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Jimmy's GM Food Fix

Jonathan Matthews

27th November, 2008

Last year celebrity pig farmer Jimmy Doherty kept 1000 organically reared pigs, while this year apparently he's raised barely 200. But if Jimmy’s farm is on the skids, the same cannot be said of his career as a media celeb.

At the end of last month, a glittering star-studded ceremony in London saw Jimmy crowned “National Farmers' Union (NFU) Farming Champion”, thanks to his recent TV series: Jimmy Doherty’s Farming Heroes. The same series also got cited a couple of weeks later when the star of Jimmy's Farm, picked up an Honorary Doctorate from Anglia Ruskin University.

Farming Heroes took many people by surprise, not least in the mainstream farming community. Farmers Weekly noted, “Half pin-up boy, half boffin, Jimmy Doherty is an unlikely ally of farming... Think agricultural college student meets Essex boy. Son of the soil meets surf dude... A lot of farmers, frankly, hated [Jimmy's Farm] because they reckoned, with its emphasis firmly on drama (basically, he lurched from one crisis to another, many seemingly of his own making), it did nothing to improve the perception of an industry already with a PR problem.”

But the first episode of Farming Heroes marked a sea change. Suddenly, the poster boy for rare breeds and sustainable ag was enthusing over mega arable farms and ultra-modern farm machinery, while telling viewers how vital Big Ag was to feed the world. "Big doesn't necessarily mean bad," declared Jimmy. "Acre for acre, we're world beaters and that's something to be proud of." There was no mention of the hidden costs that can accompany this type of intensive farming.

If, at times, the series seemed to resemble a paid advertisement for the National Farmers Union, there was good reason. Farmers Weekly quoted an NFU spokesperson as saying “mainstream TV ads cost millions of pounds and there is no way we are going to do that," but, “One approach the union has been taking is to work with TV and radio researchers and producers to feed into the production process. An example where this worked well is Jimmy Doherty's Farming Heroes.”

Exactly when Michael Lachmann had the inspired idea of getting Jimmy to front this week’s Horizon programme on GM (BBC2, November 25) is less clear, but it was a stroke of genius by the director. Once again, someone seen by the public as exemplifying an “organic”, “back-to-nature”, “free-range” approach to farming was to be found gee-whizzing over a radically different style of agriculture. “Wow!”, “Unbelievable!” enthused Jimmy in a GM lab, where among other things he got hands on with genetically modifying barley. We were told how “simple” and “natural” GM was and by the end of the programme, Jamie Oliver’s mate was telling us that it would be “madness to turn away from this technology.”  “The science is absolutely amazing,” Jimmy told us. “It offers hope.”

Other up-beat messages the programme pumped out, as it tracked the GM debate from Argentina to Bavaria, from Norwich to Pennsylvania, before rounding up at a research station in Uganda, were: “modifying” plants is “nothing new”, GM is both good for the environment and good for farmers, and there are absolutely no health or ecological problems despite a decade of GM crops. Its most cynically telling message was that the public are prejudiced against GM but can easily be reeducated via a few (misleading!) sound bites delivered by the much-loved Jimmy.

As this indicates, much of the programme’s content was straightforward disinformation. It was even claimed that GM crops reduce pesticide use, despite official US data showing the exact opposite. And while, in the climax to the programme, Jimmy claimed genetic modification of Ugandan bananas would prevent serious crop losses for poor farmers, Ugandan researchers recently admitted to the press that these GM bananas are failing. That’s no great surprise. There’s not a single GM showcase project in Africa that’s ever succeeded. But while they last, these supposed silver bullets make for a PR bonanza.

If this all sounds like Jimmy's GM Food Fight was just a one-sided hype fest, then it’s important to understand that the production was far more carefully crafted than that. Throughout, Jimmy was used to voice concerns over GM, creating an impression that his approach was not only even-handed but ultra-cautious, while the segments of the programme that followed invariably undercut the very concerns Jimmy had just raised. The concerns expressed by Jimmy were in reality linking devices for each successive sales pitch.

The programme’s use of experts was equally sly. On the critical side we got two white males. On the pro-GM side we got diversity: two women GM scientists, a Ugandan scientist, and an American entomologist. The critics were not only outnumbered but got just a fraction of the over-all talking time. Peter Melchett of the Soil Association didn’t even get the opportunity to justify his arguments.

The framing of the critics was equally cynical. Doug Gurian-Sherman was not introduced as a molecular biologist and former Environmental Protection Agency biotech specialist, but as “from the Union of Concerned Scientists which campaigns on GM foods”. And while the pro-GM scientists were filmed in research settings, Dr Gurian-Sherman’s interview took place in an American diner where most of his time was taken up by Jimmy in analysing how many food items in a giant fry-up might contain GM. With his specialist EPA background, he would have been perfect to deal with the environmental issues, but he was never given the chance. Instead we, once again, had vague environmental concerns voiced by Jimmy, then dismissed by a pro-GM scientist.

Finally, there were the many dogs that didn’t bark:

*No mention at all was made of the alternative solutions for tackling food security and intensive agriculture’s environmental problems – solutions found to be far more credible than GM in the recent major UN-backed study: the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD).

*No mention either was made of the fact that these innovative low-cost approaches are already proving particularly effective in assisting resource poor farmers in the developing world, sometimes helping them to double or even triple their yields.

*There was absolutely nothing to indicate that many of those most opposed to GM crops are to be found in the developing world, beyond some cynically misleading information about the Zambian government’s refusal of GM food aid that falsely implied that Africans may have starved and it was all thanks to European hysteria.

*No mention at all was made of the patents and Intellectual Property Rights that encircle GM crops, giving their developers a stranglehold on the food chain.

*No mention was made of the much less controversial biotechnological approaches to plant breeding, like Marker Assisted Selection, that is already making GM look outdated.

And then there was Monsanto - the invisible ghost at Horizon’s GM feast. The M word never once sullied Jimmy’s lips. The PR problem created by the toxic legacy and ultra-aggressive behaviour of a giant corporation that controls over 90% of the world’s GM crops was simply airbrushed away. Instead, GM was represented by scientists from Uganda and the John Innes Centre (JIC) - an institute described by Jimmy as “independent” even though it’s had tens of millions of pounds in funding out of the GM giants it’s jumped into bed with.

Jimmy's GM Food Fight played so much to the JIC’s agenda that, like the NFU, I’d guess the JIC fully understands how to “feed into the production process” to create a prime time soft-sell advertisement. Perhaps they too will now be lining Jimmy up for an award. “JIC GM Champion” might make an appropriate accolade for such a compliant PR asset.

Jonathan Matthews is an editor at GMWatch.

Check out the real facts on GM at: http://www.banGMfood.org

A report on the science communication activities of the John Innes Centre is available at: http://ngin.tripod.com/biospin.htm

On the failure of the GM bananas: http://africasciencenews.org/asns/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=487&Itemid=1

This article first appeared in the Ecologist November 2008

 

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