I’ve an instinctive opposition to genetic modification, or GM. It’s always been there, and I’ve acknowledged it over the years by positively (but not obsessively) avoiding purchasing GMO material, even to the feed I give my chickens.
And then, recently, there was a news story about a potential solution to ‘ash die-back’ whereby the genome of a resistant Ash tree was sequenced. Potentially, other massively destructive diseases currently taking a heavy toll on our forests could be so mitigated. Maybe, if we’d had the technology back then, we would not have lost our wonderful, barely remembered, Elm forests. I started to wonder… on balance… just how ‘bad’ GM was.
And then, again… Today, our Minister for the Environment, Owen Patterson, said something that solidified for me what precisely it is I find uncomfortable about the biotech business. He said the next generation of GM crops offers the “most wonderful opportunities to improve human health.”. Human health. Quite a small section of the life of planet Earth really, ignoring for now the self importance with which we regard ourselves.
It’s strange, to me at least, that an Environment Minister should be so blasé about the environment he would seem charged to protect. Good for humans… that’s alright then. The EU chief scientist, Anne Glover, said much the same thing recently and went further, saying that opposing governments and organisations should offer proof to back up their opposition.
But isn’t that backward? Surely the proof should be presented, and paid for, by those corporations wishing to make a (substantial) profit from merchandising their GMO. The onus should not be on the public purse to experiment, but it must always be the responsibility of those responsible themselves for the public – the government – to exact conditions that ensure safety, and to weigh the balance of risk and cost.
I’m sure Ms Glover is not connected in a business way to any of the major biotech corporations, and nor will she take up a directorship with one of them when she moves from the EU. Her considered view is of course as stated: “I would be confident in saying that there is no more risk in eating GMO food than eating conventionally farmed food.” But is that enough?
Risk and cost. I’m not a biologist, much less a genetic scientist. I’m willing for anyone who is to comment below and start a dialogue. But in simple terms three things appear to be happening in bio-tech.
Firstly, horizontal gene transfer, whereby the gene from, say, a fish, is spliced into, say, a tomato. This would never, ever, happen in the ‘natural world’. No matter we breed cows for larger udder capacity, or chickens for more and better eggs, or that we’ve systematically bred grasses over millenia to become tasty and nutritious wheat, you can’t cross a fish with a tomato outside a laboratory. Nature takes generations, literally, to make changes. Often, a change goes wrong and the outcome is unviable, does not breed the next generation and dies out. Self limiting, and the successes are generally automatically improving the species (or at least working slowly enough toward a desired outcome, such as meatier or milkier cows, that we see what’s ahead). There is an aspect of dominance, of commoditizing animals, but it’s a human trait and we’ve done it for thousands of years.
Secondly, there is a will to create plants that are either tolerant of massive amounts of pesticide and herbicide, or even plants that create their own pesticide and herbicide. Either way, the outcome is a monoculture; the living version of living in a concrete jungle. With only one plant species (farmed over a massive geographic area for economies of scale), biodiversity fails. No weeds, no seeds, no insects, no birds, no mammals… nothing for predators to predate, so no predators. There are examples of natural herbicide producing organisms such as the walnut, but imagine hectare after hectare of nothing but a single species of a single genus. Far easier to farm, potentially without using human labour (who may fall victim to the effects of the organisms defensive properties). It is this aspect upon which my aversion to GM is based. Druids tend to celebrate biodiversity.
The third thing is of course profit. Profit drives the whole GM issue along. Bio-tech corporations have to sell bio-tech, same as weapons corporations have to sell weapons. The movers and shakers within governments the world over are lobbied by these outfits, offered lucrative post-office positions, fed false statistics, bludgeoned with tailored information by companies with far more time and cash than they have. Cash does make for a persuasive argument. And then imagine… for “safety’s sake”, these wholly safe organisms are sold sterile. Buy your seeds from this source and you have to buy again, next year. No holding back, no collection of seeds from this season’s harvest to plant next season. You mustn’t even use seed you bought but didn’t use last season… It’s a small walk from there to almost losing the ‘permission’ to swap seeds with friends. And eventually, all your seed are belong to us.
Life is precious, in all its diversity. Power corrupts and money talks. I’m still not an expert, but I remain very wary of GMO. I’ve no fear of eating a GM apple and turning purple, or dying from baking with GM wheat (which won’t find it’s way into my home if i can help it). I love the dawn chorus; I’d like it to continue. I can grow at least some of my own food, from freely available seed, and not have to pay The Man. And I can walk in woods that, although not without risk of disease and danger, are at least honest real woods. Line up to comment below…