The new Dark Age
One of Britain‚Äôs leading agricultural scientists fears we may be entering a new dark age. Professor Maurice Moloney ‚Äď director of Rothamsted Research – is worried by green activist threats to trash a trial plot of GM wheat at the Hertfordshire research site. ‚ÄúWe face the destruction of a technology that could not just help wheat production in Britain,‚ÄĚ he says, ‚Äúbut could boost crop yields elsewhere in the world.‚ÄĚ
Down here in Candleford we take a rather different view. We think that if there‚Äôs a new dark age being ushered in, it‚Äôs because of the decisions made by Prof Moloney and the BBSRC ‚Äď the funding body that appointed him. Rothamsted‚Äôs chief responsibility is to conduct research aimed at improving our food security. Britain already has a secure food production system ‚Äď it‚Äôs called the mixed farm. It‚Äôs capable of producing large amounts of healthy food through biological processes. And it has an inbuilt resilience to climate change by virtue of its biological diversity.
A World Bank-funded study by more than 400 scientists around the world concluded that diverse farming systems like UK mixed farming were the most secure and effective way to feed the world, now and in the future (IAASTD, 2008). You might think ‚Äďas we do ‚Äď that a leading research station concerned with food security would concentrate its energies on understanding and refining this established model. But under Professor Moloney, the scientists seem content to gamble our food security on an unproven and potentially unstable technology.
The 20th century scientist George Stapledon ‚Äď a strong advocate of mixed farming ‚Äď warned that for farm science to concentrate on a few narrow technologies was to court disaster. In an address to the British Grassland Society more than fifty years ago he wrote: ‚ÄúMan in putting all his money on narrow specialisation and on the newly-dawned age of technology has backed a wild horse. Given its head it is bound to get out of control.
‚ÄúWith science delving into ever more abstruse fields, so will the danger of unexpected ‚Äėignorances‚Äô become increasingly threatening. These will be of much greater significance in the biological fields than in physics and engineering. I have been forced to realise to the depth of my being that facts and factors mean precisely nothing. It is their mass inter-relationships and interactions that mean everything. And these, for all practical purposes, are infinite.‚ÄĚ
Prof Moloney is a narrow technologist ‚Äď a plant biotechnologist. As head of cell biology at Calgene Inc, he developed the first GM oilseed plants. The work resulted in a landmark patent in plant biotechnology and eventually became the basis of Roundup Ready and Liberty Link gene patents, which now account for 85 per cent of Canada‚Äôs Canola aceage. Moloney is an inventor on 43 US patents and more than 300 patents world-wide. He is also founder of SemBioSys, a Calgary-based biotech company which helps food and pharmaceutical corporations profit from the products of GM crops.
In short, Prof Moloney perfectly represents the narrow and high-risk technological approach to biology that Stapledon warned of. He also seems to be in the business of privatising nature and bringing the world‚Äôs food supply under the control of large corporations. The parallels with the global banking system ‚Äď with its reckless trading of complex derivatives ‚Äď is alarming.
Down here we‚Äôre baffled that such a narrow technical specialist should have been put in charge of research into securing our food supply. Where is the knowledge of soil biology on which civilization depends? Where is the understanding of agriculture, the 10,000 years of human learning and experience which has got us to where we are today? And what blind faith in technology induced the BBSRC to make this appointment and stake our future on this unwise experiment?
Down here in Candleford we await the answers. But one thing we‚Äôre already sure of. If this new technology should fail us in ways we cannot anticipate because ‚Äď as Stapledon says ‚Äď the interactions of biological factors are for all practical purposes infinite, we shall indeed be on the eve of a new Dark Age.