Wednesday, May 23, 2012

if i were the gm crop industry

Around fifteen years ago several large multinationals tried to introduce genetically modified crops to Europe. They were met with suspicion, and they responded - notably with Monsanto's 'Food Health Hope' advertising campaign that included URLs for anti-GM groups - with a concerted effort to allay fears.

They lost. They said that what they were doing was no different to the selective breeding that humans have been doing for centuries. But thus far nobody has been able to make a scorpion mate with a tomato; the results of such a novel genetic mix are far more unpredictable than crossing two tomatoes. They claimed their new crops would need less argichemicals, but part of the point of things like Monsanto's Roundup-Ready crops was to allow farmers to drench fields in the chemicals without killing the crops.

This leads us on to the really sinister part. GM was planned as a device to get farmers to use patented crops which tied you in to using their chemicals. You know the way Canon, Epson and co sell you an amazing scanner-printer for £40 then charge you £30 a time to get toner cartridges, leaving you skinter than planned or else with a printer that's perpetually out of use? Like that, but with the global food supply.

To ensure that farmers didn't wriggle out of it there were patents filed for 'terminator genes'; plants whose seeds would be infertile, meaning farmers couldn't save some of their seed to plant next year but instead would have to buy new seed every year from Monsanto.

Even as they conspired to take control of food away from those who can't pay, they claimed that anti-GM sentiment was ill informed fear of technology, a luxury only available to well fed rich people. This convenently ignored the fact that governments across Africa banded together to shun GM, and Indian farmers burned crops and protested in their hundreds of thousands, a scale far greater than in the rich nations. 

The UK press, used to food scares like botulism, salmonella, BSE, E coli and all the rest, largely portayed it as a public health risk, which ignored the much more definite threat of corporate control of global food production and impacts on wildlife.


The release of genetically modified organisms isn't like an oil spill or chemical leak. This stuff replicates and multiplies. It cross-pollinates with non-GM crops, leading to new mutations. The UK government allowed field trials, all but one of which showed detrimental effects on local biodiversity.

A 2005 study by the GM companies and DEFRA found that even fifteen years after GM oilseed rape was planted there will still be a GM plant in every square metre of the field.

The field trials were hampered by protesters going into the fields and ripping up the crops before they'd had chance to pollinate. With overwhelming public support, these few hundred underfunded people stopped a multibillion dollar industry dead in its tracks.

A few years later, BASF resurrected the idea. Once again they trotted out the unsubstantiated overblown claims of their new crops being essential to provide food for the starving. The anti-GM campaigners pointed out that BASF's potato grown for industrial starch isn't really a belly filler. That, coupled with outcry from local beekeepers whose premium borage honey production would have been affected, forced another complete climbdown.

So, what to do? GM is already planted across swathes of the Americas. There's an industry that's been geared up for Europe and is jealously coveting this untapped market. If I were them, on the back of two serious defeats, I'd realise this can't be done in one jump. Stepping stones are needed.

For example, the government know they can't simply privatise healthcare in one go, so they transfer fund-holding to GPs (who, though public in service, are essentially private in structure). When, in five or ten years, the GPs find they haven't the time or knowledge to run their own funding, the large corporations will step in and clean up. We'll then get crap doctoring for free and a range of top-up plans for anything that provides real health care.

By the same token, the UK is not going to take corporate-controlled chemically intensive GM crops. So ask, what do the protesters complain about, then tackle that stuff head on. Persons here assembled, I give you the Rothamstead GM wheat trial (and its opponents Take The Flour Back).  

What if we make a GM crop that really is a food crop, really does use less chemicals, and has no patents? The protesters will have to agree or look insane; all of a sudden the geneticists will appear like the reasonable ones. Then, that problem finally dealt with, we will have the way clear to bring in the GM crops that make money.

I'm not saying that's necessarily what's happening with the new GM crop of wheat being tested in the UK. Who knows, maybe the biotech industry has suddenly become altrusitic and has no interest in developing products in order to make profit.

4 comments:

jim thomas said...

well its 'sort of' a food crop... the wheat in question produces a chemical called beta farnesene using a nifty bit of synthetic biology engineering. While Rothamstead claim that beta farnesene in this case is just a build in pesticide to keep aphids away it also happens to be an industrially very useful chemical - its a sesquiterpenoid and also a hydrocarbon and can be refined easily into a whoel range of valuable compounds such as isoprene rubber, patchouli, squalene (a cosmetics moisturiser)and much more - it also can be burnt as a biofuel that works as a drop in replacement for petroleum-derived fuels (ie much better than ethanol) - for context here is how one leading synthetic biology comapny is building its entire business model around farnesene and its derivatives: http://www.biofuelsdigest.com/biotech/2010/06/25/amyris-the-pursuit-of-value-valuations-and-validation/

so yes maybe its a food crop that keeps away aphids

or maybe its a way of bulk producing a valuable industrial chemical in GM plants for selling to teh chemical industry disguised as a food crop...

just saying..

Jules said...

Erm, or maybe it is just a publically funded trial of a novel method of reducing aphid damage to crops without using pesticides that won't be patented? If you're arguing that any use of gm technology for public benefit is just a pr campaign to facilitate the passage of gm technology for profit, why not just say you're against gm technology under all circumstances?

I wrote something about the arguments in favour of the trial here: http://geekinthegambia.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/flour-to-people.html Personally I'm in favour of this trial because I do believe that this particular application of the technology has the potential to offer benefits, which doesn't mean that I'm in favour of all applications of this technology. But surely gm studies by publically funded institutions should be supported as they're the best way to ensure that the technology isn't the sole preserve of corporations accountable only to their shareholders?

Martin Porter said...

Well I don't know about it being a great PR plan, but the danger of looking insane is real.

I helped take out the Lyng crop and the stated reasons we opposed it were that it was bad for biodiversity, could easily cross contaminate surrounding crops and was owned by an evil Agro-Chemical company.

As none of these applied to Rothemsted I couldn't really support Take Back the Flour.

Maybe it was an cunning plan by the GM lot, or maybe we just won fifteen years ago?

Vinny Burgoo said...

Behold: la méthode Monnetsanto!