Jimmy's GM Food Fight – Horizon, BBC Two, Tuesday 25th November
PAN UK welcomes informed debate about agriculture, food, the environment and development. Unfortunately in 'Jimmy's GM Food Fight' the information was unbalanced, and the case against GM unfairly represented. The programme did raise some health and environmental concerns about GM agriculture, but some important strands of the debate were completely omitted. A viewer with no knowledge of these wider issues could easily draw unfounded conclusions about GM technology and its supposed benefits to the environment and development.
Opposition to GM was mainly illustrated by footage of activists destroying crops, rather than by a rational exploration of the valid concerns regarding GM agriculture. A very short interview with Peter Melchett of the Soil Association did not allow enough time to redress the balance.
There were many issues that could have been raised in the programme to present a more rounded debate; two in particular are discussed below.
The programme stated that both herbicide resistant soya, and Bt corn, could be grown with lower levels of pesticide application, and these technologies were thus presented as benefiting the environment. There was no mention of the fact that this is disputed in both cases. Whilst some short term studies show a decrease in pesticide applications, there is also evidence that where GM crops are grown, pesticide use will increase over the long term due to resistant strains of pests arising, and to the arrival of 'secondary pests' when one pest is controlled. GM crops alone cannot lead to an overall reduction in pesticide use in the long term; they could only do so within a good Integrated Pest Management system.
This leads to the second major omission of the programme, which presents GM as a necessary technological solution to the urgent problem of falling food productivity in Africa. PAN UK cannot comment on the particular example that was shown in the programme. However, in general, there are many tools available to increase agricultural productivity. Improvements in soil, water and pest management – in other words, increasing knowledge, rather than inputs – can massively increase yields for many small-scale farmers throughout the world, and without the farmers becoming reliant on an expensive technology. International research collaborations are beginning to acknowledge the underexploited resource that is knowledge based agriculture. There are many scientists, as well as development experts and NGOs, not only in Europe but also in the developing world, who believe that GM does not benefit the environment, and is not an appropriate solution to solve productivity problems. Yet the programme failed to interview, or represent the views of any of these stakeholders in the developing world.
It was very disappointing in the BBC's flagship science and technology programme that a wider range of scientific opinion was not sought. PAN UK sincerely hopes the BBC will be taking steps to redress the imbalance of information presented in this programme.