The New Statesman Essay - When it's right to be a Luddite

Forget risk. The big question is: will GM foods give more freedom to ordinary people or more power t

For a time in the 1970s, it looked as if Birds Eye would buy all the vegetables in the world and freeze them, and we would never see a fresh Brussels sprout again. BP, which grew microbes on oil, and others jostled to fill the newly rising super-markets with TVPs ("textured vegetable proteins"), spun from beans (mainly soya) and fungi (mainly yeast) to look like meat which, so the nutritional lore of the day had it, human beings were genetically predisposed to favour above all else.

The big companies fought their corners vigorously. All who objected were Luddites and fools. Their scientists - sincere, earnest, diligent, and altogether excellent people that they were - shed public tears of frustration and disappointment as the commentators (bastards like me) suggested that their hard-won products for the most part were a waste of time and money, and socially pernicious to boot.

In short, plus ca change. For TVPs read GMOs (genetically modified organisms). When will they - meaning the scientists, magnates, and politicians, not us, derisively dismissed as "the public" - ever learn?

The GMO affair is not a Luddite war; or not, at least, at its serious core. The human species, now with six billion representatives, cannot survive in a tolerable state without science and technology of a very high order. The principal law of ecology says that big fierce animals are rare - yet our own ingenuity has made us as common as mice. We need even more ingenuity to keep us going, and more still for our beleaguered fellow creatures. Neither is "risk" the prime issue, as scientists and politicians suppose. Still less is it all a matter of "trust" - in experts, meaning scientists and politicians. All those matters are embedded, but the real issues run much deeper.

The main point is that before we rush gung-ho into new technologies with truck-loads of venture capital and government departments primed to ease their passage - huge and all but irresistible forces marshalled before anyone has had time to breathe - we ought to ask a shortlist of very simple questions. First, what are we actually trying to achieve? Second, to what extent are the problems technical, as opposed to logistical and political? Third, if technical, which technologies might help us to achieve the envisioned ends? And finally, there is the fundamental question of all politics, which Lenin summarised as "who, whom?".

The prime purpose of agriculture is to feed people - or that at least is the naive view. To this end, farming should produce enough food; and that food should be nutritious and safe (with neither salmonella nor mycotoxins) and (vitally) should conform to the gastronomic aspirations of the peoples it supplies. But if agriculture were truly enlightened, it would also be kind to the domestic animals and to wildlife (we should not be killing our fellow species); it would create stable rural communities; and it would provide a good living for a large slice of humanity, just as it has done (when times were going well) for the past 10,000 years.

Does present-day agriculture fulfil such criteria of enlightenment? All too obviously not. Recurring famines are just the most prominent in a list of shortcomings too depressing to relate. Could better technologies solve the problems? Only up to a point. For example, a few years ago, socially conscious dairy scientists asked why Indian farmers rarely produce more milk than is needed in their own villages. Why didn't they produce a surplus for the towns, and make some cash? The experts came up with all kinds of solutions, from vaccines for foot-and-mouth disease to phosphates for the grass. But Dr E R Orskov of the Rowett Research Institute, Aberdeen, a Dane who knows cattle and farmers worldwide and is truly enlightened, simply pointed out that most villages have no reliable roads. When the weather turns, the tracks are impassable. So the milk cannot be exported reliably before it goes sour. Roads are a technical solution of a kind, but the point is that there was nothing wrong with the farmers or their methods.

More abstractly, Dr Paul Richards of University College London has pointed out that West African farmers seem conservative, not because they are too stupid to innovate, but simply because they cannot afford to take risks. They might well benefit from new and fancy seed. But as they know themselves, they need, more than anything else, bankers, as opposed to moneylenders, to give them leeway to experiment.

So the examples multiply. Specialist technical analysts produce solutions that derive from their own speciality. That is their brief. Those who can put the technical innovations in perspective, like Orskov and Richards, are much rarer.

So where does this leave GMOs? Well, we have been told (sometimes by scientists shaking with passion, their lifetime's work thrown back in their faces) that it is simply impossible to feed the world without them. Rice fitted with a gene to produce vitamin A would prevent the blindness caused by vitamin deficiency that is suffered by millions of people in the tropics. Sorghum (a dry-land cereal) rendered more resistant to mildew would prevent many a crop failure in arid regions. More broadly, we need the technologies of GMOs to prevent world famine. Only the effete and ignorant middle classes in the temperate north, far from the action, could possibly find fault.

I have huge sympathy with such arguments but still we should question. I have seen vitamin A deficiency in South-east Asia. But in South-east Asia, too, the trees drip with papaya - coloured deep yellow by carotene which, in effect, is vitamin A. The trouble is that, like all fruit, papaya is expensive to cultivate. The people spend their money on rice, because lack of calories is more immediately threatening. The tropics overall once swam with vitamin A and, when people ate a conventional, mixed diet, deficiency was not a problem. The problem springs from the debasement of diet brought about by monoculture on the one hand - increasing reliance on a single staple - and poverty on the other. Does nutritionally reinforced rice really go to the heart of the matter?

Mildew-resistant sorghum? I have seen sorghum growing in the harshest conditions in India, and life is even harsher in the Sahel, that broad band of land to the south of the Sahara. Mildew is one of several diseases that regularly claim half the crop in the field. Innate resistance seems preferable to fungicide - even if the farmers could afford to spray their crops. Ideally, people would not farm in the semi-deserts where sorghum grows, but they need to in the real world, in the immediate future. So all strength to those - in Hyderabad, for example - who are developing mildew-resistant, genetically engineered sorghum.

But the crops that anti-GM protesters have sabotaged in Britain include, for example, herbicide-resistant maize. Is this, for us, a necessary technology? No. Do we need to develop the herbicide-resistant maize to speed research in mildew-resistant sorghum? No again. In principle, the GM maize and rape in Europe might provide the wealth and techniques required to develop GM sorghum and cassava for poorer countries, but in practice the world does not work like that. The only incontrovertible argument for herbicide-resistant maize is that it makes maize easier and cheaper to produce and, therefore, would make a lot of money for its creators. It would not make a worthwhile contribution to Britain's own well-being, or to the grand cause of enlightened agriculture worldwide.

What of the grandest claim of all: that, without GMOs, the world will starve? That is simply untrue. World population seems likely to double by 2050. After that, United Nations demographers suggest that the population should stabilise (a momentous projection that deserves far more publicity than it has had). First-approximation arithmetic suggests, then, that we need to double the world food supply. Do we need genetic engineering to do this? No. Present techniques properly applied could do what is required. Theoretically superior techniques applied insouciantly or inequitably (as is commonly the case with present techniques) are likely to achieve nothing at all.

In short, the answer to my three questions is: yes, a policy of enlightened agriculture could well make extensive use of GMOs. But GMOs in the absence of such policy would achieve little that is worthwhile. In fact, they could make matters a great deal worse - for the simple political reason that we have already seen many times in the recent past that such technologies tend to concentrate power into fewer and fewer hands (the hands of those who control the technologies). Ad hoc plantings of herbicide-resistant maize (and the others) in a country that already has food surpluses indicates that there is no underlying, enlightened food policy. The new crops are intended, first and foremost, to enhance the power and wealth of their creators. They deserve to be pulled up.

So now we come to the issue of politics and ethics that has resounded through all human history: who has a right to do what to whom and on whose behalf ?

The biotech companies and Britain's politicians have simply assumed they have a right to plant new crops if they think this is worthwhile. They are irritated and affronted when anyone questions that perceived right. Indeed, when "the public" (that is, us) object, we are held to be "ignorant". Some of those scientists who have hitched their horses to the grand and fashionable bandwagon known as "the public understanding of science" have declared that, in this particular instance, "understanding" is beyond our feeble ken and we simply should trust the scientists. They will adjudicate the risk. Risk is a highly technical matter, which we are sure to get wrong. We should simply accept the expert assurances, just as we did over nuclear power, BSE, and so on.

After all, say the politicians and the pundits, we trust experts all the time, don't we? Washing-machine repairmen? Airline pilots? Why not genetic engineers? The difference (as a six-year-old might have pointed out) is that we decide whether we want our washing machines repaired, and we decide whether to travel by plane; and when we have made that decision, we give the repairman or the pilot a specific mandate to act on our behalf. We do not expect the man from Zanussi to sneak in when we are not looking and fit the latest fan belt. The genetic engineers and the politicians who at one time so keenly pressed their case had no specific mandate. They did not ask for one, and none was granted. To act without a mandate, in a democracy, is the most heinous crime of all.

The genetic engineers believed that they did not need any special permission because, for generations, scientists have produced more food through breeding better crops and livestock. Genetic engineering, they have insisted a thousand times, is no more "unnatural" than breeding. It is merely an extension of it, and there is no qualitative distinction. Therefore, no special mandate was needed.

But many people (including me) feel in their bones that there is a qualitative difference. Generally speaking, conventional breeders are bound by species barriers. Genes to make better potatoes must come from other potatoes. Novel maize genes must come from maize. Conventional breeders have done astonishing things (modern maize is remarkably unlike its wild ancestor); but, nonetheless, biology imposed its own barriers. The genetic engineers, by contrast, can transfer genes from any organism into any other organism: bacterium into sheep, sheep into cabbage, human into mushroom. Or they can make quite novel genes. Suddenly, there are no theoretical limits on what they might create, apart from their own imagination and the bedrock laws of physics. If this is not a qualitative shift, it is hard to know what would be.

The scientists and the politicians should have asked afresh. As Thomas Hobbes said in the 17th century, the power of monarchs must extend only so far as their explicit contract with their subjects. To plant GMOs without seeking a fresh mandate was at least a breach of manners; and to tell us when we protest that we are ignorant and stupid is truly outrageous. For my part, I love science. It's what I do. I have no doubt that the world needs it. But if I have to choose between Luddism and such high-handedness, I will choose Luddism.

We - the world at large - must find a much better way to control and deploy technologies. We do need science and high tech. It is absurd that we make such erratic use of what is possible; ridiculous that innovation so often slumps into fiasco - of which the GMO fracas is merely the latest in a long line. We need better mechanisms of control; the free market cannot do the job on its own, and the Lord protect us from centralised economies.

Even before we develop the mechanisms, however, we need criteria for judging what is a good technology, really worth developing, and what is merely an ingenious wheeze that has no convincing niche. Many, in the late-20th century, distinguished between high tech, commonly held to be suitable for rich, sophisticated countries; and low tech (windmills and the rest), said to be more appropriate to poor countries. Often, to be sure, low tech can hit the spot. But the poorest countries could often benefit even more than the rich from the "highest" technologies: communication satellites, the internet - and, indeed, GMOs.

The proper distinction was made by the Austrian-born philosopher Ivan Illich in the 1970s. Some technologies increase people's autonomy, their freedom to do their own thing, and mildew- resistant sorghums could do this. But other technologies (or the same ones in a different context) simply increase the power of the people in charge. The GMOs currently intended for Britain are mainly in this latter category. This, not their exoticism or even the risk, makes them bad. Technologies that really do increase autonomy, said Illich, are "tools for conviviality". This phrase, and this criterion of excellence, has never been improved upon.

So will we learn from the GMOs? Will they prompt us to think again about what agriculture is really for, what our priorities should be, and how, on the broad front, technologies can be controlled and deployed? Or will the dreary fight go on - woolly hats versus tweeds, and suits, and white coats?

Colin Tudge's latest book, The Variety of Life: a survey and a celebration of all the creatures that have ever lived, is published by Oxford University Press at £35

This article first appeared in the 24 April 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Are the loonies coming back?