Environment Secretary Liz Truss ‘must not put the clock back’ on GM food, peers were told yesterday, during a debate in which organic farming was compared to witchcraft and homeopathy.
Instead, said Liberal Democrat peer Lord Taverne, the department should divert £20 million earmarked as organic incentives for farmers into GM research at sites such as Rothampstead in Cambridgeshire.
Discussing the results of a study published in the British Journal of Nutrition, which found organic fruit and vegetables had increased levels of anti-oxidants, Lord Taverne said Defra’s policy had become more evidence-based.
Baron Taverne, a fierce campaigner for science and a leading member of the humanist movement, continued: “It is now firmly pro-GM and seems sceptical about the merits of organic farming – progress at last. I hope that Mr Paterson’s successor does not put the clock back.
“The safety threshold for the use of artificial pesticides is so cautiously set that there is virtually no possibility of harm from their residues when we eat conventionally grown food. As the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and others have pointed out, one cup of coffee contains more carcinogens than you would ingest from a whole year’s consumption of pesticide residues in fruit and vegetables.
“The organic movement has ignored the most elaborate and careful scientific study conducted so far on the nutrient content of organic foods. That was a study by Dr Alan Dangour for the Food Standards Agency. It found no extra health benefits from organically grown crops compared with those grown conventionally.
“However, the study published in the British Journal of Nutrition is the first serious study commissioned by the organic movement itself, and that has to be applauded. It was financed by the Sheepdrove Trust, which promotes organic farming, though of course that in itself does not invalidate its findings. Whether research is financed by Greenpeace or Monsanto is irrelevant if experiments can be reproduced and findings confirmed by independent expert scientists.
“The article in question is based on a large number of peer-reviewed papers. The trouble is that scrutiny by expert opinion has found that its conclusions are flawed.”
“Defra should make one important change of policy. It should stop spending more than £20 million a year on subsidising farmers to change to organic farming. Instead, the money should be spent on public research in plant science at our world-class institutes - the John Innes Centre, Rothamsted and the Scottish Crop Research Institute - for which £20 million would make a huge difference. It would be a far more beneficial use of public funds.”
Viscount Ridley, a Conservative peer and farmer, also contributed. said: “Many people buy organic food because they think it is healthier, and it is very important to find out whether that is true so as to be able to inform people whether they are right in that or they are being deceived. Study after study has failed to find a significant benefit from organic foods.”
However, Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer, a Liberal Democrat peer from Somerset defended the research, saying many of the criticisms of the research lay outside its actual remit.
She told those present: “I think that the way in which my noble friend has posed the Question rather extrapolates the research beyond what it claimed. The way the Question is posed suggests that health benefits have been claimed by this research, and I think that that is incorrect.
“What it claims is that there are higher levels of antioxidants in organic vegetables and that there are somewhat lower levels of pesticide residues. Others, including my noble friend, have extrapolated conclusions which go beyond this piece of research.
“Here in the UK, I think that we have become quite complacent about the use of pesticides because we have a well regulated system and our farmers are very responsible in their use. But as someone who grew up in the shadow of the DDT crisis, I remain very aware of the dangers they can pose to our entire ecosystem. Nowadays we have endocrine disrupters which scientists agree are likely to pose a similar threat through inhibiting many species from breeding. That is the nub of the problem.
“The overuse of any of these manufactured pesticides can have effects that are so long term that it is hard for us to measure them in five, 10 or even 20 years.
“I welcomed the NFU’s measured tone when it addressed the subject of my noble friend’s debate. It said: ‘The NFU would welcome further research into any nutritional differences between organic and conventionally farmed food. If future research could prove that organic food does provide additional nutritional benefits to conventionally farmed food it would help strengthen the organic point of difference to consumers’.
“To me, however, the organic movement is not primarily about my own health benefits. It is about the health benefits to the entire ecosystem and to future generations.”