Genetic Modification in our food: the gloves come off

Nothing more clearly illustrates the division between old fashioned green thinking & the modern sustainability movement than Genetically Modified food. A recent clash of Tweets between author Mark Lynas (“The God Species“) and Dr Vandana Shiva (author “Soil Not Oil“) exposes just how deep the battle wounds have become. The gloves are off but maybe both are missing the point.

At a book-signing in 2001, Mark Lynas, then a green campaigner, smashed a cream pie in the face of controversial author Bjorn Lomborg whose pro-GM-stance that had so angered him. However on January 3rd 2013 Lynas stood up at an Oxford Farming Conference and said:

“I apologise for having spent several years ripping up GM crops. I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid 1990s, and that I thereby assisted in demonising an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment.”

In retaliation on the 5th January Dr Vandana Shiva launched a frank & offensive attack on Lynas. Her Tweet claimed that allowing farmers to plant GM seeds would be like allowing rapists to rape. (This is dynamite: remember that rape is a hot topic in India these days.) The moral equivalence was clear in Dr Shiva’s mind. (How Freudian.) She saw the insertion of man-made genetic material into ‘mother earth’ as the rape of nature. Lynas was outraged.

Such arguments fascinate me. Equally they appall me. I can see the merits and the drawbacks in both sides of the arguments but what makes me groan is how quickly ideology overcomes pragmatism. My own views are clear: GMOs are a piece of technology. They offer solutions that comes with some problems. They have the morality of televisions, aeroplanes or nuclear power. We either use them for good, bad or both. That is our choice, not the choice of the technology. There is no use falling back upon the language of romanticism to describe it.

Dr Vandana Shiva, an environmental activist, author & “eco feminist” based in Delhi, has authored more than 20 books. She has a PhD in Physics and stands against globalisation’s effects upon rural communities in India, arguing instead for a return to the wisdom of traditional farming practices such as seed collection. Genetically Modified seeds are her nemesis. It is only natural for her to use the language of feminism to defend what she believes to be right. However, regardless of her colourful language her objections to GMOs are largely based upon her belief that they give Corporations the technology to copyright the building blocks of life. Thus they grant themselves monopoly powers over some of the poorest and most vulnerable communities on earth. These fears are genuine. But these arguments are based upon simple economics; not science.

Despite some attempts to use science to prove that GM organisms are unsafe, they have remained trouble-free in the areas of the world where they have been used for many years. It remains an emotive topic. The skirmishes have involved arguments about the consumer’s right to know if there are GMO ingredients in the food they are eating.

My view? Knowing what you are buying is your right. If I buy timber I wish to know if the wood has an FSC certificate. Forestry products should be produced sustainably. I don’t think that buying wood from unsustainable sources is going to result something that will kill me directly. It isn’t technically inferior. It is economically inferior. Likewise when I buy food I wish to know what’s in it, NOT because I think that one choice is healthier than another, but because some choices have legs and some do not. The wood is all the same, the food is all the same. If you are starving you won’t question it.

The interesting debate really cooks-off when we touch the topic of local, organic and fair-trade foods. You would have thought there would be some measure of science to the reasons behind why we make such choices. Clearly there is far more in play. Most people assume (wrongly in my view) that organic food and GMOs are mutually exclusive. Why? Growing your own food locally with the minimum of chemical inputs really tells us nothing about the technology in the seeds. Our fascination with pouring large quantities of fossil-fuel-based chemicals onto the land derives from our inability to grow enough any other way. We are ignorant. Chemical inputs are a sledgehammer to crack a nut. It’s crude. Let’s pour enough poisons into the system in the interest of short-term yield increases. There has to be a smarter system than this. GMOs seem to offer a solution.

What if we could tinker into existence plant-forms that can yield all the food we want on a small-scale without fossil-food inputs? Wouldn’t that cut down the carbon-footprint from farming? Would it not increase the security of our food-supplies in an energy-strapped economy? Yes, this technology could do all that and could make trade fair too. So what are we scared of? In my mind we are not really scared of the technology itself…

What we are scared of is WHO controls the technology. What we want is for genetic modification to be something simple that can be conjured up in plant nurseries all over the planet. Wouldn’t it be great if those poor farmers in rural India can modify plants to suit their environment? Plants that require less water, grow in poor soil and need no fertiliser? Plants that are cheaper to grow and enhance the livelihood of those farmers. Plants that put their kids through college. Like all technologies we could do this. We could use it for good. Will we?

Few of us are naïve to think that it is that simple today, but it could be. We have the choice to make it so. Our fear of the technology comes from a lack of trust in our governmental and market systems. We suspect that the power will congregate within a minority of companies who will use it to maximise profits for shareholders a world away from the communities who could benefit from the technology. In short, the economics will not maximise the utility for everyone in the global community because of the abuse of monopoly power. And we aren’t talking about photo-copying technology and Xerox are we? This is the power to put food on your plate. And for that we will pay anything.

The countryside is not a holiday resort. Our rural communities live in an entirely man-made environment. Farms are factories that make food. The farm-dominated countryside looks pretty but it isn’t nature-raw. It is artificial – a complex network of interwoven ecological systems that we put together like a great self-organising machine to feed our advanced post-industrial society. The land is not a charity. It is a business. Farmers are meant to make money. The shape of our farms has been conjured to fit in with the wider economy and the needs of most food retailing systems. If you have a romantic view of nature and farming then you are in for a world of disappointment. You cannot put our green spaces into some kind of time-machine and send it back to some rural idyll. Country life is not a Gainsborough landscape painting.

To illustrate exactly my point I point you at a great article that appeared in the national press just two days after Mark Lynas delivered his pro-GM apology. In “What’s for dinner in 2035?” Alex Renton imagines what two families – one rich, the other hard-up – might be eating in the future. (You can read it here Renton’s vision had an interesting twist for the romantics. In the description of how a poor family would meet its need for dairy products we learnt this:

“Our city street has its own small herd of GM cows, co-operatively managed in the pasture made by knocking through the gardens. Like our medieval ancestors, we now get most of our necessary fat and protein from milk, cheese and butter.”

I just loved the way that Alex had avoided all the obvious clichés about our food future. Renton’s poor family in 2035 have to live with some harsh facts of life:

“We’re growing as much food as we can in the back garden. Food costs are using nearly half the family income, compared with just 12% for our grandparents, so we throw away very little indeed.”

This description is familiar for those of us in the Transition movement but it has so delightfully pushed through the barriers that hold us back. In the future so much of our concerns about GM foods will simply be irrelevant. They will be a fact of life. (Think today how we laugh at the idea of needing a man with a red flag to walk in front of your car?) This is how technology touches our lives. If we have one challenge for the next 20 years then it will be to liberate the Genetic Modification technologies out of the clutches of a minority of powerful companies and into the hands of the many smaller market players. We probably need this technology to give us a future.

If we do not choose to use this technology for good then we will divide the world up into the food haves and have-nots. The haves will have the technology and the have-nots with have low-input local farming. If we can’t liberate the technology then we will have to find ways of making food for 9 billion people without fossil-fuel-based chemical fertilisers & transports systems.

In 2035 my daughter will be 29 years of age. I wonder; what will she eat? Will she be food rich or poor? The choices we make today drive how she will eat. If we are to make these choices then they must be based upon reason. Irrational appeals painting pictures of the “rape” of mother-earth are a dead-end. Likewise wide-eyed naivety about the intentions of food corporations will also fail us. IF we need this technology then we must ensure not only its safety, but also that it is set free for EVERYONE to benefit.

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