Both sides are probably wrong

The latest evidence leaves the case for GM foods open

I met Likeness last month in Malawi. She is a peasant farmer with three kids and no prospects. The rains came late to her maize field near the Zambian border and then they stopped early. The result, just like in 2002, is misery: her crop failed, what she harvested has nearly gone, she has no work, and there's no money to buy food, fertiliser or seeds for next year. She is the face of world hunger, along with nearly one billion others caught up in the vortex of unprecedented food-price inflation and extreme poverty.

So could GM maize, or industrial farming and giant agribusiness - the "unmentionables" that Prince Charles railed against this month - make any difference? One man who may know is the head of Monsanto, Hugh Grant, who was in Malawi just before me at a conference on the future of world agriculture. He recalled how, after the 2002 famine, Monsanto sent Malawi hundreds of tonnes of hybrid (not GM) seeds. "Yields increased by 50 per cent to above 32 bushels per acre," he said. "Better seeds and fertiliser make an enormous difference."

Correct. As any farmer knows, you don't need GM crops to grow more food. Rather, you need good seeds and soils, better manures, crop rotation and irrigation. Education, markets, places to store the food where the rats can't get at it, all help farmers earn money. GM promises increases of 10-20 per cent in some crops. Good farming can more than double yields.

Another man who knows whether or not GM will help Likeness is Professor Robert Watson, chief scientist at the UK's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and formerly Bill Clinton's scientific adviser. Watson recently chaired the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), an immense and rigorous three-year, government-level scientific study of world agriculture, backed by the UN and the World Bank and independently peer-reviewed twice.

The 400 authors looked at the evidence and concluded that business as usual - industrial agriculture and trade rules tilted towards large corporations - can barely feed people today and won't be able to in future. The problem is that the present financial and trading systems work at the expense of the deteriorating environment and the growing numbers of poor.

But what about GM crops? The IAASTD authors kept the door open on the technology but said that it was not the solution for the world's poor. Instead, they called for more respect for the knowledge of local communities. This enraged the participating US-dominated agrochemicals and biotechnology industries, which walked out, claiming the whole exercise was unbalanced. The US, alone of all major countries, has refused to endorse the study.

GM acreage is growing worldwide, but it may never provide for the poor. In the 20-odd years since the first crop was sown, billions of dollars have been spent researching, developing and marketing the technology. But it is stuck on a very few commercial crops, and is still at single-gene transfer level. What's more, it is suited to monocultural farming, and the questions of ownership and safety just won't go away.

Over the years, there have been genuine safety concerns over individual GM foods but early fears have been allayed by US and EU government insistence that these are some of the world's most regulated foods. Activists still argue that there have been few major human health studies of an inherently unpredictable technology.

Back in 1994, the industry was promising crops that resist cold weather, drought, pests and disease, as well as plants that reduced the need for fertilisers. The world is still waiting. Last month, Hugh Grant said he now expected drought-resistant crops to be ready in the US "within six years"; it seems the science is more complicated than was thought. That hasn't stopped the industry enjoying an expansionist phase as agribusiness takes advantage of the food crisis, but anyone trying to assess the success or failure of GM can find themselves in a snake pit of claim and counterclaim.

Companies regularly overstate the potential gains of GM by under-reporting average yields in conventional production; activists seize on individual crop failures to propose that the whole technology is corrupt. Meanwhile, academics are partial to the big bucks that industry offers for GM research and development, and governments fear to upset their legions of small farmers.

One side paints a picture of the world's poor being denied a technology that could hugely improve lives; the other side claims industrial agriculture's heavy gun is aimed directly at it. Both are probably wrong.

Monsanto espies huge profits in places such as Malawi, where the whole country depends on maize. It's not legal to sell GM there but even if it were, the chances of Likeness and the small farmers like her, 90 per cent of the population, benefiting from it are utterly remote. Malawi is a land of conservative, uneducated and vulnerable farmers. They could not possibly afford the seeds or the herbicide, let alone take the risk. It would be criminal to ask them to.

Hugh Grant probably isn't losing much sleep about Malawi. The company is making record profits out of selling a high proportion of its GM seeds and herbicides to American and other farmers for the growing of biofuels. Of course, the company cannot be blamed if there's less food on the world market, or that maize prices have more than doubled. Instead, Monsanto's share price has risen to dizzy heights and the company has just raised prices for its seeds and herbicides by more than a third.

Now even farmers in the US are complaining about GM.

John Vidal is the environment editor of the Guardian

This article first appeared in the 01 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The truth about GM food

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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain