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Column We should be wary of GM foods, if the past has taught us anything

In the past received wisdom was to blanket our fields in chemicals, writes Walter Ryan-Purcell – so what does that tell us for today?

FORTY YEARS AGO my father told me how much he admired people with engineering and science degrees also having an arts degree. Forty years later, I understand what he meant.

Thirty years ago my father brought me out to the sugar beet field to show me an ugly outgrowth on a sugar beet, and explained that it was cancer, a multiplication of cells. As intensive farmers we spread enormous quantities of artificial fertilisers, nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, and sulphur to make everything grow a lot faster, a multiplication of cells. As dairy farmers we added acid to grass to make silage, used the chemicals ‘Gramoxone’ and ‘Roundup’ to ‘burn off’ all green growth prior to re-seeding.

We used pre-emergent chemical sprays in the tillage fields, we sprayed herbicides, pesticides, and gassed the straw with ammonia to make it more digestible as feed for cows. We sprayed the crops with chemicals to prevent rynchosporium, septoria, and various moulds. We sprayed the potatoes to prevent blight. We sprayed the docks with ‘Bandock’, and the nettles with ‘Nettleban’, the briers with something, the rushes with something else, and sprayed around young trees to stop weeds and grass growing around them.

If the cows had clots in their milk we treated them with antibiotics, and blanket treated all with ‘dry cow’ antibiotics at the end of each years lactation. We used Simazine to stop the weeds growing in the yard, hydrochloric acid and caustic ‘Hydrosan Plus’ to clean the milking machine, and the milk churns. We walked the sheep through Formalin to stop them getting footrot, dosed them with anthelmintics, injected them with live vaccines, and living near the village we were on a public water supply containing chlorine and fluoride, which both we and the animals drank.

When we fertilised the cabbage field, according to advice, the field was ‘white’ with nitrogen to enhance growth, a multiplication of cells. I went on to college to learn more about intensive farming practices – how to rid waterways of weeds with ‘Roundup’ “that doesn’t affect the fish”, and how to kill every weed under the sun. The agricultural scientists knew it all, and taught it as gospel. Thirty years later our home farm is certified organic, and our little farm in West Cork is virtually organic.

‘Twenty one years ago this month my father died of cancer’

Twenty one years ago this month my father died of cancer, a multiplication of cells. Shortly after that I sent milk samples to various laboratories around the Country to analyse them for nitrate content. I sent the various results to our national dairy research station but they did not reply.

At the moment our national research body, Teagasc, is applying to the Environmental Protection Agency to grow trial plots of genetically modified potatoes. This is a very controversial subject. To go down this road is obviously irreversible, narrows the gene pool, and puts an enormous amount of world plant breeding in the hands of very few commercial companies.

Often the ‘seed’ from these crops grown will not germinate, so cannot be used by farmers to grow subsequent crops. Seed can only be bought from the ‘supply companies’. If these genetically modified ‘Roundup Resistant’ plants fail, in my humble opinion, we could face very serious worldwide famine. Is this something we Irish, of all nationalities, wants to promote? And on potatoes for that matter. Have we forgotten something?

I suppose my main question is why do scientists, or ‘experts’ in their respective narrow fields of knowledge protect their disciplines at all costs, without much attention to the many other possible side effects? And why do they think they know it all? Surely the real expert realises how much there is to learn.

We adhered to advice on blanket usage of chemicals on food producing land according to the perceived wisdom of the scientists. We are now paying the price. Now people are questioning whether to go down the narrow field of genetically modified crops. Could we not just grow good food in good unadulterated soil, with unpolluted water, in this mild climate, at their own pace, without forcing the multiplication of cells, or changing their genetic makeup. If we do this we will be the envy of the world when the man made ‘plants’ break down, soils become desertified, and clean water becomes scarce.

In five weeks’ time Professor Hartmut Frank, University of Bayreuth, Germany is giving a presentation at the New Energy Era forum in Skibbereen on the importance of studying ethics as part of narrowly focused technical degree programmes. Scientists can get carried away for science’s sake, making scientific breakthroughs, without considering important side effects and significant consequeces. Let’s broaden the discussion, protect plant diversity, and ultimately our supply of good food.

Walter Ryan-Purcell is the director for the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas, the founder of BioPower Group and Local Campus. He is the organiser of the New Energy Era Forum coming to Ireland in May 2012. Full details on

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Walter Ryan-Purcell
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