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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David Cameron's fatal insouciance

Will future historians remember the former prime minister for anything more than his great Brexit bungle?

On 13 July 2016, after a premiership lasting six years and 63 days, David Cameron left Downing Street for the last time. On the tarmac outside the black door, with his wife and children at his side, he gave a characteristically cool and polished parting statement. Then he got in his car for the last journey to Buckingham Palace – the picture, as ever, of insouciant ease. As I was watching the television pictures of Cameron’s car gliding away, I remembered what he is supposed to have said some years earlier, when asked why he wanted to be prime minister. True or not, his answer perfectly captured the public image of the man: “Because I think I’d be rather good at it.”

A few moments later, a friend sent me a text message. It was just six words long: “He’s down there with Chamberlain now.”

At first I thought that was a bit harsh. People will probably always disagree about Cameron’s economic record, just as they do about Margaret Thatcher’s. But at the very least it was nowhere near as bad as some of his critics had predicted, and by some standards – jobs created, for instance – it was much better than many observers had expected. His government’s welfare and education policies have their critics, but it seems highly unlikely that people will still be talking about them in a few decades’ time. Similarly, although Britain’s intervention in Libya is unlikely to win high marks from historians, it never approached the disaster of Iraq in the public imagination.

Cameron will probably score highly for his introduction of gay marriage, and although there are many people who dislike him, polls suggested that most voters regarded him as a competent, cheerful and plausible occupant of the highest office in the land. To put it another way, from the day he entered 10 Downing Street until the moment he left, he always looked prime ministerial. It is true that he left office as a loser, humiliated by the EU referendum, and yet, on the day he departed, the polls had him comfortably ahead of his Labour opposite number. He was, in short, popular.
On the other hand, a lot of people liked Neville Chamberlain, too. Like Chamberlain, Cameron seems destined to be remembered for only one thing. When students answer exam questions about Chamberlain, it’s a safe bet that they aren’t writing about the Holidays with Pay Act 1938. And when students write about Cameron in the year 2066, they won’t be answering questions about intervention in Libya, or gay marriage. They will be writing about Brexit and the lost referendum.

It is, of course, conceivable, though surely very unlikely, that Brexit will be plain sailing. But it is very possible that it will be bitter, protracted and enormously expensive. Indeed, it is perfectly conceivable that by the tenth anniversary of the referendum, the United Kingdom could be reduced to an English and Welsh rump, struggling to come to terms with a punitive European trade deal and casting resentful glances at a newly independent Scotland. Of course the Brexiteers – Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Daniel Hannan et al – would get most of the blame in the short run. But in the long run, would any of them really be remembered? Much more likely is that historians’ fingers would point at one man: Cameron, the leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party, the prime minister who gambled with his future and lost the Union. The book by “Cato” that destroyed Chamberlain’s reputation in July 1940 was entitled Guilty Men. How long would it be, I wonder, before somebody brought out a book about Cameron, entitled Guilty Man?

Naturally, all this may prove far too pessimistic. My own suspicion is that Brexit will turn out to be a typically European – or, if you prefer, a typically British – fudge. And if the past few weeks’ polls are anything to go by, Scottish independence remains far from certain. So, in a less apocalyptic scenario, how would posterity remember David Cameron? As a historic failure and “appalling bungler”, as one Guardian writer called him? Or as a “great prime minister”, as Theresa May claimed on the steps of No 10?

Neither. The answer, I think, is that it would not remember him at all.

***

The late Roy Jenkins, who – as Herbert Asquith’s biographer, Harold Wilson’s chancellor and Jim Callaghan’s rival – was passionately interested in such things, used to write of a “market” in prime ministerial futures. “Buy Attlee!” he might say. “Sell Macmillan!” But much of this strikes me as nonsense. For one thing, political reputations fluctuate much less than we think. Many people’s views of, say, Wilson, Thatcher and Blair have remained unchanged since the day they left office. Over time, reputations do not change so much as fade. Academics remember prime ministers; so do political anoraks and some politicians; but most people soon forget they ever existed. There are 53 past prime ministers of the United Kingdom, but who now remembers most of them? Outside the university common room, who cares about the Marquess of Rockingham, the Earl of Derby, Lord John Russell, or Arthur Balfour? For that matter, who cares about Asquith or Wilson? If you stopped people in the streets of Sunderland, how many of them would have heard of Stanley Baldwin or Harold Macmillan? And even if they had, how much would they ­really know about them?

In any case, what does it mean to be a success or a failure as prime minister? How on Earth can you measure Cameron’s achievements, or lack of them? We all have our favourites and our prejudices, but how do you turn that into something more dispassionate? To give a striking example, Margaret Thatcher never won more than 43.9 per cent of the vote, was roundly hated by much of the rest of the country and was burned in effigy when she died, long after her time in office had passed into history. Having come to power promising to revive the economy and get Britain working again, she contrived to send unemployment well over three million, presided over the collapse of much of British manufacturing and left office with the economy poised to plunge into yet another recession. So, in that sense, she looks a failure.

Yet at the same time she won three consecutive general elections, regained the Falklands from Argentina, pushed through bold reforms to Britain’s institutions and fundamentally recast the terms of political debate for a generation to come. In that sense, clearly she was a success. How do you reconcile those two positions? How can you possibly avoid yielding to personal prejudice? How, in fact, can you reach any vaguely objective verdict at all?

It is striking that, although we readily discuss politicians in terms of success and failure, we rarely think about what that means. In some walks of life, the standard for success seems obvious. Take the other “impossible job” that the tabloids love to compare with serving as prime minister: managing the England football team. You can measure a football manager’s success by trophies won, qualifications gained, even points accrued per game, just as you can judge a chief executive’s performance in terms of sales, profits and share values.

There is no equivalent for prime ministerial leadership. Election victories? That would make Clement Attlee a failure: he fought five elections and won only two. It would make Winston Churchill a failure, too: he fought three elections and won only one. Economic growth? Often that has very little to do with the man or woman at the top. Opinion polls? There’s more to success than popularity, surely. Wars? Really?

The ambiguity of the question has never stopped people trying. There is even a Wikipedia page devoted to “Historical rankings of Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom”, which incorporates two surveys of academics carried out by the University of Leeds, a BBC Radio 4 poll of Westminster commentators, a feature by BBC History Magazine and an online poll organised by Newsnight. By and large, there is a clear pattern. Among 20th-century leaders, there are four clear “successes” – Lloyd George, Churchill, Attlee and Thatcher – with the likes of Macmillan, Wilson and Heath scrapping for mid-table places. At the bottom, too, the same names come up again and again: Balfour, Chamberlain, Eden, Douglas-Home and Major. But some of these polls are quite old, dating back to the Blair years. My guess is that if they were conducted today, Major might rise a little, especially after the success of Team GB at the Olympics, and Gordon Brown might find himself becalmed somewhere towards the bottom.

***

So what makes the failures, well, failures? In two cases, the answer is simply electoral defeat. Both ­Arthur Balfour and John Major were doomed to failure from the moment they took office, precisely because they had been picked from within the governing party to replace strong, assertive and electorally successful leaders in Lord Salisbury and Margaret Thatcher, respectively. It’s true that Major unexpectedly won the 1992 election, but in both cases there was an atmosphere of fin de régime from the very beginning. Douglas-Home probably fits into this category, too, coming as he did at the fag end of 13 years of Conservative rule. Contrary to political mythology, he was in fact a perfectly competent prime minister, and came much closer to winning the 1964 election than many people had expected. But he wasn’t around for long and never really captured the public mood. It seems harsh merely to dismiss him as a failure, but politics is a harsh business.

That leaves two: Chamberlain and Eden. Undisputed failures, who presided over the greatest foreign policy calamities in our modern history. Nothing to say, then? Not so. Take Chamberlain first. More than any other individual in our modern history, he has become a byword for weakness, naivety and self-deluding folly.

Yet much of this picture is wrong. Chamberlain was not a weak or indecisive man. If anything, he was too strong: too stubborn, too self-confident. Today we remember him as a faintly ridiculous, backward-looking man, with his umbrella and wing collar. But many of his contemporaries saw him as a supremely modern administrator, a reforming minister of health and an authoritative chancellor who towered above his Conservative contemporaries. It was this impression of cool capability that secured Chamberlain the crown when Baldwin stepped down in 1937. Unfortunately, it was precisely his titanic self-belief, his unbreakable faith in his own competence, that also led him to overestimate his influence over Adolf Hitler. In other words, the very quality that people most admired – his stubborn confidence in his own ability – was precisely what doomed him.

In Chamberlain’s case, there is no doubt that he had lost much of his popular prestige by May 1940, when he stepped down as prime minister. Even though most of his own Conservative MPs still backed him – as most of Cameron’s MPs still backed him after the vote in favour of Brexit – the evidence of Mass Observation and other surveys suggests that he had lost support in the country at large, and his reputation soon dwindled to its present calamitous level.

The case of the other notable failure, Anthony Eden, is different. When he left office after the Suez crisis in January 1957, it was not because the public had deserted him, but because his health had collapsed. Surprising as it may seem, Eden was more popular after Suez than he had been before it. In other words, if the British people had had their way, Eden would probably have continued as prime minister. They did not see him as a failure at all.

Like Chamberlain, Eden is now generally regarded as a dud. Again, this may be a bit unfair. As his biographers have pointed out, he was a sick and exhausted man when he took office – the result of two disastrously botched operations on his gall bladder – and relied on a cocktail of painkillers and stimulants. Yet, to the voters who handed him a handsome general election victory in 1955, Eden seemed to have all the qualities to become an enormously successful prime minister: good looks, brains, charm and experience, like a slicker, cleverer and more seasoned version of Cameron. In particular, he was thought to have proved his courage in the late 1930s, when he had resigned as foreign secretary in protest at the appeasement of Benito Mussolini before becoming one of Churchill’s chief lieutenants.

Yet it was precisely Eden’s great asset – his reputation as a man who had opposed appeasement and stood up to the dictators – that became his weakness. In effect, he became trapped by his own legend. When the Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal in July 1956, Eden seemed unable to view it as anything other than a replay of the fascist land-grabs of the 1930s. Nasser was Mussolini; the canal was Abyssinia; ­failure to resist would be appeasement all over again. This was nonsense, really: Nasser was nothing like Mussolini. But Eden could not escape the shadow of his own political youth.

This phenomenon – a prime minister’s greatest strength gradually turning into his or her greatest weakness – is remarkably common. Harold Wilson’s nimble cleverness, Jim Callaghan’s cheerful unflappability, Margaret Thatcher’s restless urgency, John Major’s Pooterish normality, Tony Blair’s smooth charm, Gordon Brown’s rugged seriousness: all these things began as refreshing virtues but became big handicaps. So, in that sense, what happened to Chamberlain and Eden was merely an exaggerated version of what happens to every prime minister. Indeed, perhaps it is only pushing it a bit to suggest, echoing Enoch Powell, that all prime ministers, their human flaws inevitably amplified by the stresses of office, eventually end up as failures. In fact, it may not be too strong to suggest that in an age of 24-hour media scrutiny, surging populism and a general obsession with accountability, the very nature of the job invites failure.

***

In Cameron’s case, it would be easy to construct a narrative based on similar lines. Remember, after all, how he won the Tory leadership in the first place. He went into the 2005 party conference behind David Davis, the front-runner, but overhauled him after a smooth, fluent and funny speech, delivered without notes. That image of blithe nonchalance served him well at first, making for a stark contrast with the saturnine intensity and stumbling stiffness of his immediate predecessors, Michael Howard and Iain Duncan Smith. Yet in the end it was Cameron’s self-confidence that really did for him.

Future historians will probably be arguing for years to come whether he really needed to promise an In/Out referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, as his defenders claim, to protect his flank against Ukip. What is not in doubt is that Cameron believed he could win it. It became a cliché to call him an “essay crisis” prime minister – a gibe that must have seemed meaningless to millions of people who never experienced the weekly rhythms of the Oxford tutorial system. And yet he never really managed to banish the impression of insouciance. The image of chillaxing Dave, the PM so cockily laidback that he left everything until the last minute, may be a caricature, but my guess is that it will stick.

As it happens, I think Cameron deserves more credit than his critics are prepared to give him. I think it would be easy to present him as a latter-day Baldwin – which I mean largely as a compliment. Like Baldwin, he was a rich provincial Tory who posed as an ordinary family man. Like Baldwin, he offered economic austerity during a period of extraordinary international financial turmoil. Like Baldwin, he governed in coalition while relentlessly squeezing the Liberal vote. Like Baldwin, he presented himself as the incarnation of solid, patriotic common sense; like Baldwin, he was cleverer than his critics thought; like Baldwin, he was often guilty of mind-boggling complacency. The difference is that when Baldwin gambled and lost – as when he called a rash general election in 1923 – he managed to save his career from the ruins. When Cameron gambled and lost, it was all over.

Although I voted Remain, I do not share many commentators’ view of Brexit as an apocalyptic disaster. In any case, given that a narrow majority of the electorate got the result it wanted, at least 17 million people presumably view Cameron’s gamble as a great success – for Britain, if not for him. Unfortunately for Cameron, however, most British academics are left-leaning Remainers, and it is they who will write the history books. What ought also to worry Cameron’s defenders – or his shareholders, to use Roy Jenkins’s metaphor – is that both Chamberlain and Eden ended up being defined by their handling of Britain’s foreign policy. There is a curious paradox here, ­because foreign affairs almost never matters at the ballot box. In 1959, barely three years after Suez, the Conservatives cruised to an easy re-election victory; in 2005, just two years after invading Iraq, when the extent of the disaster was already apparent, Blair won a similarly comfortable third term in office. Perhaps foreign affairs matters more to historians than it does to most voters. In any case, the lesson seems to be that, if you want to secure your historical reputation, you can get away with mishandling the economy and lengthening the dole queues, but you simply cannot afford to damage Britain’s international standing.

So, if Brexit does turn into a total disaster, Cameron can expect little quarter. Indeed, while historians have some sympathy for Chamberlain, who was, after all, motivated by a laudable desire to avoid war, and even for Eden, who was a sick and troubled man, they are unlikely to feel similar sympathy for an overconfident prime minister at the height of his powers, who seems to have brought his fate upon himself.

How much of this, I wonder, went through David Cameron’s mind in the small hours of that fateful morning of 24 June, as the results came through and his place in history began to take shape before his horrified eyes? He reportedly likes to read popular history for pleasure; he must occasionally have wondered how he would be remembered. But perhaps it meant less to him than we think. Most people give little thought to how they will be remembered after their death, except by their closest friends and family members. There is something insecure, something desperately needy, about people who dwell on their place in history.

Whatever you think about Cameron, he never struck me as somebody suffering from excessive insecurity. Indeed, his normality was one of the most likeable things about him.

He must have been deeply hurt by his failure. But my guess is that, even as his car rolled away from 10 Downing Street for the last time, his mind was already moving on to other things. Most prime ministers leave office bitter, obsessive and brooding. But, like Stanley Baldwin, Cameron strolled away from the job as calmly as he had strolled into it. It was that fatal insouciance that brought him down. 

Dominic Sandbrook is a historian, broadcaster and columnist for the Daily Mail. His book The Great British Dream Factory will be published in paperback by Penguin on 1 September

Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and author. His books include Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles and White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties. He writes the What If... column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser