Why we don't need GM foods

The biotechnology industry claims it can feed the world. But that can easily be done anyway - provid

The discussions on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are predictably awful, just as they have been on BSE, or cloning, or TB and badgers, or fox-hunting or anything at all that involves farming and science. The questions that really need asking seem to get left out of account - such as what agriculture is really for and whether it, or anything that's really serious, can sensibly be left to the free market; whether it is safe for a modern society to be scientifically illiterate, with gurus on one side and Luddites on the other; and finally - the outstanding question for the 21st century - how high technology can be prised loose from the big commercial companies who alone can afford to develop it, and applied to the causes and for the people who really need it. GMOs are one small issue in this much wider context.

GMOs seem serious enough, though. Their advocates, such as the men from Monsanto, argue that they represent the future, that they are essential to human well-being, that they are "feeding the world" and indeed that, without them, the rising tide of humanity will not be fed at all. There is no hypocrisy here. Like all good salesmen, they believe what they say. But is it true?

It isn't. The world easily produces enough food to feed everybody very well indeed, and could undoubtedly cater for the doubled population of the mid-21st century without any recourse to such technologies. Beneath the present famine lies a failure to apply even the present- day techniques; a general lack of infrastructure (banks would be a good thing) and, of course, poverty. If collective humanity drew up a serious plan to tackle world famine, GMOs would hardly come into the picture - or least, the ones that are now being discussed would not. The grand claim - that they are needed to feed the world - is nonsense.

Ah, say the advocates, but they could bring down the price of food. Indeed they could. Genetically modified tomatoes that do not fall apart when ripe can be stored for longer; they can be grown and distributed in larger lots, thus saving fuel and, more profitably yet, reducing labour.

But the arguments that are true are also trivial. Tomatoes are nice, but who actually needs them? Genetic engineering thus applied is not a world-saver. It is simply a means to greater profit, achieved by pandering to luxury markets. Who can deny this?

Even so (the enthusiasts proclaim) GMOs could produce serious crops and livestock more cheaply - and this, too, seems undeniable. But it is hard to find any policies more damaging than those intended to produce cheap food. BSE resulted from the cheap food policy. Corners were cut to save pennies, cows were fed on the carelessly sterilised remains of sheep, and the prions crept through.

There is no other cause: just bad husbandry deployed to cut costs. Badgers are killed to stop them giving TB to cows - but only because it would be too expensive to lock the cows up at night when the badgers are abroad, because that would involve employing people.

Farm animals are treated abominably in the name of cheap food, to produce a diet far higher in meat than any modern nutritionist would recommend. The meat is cheap but also profitable. If food were dearer the poor could not eat, the argument goes. But why do we tolerate poverty in rich countries? We alleviate it by being cruel to animals and squeezing the producers beyond all reason. What kind of policy is this?

In short, if we believe that food production is about the maximisation of profit, and about keeping politicians in power by reducing the apparent price of food, then GMOs have a place. But such philosophy depends on an argument that says, "Agriculture must be run by free enterprise; free enterprise must maximise profit in order to exist; GMOs would help to maximise profit; ergo agriculture and the world at large needs GMOs". Weird though it seems when spelled out, this in effect is what politicians are arguing. Yet if we designed an agriculture for Britain or the world at large which had, as its prime aim, a desire to feed people well, the pious arguments on behalf of GMOs would not add up to a hill of beans, GM'd or otherwise.

If GMOs are not exactly vital, does this mean they have nothing at all to offer the world? Should we just give up on them? Well, no, is the short answer. GMOs and the technology that produces them could solve many a pressing problem - probably better than any other available means. For instance, many people contrive to grow sorghum in the semi-arid badlands to the south of the Sahara, known as the Sahel. Farming there is difficult at the best of times, and often horrendous. On any summer's day you could fry an egg on the soil where the crops poke through. The farmers expect to lose half of what they grow through mildew alone.

The root of such problems is political: people worldwide have been driven to farm on marginal lands that simply are not up to it. The Sahel can never be Hertfordshire. But in the absence of political solutions, high technology could help. Biologists from the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), whose headquarters are in Hyderabad, India, are striving to produce strains of sorghum that are even more drought- and heat-resistant than the present types.

The sorghums that grow worldwide do not seem to contain the necessary genes. Other grasses, however - and other plants of quite different kinds, like some of the ground-nuts - can resist the most appalling heat and drought. Genetic engineering could, in principle, introduce the necessary genes from outside the sorghum gene pool; and in principle could do so without affecting any of the other desirable characteristics of the sorghums themselves. Many such instances are conceivable: domestic cattle worldwide that were genetically resistant to foot-and-mouth disease would be a tremendous bonus.

The notion that only "low" technologies, such as windmills and writing-slates, are appropriate to the poorest countries is not as true as it may seem. Sometimes the technologies born of the most advanced science can best achieve what is most needed. Satellite TV can be a marvellous boon to education in village India. By the same token, it is far easier to find serious applications for GMOs in poor countries than in rich. But here is the paradox: only the rich countries which don't need these highest of high technologies can afford them. Here, then, is a challenge for the 21st century: to find ways of directing technologies at those who actually need them, without entrapping the recipients in the donors' own political net. At present, there is no convincing mechanism for achieving this.

Genetic engineering in general and GMOs in particular have drawbacks, though, and we seem little better at dealing with them than we are at teasing out their benefits. One concern is animal welfare: pigs bred by conventional means may already grow so fast that they can hardly stand, and the milkiest of present-day cows already spend half their days in the milking parlour, stuffing themselves with concentrates. God forbid that we should fit such creatures with genes to help them produce even more, however profitably.

Then again, novel genes might theoretically escape into wild populations of animals and plants and, although it is easy to be silly about this (for the escape of whole organisms is far more serious, from ants in Hawaii to cats in Australia), there are already hints of real dangers, such as a new strain of half-size poplar trees that flowered a year earlier than anyone expected and scattered its dwarfing pollen into the world at large.

The GM'd potatoes that apparently damage rats illustrate the third theoretical hazard, as reported last summer by Dr Arpad Pusztai of the Rowett Research Institute (after which, of course, he was summarily silenced).

Every gene in any organism's genome interacts with all the others, or should be presumed to be capable of doing so. Genes dropped into a new genome by a genetic engineer may well affect the function of those already there. Many of our crops have poisonous ancestors, since wild plants prefer not to be eaten and go to some lengths to avoid it. Many wild potatoes are lethal, and you would not last long on wild parsnips or on many a wild bean. Most present day crops are more-or-less toxin free, but may still contain the ancestral genes, not lost, but merely switched off. Put a new gene alongside them, and they may wake up again.

This is only one possibility among many that can reasonably be envisaged. Furthermore, if crops are bred by sexual means (by seed, that is) then as generations pass, the genes are reshuffled. That is what sex is for. A novel gene that does no harm in the first generation may well have untoward effects in some later one when the genes have been recombined. GM crops, then, should be bred through many generations and monitored all the way. A moratorium is in order - this applies as much to the putative heat-resistant cereals of the Sahel as it does to long-life tomatoes.

But the hi-tech companies that make the GM crops cannot afford to wait. Biotech and IT are symbols of the future and both have launched a thousand companies, of which most are defunct. If anything at all shows promise, there is pressure to get it on the market. If feeding the world was the problem we could reasonably ask, "What's the hurry?" But feeding the world is not the issue, and never was. The need to stay in business is.

In short, we need to see GMOs not simply as a specific threat, requiring an ad hoc set of regulations, but as part of a general issue - indeed of the general issue of our time: how to control technology in a democracy. Vital ingredients of control are clearly lacking - including the scientific literacy that would enable people at large to take a serious part in discussions and, indeed, the ability to frame a half-decent moral argument. These deficiencies can be made good, however.

Less tractable is the apparent conviction that technologies in general and agriculture in particular can safely and properly be left to the free market. They can't. If we want to avoid BSE, salmonella and TB, cruelty to animals, the destruction of wildlife and of landscape, stress and obliteration of farming communities, and to do all these without putting ourselves in the hands of hi-tech companies for whom we feel a very reasonable distrust, then we need to design an agriculture that is expressly designed to feed people without being cruel and destructive - and then, and only then, invite free enterprise to do what is required.

Governments arrange their defence policies in this way; no one organises wars to accommodate manufacturers of arms - or at least not ostensibly. Why, by the same token, should we farm to please Monsanto? Technically, it is not only eminently possible to feed the world well, but positively easy. It involves feeding cows on grass; that sort of thing. It's the economics that are wrong.

Agriculture provides the greatest test of Third Way social democracy, where free enterprise is free but only to do society's bidding and not, as now, to make the rules up as it goes along. Get the economic framework right and GMOs (and BSE and the deaths of skylarks and of farming communities) will cease to be issues. Leave the underlying economy as it is and disasters of one kind or another are guaranteed for ever.

Colin Tudge's book, "Neanderthals, Bandits and Farmers", is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson at £4.99

This article first appeared in the 19 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, We are richer than you think

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When heritage becomes hate: why my home town of Charlottesville needs to address its complex past

After an invasion of white supremacists, we need to see what our history means today.

Watching a tragedy happening in slow motion, without any way to stop it - that’s how it has felt to be from Charlottesville, Virginia in the summer of 2017. A city that used to always get voted “happiest town in the USA” when I was growing up was the target this weekend of an ugly white supremacist movement whose roots spread far from the city.

It was a huge surprise when we won the lottery of Nazi flags, with our stupid old statues that have become icons of international fascism, with a park named after a distantly forgotten old man becoming a site of struggle for an attempted racist coup of the United States. Our first reaction is: they aren´t from here. Our second: make them go away. Our third: a realisation we need to examine the way that our own ways of life, which we thought so harmless, have inspired such horrible feelings in strangers.

Maybe for my African-American classmates at high school the statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee, and the park when it was still named after him rather than Emancipation Park, always meant violence. Pulling the statue down says no more about the historical Lee than tearing down Lenin in '89 says about socialism. We've been invaded by people pretending to protect us from invasion, and the symbols of our past will never matter as much as living people do.

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The invaders picked our town, probably, because Virginia was a confederate state, and was in fact where the southern gentry used to live. Lee exemplified this tradition. He was son of Lighthorse Harry Lee, a hero of the revolutionary war and governor of Virginia, and is a descendant of one of “Virginia’s first families,” the aristocratic Englishmen who emigrated to Virginia when it was a British colony. He is part of Charlottesville's heritage, and perhaps not even all that shameful a part. He opposed the secession of the confederacy, supported the reconstruction after the war, including giving rights to recently freed slaves. Not exactly woke, but for a confederate general, not as bad as some.

We were taught at Venable Elementary School that he fought only reluctantly, to defend his land, not slavery. In the version we learned, one would imagine Lee being very opposed to people from the Midwest coming to Virginia in cars with Ohio license plates to murder Virginians. Many non-racist Virginians, including quite a few friends, respect Lee deeply - the same is true in towns like New Orleans where other Lee statues are being taken down. Yet if once we could fool ourselves into thinking that the statue didn't represent hatred and racial hierarchies, we can't anymore. The discussion of local history has turned into one of national identity. The statue should be gone by Christmas. 

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The real hero of Charlottesville is the town’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, who was among the most enigmatic of the founding fathers, idealistic and hypocritical - a real American, in other words. His idea of the gentleman farmer is also part of our heritage. It was an alternative to Hamiltonian industrial capitalism, but lost out in the tustle to shape American history. Much like English contemporaries such as William Cobbett, Jefferson believed in a rural ideal, reading poetry by morning, farming by afternoon, playing the harpsichord by night. His thought is also present in our beautiful "academical village" of the University of Virginia which he also founded. It is one of UNESCO’s few world heritage sites in the United States, so I guess it is part fo the globe's heritage as well, and it is also where the white supremacists stomped around with their tiki torches.

It’s time for us to stop being romantic about Jefferson, too. The statue in our minds needs to come down. We can recognize the great parts of his work, of his thought, in Charlottesville today, but we can also recognise that he allowed himself to use violence to dominate others, that he owned slaves and raped them. And we can recognise that equivalent scenarios continue to play out today, and will continue to play out until we are willing to face the truth.

There can be no more excuses. It’s not about Jefferson, or Lee, after all. We use monuments, statues, heroes, to inspire ourselves. In the end, the “truth” about Jefferson or Lee is a matter of trivia and history. Today, for every white male in America, we need to deconstruct the parts of our identity built on the graves of others. It’s not easy.

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Jefferson's gentleman farmer was the forerunner of the people who populate the gentrified Charlottesville that exists today of expensive coffee-shops and celebrity-filled suburbs. This romantic idea, much like the lifestyles of the American and English elite today, seems to engender a lot of resentment from those who can only watch helplessly, and are often gentrified out. It’s not only immigrants or, in the United States, African-Americans, who are denied access to America's Williamsburgs and Charlottesvilles, London's Shoreditches and Oxfords. In Charlottesville, descendants of white sharecroppers and black slaves alike are unable to afford $15 glasses of local Virginia wine.

The paradox implicit in Jefferson’s beautiful idea is that in the end, it’s impossible to sustain this chilled-out and happy lifestyle without the labor being done by others, be they slaves, sharecroppers, or factory workers in China. If America is in trouble now, the conflict comes precisely from the fact that our universalist ideas of freedom, equality, and liberty correspond to an economy that is anything but universal. We actually did it, keep doing it, and unless we can use these ridiculous men dancing through our streets iin Halloween costumes as a funhouse mirror to make us see ourselves as we are, we’ll probably keep doing it.

I resent Jefferson for his hypocrisy, because in truth, I would love it if America looked more like Charlottesville than the industrialized and nasty-looking Interstate 95 highway that leads up the East Coast, the aftermath of Hamiltonian industrial-revolution factory America. The New Jersey towns, the gas stations, what we contemptuously call “McMansions,” suburban Northern Virginia... none of it is really authentic enough. Parallel to the rich and ugly suburbs, are poor and ugly towns, the sort of places with unemployment and discounts on cereal that tastes like sugary trash in the supermarket.

The residents of these towns don’t hate the residents of more gentrified towns for our organic granola, they hate the world for the structures of oppression that they can’t escape, even as an international class, an educated class, a well-meaning class, escapes without even needing to. We coexisted in the same place but not the same set of opportunities, and we glided on to new and bigger worlds of possibility, ones denied to those of different class backgrounds, regardless of their ethnicity.

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Some of my African-American classmates at Charlottesville High School were likely descendants of Jefferson’s slaves, coming from poorer neighbourhoods and housing projects and taking "standard" level classes, with honors and AP classes for students whose parents worked in the University (very liberal, of course), a genteel place where every year, some kid wears blackface or a Nazi outfit to a party - as a joke, of course. While my classmates in AP and Honors classes got help from our teachers in applying to Ivy League schools, the general level classes saw black and white students who shared poorer backgrounds acting out to get attention from harried teachers. This was public school, but Charlottesville’s many excellent private schools, of course, didn’t even have the general level students at all.

Despite some southerners such as Lee supporting the post-war “reconstruction,” white resistance to racial equality led to a Jim Crow system that wasn’t much better than slavery, and an American South which dozed in sweaty decline while the rest of the country industrialised and modernized. From 1865 to 1965, not much happened in the South. True, there were intellectual movements like the Agrarians, whose 1920s manifesto “I’ll Take My Stand” I found one high school afternoon in the local bookstore, we had our Faulkners, our occasional geniuses. But as a society, it was stagnant. 

It was only when the civil rights movement began that the south began to actually rise again. UVa went from being a minor regional school to being a world-class one. Charlottesville went from being a mediocre gentleman’s club to a place that people of all backgrounds could make lives for themselves in the public service. And we, the public, gained so much - that’s why my family chose to live there.

I remember as a child strolling the beautiful downtown mall to go to dinner al fresco with my parents, my father pointed out a man in a turban; it was Satyendra Huja, a Sikh professor at the university who had planned the downtown mall, and made a useless street into one of the nicest places to congregate in town. In 2012, Huja became the mayor. I guess the former mayor of Charlottesville who single-handedly made Charlottesville one of the most charming towns in the country often gets told to “go home,” as if that's somewhere else.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is a national holiday in the United States, but in Virginia it used to be “Lee/King/Jackson” day, with two confederate officers added in just as a reminder. That’s not really our heritage, and as students, we were grateful for the day but always laughed at how immature it was that the powers that be needed to block out Dr. King’s achievements so much.

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Charlottesville is a southern town true to and even obsessed with our heritage - a place filled with museums, historians, bookstores - which wants to dissect that heritage to remove the parts of our forefathers (and mothers) lives that we can’t accept, like a sandwich that you open up, take the pickles out of, and then keep on eating. We love our heritage in Virginia. We read about it, celebrate it, live it every day. But heritage isn’t a static thing, fixed in time, and the walls between myth and history are thin. In fact, perhaps knowing about your heritage is the ultimate form of privilege. I doubt that either the descendants of slaves I went to high school  with, or the “redneck” (so-called because they got sunburned by working in the fields - “redneck” is a class slur) descendants of the illiterate sharecroppers of rural Maryland, do. 

What happened this weekend to Charlottesville could happen to any town as long as we those who are deprived of their history and who don’t feel at home in their hometown. But the Charlottesville I remember, and the one it is now, proves that you can go from war and conflict and institutionalised racism to one where people of all races and identities can coexist, for the most part, peacefully and happily. We can, if we try, honor Jefferson for his achievements without forgetting the slaves his beautiful buildings were built by. A “Memorial to Enslaved Laborers” is being built on the campus he founded.

For the first time, every one of my old friends is thinking about racism, white privilege, the origins of violence, and what we can do about it. We can honor Jefferson and General Lee’s memory best by trying to learn from their mistakes. Maybe, if it seems like we are able to solve these problems, I’ll have a child myself. I hope she goes to Venable Elementary School, and I’ll take her to Emancipation Park afterwards.

This article first appeared in the 19 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, We are richer than you think