June 5, 2012 § Leave a Comment
When trying to get to the bottom of any row over genetically modified crops it is hard to feel you are doing anything other than looking through a glass, darkly. Conjecture, opaque scientific jargon, and excited hyperbole converge in a great, distorted smorgasbord of jabbering.
It’s partly the fierce divisions the debate engenders that obfuscate; the scientific evidence is hard to come by – and harder yet for the layman to analyse – and passions run high. Where battle lines are so starkly drawn and fiercely entrenched it’s hard to focus on anything other than the grenades flying.
But the war is an important one, encompassing issues of national sovereignty, trade policy, biodiversity, food security, the ethics of patenting something that is alive – as well as the much-noted yet still mystery-clouded demise of our honeybees amid a plague of colony collapses.
The obscure contentions over whether ladybirds nibble or suck their food which form part of the debate over whether genetically modified crops are safe and necessary are, in short, important stuff and well worth paying attention to.
GM issues took a fresh leap into the public consciousness over the past month, following a decision by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to overturn a French ban on Monsanto’s toxin-producing MON810 wheat.
The controversial crop has been banned by Austria, Hungary, Greece, France, Luxembourg, Bulgaria, Germany and more recently, Poland. In France, MON 810 was first banned in 2008 following public protests. The decision was overturned by a French court in 2011, but the ban reinstated in March.
Hysterical public reaction followed by calm, logical court ruling, only for politicians in thrall to a Luddite, fear-mongering electorate to quash the crop once more in a major blow to scientific progress, possible putting the future of food security at risk? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Let’s have a look.
August 3, 2010 § 2 Comments
From Marcuse’s “One Dimensional Man” to Ralston Saul’s “Voltaire’s Bastards”; Alexander’s “Mephistopholeses’ Anvil” to Thoreau’s “Walden”, my bookshelf is full of screeds lamenting the dehumanising consequences of technological innovation.
“The West’s love affair with the ideology of pure reason has made us crippling dependent on process-minded experts whose rational systems are bereft of both meaning and morality.” That’s Ralston Saul.
“Within the vast hierarchy of executive and managerial boards extending… into the scientific laboratory and research institute, the tangible source of exploitation disappears behind the façade of objective rationality.” That’s Marcuse.
Detecting a theme? It’s likely the one summed up pithily by Thoreau 165 years ago in the woods as “Lo! Men have become the tools of their tools!”
Now Marcuse has long gone out of fashion; his acolytes satirised in novels like A.S. Byatt’s “A Whistling Woman” (The Anti-University’s “anti-education, anti-progress, anti-anti”) and his philosophy described scathingly by great Polish historian Leszek Kolakowski as “semi-romantic anarchism in its most irrational form.”
Yet the popular suspicion that scientists aren’t working for “us” remains and it’s arguably been not a few centuries since science has been seen as at the forefront of bettering humanity.
How times have changed: in the 1700s members of the public across Europe would flock to “spark-filled” demonstrations: the human body had proven to be a spectacular conductor of electricity and debate raged about the new substance. Was it a material? A divine emanation?
Nobody knew, but its powers were demonstrated imaginatively before startled and fascinated crowds. “News came”, writes Jenny Uglow in The Lunar Men, “of one German demonstration in which a man kissed an electrified woman.
‘Fire flashed from her lips in such abundance’ wrote an English observer, Henry Baker, ‘that they were both heartily frightened.’ Baker was sure that when the device reached England, ‘our own Country-Women will be found to have as much Fire in their Lips as well as in their Eyes as any of their Sex in Germany.’”
Electric-lipped German Fraus, possibility, progress, potential! “Natural philosophy” was all of these and more.
Fast-forward 300 years and to most youngsters with a passing interest in the myriad pressing social and environmental problems facing humanity, the sciences represent none of the above; rather, end-of-the-pipe quick fixes, lack of social conscience, bleak reductionism masquerading as progress and corporate exploitation of both intellectual and natural resources.
It’s a position unlikely to be challenged in the humanities. The average undergraduate is likely to spend a great deal of time with Foucault (Q: “What did you learn at University?” A: “Foucault” as the gag has it) who declares that his “genealogical” method is “anti-science” and who claims to be waging a struggle “against the effects of the power of discourse that is considered to be scientific”…
In this post-modern world it should come as no surprise that when it comes to thinking about science, a growing number of people of my generation would rather the experimentation simply stopped; that the corporate-sponsored technological fiddlers with their chocolate-flavoured tomatoes and tortured monkeys left their laboratories and the many challenges humanity faces were solved in a more holistic way.
Cancer? Prevention would surely be better than cure. What is the cause of the sudden rise in cancer rates after all? Surely that would be the best thing to turn attention to… Famine in Africa? Quick-fix GM magic beans ain’t the solution. More equitable trading laws might be; IMF restructuring that forces countries with little other than arable land to use it for cash crops sold on the unstable global market to pay off their former dictators’ debts might be a problem…
The scientist, meanwhile, is no longer seen as a figure of adventurous intellect, risqué curiosity and open-mindedness. Neither mystique, excitement nor a sense of possibility surround their trade and in the popular imagination electrified kisses have been replaced by electro-shocked rats — and science itself is seen as more Auschwitz than Alchemy.
This idea, whilst not born of nothing, is depressing. For amid a surge in identity politics, burgeoning growth in evangelism of every stripe and scientist-bashing a la “climate gate”, a return to looking for falsification rather than verification would be a welcome trend, as would an emphasis on method rather than findings.
All good scientists make the most strenuous efforts to minimize the influence of bias or prejudice in the experimenter when testing an hypothesis or a theory; a method that would similarly be more than welcome on many other fronts.
Given this climate, Linus Publishing’s pending release of the “New Optimists: Scientists Look to Tomorrow’s World” somehow concurrently manages to look both curiously anachronistic and significantly timely. As editor Keith Richards (no, not the Rolling Stone — a professor of linguistics at Warwick) comments astutely in the forward:
“There are shifts in mood, attitude and policy that are drawing science into new alignments that may have profound consequences for all of us, and in the public arena the sound of something different and altogether more worrying: a disturbing categorisation of science and religion as alternative belief systems.
[... For scientists], it’s not a question of whether or not they happen to believe in their findings – it’s whether they got the science right. For professional scientists, living down the wilful distortions and extravagant promises made on their behalf by the popular press is an occupational necessity, but seeing science downgraded to just another belief system is harder to swallow.
Scientists, like the rest of us, have plenty of beliefs, but the pursuit of science does not allow the luxury of indulging them at the expense of proper procedure. Science is a way of trying to understand and explain the way things work. It is driven by endless curiosity coupled with a determination not to be beguiled by easy answers.”
February 5, 2010 § 4 Comments
“Britain must launch GM food revolution, says chief scientist” screamed the Guardian early in January.
“Oh no I fucking didn’t say anything of the sort you lying journalist scum” screamed the chief scientist back in a letter.
Or more specifically:
Your article (Britain must launch GM food revolution, says chief scientist, 6 January), misrepresents my position and my paper at the Oxford Farming Conference.
The paper makes no mention of GM and I have not said that Britain must launch a GM food revolution.
Oh. Dear. God. What in the name of fucking world-class hackery happened there? The Institute of Science in Society can only speculate…
January 13, 2010 § 1 Comment
Monsanto, proud creator of the “agent orange” (napalm) used in the Vietnam War, “round-up ultra” used by U.S. military contractors to spray on Ecuadorian peasant children (sorry, coca plants), participator in the Manhatten Project to create the atomic bomb and purveyor of genetically modified crops, has fucked-up, badly, again. And your and my health is at risk as a result.
As the Huffington Post reports, a study released by the International Journal of Biological Sciences on the effects of genetically modified foods on mammalian health has found that agricultural giant Monsanto’s GM corn is linked to organ damage in rats.
According to the study, summarized at Twilight Earth, “Three varieties of Monsanto’s GM corn – Mon 863, insecticide-producing Mon 810, and Roundup® herbicide-absorbing NK 603 – were approved for consumption by US, European and several other national food safety authorities.”
Monsanto gathered its own crude statistical data after conducting a 90-day study, even though chronic problems can rarely be found after 90 days, and concluded that the corn was safe for consumption. The stamp of approval may have been premature, however. In the conclusion of the IJBS study, researchers wrote:
“Effects were mostly concentrated in kidney and liver function, the two major diet detoxification organs, but in detail differed with each GM type. In addition, some effects on heart, adrenal, spleen and blood cells were also frequently noted.
As there normally exists sex differences in liver and kidney metabolism, the highly statistically significant disturbances in the function of these organs, seen between male and female rats, cannot be dismissed as biologically insignificant as has been proposed by others.
We therefore conclude that our data strongly suggests that these GM maize varieties induce a state of hepatorenal toxicity….These substances have never before been an integral part of the human or animal diet and therefore their health consequences for those who consume them, especially over long time periods are currently unknown.”
Monsanto has responded that the study is “based on faulty analytical methods and reasoning.” The IJBS study’s author Gilles-Eric Séralini responded to the Monsanto statement on the blog, Food Freedom,
“Our study contradicts Monsanto conclusions because Monsanto systematically neglects significant health effects in mammals that are different in males and females eating GMOs, or not proportional to the dose. This is a very serious mistake, dramatic for public health. This is the major conclusion revealed by our work, the only careful reanalysis of Monsanto crude statistical data.”
Good luck to them. People who go up against the GM industry often end up smeared, blacklisted and unable to get research funding. Germany, meanwhile, has of course, banned Monsanto’s GM maize. It’s a move that could do with emulation elsewhere.
September 29, 2009 § Leave a Comment
John Wyndham’s classic sci-fi novel The Day of the Triffids tells of poisonous bio-engineered plants that can move around freely and, well, kill at will.
Their oil is initially seen as superior to that of other crop plants and they are cultivated widely. They are accidentally released into the wild when a plane carrying their seeds is shot down: cue general mayhem and murder amid post-apocalyptic scenes.
So that’s some sense of humor Canadian scientists at the Crop Development Centre of the University of Saskatchewan have then: a few years back they named a genetically modified (GM) flax variety developed at their centre “FP967 CDC Triffid. “
Now we’re used to people in positions of power naming their projects with a dubious degree of tact: see “Operation Glencoe” for London G-8 policing (named after a massacre and resulting in a murder); “Operation Enduring Freedom” for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (named for “the state of being free or at liberty rather than in confinement or under physical restraint” and resulting in, well, Abu Ghraib) and… ok, you get the picture.
But in a reminder that life does very often imitate art, CDC Triffid seed has escaped and gone mobile, turning up without so much as a by-your-leave in cereal and bakery products in Germany, according to the European Union (EU) Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF).
Now, to be fair, as yet nobody has been attacked and eaten by a GM flax seed; but they are nonetheless quite unpleasant things that shouldn’t be turning up in your Vollkornbrot, Roggenbrot or Pumpernickel. Let’s take a closer look.
FP967 (CDC Triffid) is not authorized for food or feed in the EU. It was developed to have tolerance to soil residues of sulfonylurea-based herbicides. Although it was initially deregulated over a decade ago in Canada for environmental release for feed in 1996 and for food in 1998, it has not been openly cultivated since 2001, when it was deregistered and removed from the market after pressure from Canadian flax farmers keen to protect their market.
According to the Institute of Science in Society (ISIS), Sulphonylurea herbicide resistance was selected for the flax because that herbicide family is used to control weeds that effect winter wheat — which tolerates the herbicide — but the herbicides persist in the soil preventing crop rotation with broad leafed crops such as flax. (Hence making non-GM flax planting in such fields impossible.)*
As ISIS notes
During the past decade, there has been a lot of pressure to produce pharmaceutical products and industrial plastics precursors in flax so as to avoid polluting ‘major’ food and feed crops. This is being promoted by the usual GM brigade. Such mindless pollution of flax fails to recognize the crop’s natural dietary and medicinal properties. The main objection to the use of transgenic flax to produce industrial chemicals and pharmaceuticals is that even though flax is mainly self pollinated it is also significantly insect pollinated (to the order of five percent or more of the pollination). Gene flow from flax occurs to wild and weedy relatives that include several species native to North America as well as feral agronomic flax.
The detection of transgenic flax Triffid in Canadian imports for food and feed in Europe is disturbing because the production of Triffid flax was officially discontinued in 2001. The implication is that the entire Canadian flax crop may have been contaminated by exposure to the genetically modified crop during the five years in which 200 000 bushels of Triffid flax were produced and marketed in North America. The current problems with Triffid flax demonstrates most emphatically that flax is not suitable for producing transgenic industrial and pharmaceutical chemicals.
Worrying stuff which clearly illustrates the ease with which GM varieties end up not just cross-pollinating with their “normal” variants, thereby essentially polluting the food chain, but also how difficult the final result is to contain. Despite being discontinued in 2001 and never once allowed to grow in the EU, it ends up in some Herr or Frau’s Schmidt’s morning Brot.
*Incidentally this seems almost more disturbing than the mere fact that the seed has entered the food supply: effectively poisoning the earth for the sake of weed control seems incredible; that the solution to the persistence of such poisons is to engineer other crops to be resistant seems like saying the solution to war is to make everyone bulletproof…)
September 20, 2009 § 1 Comment
Although the subject may not grab many headlines, the importance of the issues discussed at the conference, including plant variety protection and seed improvement techniques, are of huge importance to millions of farmers in the developing world.
The Conference advertised itself as being
Aimed at policy makers, government officials, breeding companies, breeders associations, stakeholders (certification agencies, seed analysts, seed traders, technology companies, academic institutions), farmers’ organisations, consumer organisations and international breeding and seed research centres.
Subsistence or small-scale farmers from developing countries being unlikely to hop on a 747 to Rome, it was largely corporate lobbyists from the global seed industry who were making their views known… Robin Willoughby of NGO Share the World’s Resources (STWR) was there and offered a crisp précis of what he saw for his organisation.
Namely, that there were two clear themes at work at the conference; the desire of Northern-based business to continue through technology a “process of enclosure of key farming inputs” such as seeds. Secondly, a push by these same companies (supported by the US and EU countries) to tighten intellectual property rights on genetic resources and extend them into the national law of poorer countries.
A few points from Mr Willoughby’s article (edited and with links added by myself), via ZNET:
Firstly, the intellectual property regime that many participants in the Conference wish to tighten legally prevents farmers from sharing and saving seeds for later harvests or for future generations.
Under a key intellectual property treaty first signed in the 1960s and last amended in 1991, called UPOV, and the later WTO TRIPS, governments agreed to prevent farmers from saving or sharing seeds with only a few limited exceptions. In countries that have accepted these intellectual property regimes, small-scale farmers have moved increasingly towards the use of imported seeds, suffering from a number of adverse effects including increased debt levels, displacement and worsening food security.
Secondly, a strengthening of the TRIPS regime would also represent a large net power transfer from poorer farmers to richer corporations based in industrialised countries, especially in the US and the EU. Just three industry giants – Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta – command 47 percent of global seed sales. Research organisation GRAIN estimates that tightening and extending IP laws through UPOV could result in poor farmers paying US$7 billion a year to these ‘seed giants.’
Thirdly, the type of seeds that are promoted and sold to poor farmers by the global seed companies (and protected by IP rights) are often ‘hybrid’ in form. Such seeds will not reproduce cleanly in the next planting season, resulting in a system of agricultural inputs that farmers must purchase on a seasonal basis. This has resulted in the commodification of a number of plant lines that previously reproduced naturally.
Importantly, such ‘hybrids’ also require a high level of synthetic inputs such as fertilisers to achieve high yields. Perhaps unsurprisingly these artificial inputs are often purchased from the same clique of agribusiness companies that also sell the seeds in the first place.
Contrary to the claims of the seed business, analysts also suggest that plant variety protection and a strong IP regime encourages investment in only a few commercially valuable crop species, such as wheat and soya bean, and ‘ornamentals’ such as flowers.
Evidence shows that a high percentage of the plant variety protection applications put forward by developing countries remain for export goods such as ‘cut flowers’. Although these commodities have export market value and can gain foreign exchange, little indication exists of their value in alleviating food insecurity or promoting biodiversity.