Break Free

In the past decade, the sales pitch of the biotech companies has shifted with the climate of public opinion. Public scepticism has remained high, but politicians seem to have bought enthusiastically into the GM ‘solution’. In many ways this encapsulates where science has gone wrong – by inventing technologies without first deciding what problems need addressing. If GM crops are the answer, what exactly is the problem?

In the 1990s, the biotech industry’s promotion of its wares was mainly aimed at farmers, and pushed GM herbicide-tolerant (GMHT) crops as a solution for cleaning up weedy fields. Then, in 1998, when the public turned against GM crops, Monsanto engaged in a cheap and nasty public advertising campaign claiming GM could feed the world, based on the slogan ‘Let the harvest begin’.

Following closely on this was the claim that the biotech industry had found the cure for blindness caused by vitamin-A deficiency. All that was needed was to splice a gene construct built around a daffodil gene into rice to create ‘golden rice’ – rich in beta-carotene, the precursor in the diet of vitamin A. In 2008, there is still no ‘golden rice’ available to malnourished people. Early attempts did not produce enough beta-carotene to meet daily intake requirements, and despite progress in this department, we seem no closer to the ready availability of golden rice than we were in 2000. Meanwhile, more sophisticated analysts than those who work solely for the biotech industry have correctly pointed out that good health comes from a balanced diet that provides all vitamins and nutrients, requirements that cannot be met by golden rice alone – even if it worked technically, socially and culturally.

Following concerns about GMHT crops on farmland wildlife, they were relaunched in the late-1990s as ‘skylark-friendly’, flexible enough accommodate the needs of birds and insects that feed on weeds, as well as providing cover and a way for farmers to save money. This ploy ground to a halt in 2004, when the Government decided not to approve GMHT oilseed rape and beet. It was not helped by a lack of data and explanations as to how wildlife-friendly wildlife spray regimes would be implemented, monitored and enforced over the thousands acres of sugar beet in the UK.

Pressed for success

Claims for GMHT crops being climate-friendly and cutting the use of herbicide then emerged in the USA, only to be undermined by the development of Roundup-resistant weeds that required additional herbicide and grew higher than those before the GM crops had been planted. Promises of increased yields were also peddled, but independent analysis, for instance by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), found once again that GMHT crops in the US often drag yields down, not up.

The biotech industry then latched on to biofuels in a vain attempt to rehabilitate itself, but as concerns about the impacts of using food crops for fuel have become more prominent, this strategy has been strongly criticised in the UK – by the Government’s own advisor, Professor Ed Gallagher, among others – and internationally.

In recent months, ever opportunistic, the biotech industry has returned to its old message of ‘GM to feed the world’. This summer, GM crops were presented as the way to keep food prices down.

According to American Soybean Association president John Hoffman: ‘One of the key solutions to curtail rising food prices, in the US and around the world, is to accelerate production of crops enhanced through biotechnology’.

For the record, GM crops are subject to the same pricehikes as other crops: the annual inflation rate for GM soya meal from Argentina to May 2008 was a mere 112.5 per cent.

The claims for the future made for GM know virtually no bounds – the ‘neutral’ Food Standards Agency’s website is still predicting that we will have had salt-tolerant tomatoes by 2005 (maybe it is time for this ‘Timeline of genetic manipulation’ to be taken down). For such multi-gene changes as saline- and drought-tolerance, conventional plant-breeding, guided by modern genomics, holds more hope of success than GM.

As the biotech industry desperately seeks a GM crop that works and finds public approval, BASF (the German chemical and biotech corporation) has turned to potatoblight resistance as its great white hope. Perhaps its PR men were drawn by the catastrophic blight-induced famine in Ireland of the 1840s, as BASF first sought to test its GM potatoes in Eire. It was not prepared to comply with the Irish government’s conditions for the trial, however, and so upped and came to reliable old Britain, where then-environment secretary David Miliband signed off the release consent in person. In 2008, BASF’s GM potato trial near Cambridge was the only GM crop on UK soil.

Worryingly for BASF and the rest of the biotech lobby, conventional plant-breeders are already ahead of them. Using Hungarian strains, the Saìrvaìri Research Trust already has two blight-resistant varieties commercially available and four more in the pipeline. More Defra research and development funding would help a full range of these Saìaìrpo potato varieties come on stream more quickly.

Remember, however, that back in the 1970s Britain led the world in wave-power research. At the time, the research and development priorities and funding were decided by the UK Atomic Energy Authority; as a result the UK still has no commercial wave power stations, and nuclear expansion is still needed ‘to meet the challenge of global warming’. Shifting entrenched thinking takes people, time and effort. At the heart of so many of the problems we currently face are social, economic and political issues for which GM technology is largely irrelevant. And while it may appear as if the science of biotechnology has advanced, little has changed, particularly in the practical application of GM crops throughout the world. The biotech industry coffers are well lined (backed by public research and development money) and it is as reluctant as ever to let a fact stand in the way of hyperbole. The worrying thing is that government ministers have bought into the new mythology of GM every time the leopard has changed its spots. Former environment minister Phil Woolas recently told the BBC that GM crops ‘were part of our Africa strategy’.

Dodging the magic bullet

People in Africa, however, are not by any means convinced that the strategy is as positive as it appears to be. As Nigeria-based Nnimmo Bassey, Friends of the Earth International GM coordinator, says: ‘GM crops are often presented as the solution to hunger in Africa, but they are simply the means by which agribusinesses seek to take control of African agriculture. GM crops will completely destroy agricultural practices needed to feed Africa. The continent’s agriculture is predominantly smallholder- and family-based, and this thrives on crop biodiversity. GM crops, which are patented, will stop farmers from saving and sharing seeds – a practice that is of vital importance to millions’.

GM has offered many false promises over the past decade and a naive belief that it is some kind of magic bullet to end all our social and environmental problems is likely to lead in the future to more complex problems than most of us can imagine. It is up to all of us to support the concerns raised by others about the false solutions offered by GM crops, and to make sure that agriculture develops to benefit the poor and the planet in a sustainable way.

Clare Oxborrow is a food campaigner with Friends of the Earth; Becky Price is a researcher with GeneWatch UK; Peter Riley is director of the GM Freeze campaign

This article first appeared in the Ecologist November 2008

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