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19 February 1999

Why we don’t need GM foods

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

By Colin Tudge

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?

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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.

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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