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The truth about GM

Will GM technology feed the world - or destroy farming, and human health, in the name of corporate p

Genetically modified crops might once have proved useful. In the early days, in the 1980s, scientists I spoke to in India hoped to transfer genes from groundnuts (which are very resistant to heat and drought) into sorghum, the staple cereal of the Sahel, which is also drought-resistant but succumbs in the worst years. In California, there were advanced plans to produce barley that could thrive in brackish water of the kind that is spreading worldwide in the wake of overzealous irrigation. In Brazil, just a few years ago, I found GM being used to make disease-resistant papaya - which grows everywhere in the tropics and is an instant, free source of succulence, energy and Vitamin A. I was all for it.

Of course, the scientists anticipated snags. The GM plants might develop undesirable traits, possibly hazardous to consumer health, not necessarily in the first generation but down the line. That things could go wrong was evident from some of the early forays into GM livestock, which produced sad monsters. Perhaps the GM plants would escape into ecosystems and become pests - as many a crop has done in the past - but the GM super-crops might prove to be super-pests. Perhaps the insect-resistant types with built-in insecticide would kill non-target insects, with disastrous knock-on effects.

Nevertheless, the mood I encountered then was optimistic, essentially altruistic, and cautious. There was no need to hurry, because the conventional techniques of the day, properly deployed, could do what needed doing. Today, the world isn't like that: food production is now private enterprise, controlled by corporations and banks. The main purpose of farming is no longer to feed people but to maximise profits, raise GDP and maintain economic growth.

Critically, farming geared to making money differs in all significant ways from farming that is committed to providing good food today and for the future. Farming that feeds people well and sustainably must in general be mixed (many kinds of livestock and crops all interacting). It is complex and labour-intensive. Chemical inputs should be minimised, especially inputs of non-renewables; and, as far as possible, most food should be produced locally. The overall target is to ensure resilience: a steady supply of varied and high-quality crops, even in difficult times.

Cheap food is an illusion

In contrast, farming that is designed to make money must be maximally productive, but at minimum cost. So the systems must be simple: big machines and industrial chemistry instead of husbandry, and the farms on as large a scale as possible and monocultural, with just one crop or one kind of animal. Balanced diets in any one place can therefore be ensured only by mass imports. Labour - usually the most expensive input - must be cut to the bone and then cut again, with the workers paid as little as possible.

Finally, there must be maximal "value-adding" by processing, packaging and contrived exoticism, but above all by turning cheap yet good staples of the kind that have supported the great cuisines into meat for fast food. So we feed half the world's wheat to animals, and 80 per cent of the maize. But if something else should turn up that makes more money than food - for instance, biofuels - we'll grow that instead.

It works, does it not? While the food technologists and retailers have grown rich beyond all dreams of avarice, the masses have had, at least until recently, cheap food: it takes up just 8 per cent of the average Briton's income. Yet cheap food is an illusion. It is made to seem cheap by creative accountancy that ignores the vast quantities of oil needed, the collateral damage to soil, rivers, lakes, forests, wildlife, climate and, indeed, to human life, as well as the most blatant injustice as farmers across the globe are made bankrupt. According to the UN, one billion people now live in urban slums worldwide; and most of the shanty-dwellers are former farmers or their immediate descendants and dependants. The multinationals assure us there are "alternative industries". No, there aren't. When and if there are alternatives, it may be sensible to encourage people to leave the land. Not until. And it's a big "if".

As long as GM was part of an economy and a morality that had the well-being of humanity at heart, it had the potential to become what Ivan Illich in the 1970s called "a convivial technology", truly improving the human lot. As things stand, it merely serves to consolidate the status quo: to strengthen the arm of the corporations, which alone will control the seed and the inputs that the new seed requires; and to promote all the agro-industrial strategies that are so obviously destructive.

To be sure, the biological risks of GM remain, and should not be underestimated; but given time, and due caution, they could have been minimised. Commerce, however, demands immediate results, such that organic farmers already find it hard to buy feed for their animals that is not made from GM maize or soya. Yet reports that all is safe in the world of GM technology are greatly exaggerated. Nor is it true that it simply replicates the "horizontal" transmission of genes that occurs in the wild, and hence is "natural". Natural genes contain stretches of DNA known as "introns" that modify and regulate their function. Genetic engineers strip out the introns before they transfer them, to make life simpler. The difference could be significant, but we just don't know. I have yet to hear an advocate of GM technology even raise this issue.

Indeed, there has been so much hype and obfuscation in the promotion of GM - Prince Charles's recent warning about the looming environmental disaster aside - that it would be foolish to believe a word of it. Here are three quick examples. We have heard much, of late, of the "golden rice" made by Syngenta. It is fitted with a gene that produces carotene, which is the precursor of Vitamin A - the lack of which is a prime source of blindness among children worldwide. Therefore, Syngenta tells us, golden rice is a good thing - a sentiment echoed subsequently in the media and in the House of Lords by Dick Taverne. But carotene is the yellowish pigment in green leaves (such as spinach) and in all yellow-orange roots and fruits (carrots and papaya among them) and is one of the commonest organic molecules in nature. Poor people do not need handouts from Syngenta. All they need is horticulture - which, before the days of corporate-owned monocultures of commodity crops, they had.

We are told that GM crops yield more, and that the technology's opponents are irresponsible. Yet yield is rarely what really matters: very few famines in modern history have been caused by an inability to grow enough food; it has always been secondary to wars and economic breakdown, often caused by the west's destruction of subsistence farming. And anyway, the idea that GM crops can be relied upon to yield more than conventional crops is simply not true. Some GM crops do sometimes yield more than most standard crops in some circumstances and in some years; often they do not. In the long term, we have yet to see. The published results which seem to show that GM crops consistently outstrip their conventional counterparts are highly selective, with unfavourable results not made public. More and more, we are urged to rely on the "objectivity" and unimpeachable integrity of science. But when science itself is up for sale, there is no court of appeal.

"Feeding People is Easy" by Colin Tudge is published by Pari Publishing (£9.99)

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

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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hopep to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.