A blog post for “Organic September”*

I’m not a Luddite, and I don’t think eating GM foods will damage my health: but I still don’t want GM agriculture, and here’s why

I don’t know about you, but I’m fed up with being accused of ignorance, or sugar-coated sentimentality, or some kind of generic resistance to progress whenever I read why it is that, in the view of its proponents, my objections to genetically modified food are without foundation and entirely lacking in merit.

It’s a common enough practice in the dark arts of political dispute to knock down arguments that one’s opponents have never deployed, whilst refusing steadfastly to engage with the arguments that they are in fact deploying. It’s no coincidence that this tactic is so prominent in the GM debate, since despite the apparently scientific, fact-based nature of the dispute, it is actually an intensely political argument that has little to do with science at all.

Let me begin by dealing with the plethora of straw men put up to obscure the real issues in the debate.

  • First is the hoary old business which so helpfully explains that we’ve been genetically modifying food since the beginning of agriculture, and that without genetic change we’d still be eating grass rather than rice, or wheat, or oats. Yes. Absolutely correct. 100%. And your point is? No-one that I know has ever denied this utterly self-evident fact.
  • Second is the idea that GM is just a way of speeding up the selective breeding that has produced the modified food organisms that we already know and love, and that my objections are merely the equivalent of being frightened of speed, a bit like those in the 19th century who insisted that travelling at 35mph would be more than the human frame could stand. Well, no it isn’t; and no, they’re not.
  • Third is the accusation that I’m scared, not only of speed, but of all technology and that I live, and want everyone else to live, in some kind of idealised 18th century. A Luddite who probably can’t use a computer, and who insists on using a slide rule and a table of logarithms whenever I feel the need to multiply two numbers together. Wrong. I love my smart-phone, and indeed love it rather too much, if you were to ask my wife.
  • Fourth, my ignorance of basic biology is so profound that I’ve swallowed wholesale the scare tactics of the Soil Association and its fellow-travellers, and all I need is the re-assurance that GM foods have all the nutrients that conventional foods have. I never doubted it, if by nutrients you mean the big three of fats, carbohydrates and proteins.
  • Finally, in this run-down of non-arguments, I read that my objections to GM technology are pure middle-class, western self-indulgence. I live in an economy of cheap and plentiful food, where I’m able to soak up my excessive income by paying rip-off prices for nostalgic food-stuffs, and I should be heartily ashamed of myself. Instead, I should be thinking about my poor comrades in developing countries, battling against climate change and drought, to whose benefit all this GM fervour is really directed. Excuse me whilst I duck beneath this low-flying pig.

So if these objections are ones that exist only in the minds of pro-GM zealots, what are my actual concerns?

First, political and economic. Despite all the altruistic-sounding hubris from GM commerce about feeding the world, adding nutrients to tackle deficiency disease, or creating drought resistance in climate-change stricken countries and making deserts bloom, the mundane truth is that so far at least the technology is more about patents and selling products than it is about saving the human race from starvation. Genetically modifying an organism to be resistant to a herbicide manufactured by the same company locks farmers into that company’s products. It makes 3rd world farmers dependent on 1st world technology companies. It reduces rather than increases the sum of genetic diversity, and pushes the entire world’s food production even further into dependence on an increasingly narrow range of cultivars from an already narrow range of food plants. This is adding to food insecurity, not reducing it.

Second, ecological. GM proponents are constantly saying that the novel genes inserted into the DNA of crops grown in the open environment are not capable of spreading into wild populations, or even into non-GM crops. GM plants, we are told, are sterile and cannot create modified progeny. Yet we heard last year that every sample of wild canola studied in the US now has GM markers from the GM canola grown ubiquitously in that country. It matters not whether this particular transference has any deleterious effects, but it is surely not over-imaginative to wonder about the transference of herbicide or pest resistance into wild populations. That is not the impossible scenario that the GM-mongers have constantly insisted that it is. Even if that were not to happen, one thing we know about pests is this: that they have become pests because of their ability to adapt. Pesticide resistance in pests is already well-known. Why should pests not become resistant to the molecules that novel GM genes produce in GM plants? Our experience indicates strongly that this is more rather than less likely. We do know how to minimise losses to pests though, and it isn’t via  expensive patented super-plants. It’s via much simpler things like rotation, crop diversity, avoiding vast monocultures and the like. Unfortunately such things do not bring much in the way of profits to agri-business.

But third, and most basic of all, my objections are based in biology. When plants or animals are bred traditionally, the kind of ensuing genetic change is strictly circumscribed. Reproduction is not just about molecular genetics. In higher organisms it’s also about the, er, mechanics of sex. If I smear elephant sperm on the styles of wheat flowers, I’ll have to do it for a rather long time, like eternity for example, before wheat starts growing big flappy ears. It’s true of course that “primitive” organisms such as unicellular or viral species have a much more laissez-faire approach to genetic exchange both intra and extra species, and indeed if they didn’t GM technology would be impossible. Higher organisms on the other hand have developed all kinds of sophisticated ways of trying to prevent this genetic free-for-all, and disease rather than advantage is the usual consequence when they fail. More than that, the very definition of a species is that community of organisms that can breed with each other, and produce offspring that can also interbreed.

So what, you may ask? Sex is a kind of way of maximising genetic variation whilst at the same time disciplining the rampant genetic exchange that exists in micro-organisms. Sexual reproduction has vastly increased the rate of variation and speciation, but it’s done so within limits. Evolution has come up with this elegant balance just as it has in so many different ways throughout the ecosphere, where for example the interplay between predators and those suffering predation enables both species to persist. So sex is as much about control as it is about novelty. On the one hand, genetic “data” is allowed to mingle and evolve, whilst on the other it is protected from corruption.

Let me offer an analogy from a very different kind of data control. I’ve spent a lot of time designing database interfaces for operational staff. The point of committing the huge overhead of resources that designing a user interface requires, is to ensure the integrity of the data held in the system. The user interface prevents access to some bits of data, controls what kind of new data can be added, makes sure that it’s complete, prevents people randomly deleting stuff by mistake, amongst other similar control activities. The DNA in our genes is a bit like the data in a database. The organism needs to be able to access the data, but it also needs to be able to rely on it. Inaccurate data in a database may give rise to misleading results; in genetics it tends to give rise to disease. The species barrier is a bit like the user interface. Some bits of data never come into contact with each other, because, as I flippantly pointed out earlier, elephant sperm cannot get access to the germ cells of a wheat plant. There is no genetic free-for-all. A database that consists of “naked” data in a spreadsheet is not going to stay fit for purpose for long. Anybody can open a spreadsheet and start altering or deleting data. Very soon, the data will be useless. This is my fundamental concern about GM. It takes the genetic data of the biosphere and starts mucking around with it just like a rogue user let loose on naked data without controls or validations. And it does so within an arrogant assumption that we know all the consequences of what we are doing, and that we’ll be able to stuff the genie back in the bottle if it all goes horribly wrong. It might be worth taking that kind of risk if we had no other options, but we do have other options. They just don’t appear to offer the same opportunities for making profit.

And so I believe I have sound reasons for resisting GM in the open environment (and whilst many do not apply in the setting of a secure laboratory, even then we do know that “secure” is easier to say than to achieve) and they are not based on ignorance, or fear of technology, or romantic hankering after bygone ages, or any other of the things that I and other GM sceptics are accused of. On the contrary, it’s because I do know something about biology and genetics that I’m not going to swallow the GM companies’ self-serving, patronising attempts to sooth me.

* Some ideas in this blog post have appeared here before: I apologise if it all seems a bit familiar!

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