By Eve Mitchell
I don’t know about you, but I have an old, broken screwdriver in the bottom of my toolbox. I used to use it to stir paint until the handle came off. Now it’s not even any good for that. I can’t get a good grip on it anymore and keep getting my hands covered in paint, which pretty much defeats the purpose.
Still, I can’t quite bring myself to chuck the thing out. It was a surprise gift from a rich friend at a time I was strapped for cash, and some combination of nostalgia and fading hope that it might just come in handy someday (not to mention it was jolly expensive, so I’m rather cross it’s broken) just about manages to keep the bits of it hanging around in the bottom of my toolbox.
So it is with genetically modified (GM) crops.
UK Secretary of State for Environment Food and Rural Affairs Owen Paterson gave a speech today announcing, once again, that the UK must embrace GM food and crops or be “left behind” in the “global race” (we’re a bit worried about what the prize is if you win), and that EU rules on GM must be “relaxed” to facilitate this. It was hard to miss – the speech has been trailed in the media for ages, and Paterson, the Minister for Science and even the Prime Minister himself have all made public statements in the past several days supporting a renewed UK dive into technology.
Yet the arguments underpinning the Government’s new round of GM promotion don’t really hang together. We’re told Paterson’s speech “explains” the benefits of GM and that we need to use “all the tools in the box” to feed the world. This is a well trodden path claiming GM helps the environment by requiring lower pesticide use and benefits consumers and farmers with higher yields leading to cheaper food. It would be nice if it were true. In reality this is much more about naked UK industrial ambition than feeding the world, and this speech is meant to tell consumers we need to learn to like it.
Normally we use the tool we need for the job. We know the job GM does. The U.S. experience of cultivating GM crops teaches us that far from reducing agrochemical use, it increases it dramatically. In the UK the government conducted field scale trials of GM crops that clearly showed harm to hard-pressed farmland wildlife, which has been the scientific basis for UK refusal to grow them. The emerging science on other risks to human and livestock health, and our water, paints what could turn out to be a very disturbing picture. GM undermines global efforts to achieve food sovereignty, and the GM industry erodes consumer and farmer choice by increasing corporate concentration in the food chain, removing non-GM seed from the market. The only reasonable conclusion is that this is the job the UK Government wants to do. A case in point: Mr. Paterson was on the radio this morning deploring the lack of GM “Golden” rice in the food chain to prevent children going blind from Vitamin A deficiency. You don’t need GM to do that job. You need to help ensure people gain access to a diet rich in veg and leafy greens, which, by the way, they can grow cheaply and easily themselves without help from Monsanto if they are allowed to do so.
The UK government clearly knows it’s got an uphill battle in front of it. The location of Paterson’s speech was kept secret fearing disruption by protestors (it turned out to be none other than Rothamsted Research – the outfit conducting the highly controversial UK open air GM wheat trial). It’s reasonable to question why an elected Government is pursuing a policy so unpopular announcements have to be made from panic rooms in undisclosed locations to avoid the wrath of the citizenry. It is not the lunatic fringe opposing GM. The Governments of both Scotland and Wales are firmly opposed to GM cultivation, so how a pro-GM position can be claimed by the administration in Whitehall as the view of the UK is a serious political issue. The UK Food Standards Agency’s own research, funded by the Government and published in January, showed a solid majority of UK citizens continue to steadfastly demand labels on all use of GM in food (including on meat, milk and eggs from animals reared on GM) so they can choose for themselves. I think we can have a good guess at what that choice will be – if people were happy eating GM food they wouldn’t be so keen to see it labelled (I don’t think the labels are wanted so folks can search out GM to buy). Why farmers should grow crops for which there is no market is a mystery. Even if they wanted to, there are no GM crops commercially available that are suitable for conditions in the UK, so it is even unclear what crops Mr. Paterson thinks the UK is missing out on, nor is it clear by what mechanism the UK believes it can “relax” EU regulations.
Every time pro-GM governments and corporations trot out this “feed the world” stuff it gets thinner and thinner as the science and real world socioeconomic impacts disprove the theory. We’re often told GM sceptics are driven by politics and not science, as if there’s something wrong with using ethics to develop agricultural and food policy. Furthermore, the last time the UK Government attempted a “dialogue” to convince us we should learn to love GM, it had to be abandoned when two independent members of the project Steering Committee felt forced to resign following revelations that the contractors selected to run the “dialogue” were already working for a major biotechnology company and the FSA’s “dogmatically entrenched” pro-GM position interfered with the work.
Of course it’s politics. It would be ever so nice if we could talk about something more productive for a change, but if we have to do this again, we’re ready.