Edited by Peter
Earlier in the year, thanks to the wonderful people who have been supporting me thought patreon, I was able to take the train down to London to attend the annual March Against Monsanto (MAM) protest. The protest took place on Whitehall opposite 10 Downing street, and was attended by around 100-200 protesters, as well as a relatively large number of journalists. The event itself was poorly organised, and had conflicting information on where the protest was to be held; as well as having a late start because of a lack of sound system. When someone finally took the initiative, they used something with such low sound quality that it was very difficult to listen to. Also, rather embarrassingly, at one point a MAM speaker was drowned-out by an adjacent protest of less then 10 men who came prepared with decent sound equipment. The march was also not a march at all, but more of a Standing Still Against Monsanto protest – as nobody moved and, unlike the MAM protest I attended in Nottingham the previous year, there was a distinct lack of people dressed up. How very disappointing.
Very early on, it became clear that these protesters, like the ones in Nottingham, were not just there to protest against the agrochemical and agricultural giant Monsanto – but genetically engineering in general. Although I have no problem with people bashing large corporations they deem to be unethical, I do have a problem with people using bad research, fraudulent data, ignorance, and flat out lies to discredit a technology they simply don’t like or don’t understand and, boy, do the majority not understand it. Most of the people I talked to were there specifically because of their opposition of GM technology, and were unable to answer basic follow up questions after being asked “Why are you here today?” Over the next few months, I plan to write a series of blog posts fact-checking some of the statements made by the protesters that allowed me to interview them, and those who gave speeches that day. I wanted to start on a high note with Liz O’Neil from GM-Freeze who, quite frankly, was a cut above the rest.
Liz is the director of GM-Freeze, an organisation that works to “champion the public’s deep concern about genetic modification in food and farming” and that is deeply concerned with the “speed at which genetic modification is being introduced into food and farming”. Those of you with a good memory will know that I was once on the radio with Liz debating the pros and cons of GM technology in agriculture. Although the debate got rather heated, I enjoyed talking to her, and after I discovered that she would be attending the protest in London, I was excited to meet her and listen to what she had to say.
In the speech Liz gave, she lists various reasons you should be worried about GMOs, however I am only going to concentrate on two of her most convincing arguments that were based in science. The first was that Monsantos herbicide Roundup (Glyphosate), which can be used on GM Roundup Ready crops, is responsible for the decline in the Monarch butterfly in North America.
The numbers of the the Monarch butterfly have been worryingly decreasing over the past few decades, with the population in some areas dropping by over 50% in the past 20 years. Many people have looked into the cause of the decline and, as Liz correctly stated, some peer-reviewed papers have put the blame on Roundup. One of the papers I believe she is referencing was ‘Reduction in common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) occurrence in Iowa cropland from 1999 to 2009’, which correlates the decline in butterfly numbers with the increased use of GM technology in the area over a ten year period. The paper claims that the increased use of the weed killer has decimated the areas population of milkweed, which the Monarch butterfly uses to lay its eggs on, as well as using it for food for their young; resulting in the decreased population we see today. Although one could argue correlation does not prove causation, you can’t deny that it’s a sound argument rooted in reality. So, am I saying that Roundup is responsible for the decreased number of Monarch butterflies as Liz stated?……..yes….kinda.
Although scientists have noted that milkweed is on the decline outside of farmers fields, they agree that Roundup has played its part in the decline of the Monarch butterfly. So should we ban Roundup? No! Roundup is simply doing its job as a herbicide and killing weeds and milkweed which, as its name suggests, is a weed. If it were to be banned, then it would force farmers to use another herbicide (which could be potentially more damaging to the environment) to kill the milkweed, resulting in the same decline in the population. The truth is that the intensive farming techniques we have come to rely on to produce higher yields are the true culprits behind the decline in butterflies. This includes organic farming, in which they also remove the plant from their fields in an effort to increase yields.
The second reason Liz believes we should be worried about GMOs is that the World Health Organisation recently stated that Roundup was a possible carcinogen. It is true that in March of 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified, among other things, Roundup as “probably carcinogenic to humans (Group 2A)”. To come to this conclusion, the IARC seem to have only looked at a limited number of studies, and seem to have disregarded those that contradict their conclusion. For example, they failed to mention the Agricultural Health Study, which was a multi-million dollar study funded by the U.S. taxpayers over 20 years, involving over 89,000 people to investigate the health of American farmers, and found no credible evidence that glyphosate causes cancer. But let’s say that the IARC are correct, and Roundup should be placed in group 2A – a group that the IARC says there is “limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans” – then it shares its classification with hairdressing and working shifts.
At the end of the day, if Liz was 100% correct regarding Roundup, and it was completely responsible for the decline in Monarch butterflies and was discovered to be a group 1 carcinogen, then Roundup ready crop would be an example of just one type of GMO that would be unstable in the market. As I have said to death in the past, the ability to modify an organisms DNA is a tool – not the final product.
Before I left London, I asked Liz if she would answer a few questions about her speech, and she kindly agreed.
I would like to end by saying how much I appreciated Liz taking the time to talk to me and that, when all is said and done, I think she is kinda cool. It was nice to meet someone who felt as passionately as I do about GMOs (albeit on the opposing side), but did not give off a smug “I’m better than you“ vibe, and it was nice to finally hear something from someone who is against GM-technology in agriculture based, somewhat, on facts.
A tip of the hat you you Liz.