environment & politics

Genetically Modified Propaganda

The EU is trying to force genetically modified crops down our throats:

Europe’s health and consumer chief John Dalli has pledged to continue approving genetically modified (GM) crops while EU states debate a proposal to let them decide whether to grow or ban the controversial technology.

“The process will go on, the process is going on. We are not going to wait,” Dalli said in an interview with Reuters.

The debate is going to return. Huge corporations can try to persuade national governments that GM crops ars good for the world. Tony Blair constantly tried to push GM on us a decade ago with his honey-tongued rhetoric; more recently government scientists were resigning because of the ridiculous levels pro-GM propaganda involved in the decision-making process.

Points of observation on GM crops:

1) Monsanto are one of these large GM corporations. This was the company that brought the world Agent Orange, a deadly chemical used in the Vietnam War, and as a result were later involved in a claim for involvement in war crimes because of it. Monsanto possesses a devastating environmental record, across a vast spectrum of pollutants that have harmed both nature and human health, including illegally dumping toxic waste to create “one of the most contaminated sites in Britain”. Monsanto are currently thought to be hiring Blackwater private militia in order to stop people protesting against them. This company would like to grow your food.

2) The business operation of GM firms can ruin farmers in the developing world:

By patenting transferred genes and the technology associated with them, then buying up the competing seed merchants and seed-breeding centres, the biotech companies can exert control over the crops at every stage of production and sale. Farmers are reduced to their sub-contracted agents. This has devastating implications for food security in the poor world: food is removed from local marketing networks – and therefore the mouths of local people – and gravitates instead towards sources of hard currency.

3) This does not centre on the issue of saving people’s lives; it’s about a company making money, which is what they do. Do you believe that GM crops will feed the world’s starving? The crops will mostly be poured down the necks of animals. And the world has experienced a net food surplus since the 1980s. There is enough food to go around, but it isn’t reaching the mouths who require it the most. With relevance to this topic, local farmers in various countries are growing cash crops for export, instead of being self-sufficient as a nation. During the Ethiopian famine in 1984, while people were dying of hunger, the farmers were exporting crops to Europe for animal feed, rather than to their own people. Much of this perversity is down to organisations such as the World Bank and their structural adjustment programmes.

4) These are not some miracle bonus yield crops. Many GM crops are simply designed to be resistant to a pesticide, which the GM company also happens to sell. Farmers end up being reliant upon said pesticide, which is expensive. Combined with the costs of being trapped by a monopoly of seeds, can you guess what happens next? In India, it is thought to be the suicide of thousands of farmers. As for the effects of the pesticides? Here’s what those who have been affected have to say on the matter.

But let’s not forget what happens when pesticides are overused with GM crops in the environment, too:

Many of the crops have been engineered to withstand applications of weedkiller. This permits farmers to wipe out almost every competing species of plant in their fields. The exceptions are the weeds which, as a result of GM pollen contamination, have acquired multiple herbicide resistance. In Canada, for example, some oilseed rape is now resistant to all three of the most widely used modern pesticides. The result is that farmers trying to grow other crops must now spray it with 2,4-D, a poison which persists in the environment.

5) You know when companies claim the GM genes don’t make it into the wild? They do indeed. Frequently. The consequences? Well, GM firms will say that the damage has been done, so let’s plant a load more GM seed.

6) The GM lobby will often claim their way is the only way. No other form of agriculture works. Organic farming, according to scientific studies, often produce significant, high yields in the developing world compared to intensive monoculture. The soil quality improves, contains higher levels of nutrients and better water retention (especially useful considering the droughts many countries suffer), and there are less chemicals flowing into rivers. Farmers also avoid debts by saving huge amounts of money not using pesticides. Small scale farming can be more profitable for farmers (across many continents), and ensures food remains property of those who produce it, not under corporate control.

So there you go, and I’ve not once mentioned “Frankenstein Foods”. Are GM crops safe to eat? You tell me.

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

13 replies on “Genetically Modified Propaganda”

I’ll be honest, the blog title made me think of a shambling, betentacled Alastair Campbell. I’m a little disappointed.
It annoys me somewhat that the press seems so caught up on the dangers of the science, because that’s easy for the biotech companies to dismiss – if the technology was properly regulated rather than abused it could do a lot of good.
Did you hear about this AquAdvantage® salmon by the way? Look it up if you want to be even more terrified. And yes there’s a registered trademark symbol in the species name.

In some ways I’m fine with the papers running with such things – because it’s an easy way to keep GM firms from getting more powerful in the UK. Public hysteria about the foods means that supermarkets won’t touch it – and they pretty much rule the food industry in the UK.

Yes, I’ve been reading about it – I hear the US have just delayed approval on it. Scary, really.

Scary business, Monsanto business practices are plain scary. To a degree I agree with the first commenter that it advances in genetics don’t have to lead to such excesses but to patent the a genetic code, that is crossing a line we ought to stay away from in my opinion.

Paolo Bacigalupi wrote some pretty scary short stories and a novel in which this development is extrapolated to the next century. Very good reading.

A further point, which perhaps underlies some of the problems of GM, is that often GM techniques are being carried out by geneticists/molecular biologists who don’t have a background in ecology; who aren’t used to, for example, working in the field; and who therefore don’t have that constant awareness of just how complicated and messy things get in the environment.

I don’t have any ethical issues with the basic mechanics of the technology – and I can see just how beneficial it could be – but as you point out above, there is a lot to be concerned about with regards to how it is currently being used, and by who.

It irritates me beyond belief that the Government keeps pulling back its scientific funding – expecting business to fill the gaps. In some cases, it will, but businesses always have a vested interest. We need independent scientific research (on this and many other areas), but who is going to be able to afford to do it?

I’d say they are. The amount of testing required to get a license is very significant. Plus there are plenty of independent researchers who will test these findings as well

The only things I have an issue with are A) ensure they can’t cross pollinate into the general food chain (it would be super idiotic from an ecology and privatisation of food stand) and B)Make sure EVERBODY knows whether there is GM food in absolutely any food sold (I’m talking big stickers and “halal meat” style notices in restaurants/take-aways.

As with most things the problem here is a lack of scientists getting the message across to what they are doing. Genetically modified covers such a huge range of things that it’s bound to cause a scare when they don’t tell people about it.

I do agree with your concerns over how companies/governments make use of it though

An immediate ban on patents covering genetic material and regulation on control of seed stock would nip this problem in the bud. The only motive for GM crop producing companies is residual income on the licensing of seed stock.
Here’s one of the few places that government can be extremely effective in placing the citizen’s rights and safety at the forefront and yet they do nothing.

I’ve been reading Lewis Hyde’s Common as Air and it spends a lot of time talking about the history agricultural commons in Europe and how intellectual property rights on engineered crops are devastating local food economies. Enlightening stuff if you get a chance to read it.

Did you know there is a documentary about Monsanto’s doings? It’s a couple of years old but it touches on most of what you mentioned. The title is “The World According to Monsanto” and it can be found on google video.

you have all been eating gm food for along time.

Anything that eats soya – cows, pigs, chickens will nearly all have had GM modified soya in their diets at some point. The milk milk and eggs from all these animals has been grown with GM This is all important usually from the US or Brazil and guess what it is probably GM.

Indeed, Mick. I remember an old Environmental Science lecturer telling us that 2000+ years of selective breeding has radically altered genes of all sorts of species, and if that wasn’t modification then what was? – something along those lines. Consuming modified genes isn’t particularly the issue for me, even though that bit of research I linked at the end pointed out some serious implications. (Though it’s worth adding that the EU has held strict imports on US-grown animal produce, especially hormone-enhanced dairy, hasn’t it? Something with which you’d be familiar. I dare say it was a good excuse to protect domestic markets more than for health reasons. Classic economic barrier.)

In this case, it is about trying to sift through the spin spread by both corporations and the much maligned Tony Blair. GM has only ever been about firms making more money by forcing others into debt (and suicide – see above) and corporations owning the food chain.

I recently read an amazing book on the problems with the animal food chain – called MEAT by Simon Fairlie. Excellent summary here:

There’s no doubt that the livestock system has gone horribly wrong. Fairlie describes the feedlot beef industry (in which animals are kept in pens) in the US as “one of the biggest ecological cock-ups in modern history”. It pumps grain and forage from irrigated pastures into the farm animal species least able to process them efficiently, to produce beef fatty enough for hamburger production. Cattle are excellent converters of grass but terrible converters of concentrated feed. The feed would have been much better used to make pork.

Pigs, in the meantime, have been forbidden in many parts of the rich world from doing what they do best: converting waste into meat. Until the early 1990s, only 33% of compound pig feed in the UK consisted of grains fit for human consumption: the rest was made up of crop residues and food waste. Since then the proportion of sound grain in pig feed has doubled. There are several reasons: the rules set by supermarkets; the domination of the feed industry by large corporations, which can’t handle waste from many different sources; but most important the panicked over-reaction to the BSE and foot-and-mouth crises.

Feeding meat and bone meal to cows was insane. Feeding it to pigs, whose natural diet incorporates a fair bit of meat, makes sense, as long as it is rendered properly. The same goes for swill. Giving sterilised scraps to pigs solves two problems at once: waste disposal and the diversion of grain. Instead we now dump or incinerate millions of tonnes of possible pig food and replace it with soya whose production trashes the Amazon. Waste food in the UK, Fairlie calculates, could make 800,000 tonnes of pork, or one sixth of our total meat consumption.

It has somewhat justified my retreat from vegetarianism!

Neil P – I think part of the problem with the first part is that, as shown above, modified genes are making it into the wild – repeatedly so. Though I would agree with point B, the ethics of consuming it are not the core of the debate for me. The core lies with how the science is applied in the real world, and that I wouldn’t like us being in a position where we are even given the option, because that implies a lot of things are being messed up elsewhere – landscape is being destroyed and farmers are being forced into poverty. Not so much about the scientists and their message; it’s wherever the money flows…

TN Tobias – thanks for that recommendation. That sounds very interesting indeed – I’ll check it out.

Anne – now you mention it, that sounds familiar, but I admit I’d not thought about it. Might have to watch that when I need depressing…

GM food may well be – probably is – safe to eat. It isn’t at all safe to grow, or good for either the farming environment or agricultural societies.

Dr Vandana Shiva has written some wonderful books on the subject; her Stolen Harvest is the best I’ve seen.

Thanks, Sam. I’ll check that out. I’m trying to locate something fairly recent on the subject of the application and reality of GM crops, but there’s nothing within the last couple of years. Most date back ten years or so, when the first storm of GM came. They’ve been up to some crafty things in ten years…

I know the welfare of the modified animals themselves features very little in the debate. But we should be adding this to the final bill.

For the most part, we’re either concerned about the impact GM foods will have on consumer health; much of this arising from unformed fears about “tinkered” foods. Or else we’re caught up in the debate over the social/economical/ecological crisis that will be brought on by their introduction to the planet’s food ecology; a threat which is more soundly supported by actual evidence.

In the case of the latter, let us make clear that any promises that these crops and strains will be kept “separate” if unequal in the ecosystem is absolutely spurious twaddle. There is no evidence to suggest this is even possible, and there is a wealth to the contrary showing how such introduced species can spread with unexpected consequences and long term costs. We will quickly reach a tipping point, where containment will not be remotely possible; much to the initial delight of the biotech lobby but with a far more uncertain future stretching beyond it.

But if we set aside these worries for the moment, there are also costs to the species which are involved on the other side of the knife and fork. Industrial means of agribusiness and aggressive breeding practices have already created levels of disease and misery among the species we raise that would put off most people had they the stomach to face it. GM species of fish, pork, beef, and poultry, will do little to offset this – highlighted by the instances of “screamer” disease and “humpback” spinal malformation in both GMO super salmon and their farmed non-GM brethren.

It would seem to me that we are not only potentially selling our entire fragile, food-providing ecosystem for a cup of supposedly, disease resistant pottage, but turning up the dial on animal suffering among those species we’re modifying. And all to line the pockets of the GM agribusiness combines; and at best, to increase profit margins for large scale industrial farming. It’s a huge risk, both ecologically and economically, and there is a likely significant cost to pay in terms of increasingly inhumane conditions for the animal species we’re farming. Taken together, it seems an unsupportable bid without a lot more planning and research. It also is unlikely to add much to the pockets or the bellies of the world’s poorest.

Should a relatively small group of biotech and agribusiness firms and their global lobbyists reap such a potential profit when the cost to the world remains unknown? I think we have evidence enough already to say definitely not, but the track record in the EU and the US does not give much hope for actually stopping this before we’ve crossed over the line of no return.

Even without a “waterless flood” à la Margaret Atwood, the damage to our world, ourselves and the species we depend on to keep the wolf from the door, will face a more risk prone future – and all for filling these relatively small corporate coffers with a golden harvest.


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