Debate: GM is good for you

There’s nothing inherently wrong with genetic modification, argues Leigh Phillips, and the left shouldn’t side with those who suggest there is. Below, Emma Hughes responds

January 3, 2014 · 16 min read

gm1Illustrations: Cressida Knapp

In May 2012, activists from Take the Flour Back announced that they were going to ‘decontaminate’ – tear up – genetically modified (GM) wheat being tested by the Rothamsted Research Institute, one of the oldest agricultural research bodies in the world. The grain being tested gives off an odour that repels aphids and attracts wasps that parasitise the insects. As a result, the wheat, developed by publicly-funded scientists, would require the use of less synthetic pesticide.

The next month, a 30-year-old research project in Italy, involving transgenic olive trees, cherry trees and kiwifruit vines – one of the longest-running GM trials in Europe – was ordered destroyed with only a few days’ notice by a court under pressure from an anti-GM group, the Genetic Rights Foundation. The hoped-for result of the non-profit research, led by plant scientist Eddo Rugini at the University of Tuscia (and not concocted by any moustache-twiddling villains at Monsanto HQ), would again be to limit the need for pesticides. Students and colleagues stood in solidarity by Rugini amid the olive groves, but still the bulldozers arrived to rip up his life’s work. The elderly scientist was devastated. Colleagues encouraged him to move to the United States, where he’d received offers of work and where the mood is less fearful, but he replied despondently that he was too tired now.

When I was in Mexico last year, investigating a series of bombings of nanotechnology researchers by eco-anarchists, I met a husband-and-wife team of molecular biologists working at a public university whose lab had twice been the target of anti-GM arsonists of a similar ideology to the nanotech bombers. The scientists described themselves as socialists and strong supporters of the recent mass Yo Soy 132 protests against electoral corruption by the right. They were also keen to say how they were very much opponents of Monsanto and agribusiness. Indeed, they said how they were frustrated that historically a great deal of crop research had been performed by Northern experts with little knowledge of the needs of Mexican farmers and consumers. Their aim was to develop transgenic crops resistant to drought and insects that built on local knowledge. Their work developing GM crops was a product of their belief in social justice, not an exception to it.

Is it beyond the imagination of anti-GM activists to see that genetic modification could be used for public benefit instead of private profit? The activists may be sincere in opposing social injustice, but they think that the problems arise from something inherent in the technology. In doing so, their complaint is not the practices of Monsanto, nor even capitalism, but technology and progress itself.

The left used to be quite clear that technologies used in the context of colonisation and exploitation could be liberatory in another political and economic context. There is nothing intrinsically malign about any particular technology outside the context in which it is used. Knives can be used to chop cauliflower or to murder Tutsis and Hutus. Between the tool that we use every day to cook and eat with and the horror of Rwandan genocide, nothing in the technology of the knife has changed, only the political economy.

Is GM useful?

Opponents will regularly claim: ‘GM isn’t a useful technology anyway,’ or ‘We don’t need it.’ But let me ask you: is the mass production of insulin useful? Bacteria were some of the first organisms to be genetically modified by researchers. One of the earliest such instances was the insertion of the human insulin gene into E coli bacteria to produce synthetic human insulin, or ‘humulin’. Indistinguishable from the pancreatic human version, it was developed by the San Francisco biotech firm Genentech and first commercialised in 1982. Sadly, without any evidence other than the claim that humulin is ‘unnatural’, anti-GM groups want diabetes patients to opt for so-called natural animal insulin purified from the pancreas of cows and pigs over what they feel is the ‘Frankenmedicine’ variety, claiming that doctors have been coerced into ‘forcing patients off natural insulin’ by the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly.

A range of human proteins helpful for a variety of medical conditions have been produced since the 1980s through related processes, including blood clotting factors for haemophiliacs and human growth hormone to combat dwarfism – proteins that were previously derived from cadavers and as such risked transmitting diseases. Hepatitis B and HPV vaccines have also been developed using genetic engineering.

Or how about cancer modelling – is that useful? Would the critics of GM say that ‘we don’t need’ the OncoMouse, the laboratory mouse genetically modified to carry a gene that when activated increases the chance that the mouse will develop cancer, thus making it extremely useful for cancer research?

Cauliflowers are no more ‘natural’ than Flavr Savr tomatoes. But we are so used to them that we think of them as ‘natural’, and hence ‘good’

And let’s ask farmers themselves whether they find GM useful. In 1996, when Argentina first approved the cultivation of GM crops, it refused to grant Monsanto a patent for its Roundup Ready soybean seeds. The country has loose intellectual property rights for plant varieties, an intellectual property regime that has been the source of longstanding battles between Argentina and the company, with the government at one point denouncing Monsanto’s aggressive patent protection efforts as ‘extortion’. As a result of the impasse, ‘pirate’ use of the product soared.

The country is now the third largest producer of GM food in the world after the US and Brazil. By 2005, while some 80 per cent of the country’s soybean acreage was planted with Monsanto’s Roundup Ready, only 28–50 per cent of soybeans were ‘legally’ sold.

Meanwhile in Pakistan, far from being a case where farmers were forced into the use of GM, widespread smuggling of corn, wheat, cotton and vegetable seeds forced the government to give up on a completely ineffective ban on the technology. As of 2012, some 90 per cent of the cotton grown in the country came from GM seeds, while few farmers pay any royalties. Similar piracy occurs in Brazil. Why? Because of the generous savings accrued from the reduced inputs that are required.

Meddling in genetics

Anti-GM protesters argue that GM is fundamentally dangerous because ‘we’re meddling in things that we only half understand’. Well, we knew even less about genetics when we started artificial selection (aka breeding) around 10,000 years ago.

Plant breeders from the beginnings of crop cultivation sought out desirable traits in wild plants, unpredictably shuffling the genes of species via cross-breeding. It’s not true, of course, that cross-breeding is the same as modern genetic modification, but tangerines and nectarines, for example, are cultivars that certainly don’t exist in nature, and broccoli was engineered from a relative of the cabbage by the ancient Etruscans. Cauliflowers are no more ‘natural’ than Flavr Savr tomatoes. The difference with cauliflowers is that we are so used to them that we think of them as ‘natural’, and hence ‘good’.


To say that we are developing organisms ‘that have never been seen in nature before’ is true. But the poodle, achieved through selective breeding, had also ‘never been seen in nature before’.

In the middle of the last century, an understanding of genetics allowed us to begin to use chemicals and radiation to accelerate the genetic changes we desired, resulting in products that were more nutrient-rich, hardier, and more drought-resistant. Then in the 1970s, modern molecular genetics and the invention of large‑scale DNA sequencing permitted a profound improvement in our understanding of genetics. This in turn resulted in the creation of new methods that allow the very precise addition of useful traits to organisms. The difference between ancient and modern genetic modification is, you could say, just the level of precision.

But what about the campaigners’ favourite GM horror story, the infamous sharp rise in farmer suicides in India since the introduction in 2002 of varieties of cotton genetically modified to express Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) genes to produce resistance to bollworms? In 2008, the International Food Policy Research Institute, an independent agricultural research institute that has been sharply critical of multinationals, mounted the most extensive investigation into the subject, sifting through peer-reviewed journal articles, official and unofficial reports, media reports and broadcasts. It found ‘there is no evidence in available data of a “resurgence” of farmer suicides’ since 2002, and criticised ‘media hype . . . fuelled by civil society organisations’.

The study found that the phenomenon of farmer suicides has been largely constant since 1997, arguing that the reasons for the growth in suicides – which is occurring across society – are complex, involving indebtedness, poor agricultural income, a downturn in the economy that caused the re-ruralisation of urban-dwellers, the absence of counselling services, inadequate irrigation and the difficulty of farming in semi-arid regions. The decision by the government to reduce minimum support prices, World Trade Organisation policies and continued western cotton subsidies that make local cotton uncompetitive must also be taken into account. Focusing on genetic modification and ignoring the real causes is a dangerous distraction.

And surely if GM can reduce pesticide use and water use, isn’t this a good thing? A 20-year study at 36 sites in six provinces in northern China published in the journal Nature in January 2013 suggested that the deployment of Bt cotton provided a boost to biodiversity from a ‘marked increase in abundance’ in beneficial insect predator ladybugs, lacewings and spiders as a result of the reduction in the use of pesticides.

In the end, what is going on here with opposition to genetic modification is the import into left-wing thinking of the logical fallacy of an ‘appeal to nature’ – the idea that what is found in nature is good and what is synthetic is bad. The origins of this scepticism of science, industry and progress can be found in romanticist counter-revolutionary thought that emerged in the 18th century in opposition to republican movements. It is a cuckoo’s egg in the nest of the left.

Transferred to human ecology, the inherent conservatism of this philosophy should quickly be revealed: everything, or everyone – peasant, lord and king – has its place within the ‘natural order’. It is a defence of the status quo against the ‘unintended consequences’ of social programmes by interventionist governments. How alike are the arguments against genetic engineering and ‘social engineering’!

Let’s uproot an unjust political economy, not GM crops.

Don’t believe the hype

Genetically engineered products have consumed a disproportionate amount of public time, energy and money. There are better approaches, says Emma Hughes

The UK GM debate is infamous for its acrimony. Two embittered ‘sides’ have reduced the complexity of global eco-systems and farming practices to hackneyed pro/anti views. It is particularly worrying that for 15 years discussions about the social practices of farming and eating have focused, almost exclusively, on arguing for or against one set of technological developments.

I am the first to acknowledge that many of the arguments made by anti-GM campaigners are problematic, in particular the coupling of the idea of ‘nature as right’ with concepts of genetic purity, pollution and contamination. These phrases are thick with resonance that extends well beyond the particular argumentative field in which they are planted. As the feminist theorist Donna Haraway observes, ‘I cannot help but hear in the biotechnology debates the unintended tones of fear of the alien and suspicion of the mixed.’

In addition, anti-GM campaigners have suggested consumer choice is the main way people can resist the introduction of these products. This offers few options to those who can’t afford to be picky about which carrots they eat and suggests the way to achieve social change is simply to buy different things – but that’s hardly a problem that’s exclusive to the GM debate.

Like many on the left, I recognise there is much that is deeply conservative about the way the case against GM has been articulated. Yet this recognition has not led me to a Mark Lynas‑style conversion. I remain broadly sceptical about the set of products labelled GM.

Jumping on the climate crisis

Genetically engineered products have long been over-hyped and as a result have consumed a disproportionate amount of public time, energy and money. Most recently the biotechnology industry has jumped on the climate crisis to push its products. The claim is that potential crop traits such as temperature, drought and salinity tolerance could mean GM crops are among the few things we can actually grow in our climate-altered environment.

The biotech behemoths didn’t capture this particular technology by coincidence – it serves their interests

Yet the current commercialised GM applications – primarily insect-resistant Bt maize and cotton and herbicide-tolerant soy – take us further away from a climate solution. Large, monoculture, pesticide-dependent agriculture is the opposite of organic agriculture, which uses about one-third less fossil fuel energy than conventional corn/soybean cropping systems and actually sequesters carbon dioxide (at a rate of up to 900 kilos per year per acre, according to a ten-year evaluation by Pennsylvania’s Rodale Institute).

Another narrative surrounding GM is that it is a ‘pro-poor’ technology. The dominant use of GM varieties in some countries is taken as evidence that the technology has proved beneficial to farmers. The reality is far more complicated, and widespread use doesn’t mean smallholder farmers have necessarily benefited.

In Argentina some farmers have indeed embraced GM – but these farms are almost exclusively large-scale operations using a highly mechanised form of farming that is reliant on a seasonal and largely migrant workforce. Other farmers have lost their livelihoods and their land, and are forced to sell to multinationals out of economic necessity.

It’s a similar story in other countries. A comprehensive review, conducted by Dominic Glover (a fellow at the Technology and Agrarian Development Group at Wageningen University) of farmers’ experiences using Bt cotton found that economic returns for smaller, poorer farmers are extremely variable. GM seed, start‑up costs and technology fees meant the crops proved expensive and the main group using Bt cotton comprised richer farmers, with more land. In addition, many of the initial gains in terms of reduced pesticide use were wiped out after a few seasons by the resurgence in populations of formerly secondary pests. Scientists have also raised concerns that insects are rapidly developing resistance to the Bt toxin.

While the claims about farmer suicides in the areas of Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra in India have certainly been exaggerated, it is clear that the high price of the Bt cottonseed and its failure to produce good yields contributed to some of the farmers indebtedness. In Maharashtra it is estimated that almost 60 per cent of farmers dropped Bt cotton after the first two seasons (although some later re‑adopted it).


Other solutions

Given these experiences it is unsurprising that a three-year review of agricultural knowledge produced by the UN, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, concluded that GM could play no more than a small role in addressing the challenges of agricultural development in the global South. The UN study and many others document how ‘simple’ solutions like knowledge sharing, credit unions and improved irrigation systems offer far more effective solutions to the complex problems smallholder farmers face. Yet the focus of political and economic attention on GMOs means this wide range of other solutions is being overlooked.

Conventional plant breeding methods are continuously progressing and this includes techniques that are not just high‑profit hybrids. Participatory and open source breeding, allowing farmers to select their own seed, experiment collectively and develop strains that match their environments, have all proven effective tools for increasing yields over several years. Single, off‑the-shelf solutions are often a poor match for the disparate and dynamic realities of real-world farming. Instead, investment in long-term, local, context-specific breeding and crop development programmes is needed.

Interestingly, even among the ‘techno-fix’ solutions, some of the most promising non-GM developments are being overlooked. One new crop variety ‘scuba rice’ is supposed to be able to tolerate both drought and flood conditions. This variety was developed using ‘marker assist’ technology that enhances conventional breeding rather than involving, as GM would, the insertion of standardised DNA sequences. Despite the grand claims of this technology, the environment minister Owen Paterson is not championing it, as he did the GM development of ‘golden rice’.

It’s hardly over-conspiratorial to suggest that the obsession with GM technologies is due to the powerful economic and institutional interests that stand to gain favourable access to – and rents from – intellectual property. GM crops are not automatically incompatible with organic, diverse, sustainable farming that supports smallholders in feeding themselves and their communities. However, in comparison with other innovations, GM offers companies or individuals a greater ability to control supply chains and food markets, by patenting seeds and privatising intellectual property.

Technology isn’t neutral

‘Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.’ This is the first law of technology according to Melvin Kranzberg – a professor of technology history. It is an apt rule for GMOs. There is nothing innately wrong with GM crops; they could be freed from the hands of their corporate owners and used for different purposes. But the biotech behemoths didn’t capture this particular technology by coincidence – it serves their interests.

The crucial point is this: GM technologies are not useful for those movements working to uproot the unjust political economy. Seed banks, credit unions, community-supported agriculture – all of these challenge the monopolised food system. While uses of GM may look very different in an alternative context, it is naive to ignore how the crops are currently being used to entrench corporate control. As the international peasant movement Via Campesina states, ‘The six largest agrochemical and seed corporations (DuPont, BASF, Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer and Dow) are in pursuit of exclusive monopoly over plant gene sequences. GM is the best tool they’ve found to achieve this.’

By focusing so much on GM we are ignoring multiple forms of agricultural and indigenous knowledge, we are overlooking the importance of how farmers organise themselves and missing technological solutions that are not being pushed by the likes of Monsanto. If we start with GM when discussing the future of agriculture we focus on the wrong question. Instead of asking how to make GM technologies a success, we should be considering which innovations are most likely to produce a just, sustainable, productive agriculture that serves the interests of farmers, the environment and people. I’m unconvinced that GM would be the answer.

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