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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 New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times