GM won't yield a harvest for the world
The Guardian, June 19 2008
*The government is keen to reassess GM crops in light of the food crisis - but running to profit-seeking companies is not the answer
The government is keen to reassess GM crops in light of the food crisis - but running to profit-seeking companies is not the answer
The biotechnology industry has never been shy of making outlandish claims on behalf of its products. Back in the late 1990s we were sold genetically modified soya and oilseed rape on the promise that it would feed the world. On closer examination, it became clear that these first-generation GM crops were more about intensifying chemical agriculture and sealing corporate control of the food chain than feeding starving babies in Africa. Consumers, especially in Europe, rose in revolt, and the industry was forced into retreat.
But big companies like Monsanto, Syngenta and BASF are not easily kept at bay for long. Now their PR-men have discovered a new line in emotional blackmail: that without GM crops we will be unable to produce enough food in an era of climate change. Transgenic crops will be able to grow in drought-stricken, saline areas, we are assured, helping to augment food supplies in an era of rapidly intensifying crisis. So is it time to follow in the steps of the UK environment minister Phil Woolas and reassess the potential of GM? As Woolas says: "There is a growing question of whether GM crops can help the developing world out of the current food price crisis. It is a question that we as a nation need to ask ourselves." So is he right?
I doubt it. For starters, the current food price crisis is only partly about supply. Yes, falling harvests have affected the amount of food available, and the recent severe flooding in the US midwest certainly won't help the situation. But, as with oil, rising demand is the biggest factor driving prices towards the stratosphere. As countries such as India and China get richer and adopt more western diets, they consume more meat, sucking grain off the market to feed growing numbers of livestock. The misconceived rush to biofuels has further intensified the problem, gobbling up vast quantities of corn and soya in order to produce the fuel Americans and Europeans need to feed their addiction to the car. Underlying all this, the human population continues to grow, adding another 80 million mouths every single year.
But look a little closer at the companies which are promising our salvation – and which Woolas rushed to meet yesterday under the aegis of the Agricultural Biotechnology Council – and their motivations seem somewhat less than altruistic. According to the Canada-based ETC Group, big biotech companies have already filed some 532 patents on "climate-ready" genes at patent offices around the world. I doubt these companies have any intention of giving out free seeds to the world's poorest farmers: instead, they seal up intellectual property rights in transgenic crops and force growers to pay a licence fee. Traditional practices of saving or exchanging seeds are of course forbidden. This concentration of ownership of the food chain is not going to reduce hunger; it is much more likely to intensify it.
I am not arguing that these companies are somehow bad or evil. It is their job to maximise profits – anything else, and their directors would quickly be punished by loss-making shareholders. It is entirely natural therefore that they seek to retain ownership over their inventions, in this case by seeking patents on transgenic seeds. But on the other hand, they should not claim that their products are going to feed the world either – allowing their public relations teams to create soft-focus adverts of hungry people being fed is utterly misleading.
There are also much deeper ethical questions around GM which have never been addressed – and cannot be addressed by science, because they lie outside the scientific arena. One is the question of whether it is ethically justified to mix genetic material from completely unrelated organisms, like viruses and potato plants. GM proponents constantly argue that this is simply another stage on from traditional selective breeding techniques, but this is clearly untrue. Mixing DNA from unrelated species is an entirely different undertaking, and one which raises all sorts of new risks – as well as deeper questions about humankind playing God. In my view, the technology moves entirely in the wrong direction, intensifying human technological manipulation of nature when we should be aiming at a more holistic ecological approach instead.
If something goes wrong with a transgenic organism, this raises a whole new category of risk. Traditional pollution – whether of toxins like DDT or radioactive waste – will mix and eventually be dispersed or broken down in the environment. Genetic pollution on the other hand is self-replicating because it is contained in living organisms; once released, it can never be recalled, and possibly never controlled as GM superweeds, bacteria or viruses run rampant and breed. I am not raising scare stories here: there are countless cases recorded internationally now where GM crops have begun to infest supposedly organic or GM-free fields.
It may be, as Woolas suggests, that we need to swallow these ethical and ecological concerns in an era where rapidly rising global temperatures and diminishing oil supplies are already putting serious constraints on food production. Would I be prepared to reconsider my opposition to GM so that a million Sudanese or Ethiopians don't have to watch their children starve as the rains fail once again? Yes, of course. But am I prepared to accept GM just so that rich consumers – whether in Beijing or Birmingham – can drive around in biofuelled SUVs? No. Which of these options is more likely is not about technology or science, it's about economics and social policy. And that requires us to keep asking difficult questions, and to not be browbeaten by emotionally manipulative advertising from profit-seeking corporations.