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An interview with Lord Peter Melchett

Lord Peter Melchett was a whip in James Callaghan's Labour Party and later became minister of state for Northern Ireland. He was appointed Executive Director of Greenpeace UK in 1989 and he has been Policy Director at the Soil Association since 2002. He was invited by Libération to tackle the issue of GMOs.

Interview with Jonathon Porritt at the Hôtel de Ville de Lyon (25/09/2010)

Benjamin Young: Lord Peter Melchett, thank you for being with us on behalf of Libération, the École Normale Supérieure de Lyon, La Clé des Langues and the various other partners. By way of introduction, you were called in 1999 by the BBC an aristocrat eco warrior, you spearheaded Green Peace UK's campaign in the 1980's and 90's against genetic engineering, its most popular campaign as it has acknowledged, and you continue to attack GM food through your organization, the Soil Association. For you, one of the answers to the problems you see with GM crops and even other facets of agriculture such as pig farming you mentioned that a bit in the debate and you wrote about it last year in The Gardian lies in organic farming. You just launched an Organic Fortnight earlier this month. Can you tell us about a return to methods that many people perceive as traditional or even old-fashioned as a solution? GMOs are often seen as modern but you just discussed in the Forum that, in fact, they really perhaps are not.

Lord Peter Melchett: Let's start with GMOs. This was a technology which was invented and introduced by commercial companies, many agrochemical companies like Monsanto, Bayer and ICI, and so on, in the 1990s very soon after the DNA had been unraveled for the first time. And, it was based on an understanding about how genes work which is now out of date. It was based on the idea that genes operate like an engineering, [...] like a screw or a nut and bolt: you take a gene, you put it somewhere, it performs a precise function. Well, that was the initial understanding of the DNA but only for a short time and scientists quickly discovered that there were many more complexities. They unraveled the DNA but they also opened-up a Pandora's Box of new questions [...], which is typical of scientific discovery. So, they found for example that we know much of our DNA is switched off but we don't know why. They discovered that genes don't act in isolation and in group, and often groups of genes have a relationship with other groups of genes. The way in which genes express themselves is influenced by proteins that surround them. So, this is a much more complicated, interesting, nuanced area of science. It's not something that you can engineer, which is what they called it originally: genetic engineering. And, they've discovered that when they do use this technology on crops, that DNA isn't very stable. Often the results are not what they expect. One or two things like random resistance worked but other things [don't], like trying to produce blue flowers you put them in the sun, they turn white, you move a gene which has nothing to do with allergic reactions but it causes allergies in people.  This is a technology which really doesn't hold much future. You said organic farming was a sort of return to the past but organic farming isn't traditional forming. Organic farming relies on producing nitrogen, which is all around us in the air, using solar energy. So, it's like solar photovoltaics, it's very modern technology. The old technology is to take nitrogen from the air using oil. So, at the moment industrial farming takes oil and turns it into food, and in the future we have to with solar power and wind power, renewable energy take the nitrogen from the air using plants and the sun's energy, which is what crops like red clover or lucine alfalfa, [and] peas and beans do. Red clover was introduced into Europe quite a short time ago, a couple of hundred years, and modern organic farming with modern rotations is relatively recent. And we still have a lot to learn. We were talking in the debate about ignorance of the nitrogen cycle in crops and soils. There's a lot of interesting science to be done. But if we're going to produce food in [the] future we have to do it without releasing massive greenhouse gasses, without relying on mined phosphates from North Africa, which are running out, and without relying on oil or natural gas. So, it's the modern way, it's the future.

B.Y.: You mentioned the lack of scientific research on the impact of chemical use in growing various crops, during the Forum, and the lasting impact of GMOs seems akin to climate change, also accompanied with a lack of knowledge on its real long-term impact, yet your average driver in Los Angeles, for instance, does not want to give up his car. How can the mindset be changed if GMOs have already been adopted.

P.M.: Well, the interesting thing about the so-called adoption of GMOs is that they haven't been consciously adopted. The one country which is always cited as evidence of the public loving GM is America. But an overwhelming majority up to 90%of American citizens want their food labeled GM or non-GM. Most don't realize they're eating GM food and a majority wouldn't eat GM if they were given the choice. So, this isn't a market which has embraced and adopted GM; it's a market where people have been kept in the dark and it's been secret, and they haven't been told. [In the] one or two cases where they have been told, like with a GM hormone injected into cows, made by Monsanto which produced GM hormone milk [and] increased the yield of the cow but also had terrible impacts on the cow's health and its welfare which is why Europe banned it and Canada banned it, when American consumers learned this was in their milk, they stopped buying the milk. And, so, you saw a collapse of the market and even companies like Starbucks and Wal-Mart in America stopped using hormone milk. So, this isn't something people have adopted. And, the wonderful thing about food compared, for example, to nuclear energy, [is that] you and I choose three times a day what the future will be, what sort of food we eat, whereas the lights and the cameras and the electricity here I can't choose if it's nuclear energy, which, [since] we're in France, it probably is. But, when I go out of here, I can choose what I have for my lunch personal choice. So, the future is in our hands.

B.Y.: Absolutely, and this bring us to [the next] point. Certainly, organic farming, buying local, even the slow food movement have gained attention recently, with the Obamas' White House garden, for instance, but the people who pioneer these efforts are often criticized for being elitist. If anything your motives seem quite populist or intended to have a broad-based impact. How do you reconcile these colliding points? How can eating right be a priority if you can barely afford to eat, let alone if you are starving, which was discussed a little at the end of the Forum.

P.M.: Well, it's important that first of all we recognize that everyone has a right to decent, healthy food which isn't dangerous. This isn't anything to do with being rich or elitist. And, very often, organic diets can be significantly cheaper than non-organic. For example, in the UK and in many other countries in Europe and elsewhere you can buy a weekly a weekly delivery from an organic farmer, a box scheme, and in the UK one of the companies that does this all over the country compares their prices with supermarket prices every week. The contents of the box organic food is always cheaper than the supermarket organic, and usually cheaper than the non-organic in the supermarket. So, it depends what you eat, where you buy it. If you buy fresh, seasonal vegetables, they're often cheaper than buying a takeaway, takeout burger and fries and so on. But what we've seen in Europe, which I think is incredibly interesting and encouraging and also in some places in the United States is that the public food is changing. So, growing's inspiration for all of us in Europe has been school meals in Rome, which have been organic now for many years, all organic apart, I think, from bananas and bought locally from farmers around Rome, and Italy has many examples of this. And, now in the UK we're working the Soil Association, an organic organization with two and a half thousand schools and changing the food in the school, and encouraging local, seasonal and some organic food. And, these are schools all over the country: not rich, not posh the whole community. But we also want to get kids to know about food, to understand food, to go to farms, to grow food in the school[s] themselves, to harvest it. Then that goes into the school meal, they learn to cook. Because we have a generation or two, anyhow in the UK, where this connection between where food comes from and how you grow it and prepare it, and what you eat, has been broken completely, in some cases. But when you reconnect people, then it's amazing the changes you see, and this is maybe more in poorer people than in Africa or be it in Asian communities, in the poorest parts of London. It may be white middle class families who are more resistant to change and like the takeaway McDonald's, actually.

B.Y.: That's interesting. I think there is a similar program in the States.

P.M.: There is, particularly on the West Coast.

B.Y.: Getting back to GM and politics, because you've written about that, citing examples of scientists working for the government who were no more reliable than scientists working for companies, for instance, and you mentioned in the debate how France was excised from the statistics the year it had lower GM crops or its GM crops went down, so that overall GM crops still seemed to increase with that omission. Philippe Martin mentioned how GM initiatives have been passed for six consecutive years in the summer months, when no one is paying attention. So, there is a problem with the result of decisions being a long ways away, with politicians not wanting to broach those areas, since it wouldn't have an immediate impact. How do you think that can be changed, and we see someone like Philippe Martin using it to his political advantage?

P.M.: Well, I didn't think it was for political advantage. What Philippe Martin is doing is representing the views of the people where he lives and which he represents, where there's a high proportion of organic farming I'm told it's 6%and he's tried to protect the public interest and represent the views of all the people, which is wonderful. Very impressive. I think it's been a continual problem, particularly in my country, in the UK, where we had Tony Blair as the most pro-GM Prime Minister/leader in Europe for a very, very long time, completely backing Bush's pro-GM line as he did other lines of President Bush. But he didn't succeed in changing what we eat. So, the important lesson is [that] this is an area where Prime Ministers and multinational companies do not have the last word. They make policies, they make resolutions, they make rules, they even approve crops, but I come back to the fact that you and I decide what we eat. And there was a great advertisement when President Clinton was in office: a British supermarket, Iceland Supermarket, ran an ad shortly after the Monica Lewinsky affair, which said in big letters Don't let President Clinton tell you what to put in your mouth. And that's the fact of the matter we decide what we eat and this is why citizens have resisted GM. When we started on this campaign in Greenpeace twenty years ago, everyone said it was hopeless: all food would be GM by the end of the last century, by the millennium. Everything was going to be GM, everyone believed it. And, the danger we have the only danger is people continue to believe that bull-shit, because it won't be. It's only going down not up.

Pour citer ces ressources :

Benjamin Young / Lord Peter Melchett. 11/2010. "An interview with Lord Peter Melchett".
La Clé des Langues (Lyon: ENS LYON/DGESCO). ISSN 2107-7029. Mis à jour le 24 novembre 2010.
Consulté le 25 novembre 2017.
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Mise à jour le 24 novembre 2010
Créé le 9 novembre 2010
ISSN 2107-7029
DGESCO Clé des Langues