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Friday, October 8, 1999 Published at 08:07 GMT 09:07 UK


Sci/Tech

Peter Melchett: In his own words



Peter Melchett, the executive director of Greenpeace UK, is a fierce opponent of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs). He believes the technology will do immense harm to our countryside and promotes organic agriculture as the only sustainable solution for the future.

Read the entire speech he gave to the 4th Annual Greenpeace Business Conference and then e-mail us with your opinions.

You can also read the speech Bob Shapiro, chairman and chief executive of Monsanto, gave to the same conference.

Agriculture at a crossroads: Will organic farming succeed? - by Peter Melchett

Monsanto made huge efforts to push its products in every direction with the full support of multinational food manufacturers, retailers, communications firms, regulators, even governments. Yet there's been a massive public rejection of their vision.

Monsanto has put itself in the uncomfortable, possibly fatal, position of providing the lightening rod for a quite unprecedented, implacable opposition to GM foods across Europe. The company's in trouble on Wall Street - respected financial analysts in the US published a report entitled "GMO's are dead". It seems as if every food manufacturer and supermarket in Britain avoids GM like the plague.

The head of the American Corn Growers Association describes Monsanto's products as an albatross around the neck of farmers. New scientific concerns surface every week, but are ignored by the biotech industry which prefers to try to distract us all with fresh promises of exciting new products just around the corner. Meanwhile, in the marketplace, premiums are now being paid for GM-free crops. Monsanto must be wondering where it all went wrong.

I want to give you a Greenpeace view of where it did all go wrong. I hope this will be a constructive contribution to the "dialogue" Bob Shapiro, the chairman of Monsanto, now says he wants. The economic and political disaster Monsanto contrived has important lessons for the future of every large corporation, and for governments. It's all too easy for the ignorant and short-sighted to blame environmental groups and the media for spreading hysteria using emotional arguments and generally stirring up an otherwise happily acquiescent public. This is an argument we hear from a great many people who should know better. It isn't just a weak excuse, it's palpable and dangerous nonsense.

'GM by stealth'

It obscures the true nature of the situation which is that a well educated and well-informed public have taken a careful look at what Monsanto is offering and have said "no". The rejection is all the stronger because of the conviction that Monsanto and other chemical companies attempted to impose GM ingredients on the public by stealth - this caused real outrage. Monsanto made a number of mistakes - it acknowledges them - but the fundamental error was to fail to understand the way public values are developing in Europe and across much of the rest of the world.

The vast majority of people are not anti-science, nor are they luddites. On the contrary, people embrace mobile telephones, they embrace the Internet, digital television, keyhole surgery and GM medicines - and they embrace them with great enthusiasm. Greenpeace promote scientific innovation, we promote solar electricity, ozone and climate-friendly refrigeration and air conditioning. And we've promoted the world's first non-PVC credit card, made from Monsanto's own bio-degradable, non-GM plastic.

The people are increasingly aware and mistrustful of the combination of big science and big business. They have a realistic sense of the limits of scientific knowledge and about the genuine unknowns than the scientific and political elite appear to comprehend.

People increasingly understand just how difficult it is for governments and regulators to protect the wider public interest in the runaway world of deregulation, free trade and the WTO. In the United States, you have, for example, seen massive public reaction to the dangers of pesticide residues on fruit and to the links between numerous toxic but approved chemicals and breast cancer. In Europe, we've had mad cow disease. Worldwide, we've seen chemicals that were fiercely defended as safe, like DDT and CFCs, now all condemned.

'Nulcear tragedy'

Nuclear technology, originally promoted by scientists and governments as safe, economic and absolutely necessary to human progress and development, is now utterly rejected - rightly so as the recent tragedy in Japan and the recent farce and confusion at Sellafield have reminded all of us.

In the face of all this, people have learnt to make up their own minds and take responsibility for their own actions, and people scorn patronising assumptions based on the premise that they don't know what's good for them. On the contrary, people insist that it is their society and their world and they will decide what's acceptable and what is not.

There are of course some people in important positions who place the idea of GM food into a package labelled "modern progressive things we believe in at all costs and must support for the sake of the nation". They seem genuinely perplexed and even rather hurt at the outright public rejection of this part of their package, as if we were all somehow being rather ungrateful. And yet, Amery Lobbins, the author of an important new book subtitled "The Next Industrial Revolution", sees things rather differently.

He embraces fuel cells, hyper-cars, advance materials and technologies of every sort but his verdict on genetic engineering is uncompromising. He says: "It's ambition is to replace nature's wisdom with people's cleverness, to treat nature not as a model and mentor but as a set of limits to be evaded when inconvenient, not to study nature but to re-structure it. The transformation of plant genetics is being accelerated from the measured pace of biological evolution to the speed of the next quarter's earnings report".

'Civilised values'

The movements for equal rights and fundamental human freedoms, our ever-expanding understanding of scientific knowledge, and our growing realisation that we need to act in accordance with the limits the planet places on us, are all part of the growth of more civilised human societies. The coming worldwide rejection of GM food shows people acting in line with civilised values and feelings about our relationship with nature.

It's great for any business leader like Monsanto's chairman, Bob Shapiro, to try, as he certainly does, to think in a joined-up, long-term fashion about resource pressures and future human needs - very few do. Greenpeace has been saying for years that there's a desperate need for more long-term thinking. We agree with Bob that things can't go on as they are, but we fundamentally disagree with his vision of the solution.

His vision fails, I think, because it's highly selective, driven by a blinkered view of the technical possibilities, rather than by a balanced understanding of social and environmental needs and realities in the real world. It perpetuates the technocratic, top-down approach that so often succeeds only by working against the grain of nature. It promotes false promises of easy alternatives via short-term technical fixes, and it increases the imbalance of power between multinational corporations and farmers in the developing world.

'Monsanto bullies'

Monsanto behaves not as a company offering life and hope but as a bully trying to force its products on us. It sues those that oppose it, suppressing, not encouraging, debate. And when it does debate, as in its recent UK press ads, Monsanto gets it wrong.

I've lived on and off all my life on the East Coast of England in the Norfolk Countryside. As a child, a walk to the end of the garden brought me to fields full of wild flowers, insects and birds. We saw birds like Sky Larks, Tree Sparrows or Corn Buntings. These were common birds because they were part of everyone's experience. Today, they are all on red lists - they're endangered or threatened. In the brief half century of my life, we've stripped bare the face of our countryside. Gone are movement, scent, sound and colour. We are living in the future that Rachel Carson foresaw in her book Silent Spring. But I've also seen that bees, wild flowers, and birds like Sky Larks can return. I know that this amazing reversal of the destruction we've caused during the second part of this century is threatened not helped by GM technology.

Agricultural GM techniques have been the subject of an immense amount of hype, portraying them as the future and even essential for our survival as a species. In reality, they represent the past, a past in which over confident technologists, out of touch with the values and aspirations of ordinary people, have tried to impose solutions on society.

It is a past in which governments and big industries were in bed together, apparently incapable of being honest about the limits of their understanding, seeing only what they wanted to see, looking only for what they wanted to find. It was a past in which the contrary view of the citizens was dismissed as irrelevant and their complaints derided as ignorant, emotional even hysterical.

Web of life

I admit life science is a good name but Monsanto applied it to the wrong sort of science. We do need to set about restoring the Earth, mending the tattered web of life and building, nurturing, sustaining systems that support life on Earth. Everything we've actually seen of GM food and farming so far is bad and is taking us in the wrong direction. It is the latest and the least acceptable aspect of the industrialisation and intensification of agriculture.

A truly visionary, holistic life science which combines the fundamental goal of achieving agricultural production while sustaining life in all its rich diversity does already exist. It is directly in tune with public values, it works by making the most of natural processes, it produces food of the highest quality and it brings premium prices for farmers. It's called organic agriculture. Organic agriculture is striking a huge public chord. Ask the supermarkets. Look at the opinion polls. As an industry, it's currently growing faster than computers or telecommunications. The potential is immense precisely because organic agriculture goes with the grain of what people understand to be good for themselves and for the environment.

People know what kind of world they want for themselves and their children. They know how they want companies to behave and they know how they want their food to be produced and Monsanto, I believe, are blocking that progress. The unrealised potential of organic agriculture is immense. It simply needs the application of the sort of technical skills and resources that are being squandered on GM technology and industrial agriculture.

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