ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

Lord Haskins: spectacular hype and merchant of doom

Lord Haskins is said to be one of Tony Blair's closest advisors and is the 'UK Rural Recovery co-ordinator'. Passionately pro-GM, Haskins frequently makes vehement attacks on GM critics like the Prince of Wales and on organic farming. On one occasion he remarked, "Let the heir to the throne enjoy his excellent if somewhat risky organic food..." but ""Let my cattle enjoy their genetically modified soya" and "let the poor, starving people of the world have access to safe, affordable food - which GM food will probably offer them."

This champion of the poor and hungry was until recently chairman of Northern Foods, a corporate giant with a turnover of £1.2 billion. A man of principal, Haskins has spoken out strongly against retailers and manufacturers who have "banned the use of GM ingredients in their products." [UK: Northern Foods' Haskins slams organics movement, supports GM food - 26 Feb 2001, Source:] This despite the fact that Northern Foods also removed GM ingredients from its products in response to customer demand.

With regard to the future of food and farming, Haskins defines himself as an optimist, opposing what he terms "the prophets of doom". However, Haskins is very far from averse to his own brand of doom-mongering when it comes to organic agriculture. According to Haskins, "A wholly organic world agricultural system would quickly lead to mass starvation" [Haskins slams organics movement], not to mention "economic and political collapse in much of the developing world..." "The answer", according to a BBC Wales lecture he gave in February 2002, lies rather "in genetic modification raising food outputs to spectacular heights". [Lord Haskins criticises GM opposition, BBC, Thursday, 21 February, 2002]

Needless to say, Haskins presents no evidence in support of these claims, whether it's casting aspersions on the safety of organic food, predicting mass starvation and political and econmic collapse if organic farming is widely practised, or promoting GM food as the miraculous "answer" to the problems of food and farming.

BOGUS: "somewhat risky organic food" - Lord Haskins
A UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) report concluded organic practices actually reduce the e-coli infection that causes food poisoning and they also reduce the levels of contaminants in foods. Among the FAO's other conclusions:

BOGUS: "The answer lies in genetic modification raising food outputs to spectacular heights" - Lord Haskins
As University of Minnesota economist, Vernon W.Ruttan, has noted, despite all of the industry hype on this issue, "Thus far, biotechnology has not raised the yield potential of crops" [Economist: Biotech Has Not Made Impact Yet , 11-21-2000 - Edited by Laura Engelson, Regional Editor, Farm Progress] Indeed, thousands of controlled varietal trials show that yield losses, not yield gains, are more commonly associated with GM crops. [GM crops have failed]  Thus, the claim that GM will raise food production to "spectacular heights", like Haskins' other colourful claims, is no more than a statement of faith lacking any evidential base.

BOGUS: "A wholly organic world agricultural system would quickly lead to mass starvation" and "to economic and political collapse in much of the developing world" - Lord Haskins
The viability of sustainable non-GM alternatives, including fully organic approaches, has been demonstrated time and again. In one recent report it was noted how "organic and agroecological farming can significantly increase yields for resource poor farmers, improve food security and sustain and enhance the environmental resources on which agriculture in the South depends." Case studies in the report show how through moving away from intensive agrochemical use in favour of composting, green manures, cover crops and other low input or fully organic systems:

Another major research project from Prof Jules Pretty at the University of Essex shows farmers in the South achieving yield increases of 50-100% for rainfed agriculture, and 5-10% for irrigated crops.

When that research was published in February 2001, the New Scientist commented, "Low-tech 'sustainable agriculture,' shunning chemicals in favour of natural pest control and fertiliser, is pushing up crop yields on poor farms across the world, often by 70 per cent or more... The findings will make sobering reading for people convinced that only genetically modified crops can feed the planet's hungry in the 21st century... A new science-based revolution is gaining strength built on real research into what works best on the small farms where a billion or more of the world's hungry live and work... It is time for the major agricultural research centres and their funding agencies to join the revolution."

Thus, quite unlike for GM crops, there is real evidence for increased yields with the very type of approach that Haskins claims would lead to "mass starvation" and "to economic and political collapse in much of the developing world".

In addition, organic production actually opens up markets, as the FAO has recently noted in urging poor nations to boost exports of organic produce to take advantage of booming markets in developed countries[], while GM crops are shutting farmers out of major export markets in Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

This is not to forget, of course, that feeding the world's hungry involves far more than just agricultural production. For example, year after year  in India massive grain surpluses rot in storage in a country where a third of the world's hungry reside []. This is why even the head of  Novartis Seeds, Steve Smith, has warned, "If anyone tells you that GM is going to feed the world, tell them that it is not." []

Such realism, however, is of no interest to those like Lord Haskins who are more interested in echoing the spectacular hype of Monsanto while doom-mongering about organic food.

EXCERPTS from Haskins' BBC Wales lecture on the 'The Future of Food and Farming', February 2002

Lord Haskins: "For centuries the prophets of doom have had a field day - forgive the pun - about the future of food and agriculture.

The 18th Century British political economist Malthus forecast that the world would not be able to feed its growing population.

...if he was alive today, Malthus might still argue that there must be a limit to this use of chemicals, fungicides, pesticides and pharmaceuticals. He might claim that machines cannot get any bigger, water is getting scarcer, there is much less new land available for cultivation without having a damaging effect on the environment and there is little further scope for food preservation. Environmentalists and animal welfare campaigners already argue for a fully organic approach to food production. This would certainly bring Malthus's worst predictions to fruition as organic farming is much less productive than
"conventional" farming and consequently, there would be less food available and food prices would soar. It would lead to economic and political collapse in much of the developing world...

So why am I confident the world will find ways of feeding an extra 3bn people, confounding the Malthusisms once again? The answer lies in genetic modification raising food outputs to spectacular heights, satellite technology squeezing vital improvements from harvests and the elimination of inefficiencies in agricultural industries across the world."

"We strongly object that the image of the poor and hungry from our countries is being used by giant multinational corporations to push a technology that is neither safe, environmentally friendly, nor economically beneficial to us."
Part of a statment by delegates from 22 African countries to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation on the subject of GE in food and farming
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