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

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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