bean (right) after being treated with herbicide

GM soya bean (Left) and normal soya bean (right) after being treated with herbicide

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. 

The vegetable oil (produced from GM soya bean) Jimmy uses to cook the sausages in

The vegetable oil (produced from GM soya) Jimmy uses to cook the sausages

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”.

Jimmy looking at the GM crop destroyed by protestors

Jimmy inspecting the GM crops destroyed by protestors

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 explains 'selective breeding'

Jimmy explains 'selective breeding'

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?”

GM crop research – Jimmy visits the ‘John Innes Centre’ which is ‘an independent, international centre of excellence in plant science and microbiology’. In this section (00:21:12 – 00:28:39) the process of genetic modification is explained and scientists discuss the different uses of GM crop development, including drought tolerance and enhanced health benefits. This section is particularly useful as it helps define what is genetic modification and provides an excellent animation of the process involved (00:21: 40 – 00:26:04). The following BBC online clip is permanently available – ‘How to create a GM plant’. It shows Jimmy help a scientist create a GM variety of Barley, that is hoped to be tolerant to drought.
32) 24th Novemember 2008

BBC online clip - 'How to create a GM plant' (00:01:32) 24th Novemember 2008

The darker coloured tomato has been genetically modified to increase the amount of antioxidants within them. Antioxidants are thought to provide people with health benefits.

The darker coloured tomato has been genetically modified to increase the amount of antioxidants within them. Antioxidants are thought to provide people with health benefits.

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.


BBC online clip - 'Amish farmers embrace GM crops'. (00:04:20) 24th November 2008

GM crops and the Environment – (00:35:13 – 00:40:42).

Good (Reduced use of insecticide) (00:35:13 – 00:38:15 )

Jimmy meets with the scientist Bruce Tabashnik to discuss the affects of GM crops on the environment

Jimmy meets with the scientist Bruce Tabashnik to discuss the affects of GM crops on the environment

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.”


Jimmy asks Bruce about the possible consequences of gene flow: "One possibility is that the wild plants would now be protected against certain insects by the BT protein. Now depending on the nature of that wild plant it could be a problem... It wouldn't be a primary concern, I think the way to think about it is to way the benefits against the risks. We have a known gain in reduced insecticide use and we have a hypothetical problem, something that hasn't been seen yet. I think because it is a new technology its great to be vigilant and keep in mind potential negative consequences, but essentially there have been no health or ecological problems associated with growing GM crops. Like the fact they have been grown in dozens of countries now for more than a decade." Jimmy: " Do you think GM crops could help feed the world?" Bruce: " I think GM crops could help to solve the problem of feeding the world. But certainly not alone. I think we need to think about producing food in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way, and if GM crops can help us do that then I see them as a benefit."

 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.


Is GM food safe? Doug: "I try to avoid eating genetically modified crops not because I don't think these particular crops are necessarily harmful. But because I'm not confident that theey're food testing enough to know and to be confident whether they are or not. For example at our food and drug administration there are no set tests, there's no long term testing, there is no required testing in any animals to see if the animals are going to be harmed, which we can then extrapolate any harm in humans. And you know some people might say we Americans have been eating this stuff for 10 years and look nobody has gotten sick, people say there has never been a 'sneeze or sniffle'. Well for one thing we clearly don't know that. You can not determine whether or not these crops are causing any harm unless you are going out and actively surveying the population and doing the right kind of studies."

 Jimmy comments –


Jimmy (00:43:52 - 00:45:20): "So far when you look at the risks and who is taking the risks, compared to the benefits and who's getting the benefits. Well obviously the benefits are the large-scale farmers and the companies that are developing it. Their getting the benefit. The risks are taken by everyone who lives around the crops and eats the crops. That's an imbalance to me. If this technology is here, I mean we are arguing and talking and discussing about this technology, is it right, is it wrong, should it be here, its here! And I think the benefits need to be for the people who really need it, the hungry. If I could see people say you know what, 'GM has changed my life, my children are fed, it's saved us', If I could see that or the potential for that, then I'd have to question down sides of it".

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.


"The attitude of Europe has negatively influenced our planers and some of policy makers to believe that maybe there is something wrong with genetic engineering. And we see that as very unfortunate because the needs of Africa are different from the needs of Europeans. In Europe you have too much food, you have plenty of food and many options. In Africa we have a shortage of food, we need to increase food, population is going up, production going down, it is a very serious situation we are facing in the future."

Conclusion –


Jimmy reflects on GM crop technology and how across the world opinion is divided: "In Europe people are prepared to take the law into their own hands to protest against the technology. But in much of the rest of the world their planting it on more and more land each year. But which is the right way to go. Well I don't think that the crops that are been grown at the moment are going to save the world, their good for farmers, there good for profits. But while there are lingering doubts about the safety of GM I think we need to proceed very carefully. But we do need to proceed. The prospect of foods that could help prevent cancer or resist drought or even disease, show the potential that GM technology could have... I think it's madness that we should turn away from this technology. It's maybe not here at the moment but in 10, 15, 20, 50 years time, I mean that technology could be so useful, it has great potential to feed the hungry but that will only ever happen if we carry out some experiments and I think that if your for GM or against it, surely you've got to be for understanding. What ever your argument is you've got to be into finding out knowledge. And with out testing, we'll never know, we'll live in the darkness".

Questions –

  • 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.


One Response to Horizon: Jimmy’s GM Food Fight

  1. […] Horizon: Jimmy’s GM Food Fight « BioethicsBytesJimmy 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 … […]

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