While searching for other blogs and news sources posting about the recent Field Liberation Day protest in Belgium, I came across this post on Biofortified, a blog that promotes genetic engineering and GM crops. There were so many strange things said by them, I thought as a public service I would both point out the opinions from ‘the other side’, and also set a few things straight.
For the sake of clarity, I’m only including a few quotes of the original post and comments, and I would encourage anyone reading this to have a look at the original post linked to above, and convince yourself I’m not taking anything unfairly out of context. Maybe you’ll get an insight into how ‘the other side’ thinks?? I dunno…
French anti-science vandals invade a Belgium farm and destroy crops
Phytophthora infestans causes ‘late blight’ in potatoes. In regions of potato cultivation with a temperate climate, like Belgium, this is the single most dangerous disease. The disease costs farmers in Belgium about 55 million euros annually, and controlling it causes significant environmental pressure. However, in the last few years a number of resistant varieties based on conventional plant breeding techniques were introduced to the market, and work is being done on developing genetically modified Phytophthora-resistant lines.
These GM plant are environmentally much more friendly than some existing methods of treating fungus attack on plants such as the commonly used toxic copper sulphate.
But the GM potatoes will not be used if the anti-GM fanatics have their way.
A research field trial of these blight-resistant potatoes has just been destroyed in Belgium.
Some anti-technology activists came by bus from France to destroy the fields.
Okay, where to start. First of all the participants were primarily Belgian.
In Belgium three languages are commonly spoken French, Flemish/Dutch and English. The first two are languages of the neighboring countries France and The Netherlands, as well as native languages of the Belgian people. English is a sort of neutral language, as well as being the language most people from other countries speak. When promoting the event, it’s logical the promotion would be in these three languages. They were trying to promote the event both in Belgium and abroad.
The vast majority of participants, many of them known by me personally, were from Belgium. The main organizer was a Flemish/Dutch speaking Belgian. I know this from listening to the accents and languages spoken in the videos I posted, by reading news reports and blog post on the Internet, and from private email correspondence. Trust me, it would have been big news if large numbers of people had come in from France for an event like this, and no mention of it has been made anywhere except on Biofortified.
The link provided on Biofortified points to a website in France promoting the event in French. There’s no indication anywhere unusually large numbers of people came from France as a result of this promotion.
As far as being anti-science vandals, what about the scientists in the action? For example Barbara van Dyck, who lost her job at the Catholic University of Leuven for participating. Perhaps if you support her termination from the university, you should send an email stating she was ‘anti-science’ as a reason and see if it helps? I wonder if the truth was more the demonstrators were not so much anti-science, but rather anti this author’s version of science. I think in fact most participants consider themselves very strong proponents of science. My position is certainly pro-science.
While it’s very true Phytophthora costs Belgian farmers lots of money, the problem is really a lack of promotion of the already available Phytophthora resistant varieties, and lack of investment in developing new traditionally bred resistant lines. Consumers do not want GM potatoes, and there is no legitimate reason to develop them except to force consumers to accept something they don’t want. There is also strong pressure from the agri-chemical industry to continue promoting non-resistant varieties, until such time as GM varieties are available to take their place, because there are lots of profits in selling the chemicals used to combat Phytophthora.
The reality is in a few years the chemicals used to combat Phytophthora will be phased out in Europe, because they are too damaging to the environment. This measure has already been passed by the European Parliament. The large agricultural interests hope at that time the only viable varieties available will be GM resistant varieties. There is no truth to the idea that the GM potatoes are ‘better for the environment’, they are simply being developed for commercial reasons.
The use of copper sulphate really has very little to do with this discussion or with Phytophthora on potatoes. It’s true copper sprays can be used to combat Phytophthora, and it’s true this is used in Europe. Copper sprays happen to be illegal in The Netherlands, one of the largest potato growing regions. Copper sprays are also of limited use with potatoes. Copper is mostly used on grape vines in places like Italy and France, or on tomatoes.
The reason copper sprays are of limited use with potatoes, is they are relatively expensive compared to the crop produced as well as Phytophthora is not an immediately fatal disease, or as the author on Biofortified says ‘dangerous’ disease, in organic agriculture. There are a variety of techniques that can be used to manage Phytophthora without chemicals, like removing infected haulms. These methods are not practical in large scale mono-cultures, but neither is wide scale spraying of copper based chemicals. I wonder if the author on Biofortified has ever grown potatoes?
- Talking to activists about the science didn’t work.
Jo Bury, the director of the VIB science research institute that planted the potatoes, said around 100 scientists had tried to talk the actists out of vandalism.
“We are deeply shocked about the violent actions by the activists of the Field Liberation Movement. The field trial with blight resistant potatoes was almost entirely destroyed. Our hearts are with the scientists whose hard work was destroyed today.”
“Althought his is a dark day for science as a whole, we want to thank all 350 scientists and farmers who came out and supported Save Our Science. It was a strong message to the world that we believe that science has an important role to play in the development of environmental friendly agriculture” Geert Angenon, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Geert De Jaeger, UGent, Rony Swennen, K.U.Leuven, Jeroen Crappé.
Okay, no clue. No mention of a counter-demonstration anywhere in anything I’ve read. This is the first I’ve heard of it. There’s little doubt in my mind that the scientists involved in the trials were probably present, and maybe some others. I think this would be pretty normal. But a larger number of ‘pro-science’ scientists than Field Liberation people? That’s a little funny, and certainly no more than a pipe-dream.
As far as the 100 scientists trying to talk the demonstrators out of it, what does that mean exactly? As I read what this author wrote, it seems to suggest 350 scientists showed up but only 100 tried to talk the Field Liberation people out of it. What about the other 250?
Did the attempt to talk the Field Liberation people out of it occur in advance? Was there anything published in writing on their position? Certainly if their arguments were the same as this author, they would have fallen on deaf ears.
The reality is many people behind the Field Liberation Movement are themselves scientists, farmers and otherwise very intelligent people and current in their fields. I’m certain they would welcome sensible public debate on the issues, and are well prepared to hold their own.
7 comments to French anti-science vandals invade a Belgium farm and destroy crops
It’s funny how people are always railing against GMOs claiming their reasoning herbicides this and Bt that and Monsanto the other thing, while saying they’re not against the science, they just want more research. I assume there will be a huge outcry among the anti-GMO people for destroying the research (which appears to be government funded non-corporate) they claim they want done on the traits they don’t claim to find fault with….right after they get around to objecting the destruction of those French government run virus resistant GM grape rootstocks a while back.
The standard objections of anti-GMO activists don’t apply in this case. Potato is not native to Europe, there are no near-relative weedy species that it can cross pollinate with. Commercial potato isn’t propagated by seed, it is propagated clonally by bits of root. The traits can’t spread by pollen to other fields or contaminate other potato crops.
These are the same people who trashed GM grape rootstocks. Yeah, rootstocks, so not even the flower or fruit were genetically engineered. I think it’s safe to say the standard objections are really just lame excuses for common thugs to break something. Must make them feel real big. They’re probably laughing it up and patting themselves on the back for the great blow they think they struck to Monsanto (the fact that this was not Monsanto’s research is likely lost on them).
Concerning this “research”, one row of potatoes was from BASF.
The “traditional’ arguments against GM are still functioning in this case : those potatoes are “pesticide patented clones”.
The industrialized “pesticide” system is responsible of an enormous part of today’s environmental disaster (more than half of GHG emissions due to our food and agri system, according to Olivier De Schutter, UN Rapporteur on the Right to Food + Soil erosion, oil-dependent unsustainable system), and those plants keep on pushing in this direction.
Patenting the living brings to corporate takeover on seeds, the most important thing on the food chain (more infos http://www.grain.org/docs/trips.pdf). Our economic system hates what’s free, like nature’s work on plants. If privatizing life is a synonymous of “progress”, then we’re going forward at high speed.
Clones in the fields means biodiversity loss, more diseases, threats on health.
The “usual” arguments of pro-GM people imply to continue in the system responsible for today’s economic (farmers situation in developed countries), social (one billion persons starving) and environmental (agri and food system responsible for more than 50% of GHG emissions) disasters, claiming that it will bring solutions. We may have a small problem of coherency…
Whereas solutions exist. Sustainable small scale family farming can feed the world – even with 10 billion persons. Actually, it already does… The main problem is repartition of food produced (70% of world agricultural land directly or indirectly for feeding cattle), eating habits (too much meat in developed countries), and production system.
Karl Haro von Mogel:
Oh no – one row of potatoes was from BASF? Then they must all be ripped out! Seriously, that is a bad reason. If BASF has a blight-resistant potato then it is entirely appropriate to evaluate it alongside other varieties.
The rest of your comment demonstrates that you don’t know how potatoes are grown – potato varieties are all clones of one good plant, produced through tubers. Even your favorite old varieties grown on organic farms are clones.
Where to start, so much misinformation. The genes for resistance came from wild relatives of potato. These genes have been introduced via cross-breeding in other strains of potato.
The idea behind using these natural resistance genes is so that the use of synthetic fungicides is reduced or even eliminated. Isn’t the reduction of use of synthetic pesticides a good thing?
You can’t just stop using fungicides on potatoes if they are not resistant because the entire crop can be destroyed. This fungus is what caused the Irish potato famine which killed over a million people from starvation because it destroyed the potato crop.
Commercially grown potatoes are always clonal.
Growth of potato strains other than these clonal potatoes will not be affected. They may even benefit because these potatoes are resistant to the fungus, if they are planted they will not increase the growth, spread and persistence of the fungus which could affect non-resistant potatoes.
I agree: misinformation, catastrophization, emotional language and outright lies are all too common. People LIKE to be excited, but don’t like to grind through research. They LIKE to play the White Knight, but may need to invent a dragon to do so. It’s more exciting and feels more Noble to fight a Vast International Conspiracy than to address sewage treatment and drinking water contamination.
I think a lot of the problem is related to the game of “Telephone”: Person 1 hears that there may be a possibility of a slight risk of a minor side-effect, and passes that information on. Person 342 hears that there is a virtual certainty of a global catastrophe, and communicates this to Person 1, and the cycle continues.
Credulity, poor understanding of statistics, science, and risk-assessment and the excitement of being a member of a Just Cause combine to generate a population resistant to reassessing their positions and who are sometimes effectively manipulated, and not in a good way.
I think the comments mostly speak for themselves. I agree, misinformation. I have sympathy for BenB. How can you soar like an eagle when you’re surrounded by turkeys? I’ll correct a few errors.
First of all the genes used in these GM potatoes are from very poisonous wild relatives genetically incompatible with ordinary potatoes. They can’t cross breed as far as I know and certainly there was no attempt to get them into ordinary potatoes with traditional breeding. Isn’t this of concern to some people reading this? Genes from poisonous wild relatives, inserted into something intended for food, without any credible public or peer reviewed safety testing?
And it pains me to have to say this, but yes potatoes are propagated by tuber or meristem cloning, but you don’t have to grow them in monocultures! Like any other crop you can work with a number of different varieties and inter-crop them with other plants. The GM potatoes are being developed for use in monocultures, and it’s the intention we become dependent on a small number of patented genes to protect one of the worlds most important crops from a repeat of the Irish Potato Famine.
Does it help us all to know how the other side thinks?