Thursday, June 19, 2008

gm tries again

Today's Independent runs a story about the UK government wanting to commercialise GM crops. It begins

Ministers are preparing to open the way for genetically modified crops to be grown in Britain on the grounds they could help combat the global food crisis.

The second paragraph just paraphrases the first

Ministers have told The Independent that rocketing food prices and food shortages in the world's poorest countries mean the time is right to relax Britain's policy on use of GM crops.

The clear implication here is that GM crops lead to increased yields, and biotech companies are desperate to make foodstuffs for the world's poorest people. The problem is that this is simply untrue. That in itself undoes everything they're saying.

It's rather like the debate over whether to upgrade cannabis' legal classification in the light of evidence that it can trigger mental health problems. That issue got caught in discussions over civil liberties, the low incidence of psychotic episodes and whether those episodes could really be attributed to cannabis.

There was an underlying assumption on both sides of the debate that downgrading cannabis encourages greater use. It doesn't. To even discuss the other issues is to accept that falsehood as true and give strength to the prohibitionist position.

By the same token, to play along with the unspoken environment-versus-food idea is to be working on the terms dictated by the biotech firms that are demonstrably based on lies.


Last night, the Environment minister Phil Woolas held preliminary talks with the Agricultural Biotechnology Council, an umbrella group formed in 2000 to promote the role of biotechnology in agriculture. It is run by representatives from the companies Monsanto, Bayer CropSciences, BASF, Dow AgroSciences, Pioneer (DuPont), and Syngenta.

If the government talks to the biotech industry, what answer do you think it's going to get?

He said: "There is a growing question of whether GM crops can help the developing world out of the current food price crisis. It is a question that we as a nation need to ask ourselves. The debate is already under way. Many people concerned about poverty in the developing world and the environment are wrestling with this issue."

Poorly phrased/heavily veiled, that's the 'well-fed luddite puritan whities letting their loony ideas get in the way of feeding the starving' idea again.

So, let's leave the greens to one side for a moment and see what 'people concerned about poverty in the developing world' have to say. People like, say, Action Aid.

ActionAid's research shows that GM crops are largely irrelevant for the poorest farming communities – only 1% of GM research is aimed at crops used by poor people - and they may pose a threat to their livelihoods.

The fact is there's enough food to meet current global needs - now and decades into the future.

The real causes of hunger are political and economic: poverty, inequality, and poor access to land, food, markets and resources - GM crops do nothing to address these issues.

Our main concern is that four multinationals dominate GM technology – giving them unprecedented control over their GM seeds and the chemicals that go with them.

Many farmers in poor countries are unaware that they can't save GM seed from one harvest to the next. This could jeopardise the rights of 1.4billion people who depend on farm saved seed worldwide – and could lead many into a spiral of debt.

What about Oxfam?

lack of food security is primarily caused by low incomes and unequal access to land, water, credit, and markets. There is no crisis of world food production on the horizon, despite environmental problems and a growing world population. Hunger will only be eliminated if governments and international organisations such as the World Trade Organisation implement substantial policy changes in favour of resource redistribution, poverty reduction, and food security. Technological fixes alone, such as genetically modified (GM) crops, cannot solve this problem, despite the claims which have been made for them.

The impact of GM crops for people in poverty, particularly in developing countries, could be negative. GM crops and related technologies are likely to consolidate control over agriculture by large producers and agro-industrial companies, to the detriment of smaller farmers.

Or the World Development Movement?

The major multinationals promoting GMOs [genetically modified organisms] are increasingly using the argument that "genetic engineering is key to feeding the world's increasing numbers of people" and "slowing the acceptance of biotechnology is a luxury our hungry world cannot afford." (both from Monsanto advertisements). WDM considers that these arguments are not founded in reality. A closer analysis of the evidence suggests that, far from feed the hungry, the unrestricted introduction of GMOs may result in further hardship for the world's poor.

The argument relies on a simplistic assumption that there are hungry people because there is not enough food in the world. However, as the World Food Programme has pointed out, the world's farmers do produce more than enough food. Yet over 800 million people go hungry.

The real problem is that the poor do not have the land, seeds and tools to grow crops, or cannot afford to buy food. It is the unjust political and economic structures at the local, national and international levels, in combination with mounting ecological damage, that marginalise the poor from food production or deny them an opportunity to buy food.

As stated by Ethiopia's representative to the Biosafety Protocol negotiations, Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher, "
There are still hungry people in Ethiopia, but they are hungry because they have no money, no longer because there is no food to buy . . . We strongly resent the abuse of our poverty to sway the interests of the European public".

There we have it. It's not about a lack of food, but about the price. Food riots are not conducted by the starving whose crops have failed, but by the poor priced out of the market.

As even the pro-GM government here found in its farm-scale trials a few years ago, GM crops have a severely detrimental impact on the other organisms around them.

If a farmer grows GM and then - unable to afford the necessary chemicals, displeased with the yields being lower than promised or whatever - decides to go back to sustainable organic farming, they may well find that the beneficial insects, birds and other organisms relied upon are not there any more.

As the price of oil and gas increases, so do the prices of the agrichemicals which are dependent on them. Not only is organic farming the most environmentally friendly method available, but it's the only one with a long term future. To decimate or obliterate essential components of its methods is an attack on own future food security.

The agri-multinationals create a global food crisis by oversupplying animal feed and biofuels, then sell themselves as the solution.

A letter from Nitin Mehta in the same issue of the Independent talks of the diversion of crops to biofuels

Sixty million tonnes of food produced in the US in the past two years, which could feed 250 million people, was used for biofuel. It takes 232kg of corn to fill a 50-litre car tank with ethanol, enough to feed a child for a year. Brazil, Argentina and even India use crops for biofuel.

The result is that prices of staple foods have risen 80 per cent in three years. The problem is made worse by almost 760 million tonnes of grains being fed to animals raised for meat. The biofuel model to solve the climate change and energy crisis needs to be revisited. A return to a plant-based vegetarian and vegan diet is also of great importance if we are to avoid the double whammy of biofuel and grains diverted to feed animals. Opposing biofuel should not be seen as opposing capitalism or globalisation. Capitalism with a humane face is in the best interest of all.

Sorry Nitin, but capitalism can't have a humane face. It sells to highest bidder, and people who drive cars are richer than those who are starving. Feeding most of the world's cereals to animals who shit most of it out is very wasteful, but also very profitable. That's why we have people starving in a world that produces more than enough food to feed itself.

The only time capitalism has a humane face is when it is pushed into it and doesn’t have a genuinely free market. The most responsible thing is not often the most profitable. Taking corn from plates to forecourts, cutting down rainforests to grow soya to feed cattle; well paid, so hard to stop in a profit-chasing world.

I suppose that, strictly speaking, just opposing biofuels doesn't mean opposing globalisation; only if you oppose biofuels because it is the rich taking autonomy away from the poor and burning food while people starve.

The only current UK trial of GM crops is BASF's blight resistant potato. Pro-GM reports like to mention the Irish potato famine. Thing is, we already have blight resistant potatoes. BASF could have saved themselves a lot of bother and come to my allotment where I'm growing Orla and Valor spuds.

More to the point, rather like the fodder and biofuels thing, the potatoes are not being grown for food but for industrial starch production. Like most people from England, growing up I was given very little information about the history of our Celtic neighbours. Nonetheless, I feel sure very few people in Ireland fled or perished from a lack of industrial starch supplies.

To come back to the piece in the Independent, Phil Woolas must be pleased to know that one of the 'people concerned about the environment', Clare Oxborrow from Friends of the Earth, has finished her wrestling with the issue.

Industry claims that GM crops are necessary to feed the world are a cynical attempt to use the food crisis for financial gain – and governments should look at the industry's record before believing the hype.

After a decade of commercialisation most GM crops are used for animal feed, not food; they do not yield more than conventional crops; and GM drought and salt-tolerant crops remain a PR promise rather than reality.

We now need a radical shift towards sustainable farming systems that genuinely benefit local farmers communities and the environment worldwide.


Anonymous said...

Good piece. But I'm forced to question one of your basic assumptions. Or rather, I'm forced to wonder if it's something that can be safely assumed for very much longer.

Obviously I'm talking about the issue of whether or not there's physically enough food for the world's population. Right now, as you point out, the only reason large numbers of people go hungry is an inequitable distribution of resources. But I honestly worry that Action Aid are making some questionable assumptions when they claim that "there's enough food to meet current global needs - now and decades into the future."

Peak oil appears to have arrived and will (within the next 20 years) almost certainly reduce global food output significantly. Throw in the looming (and more imminent than we'd like) spectre of Climate Change, along with a global population predicted to continue growing sharply until at least 2030, and you have a recipe for disaster.

It may not take very long at all to slip from an over-abundance to a genuine shortage.

Of course I could be wrong about all this. Who the hell really knows what the world will be like in 15 years? But I don't think we should be taking this state of over-abundance for granted and assuming we can project it "decades" into the future.

merrick said...


firstly to be fair to ActionAid, their quote is about five years old (there haven't been more recent ones because the GM industry ran off with its tail between its legs shortly after and - as my post points out - is only now trying to stage a comeback).

But if we can feed ourselves several times over now, then there's surely a fair bit of leeway.

A peaking of oil supply means oil products get more expensive, certainly.

However there can still be a profit turned in producing crops with more expensive agrichemicals.

This is before we factor in anything less likely such as proportionate carbon legislation reducing the demand for oil; earmarking or subsidising of agrichemicals for use on staple crops; a drop-off in the amount of agrichemicals used for growing fodder and/or a drop-off in the amount of crops edible to humans that get fed to animals. Or, as Brother George flagged up the other week, a return of farms to smaller size, which tend to be very productive.

I recently read a superb article working out how many people Britain can feed on various diets and with various inputs; even without agrichemicals, with dietary changes we can feed more than twice our present population. (It's going to be the next U-Know Feature,, just waiting for the author to send me the text)

Anonymous said...

But it's more than that Merrick. Much more. Take the American corn-belt for instance; mind-bogglingly large tracts of land producing a major chunk of the world's staple crops. The idea that they can be quickly or easily converted to "small organic farms" is sheer fantasy.

These massive industrial farms are highly mechanised and cannot exist without massive fossil fuel subsidy (in the form of machinery fuel, nitrates, pesticides and more). Because they've been up and running for a couple of generations, there's a huge skills shortage with regards to small-holding management. The farmers just aren't there anymore.

Sure, maybe we can train up lots of farmers. But then you have the much more important issue of land fertility. A huge proportion of our arable land has been depleted of nutrients through intense usage. It's only still producing food because of the massive injection of nitrates (i.e. fossil fuels).

Then there's the issue of the ecosystem required for organic small-holdings to flourish. You mention it yourself. Without all those useful insects and birds (look what's happening to the bees, and they're only the most visible case), it's next to impossible to "return" that land to organic production and retain decent yields.

And then there's the issue of food distribution in a post-fossil fuel society. The single clear and unambiguous advantage of massive agricultural mechanisation and "industrial farming" is the significant reduction in distribution system complexity. Organising and fueling the system required to feed a city the size of Chicago or London is made less energy-intensive with fewer sources.

This is not an argument in favour of such farming methods (which have downsides that massively outweigh this single upside), merely a reminder that fragmenting the production entails increasing the energy required to consolidate the produce (as is required with major urban areas).

Beyond all that is the news that environmental problems are threatening major agricultural areas. China's breadbasket could be desert in a generation or two if the Himalayan glaciers retreat much further. Just last week the US midwest lost over a billion dollars of crops to the Mississippi floods. Australia's main belt of fertile land could be permanently damaged by the end of this year. Southeast Asia is one more major flood away from the complete devastation of the year's rice crop.

To return to my first point, let me finish here with some questions (nobody knows the answers to them right now, but they are worth pondering).

How long would it take to convert the large areas of cropland in the Americas into organic small-holdings? (including finding / training enough people to run those farms, and dealing with the legal and economic issues involved in breaking up the agricultural corporations and redistributing their land)

What sort of yield loss could be expected during the changeover process?

Given what the soil has been through over the past 30 years, how long -- even after successful conversion to small-holdings -- before soil fertility rises high enough to produce anything like the yields claimed by advocates of such methods?

Also, I do not believe that there's anything like the "leeway" you suggest. I think these things can change very very quickly. And populations starve a lot quicker than it takes to grow a replacement crop should this year's fail.

(PS: I am obviously not claiming that GM crops are a solution to any of this. That's not my point at all, and I trust you appreciate that).

Anonymous said...

Also: with dietary changes we can feed more than twice our present population

This directly contradicts the figures published by OPT which are generally considered pretty robust (albeit depressing as hell). I'd be interested to see the methodology involved in the "twice our present population" claim as compared to that used by OPT.

merrick said...


i don't think anyone's suggesting it would be quick and easy to convert the american cornbelt to small organic farms.

However, that's certainly an option for some farmland that's presently large monocultures. And the American cornbelt could ease the food crisis by stopping turning their corn into fucking car fuel.

For much of what you say, yes, you're right about the really serious threat.

Regarding the OPT figures, I've not looked at their stuff in detail (it's 2.30am and I'm trying to go to bed), but I suspect the differences could well come in the OPT measuring other factors for their 'carrying load' like carbon emissions and energy use (the article just addresses food production, with some alternative calculations getting into fibre and fuel), and on the article side the severity of dietary changes may be beyond the scope of what OPT have thought about (drastic reduction and/or elimination of animal produce).

merrick said...

Just to let you know, that article I mentioned - Can Britain Feed Itself? - is now online.