Environmentalists challenge eco-claims of Channel 4 documentary

By Ellen Teague
November 5, 2010

Calls to embrace genetically-modified (GM) crops and nuclear power in order to tackle climate change have been rejected by campaigners.

In a documentary screened last night on Channel 4, ‘What the Green Movement Got Wrong’, environmental groups like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace were accused of 'clinging' to out-dated ideological opposition to biotechnology and nuclear power.

But a coalition of anti-GM campaigners, including the Indian ecologist Vandana Shiva, who spoke at this year’s National Justice and Peace Network Conference in Derbyshire, have complained to the makers of the documentary that both the Southern-based commentators speaking out in favour of GM crops in the programme are in employment funded by major biotech companies.

The letter sent to Channel 4 programme makers states: “Where it has been adopted, GM hasn't worked to deliver food security for poor or vulnerable communities in the Global South. There is no evidence that it will do so in the future - drought and salinity-resistant GM crops do not exist - and are unlikely to appear any time soon.

“Only two types of technology have been successfully commercialised: those resistant to a particular type of herbicide, and those resistant to one specific type of pest. Neither of these technologies in any way address the causes of hunger. But the expensive and patented seeds have made seed saving illegal, taking away poor farmers' most basic rights and resources.”

This view was supported in 2008 by the IAASTD (International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development) report, produced by 400 scientific experts and signed up to by some 60 governments. It reported that after more than 10 years of commercialisation, GM crops had done nothing to help with the eradication of hunger or poverty, or the reversal of the environmental degradation caused by industrial agriculture.

The IAASTD instead championed organic, small-scale farming as being able to deliver increased yields without accompanying environmental and social damage. This view got scant attention in last night’s programme. And it is one shared by Columbans in the Philippines, who run two organic farms. One of them on Negros has demonstrated that organic corn is as productive as GM corn without involving patented GM seeds from biotech companies which low-income farmers can ill afford.

The Columban Missionary Society has run an international campaign against the patenting of life, and works in close collaboration with cooperatives of organic farmers, such as the Masipag farmers of the Philippines, who have shown that they have the knowledge and skills to feed their communities if they are allowed to get on with it. Another Columban campaign is on climate change and it held a major conference on the issue in 2007. The first recommendation was that the need to reduce carbon emissions obliges Columbans to review and change corporate and individual lifestyles, an issue ignored by the Channel 4 programme. And this is a dimension taken up in the UK by the Livesimply campaign, which has had a significant impact on the Catholic community.

Columban eco-theologian Sean McDonagh, who worked for two decades with indigenous people in the Philippines, has long campaigned against both GM crops and nuclear power. He says that “neither GM crops nor nuclear power are necessary in a sustainable world”. He challenges the argument that GM crops will meet the challenge of climate change, and suggests that the churches should be raising ethical questions about the morality involved in the patenting by corporations of living organisms, and seizing control of genetic resources that farmers in the global south have been nurturing for hundreds of years. And in his view there are better, safer and cheaper ways to meet our energy needs in the future than to go down the nuclear power route. He calls on the British government to heed the report of the Sustainable Development Commission in March 2006 which studied the UK’s energy needs of the future and came down firmly against nuclear energy.

Columban Justice and Peace agrees with Vandana Shiva – a former nuclear physicist - that ecological agriculture is a climate solution, yet it receives a fraction of the money devoted to high tech agriculture and nuclear energy. She said at the NJPN Conference in July that “ecological farming, involving biodiversity-based organic farming, produces more food per unit acre and produces more incomes for rural families; it produces healthier food, reduces water use, and is a climate mitigation strategy through absorbing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere”. This kind of environmentalism is not of the elite. It is the way of life for the world’s small farmers, particularly in the global south and particularly women, which has been undervalued by our industrial society.

Ellen Teague is a member of the UK-based Columban Justice and Peace Team.

Keywords:gm crops | channel 4
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