Posts tagged ‘GM’

Jimmy’s GM Food Fight swallows my afternoon whole…

I’ve just spent an afternoon watching Jimmy’s GM Food Fight when I was supposed to be working. Oops.

And it drove me mad, but the funny thing was that I actually agree with his conclusion, broadly that in theory there is no reason why genetic modification cannot have a role in sustainable agriculture in the future, but that the model as it stands at the moment stands to benefit large-scale farmers and the biotech companies while putting the people who live around and eat the crops at risk and that we should therefore proceed with extreme caution. Which is all well and good, and thus makes me slightly annoyed that the previous 50 minutes should have been spent trotting out the same old pro-GM arguments you hear all over the place and portraying anti-GM campaigners’s rejection of biotechnology as anti-science or a product of ignorance. He seemed to be assuming they didn’t know how GM worked and were rejecting it because they didn’t understand it, rather than because of issues around corporate control and markets.

He said his main concerns about GM were the potential risks to human health and the environment. He did admit that some lab tests had shown that GM provoked allergic reactions in mice, but pointed to the fact that people in the US had been eating GM for 10 years and no adverse effects had been recorded, without mentioning that this could be because there is no labelling (despite overwhelming public demand for it) and so nobody can build up a picture of what people are eating and examine the data to see if there’s a link. There was also much emphasis on how good for the environment GM crops were because they needed less pesticide, which had also saved farmers in Arizona money, but then you could easily find other farmers (Mr Schmeiser springs to mind, or see the films The World According to Monsanto or The Future of Food) who’d tell you that resistance built up and meant they had to spray more, or that the companies who sold both seed and pesticide/herbicide put up their prices…

And the point was made that the debate is very polarised, with hard-line extremists on both sides, there is research claimed to support both sides (a lot of it of dubious origin) and there is no proper safety testing regime, but this got lost among what seemed like pro-GM propaganda: we’ve been modifying plants since the dawn of time, GM is just like selective breeding (and compare his rejection of the wild carrot in its natural state to his glee at seeing the brown GM tomatoes that were ‘more nutritious’ than conventional ones); GM will feed the world; GM could be better for the environment; the unspoken idea that it’s okay for white, middle-class, well-fed people in the developed world to reject GM but do we really want to see millions of poor Africans starve? And the idea that it’s a conflict of scientists versus protestors.

His closing statement was that whether you were for or against GM, ‘you’ve got to be for understanding’. Indeed.  Here are some things I am totally in favour of understanding:

Where are these crops that will be drought-resistant or fight cancer? Are they in development, as well as the ones that grab the headlines such as the Roundup-ready or Terminator genes?

How will GM prevent hunger in developing countries? What about all the research and scholarship that shows that famines are almost always about access and markets than due to an absolute shortage of food? Did the Zambian president reject the GM food aid because he didn’t understand the science, or did he reject the way Western agribusiness companies control world food markets? Can we implement changes to world trade policies that would give developing countries greater food security?

Why are all trials of GM crops done against conventional crops? Why can’t we have some publicly-funded research comparing GM crops with organic or agro-ecological agriculture or whatever you want to call it?

Are there other methods of achieving the same thing? Are there less water-intensive forms of agriculture that could take the place of crops bred to be drought-resistant? The tomatoes that were ‘more nutritious’ than conventional ones – are they more nutritious than the ones I grow or the ones at the farmers’ market, or only more nutritious than the tasteless water-bombs in the supermarkets? They have been modified to contain the nutrients and antioxidants found in blackberries and blackcurrants, which people don’t eat much of and which are ‘seasonal’ (unlike tomatoes, of course *rolls eyes*) – why do people eat more tomatoes than berries? Can we encourage them to eat more berries instead?

Yes, it is ‘madness’ to reject out of hand a technology that might prove useful in the future, but surely it’s also madness to adopt it in a hurry when there are other, albeit low-tech and less sexy, solutions like land reform, trade reform, nutritional education or tried-and-tested organic farming that could solve the same problems without the risks. Surely?

Now, is there going to be a series of ‘Jimmy’s GM Farm’ coming up anytime soon, that’s what I want to know…

For further information, please read Raj Patel’s Stuffed and Starved, because unlike me he is a proper writer and has a thorough reference section.

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November 26, 2008 at 5:46 pm 5 comments

Teach a man to fish and you get his money for one day; sell a man a fish and you get his money for life…

I don’t think GM crops are going to cause us all to grow three heads. They might (after all, they assured us that feeding ground up bits of dead animal to other animals who were supposed to be vegetarians was fine, and look where that got us), and they’ll probably do strange things to the ecosystem, so it’s wise to be cautious, but overall, I think the whole ‘Frankenfoods’ thing is rather exaggerated.

I don’t think it’s ethically wrong to genetically modify food. After all, scientists are just boys with their toys, that’s what they do. What is wrong is generally what people choose to do with a new discovery, outside the lab, rather than the discovery itself.

However, GM foods are not going to feed the poor. Seriously. Locking people in developing countries into buying seeds and fertilisers every year is not going to help them. Seriously. Do not believe the PR hype. If we really wanted to help people in poor countries feed themselves, we could slash our carbon emissions starting tomorrow so that the entire planet, with the exception of Britain which is going to get colder and wetter, does not turn into a desert. That would be the single most useful thing we in the West could do
to ensure food security for developing countries. That and take our water-intensive cash crops elsewhere. Autonomy is everything.

Now that, I freely agree, is cloud-cuckoo-land talk, but nonetheless, I suspect it might be time to be a good citizen again and be prepared to dust off your ‘writing to your MP’ pen…

June 20, 2008 at 10:14 am 4 comments


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Rob Hopkins, Transition Handbook

“Environmentalists have often been guilty of presenting people with a mental image of the world’s least desirable holiday destination – some seedy bed and breakfast near Torquay, with nylon sheets, cold tea and soggy toast – and expecting them to get excited about the prospect of NOT going there. The logic and the psychology are all wrong.”

Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

"Food is that rare moral arena in which the ethical choice is generally the one more likely to make you groan with pleasure."

Carlo Petrini

"A gastronome who is not also an environmentalist is an idiot. An environmentalist who is not also a gastronome is, well, sad."

Sharon Astyk

"I am, of course, firmly opposed to consumerism and corporatism in all its forms, and I believe that we are deeply confused about material needs and wants. Now let me explain how books and yarn are totally different than the material things that other people want ;-)…."

Raj Patel, at Slow Food Nation

"Biofuels, which is the preposterous policy that we should grow food not to eat it but to set it on fire."