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UK farmer doesn't want genetically modified crops in his fields

(Monday, June 9, 2003 -- CropChoice news) via AgBioView: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, The Observer (UK), June 8, 2003

'The GM debate: Americans are already free to sit down to a complete GM dinner, but should we have the same choice in Britain? As the Government prepares to publish the results of its crop trials, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall comes out fighting for nature '

Of course we should be opposed to GM. It is about some of the biggest, richest, most powerful companies on the planet seeking to own and control global agriculture, and who would want to support that? It represents the final theft of the means of food production, away from local, regional and even national communities, into the hands of a few international corporate giants, based in America, who will quickly come to dictate, without opposition or discussion, what kind of seeds and what kind of chemicals will be spread over every cultivatable inch of the world's land surface. And if I overstate fractionally the reach of their capability I fear I exaggerate not one iota the extent of their ambition.

It is utterly, inescapably obvious that we don't need GM in the UK and in Europe. Our agriculture is already over industrialised and over productive. We have millions of acres 'set aside' for non-production. What possible benefits could accrue from another step down the road of 'efficiency'? The good news is that most of us are already persuaded by this argument - and by fear of GM safety, of which more in a moment. In Europe at least, democracy has said no to GM.

The only conceivably acceptable pro-GM argument, that it might help us feed the starving in the poorer parts of the world, turns out to be the most cynical and reckless of all. Far from offering hope and independence to Third World farmers and growers, GM represents the new economic enslavement of the Third World - neo-colonialism by proxy. Everybody who works at the hard end of the aid business will tell you that it is politics, war, poverty and drought, and most often pernicious combinations of these factors, that conspire to create famine. Which of them precisely can be cured by a genetically modified seed? I believe they don't yet have one that grows without water, or produces fruits that pacify dictators.

The fact is that if you want to feed the starving, you must dodge bullets, negotiate with warlords, and rebuild infrastructure. If you want to help the starving feed themselves, you must give them ploughshares and irrigation. If you want to help them compete effectively in the global food marketplace, then give them access to markets and a fair price for the products of their labour.

If, on the other hand, you want to own them and control them and make them mere pawns in your industrial empire, then sell them a strain of genetically modified seed and a patented production system that means the seed cannot germinate without your additives, cannot grow without your fertilisers, cannot prosper without your weedkillers, and cannot even produce a viable seed for the following year's harvest. You will effectively then own these farmers, and their crops, even to the extent that you will be able to tell them who to sell to and how much for.

Not that GM companies wouldn't go to extreme lengths to convince us of their benign intentions. In one of the most cynical public relations exercises of all time, Monsanto are currently flying around the world a group of cotton growers from Africa, who have for several seasons now been participating in a pilot project growing cotton using Monsanto's GM seed. They are giving interviews to the world's media, telling them that GM cotton has increased their productivity, their wealth, and boosted the prosperity and facilities of their community. Yet all this on a pilot project whose success was guaranteed from the outset. Of course Monsanto has the power and wealth to transform a small agricultural community and ensure its short term prosperity, just as it has the power to give them a fabulous all- expenses paid trip to charm the world's press. It tells us nothing about their ability to improve the lot of the subsistence farmer and everything about their lack of corporate integrity and cynical opportunism.

So, GM to feed the world? Pull the other one. In fact, the exact reverse is far more likely. A GM dominant agribusiness in the third world will create the classic preconditions for hunger and famine: firstly ownership of resources will be concentrated in too few hands (this is inherent in farming based on patented products), and secondly the emerging food supply will be based on too few varieties of crops too widely planted. These are the worst possible options for Third World food security. No wonder there is not a single aid agency or famine relief charity that thinks GM holds significant answers to Third World hunger problems.

But of course, given an almost inexhaustible supply of Western apathy about the plight of the Third World, the above arguments are perhaps less likely to engage the man in the street than the other Big Question about GM. Its safety. So it's worth knowing that here too, large lies are being told by men with remarkably straight faces.

Perhaps the biggest lie is that 'science' has 'proved' GM to be safe. In fact science has done no such thing. The astonishing truth is that science has shown a marked reluctance to undertake any worthwhile investigation of GM safety at all. And as Craig Sams, the chairman of the Soil Association says, the few studies involving safety testing - by feeding GM foods to animals - has produced disturbing results.

Here are a few examples:

  • Tests on GM Flavr Savr tomatoes resulted in lesions in rats. Scientists at the US Food and Drug Authority even asked for it not to be approved.
  • Dr Arpad Pusztai's notorious experiments with GM potatoes and rats showed severe gut problems in the test animals compared to those fed non-GM potatoes. Despite the largely successful attempt to discredit him publicly, Pusztai's paper had been peer reviewed six times prior to publication. Compared to most GM research sponsored by GM companies it remains a model of experimental propriety and credibility.
  • In GM chicken-feed experiments, twice as many chickens fed GM maize died as those fed the conventional crop. Despite this, the GM maize was approved by the Government but later withdrawn following public pressure.

All of the above should make us worry. But the bottom line, of course, is that not nearly enough time has elapsed for us to be in the least confident of GM safety. Meanwhile, what's the best comparable example that the kind of transgenic tampering that is the essence of GM might eventually lead to some pretty grizzly consequences? Well, for about 30 years there was 'hard scientific evidence' that feeding high levels of animal proteins to grazing ruminants (ie dead sheep to live cows) was 'safe', in that no significant health problems seemed to have arisen. Then suddenly, Bingo! We had BSE.

The production of GM foods is in many ways comparable. It involves combining strands of DNA, often animal derived, that could never naturally come together, then introducing these mutant strains to both the animal and human food chain. Such unprecedented and unnatural steps are producing entirely new materials for both the biosphere to contend with on the macro scale, and the human gut to deal with on the micro scale. Why should we be in the least surprised if at some point, something very nasty happens?

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