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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Why the elites always rule

Since an Italian sociologist coined the word “elite” in 1902, it has become a term of abuse. But history is the story of one elite replacing another – as the votes for Trump and Brexit have shown.

Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign was based on the rejection of the “establishment”. Theresa May condemned the rootless “international elites” in her leader’s speech at last October’s Conservative party conference. On the European continent, increasingly popular right-wing parties such as Marine Le Pen’s Front National and the German Alternative für Deutschland, as well as Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, delight in denouncing the “Eurocratic” elites. But where does the term “elite” come from, and what does it mean?

It was Vilfredo Pareto who, in 1902, gave the term the meaning that it has today. We mostly think of Pareto as the economist who came up with ideas such as “Pareto efficiency” and the “Pareto principle”. The latter – sometimes known as the “power law”, or the “80/20 rule” – stipulates that 80 per cent of the land always ends up belonging to 20 per cent of the population. Pareto deduced this by studying land distribution in Italy at the turn of the 20th century. He also found that 20 per cent of the pea pods in his garden produced 80 per cent of the peas. Pareto, however, was not only an economist. In later life, he turned his hand to sociology, and it was in this field that he developed his theory of the “circulation of elites”.

The term élite, used in its current socio­logical sense, first appeared in his 1902 book Les systèmes socialistes (“socialist systems”). Its aim was to analyse Marxism as a new form of “secular” religion. And it was the French word élite that he used: naturally, one might say, for a book written in French. Pareto, who was bilingual, wrote in French and Italian. He was born in Paris in 1848 to a French mother and an Italian father; his father was a Genoese marquis who had accompanied the political activist Giuseppe Mazzini into exile. In honour of the revolution that was taking place in Germany at the time, Pareto was at first named Fritz Wilfried. This was latinised into Vilfredo Federico on the family’s return to Italy in 1858.

When Pareto wrote his masterpiece – the 3,000-page Trattato di sociologia ­generale (“treatise on general sociology”) – in 1916, he retained the French word élite even though the work was in Italian. Previously, he had used “aristocracy”, but that didn’t seem to fit the democratic regime that had come into existence after Italian unification. Nor did he want to use his rival Gaetano Mosca’s term “ruling class”; the two had bitter arguments about who first came up with the idea of a ruling minority.

Pareto wanted to capture the idea that a minority will always rule without recourse to outdated notions of heredity or Marxist concepts of class. So he settled on élite, an old French word that has its origins in the Latin eligere, meaning “to select” (the best).

In the Trattato, he offered his definition of an elite. His idea was to rank everyone on a scale of one to ten and that those with the highest marks in their field would be considered the elite. Pareto was willing to judge lawyers, politicians, swindlers, courtesans or chess players. This ranking was to be morally neutral: beyond “good and evil”, to use the language of the time. So one could identify the best thief, whether that was considered a worthy profession or not.

Napoleon was his prime example: whether he was a good or a bad man was irrelevant, as were the policies he might have pursued. Napoleon had undeniable political qualities that, according to Pareto, marked him out as one of the elite. Napoleon is important
because Pareto made a distinction within the elite – everyone with the highest indices within their branch of activity was a member of an elite – separating out the governing from the non-governing elite. The former was what interested him most.

This is not to suggest that the non-governing elite and the non-elite were of no interest to him, but they had a specific and limited role to play, which was the replenishment of the governing elite. For Pareto, this group was the key to understanding society as a whole – for whatever values this elite incarnated would be reflected in society. But he believed that there was an inevitable “physiological” law that stipulated the continuous decline of the elite, thereby making way for a new elite. As he put it in one of his most memorable phrases, “History is the graveyard of elites.”

***

Pareto’s thesis was that elites always rule. There is always the domination of the minority over the majority. And history is just the story of one elite replacing another. This is what he called the “circulation of elites”. When the current elite starts to decline, it is challenged and makes way for another. Pareto thought that this came about in two ways: either through assimilation, the new elite merging with elements of the old, or through revolution, the new elite wiping out the old. He used the metaphor of a river to make his point. Most of the time, the river flows continuously, smoothly incorporating its tributaries, but sometimes, after a storm, it floods and breaks its banks.

Drawing on his Italian predecessor Machiavelli, Pareto identified two types of elite rulers. The first, whom he called the “foxes”, are those who dominate mainly through combinazioni (“combination”): deceit, cunning, manipulation and co-optation. Their rule is characterised by decentralisation, plurality and scepticism, and they are uneasy with the use of force. “Lions”, on the other hand, are more conservative. They emphasise unity, homogeneity, established ways, the established faith, and rule through small, centralised and hierarchical bureaucracies, and they are far more at ease with the use of force than the devious foxes. History is the slow swing of the pendulum from one type of elite to the other, from foxes to lions and back again.

The relevance of Pareto’s theories to the world today is clear. After a period of foxes in power, the lions are back with renewed vigour. Donald Trump, as his behaviour during the US presidential campaign confirmed, is perfectly at ease with the use of intimidation and violence. He claimed that he wants to have a wall built between the United States and Mexico. His mooted economic policies are largely based on protectionism and tariffs. Regardless of his dubious personal ethics – a classic separation between the elite and the people – he stands for the traditional (white) American way of life and religion.

This is in stark contrast to the Obama administration and the Cameron government, both of which, compared to what has come since the votes for Trump and Brexit, were relatively open and liberal. Pareto’s schema goes beyond the left/right divide; the whole point of his Systèmes socialistes was to demonstrate that Marxism, as a secular religion, signalled a return to faith, and thus the return of the lions in politics.

In today’s context, the foxes are the forces of globalisation and liberalism – in the positive sense of developing an open, inter­connected and tolerant world; and in the negative sense of neoliberalism and the dehumanising extension of an economic calculus to all aspects of human life. The lions represent the reaction, centring themselves in the community, to which they may be more attentive, but bringing increased xenophobia, intolerance and conservatism. For Pareto, the lions and foxes are two different types of rule, both with strengths and weaknesses. Yet the elite is always composed of the two elements. The question is: which one dominates at any given time?

What we know of Theresa May’s government suggests that she runs a tight ship. She has a close – and closed – group of confidants, and she keeps a firm grip on the people under her. She is willing to dispense with parliament in her negotiation of Brexit, deeming it within the royal prerogative. Nobody yet knows her plan.

The European Union is a quintessentially foxlike project, based on negotiation, compromise and combination. Its rejection is a victory of the lions over the foxes. The lions are gaining prominence across the Western world, not just in Trumpland and Brexit Britain. Far-right movements have risen by rejecting the EU. It should come as no surprise that many of these movements (including Trump in the US) admire Vladimir Putin, at least for his strongman style.

Asia hasn’t been spared this movement, either. After years of tentative openness in China, at least with the economy, Xi Jinping has declared himself the “core” leader, in the mould of the previous strongmen Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has also hardened his stance, and he was the first world leader to meet with President-Elect Donald Trump. Narendra Modi in India and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines are in the same mould, the latter coming to power on the back of promising to kill criminals and drug dealers. After the failed coup against him in July, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also been cracking down on Turkey.

***


In Les systèmes socialistes, Pareto elaborated on how a new elite replaces the old. A, the old elite, would be challenged by B, the new, in alliance with C, the people. B would win the support of C by making promises that, once in power, it wouldn’t keep. If that sounds like the behaviour of most politicians, that is because it probably is. But what Pareto was pointing out was how, in its struggle for power, the new elite politicised groups that were not political before.

What we know of Trump supporters and Brexiteers is that many feel disenfranchised: the turnout in the EU referendum could not have been greater than in the 2015 general election otherwise, and significant numbers of those who voted for Trump had never voted before. There is no reason to think that they, too, won’t be betrayed by the new leaders they helped to bring to power.

In the last years of his life, Pareto offered a commentary on Italy in the 1920s. He denounced the state’s inability to enforce its decisions and the way that Italians spent their time flaunting their ability to break the law and get away with it. He coined the phrase “demagogic plutocracy” to characterise the period, in which the rich ruled behind a façade of democratic politics. He thought this particularly insidious for two reasons: those in power were more interested in siphoning off wealth for their personal ends than encouraging the production of new wealth, and consequently undermined national prosperity (remember Pareto’s training as an economist); and, as the demagogic elites govern through deceit and cunning, they are able to mask their rule for longer periods.

Much has been made of Trump’s “populism”, but the term “demagogic plutocrat” seems particularly apt for him, too: he is a wealthy man who will advance the interests of his small clique to the detriment of the well-being of the nation, all behind the smokescreen of democratic politics.

There are other ways in which Pareto can help us understand our predicament. After all, he coined the 80/20 rule, of which we hear an intensified echo in the idea of “the One Per Cent”. Trump is a fully paid-up member of the One Per Cent, a group that he claims to be defending the 99 Per Cent from (or, perhaps, he is an unpaid-up member, given that what unites the One Per Cent is its reluctance to pay taxes). When we perceive the natural inequality of the distribution of resources as expressed through Pareto’s “power law”, we are intellectually empowered to try to do something about it.

Those writings on 1920s Italy landed Pareto in trouble, as his theory of the circulation of elites predicted that a “demagogic plutocracy”, dominated by foxes, would necessarily make way for a “military plutocracy”, this time led by lions willing to restore the power of the state. In this, he was often considered a defender of Mussolini, and Il Duce certainly tried to make the best of that possibility by making Pareto a senator. Yet there is a difference between prediction and endorsement, and Pareto, who died in 1923, had already been living as a recluse in Céligny in Switzerland for some time – earning him the nickname “the hermit of Céligny” – with only his cats for company, far removed from day-to-day Italian politics. He remained a liberal to his death, content to stay above the fray.

Like all good liberals, Pareto admired Britain above all. As an economist, he had vehemently defended its system of free trade in the face of outraged opposition in Italy. He also advocated British pluralism and tolerance. Liberalism is important here: in proposing to set up new trade barriers and restrict freedom of movement, exacerbated by their more or less blatant xenophobia, Trump and Brexit challenge the values at the heart of the liberal world.

***


What was crucial for Pareto was that new elites would rise and challenge the old. It was through the “circulation of elites” that history moved. Yet the fear today is that history has come to a standstill, that elites have ­become fossilised. Electors are fed up with choosing between the same old candidates, who seem to be proposing the same old thing. No wonder people are willing to try something new.

This fear of the immobility of elites has been expressed before. In 1956, the American sociologist C Wright Mills published The Power Elite. The book has not been out of print since. It is thanks to him that the term was anglicised and took on the pejorative sense it has today. For Mills, Cold War America had come to be dominated by a unified political, commercial and military elite. With the 20th century came the growth of nationwide US corporations, replacing the older, more self-sufficient farmers of the 19th century.

This made it increasingly difficult to ­distinguish between the interests of large US companies and those of the nation as a whole. “What’s good for General Motors,” as the phrase went, “is good for America.” As a result, political and commercial interests were becoming ever more intertwined. One had only to add the Cold War to the mix to see how the military would join such a nexus.

Mills theorised what President Dwight D Eisenhower denounced in his January 1961 farewell speech as the “military-industrial complex” (Eisenhower had wanted to add the word “congressional”, but that was thought to be too risky and was struck out of the speech). For Mills, the circulation of elites – a new elite rising to challenge the old – had come to an end. If there was any circulation at all, it was the ease with which this new power elite moved from one part of the elite to the other: the “revolving door”.

The Cold War is over but there is a similar sense of immobility at present concerning the political elite. Must one be the child or wife of a past US president to run for that office? After Hillary Clinton, will Chelsea run, too? Must one have gone to Eton, or at least Oxford or Cambridge, to reach the cabinet? In France is it Sciences Po and Éna?

The vote for Brexit, Trump and the rise of the far right are, beyond doubt, reactions to this sentiment. And they bear out Pareto’s theses: the new elites have aligned themselves with the people to challenge the old elites. The lions are challenging the foxes. Needless to say, the lions, too, are prototypically elites. Trump is a plutocrat. Boris Johnson, the co-leader of the Leave campaign, is as “establishment” as they come (he is an Old Etonian and an Oxford graduate). Nigel Farage is a public-school-educated, multimillionaire ex-stockbroker. Marine Le Pen is the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen. Putin is ex-KGB.

Pareto placed his hopes for the continuing circulation of elites in technological, economic and social developments. He believed that these transformations would give rise to new elites that would challenge the old political ruling class.

We are now living through one of the biggest ever technological revolutions, brought about by the internet. Some have argued that social media tipped the vote in favour of Brexit. Arron Banks’s Leave.EU website relentlessly targeted disgruntled blue-collar workers through social media, using simple, sometimes grotesque anti-immigration messages (as a recent profile of Banks in the New Statesman made clear) that mimicked the strategies of the US hard right.

Trump’s most vocal supporters include the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who has found the internet a valuable tool for propagating his ideas. In Poland, Jarosław Kaczynski, the leader of the Law and Justice party, claims that the Russian plane crash in 2010 that killed his twin brother (then the country’s president) was a political assassination, and has accused the Polish prime minister of the time, Donald Tusk, now the president of the European Council, of being “at least morally” responsible. (The official explanation is that the poorly trained pilots crashed the plane in heavy fog.)

It need not be like this. Silicon Valley is a world unto itself, but when some of its members – a new technological elite – start to play a more active role in politics, that might become a catalyst for change. In the UK, it has been the legal, financial and technological sectors that so far have led the pushback against a “hard” Brexit. And we should not forget how the social movements that grew out of Occupy have already been changing the nature of politics in many southern European countries.

The pendulum is swinging back to the lions. In some respects, this might be welcome, because globalisation has left too many behind and they need to be helped. However, Pareto’s lesson was one of moderation. Both lions and foxes have their strengths and weaknesses, and political elites are a combination of the two, with one element dominating temporarily. Pareto, as he did in Italy in the 1920s, would have predicted a return of the lions. But as a liberal, he would have cautioned against xenophobia, protectionism and violence.

If the lions can serve as correctives to the excesses of globalisation, their return is salutary. Yet the circulation of elites is a process more often of amalgamation than replacement. The challenge to liberal politics is to articulate a balance between the values of an open, welcoming society and of one that takes care of its most vulnerable members. Now, as ever, the task is to find the balance between the lions and the foxes. l

Hugo Drochon is the author of “Nietzsche’s Great Politics” (Princeton University Press)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge