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Frankenfood or saviour of the starving? The Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, made a major speech last week, calling on the European Union to drop its barriers preventing genetically modified (GM) organisms being grown and sold in Europe. It could, he said, be the difference between survival and starvation for millions of people around the world, and especially vital for an increasingly populous world.
Everyone agrees that we need to get better at feeding people. Our population reached seven billion two years ago; it is predicted to level off at nine billion in the middle of this century. GM proponents suggest that it can be an important tool in our battle to feed that ever-growing number of mouths; opponents suggest that it is a distraction, and a dangerous one.
There’s no denying that it has the power to do good, says Mark Lynas, an environmental writer and author of The God Species: How the Planet Can Survive the Age of Humans. “For example, in Missouri, they’re growing GM cassava, which is an important food crop for 300 million people in sub-Saharan Africa. The cassava that’s being grown in Africa is being hit by a viral infection that’s sweeping across the continent, so a major threat to food security. There’s no way a resistant strain can be made by conventional breeding – it’s a bit like vaccination, in that a tiny bit of viral DNA is put into the plant genome, and you can’t do that with selective breeding.” It could undoubtedly save lives, he says.
There is a precedent here. In the 1960s, much of the developing world faced starvation. But using agricultural technology – not GM, but older methods such as backcrossing – a man called Norman Borlaug created dwarf grains which grew faster and were more resilient, and staved off disaster. Borlaug’s inventions are credited with saving as many as a billion lives.
The GM revolution may have similarly dramatic effects: scientists have high hopes for salt-resistant crops which could grow in previously unusable coastal land; the agricultural research group Rothamsted Research has developed an aphid-resistant wheat. But activists are concerned that the companies which develop these strains will have unprecedented power over the food chain. “My main concern is the empowerment of the food corporations,” says George Monbiot, the environmentalist and author of Feral: Searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding. “An executive of the biotech company Monsanto said in 1996 that their aim was the ‘consolidation of the entire food chain’,” he says. “Monsanto quite overtly positioned GM as their means of achieving that goal, and it was quite a clear battle-plan that they had: an aggressive patenting regime, patenting technologies and genetic material.”
The GM organisms themselves, he says, are far less of a concern. “Primarily, it’s about power,” he says. “A huge volume of academic work has shown that how well people are fed is less to do with the actual quantity of food available in the world, and more to do with who controls the food chain, how well the food is distributed, and the degree of democracy – people don’t starve in democracies, because they are able to lobby to get access to food.” GM, and the ability to patent genomes, place far more power in the hands of major companies. He also points out that despite the grand claims that GM could feed the poor, the majority of GM crops in Europe have been used as animal feed.
Lynas agrees that aggressive patenting is a concern. “Ownership of this technology could be concentrated in too few hands; I would like to see a much more open-source approach. A lot of biotech scientists are very critical of the overuse of the patenting system.” But it’s a wider problem than GM alone. “It’s about how technology is controlled in a society. It’s not an argument against the use of that technology.”
We have to strike a balance, he says, between allowing firms to make a profit – which, after all, is how much innovation happens – and allowing the spread of these technologies in a way that allows them to get to where they are needed. There are positive steps being taken: some publicly funded researchers like Rothamsted patent their work but then make it available on public licences; the “golden rice” project, a GM crop which is designed to combat vitamin A deficiency, is being made available for free to poor subsistence farmers in Asia on similar free licences, by (among others) Monsanto. But there are still problems, analogous to those of making antiretroviral drugs affordable to poor African HIV sufferers.
The problem is that the GM debate is framed too much as a Manichaean good-and-evil thing, says Lynas (and Monbiot, who also acknowledges that new technology is vital in the fight to feed the world), who blames a lot of the opposition to it on “the naturalistic fallacy”. “Like splitting the atom, it doesn’t happen in nature, so it’s bad,” he says. “It’s a deep cultural response, almost a lizard-brain thing.” But to be for or against “GM” as a monolithic entity is irrational. “It’s just a technique. It’s like saying I’m against tractors,” he says.