Two weeks ago, our Prime Minister's office issued an "independent report" calling for the UK to override EU regulations and start growing GM crops in the UK. We were not told that all the authors of the report have close links with the GM industry (and were, to a significant extent, dependent on it for their careers and income). Even without such obvious self-interest, a degree of scepticism over the objectivity of geneticists is advisable: GM is a hugely powerful and enticing technology so it would be surprising and a bit sad if geneticists were not excited by it.
Even though I took the government to the High Court in the 1990s to challenge the legality of GM crop trials bordering Riverford farm, I am not a committed 'anti' and some of my initial concerns have been answered. My issue with the proponents of GM and industrial agriculture is their assumed monopoly of 'science' and 'progress'. There is an inbuilt assumption that anyone who questions their vision of our future food and farming system is an ignorant, anti-science Luddite. Indeed, our Environment Secretary Owen Patterson has gone so far as to dub those who question GM, "wicked". The power of GM is as exciting as the beautiful simplicity of DNA's genetic coding is enticing. I would be greatly reassured about GM developments if the understandable excitement it generates among geneticists were accompanied by more humility, patience and acknowledgement of the complexity of our planet and just how much we don't know. Ecology is the true life science.
We must also balance the risks with the benefits. Were Monsanto or Syngenta to come up with a perennial, nitrogen-fixing wheat, maize or rice I would find it hard to argue against GM technology. Yet after 30 years the GM industry has failed to deliver a crop of substantial benefit to mankind; there have been benefits to GM shareholders and marginal benefits to large-scale producers of monocultures such a soya, but little evidence of sustained reduction in pesticide use or increased yields. On the other side, the anti-GM movement must acknowledge that no obvious acute health problems have emerged. The debate is in stalemate with those in the middle justifiably sceptical of the claims of experts from either side who select evidence to support their views. This report isn't going to help.
I remain marginally anti-GM for two sociopolitical reasons. Firstly, I don't like the world's food supply being controlled by a small number of global corporations (Syngenta, Monsanto and Dupont already control 47% of the global seed market). I also lament the continued loss of food culture, diversity, security and nutritional value that accompanies the drive towards the globally traded monocultures that these companies advocate. Far from being scientific and forward-looking, this is the height of simplistic, primitive ignorance through its denial of ecology and the dignity that accompanies autonomous farmers using their skills to supply local markets with varied crops grown using local materials, and saved seeds.
In Uganda, where 30% of calories are consumed as bananas, a GM, wilt resistant banana has been widely promoted as an example of how GM could feed the world. Yet during a recent visit, farmers I spoke to said the GM bananas were inedible. Maybe the techniques of inserting the gene for resistance from a pepper were not quite as precise or elegant as we have been told. Maybe there were a few gaps in the scientific knowledge and perhaps those genetic engineers are not so God-like, and those who question them not so wicked as Mr Paterson would have us think. In the meantime, better conventional agricultural practice could increase output many fold and farmers have found other cultural means of living with wilt. GM is yet to prove itself one way or another so in the meantime, for a more realistic and immediate solution to feeding the world, watch this video about my recent trip to Uganda with the charity Send a Cow.