One of the big stories on my Facebook feed at the moment alerted me to Food Matters Aortearoa and its upcoming Wellington conference. The program for this conference has certainly generated a lot of interest among my friends.
The focus of that interest lies in the line-up of speakers & the agenda of their tour – something my friend & blog-buddy Grant has also written about. The blurb for the Christchurch event pretty much sets the scene: the speakers there (Seralini & Douzelet)
will reveal their experiences with the health problems that chemically grown food can generate
Er, ‘chemically grown food’??? All our food is comprised of chemicals!
But what of the speakers? As Grant notes, Dr Gilles Seralini is perhaps best-known in scientific circles for a now infamous study on the toxicity both of the herbicide Roundup and of maize treated with it. The original paper was retracted but subsequently re-published (seemingly, without any further peer review), without any real attempt to address any of the issues that led to the retraction: the small sample size and the appalling lack of ethical treatment of the study animals (which were allowed to live with extremely large tumours rather than being euthanized at an early stage of tumour development), among others.
Dr Vandana Shiva has done some admirable work around conservation and supporting women farmers in India. However, she has also made some highly questionable claims, including the incorrect but oft-quoted statement that the use of GM cotton led to a marked increase in suicides among Indian farmers. While people may oppose the use of GM technology for a variety of reasons, using demonstrably incorrect information doesn't bolster their case. There's an interesting article on Dr Shiva on the New Yorker website, and a discussion on ResearchGate links to a number of valuable resources that look at other claims (for example, the patenting of seeds pre-dates GM technology by some decades).
Similarly, the other major international speaker, Dr Huber, also opposes the use of GM technology & of genetically-modified organisms. I have to say that I continue to be puzzled to the opposition from some quarters to the use of modern genetic modification techniques, while the effects of other tools such as mutation breeding are ignored. Yet the first involves one to a few genes and is well-tested and highly regulated, while the second – which is not regulated in any way – is completely unpredictable and can affect a very large number of gene loci. (A 2008 study found that mutation breeding produced far more genetic change than did transgenesis, & concluded that "the safety assessment of improved plant varieties should be carried out on a case-by-case basis and not simply restricted to foods obtained through genetic engineering.")
On the face of it, this conference and the associated publicity could offer the opportunity to have some valuable discussion on issues such as the future of agriculture in a time of climbing global population and widespread environmental change, and the safety of GMOs and the various techniques used to produce them. However, since the conference appears to have a strong anti-GMO slant, I doubt this will happen – although I'm prepared to be pleasantly surprised.