[Parts 3 and 4 of the Roots of Paradigm series will be in the works soon! For now, please indulge a little polemic detour.]
Oh, how the mighty have done it again.
A consortium of over 100 Nobel-winning scientists have published an open letter denouncing Greenpeace for their ongoing campaign against genetically modified (GM) crops.
My own reactions upon reading the letter were mixed. On one hand, I generally support Greenpeace; I applaud their provocative research and their attitude to direct action. On the other hand, I don’t agree with them on everything, and shrill dogmatism can become tiresome.
On the third hand, this Nobel letter (the full text of which can be found here) is an embarrassment: it’s simplistic, and narrowly addresses only the weakest element of Greenpeace’s position. Far from representing a good-faith invigoration of the stagnant public debate, or an attempt to actually help the public understand the problems and benefits of GM agriculture, these great minds seem to have invoked the name of science merely to parade a straw man.
The whole thing reeks of vanity rather than any concern for the substance of humanity’s future. As a scientist myself, I expected better.
At the time of writing, the letter had been signed by 110 Nobel laureates. It’s very short, and I recommend taking a look for yourself. But the main thrust is that Greenpeace’s opposition to GM agriculture is founded on an unscientific and absolutist ideology:
We urge Greenpeace and its supporters to re-examine the experience of farmers and consumers worldwide with crops and foods improved through biotechnology, recognize the findings of authoritative scientific bodies and regulatory agencies, and abandon their campaign against GM crops in general and Golden Rice in particular.
The Golden Rice of which they speak has been a sticking point in this debate for as long as I can remember (which is about 11 years). Golden Rice is an umbrella term for rice which has been genetically engineered to produce high quantities of beta-carotene and/or other compounds related to the synthesis of to vitamin A. It is often touted as a way to combat the scourge of vitamin A deficiency (VAD) in the developing world. From the letter:
The World Health Organization estimates that 250 million people, suffer from VAD, including 40 percent of children under five in the developing world. … VAD itself is the leading cause of childhood blindness globally affecting 250,000-500,000 children each year. Half die within 12 months of losing their eyesight.
A number of labs have been working on Golden Rice for a couple of decades now. I believe the most promising strains to date have been developed by the biotechnology and agrichemicals giant Syngenta.
Health and Emotion
What is Greenpeace’s problem with GM crops? The Nobel laureates highlight the (single) most prominent issue in the wider public debate: namely that consumption of GM foods may pose direct danger to the health of humans and other organisms. The letter asserts that this concern has scant grounding:
There has never been a single confirmed case of a negative health outcome for humans or animals from consumption of GM foods.
Though no references to any research studies are provided, I believe the scientific case for the laureates’ claim is quite convincing. New varieties of crops, and particularly GM varieties, must undergo a thorough vetting process before they’re even approved for field trials (ironically these safeguards are in place largely thanks to the activism of organisations like Greenpeace). To obtain commercial licences, GM crops must pass batteries of chemical and genetic tests; their effect on individual cells from a variety of organisms must be assessed; and their consumption by test-groups of animals and finally humans must demonstrate that they are safe.
There's always the caveat that these studies have largely been undertaken or funded by the companies themselves. Those independent labs which try to test the claims made by the industry can find their research access to the patented materials restricted, depending on the study they intend to pursue. Selectivity over what research is approved has in the past lead to distortions of the science on health hazards and crop efficacy.
Now, I tend to just assume for simplicity that the regulatory framework protecting consumers is good enough by now to resist industry meddling and muddying. But I realise this is naive – other industries have gotten away with egregious abuses of the public despite allegedly robust oversight: food processing, automotive, oil, banking, …
The letter’s implications are clear: Greenpeace is scientifically dishonest in their portrayal of GM crops as hazardous. Greenpeace do have some proclivity to alarmism, and in the past they have used the spectre of poisonous “frankenfood” to foment irrational fears in the population. But their reputation is also something of a caricature, an image partially crafted and perpetually reinforced by the agritech industry and other pro-GM groups to facilitate the convenient dismissal of activists as irrational Luddites.
This letter falls right into that trap: in accusing Greenpeace of distracting the public with unsubstantiated, emotive rhetoric, the luminaries of science indulge in precisely the same tactics. They attack Greenpeace without critically engaging with their more complex arguments. They invoke GM agriculture as a vague panacea for a terrible and heartbreaking disease, without addressing the material realities of its deployment. Again, I feel the calibre of this discussion is unbefitting of the calibre of the minds behind it.
How many poor people in the world must die before we consider this a crime against humanity?
Even if Greenpeace is occasionally given to such language (and in fact many of their reports are rather sober), it seems fair to expect higher standards of discourse from the establishment than from radical elements who struggle against it.
But the underlying problem with this letter is not that the Nobel scientists are being “unscientific” in their delivery, but that the scientists believe that this is an issue of science alone. They believe that Greenpeace’s failure to accept GM agriculture based on the scientific evidence makes them not only wrong, but exposes them as uninterested in the truth or justice of the matter.
I disagree with this view; I claim that, at least for now, the problems posed by GM agriculture are no longer issues of natural science. And I further hold that if this is all the scientists can see, it is a troubling indictment of their arrogance and myopia.
Conspicuously absent from the letter, for instance, is any mention the producers of GM seeds. From the letter alone, you’d be forgiven for thinking the seeds are gems in humanity’s collective intellectual treasury. But that is not the case: the owners of commercial GM technology are transnational corporations like Syngenta and Monsanto, who hold patents on their products’ genomes, and are further allowed to shroud their products and techniques in secrecy. They are not philanthropists, they are out to make profit like any other company.
Following from the last expandable section: yes, most would agree that Greenpeace's tactics are aggressive. Some may even call them bullies – but a look at who they are bullying might dispel one's nascent sympathy. In an arena where the combatants have such mismatched power and resources, it's highly impressive that Greenpeace is such an effective campaigner.
I don’t mean to suggest that commercial interests necessarily preclude work which benefits common people; but merely that we must be wary of the sophisticated craft of public image and spin.
Take Golden Rice, whose humanitarian credentials have been enthusiastically touted for years, but which has to date witnessed no substantial deployment. Nor is there convincing evidence that it is an effective, let alone cost-effective, means of mitigating VAD in at-risk populations.
It’s a similar story for other GM crops with traits like drought or salt tolerance, which have ostensibly been developed to help poor farmers. They comprise a high percentage of agritech PR content, a tiny percentage of research investment, and a zero percentage of seed sales.
The Successes of GM Crops
So what is GM technology good for, if not improving the nutrition of subsistence farmers, or softening the blows of their adverse local conditions? Looking at the portfolio of approved crops, we must conclude that the simple answer is agricultural industrialisation – promoting conglomeration and commercialisation of farms, and allowing them to be run by fewer people.
For example, the majority of GM crops under cultivation are engineered to be resistant to a broad-spectrum weedkiller/herbicide called glyphosate (a ban of which was recently suspended by the EU). The thinking is that once a farmer or farm manager has bought GM seeds, they can also buy that company’s glyphosate preparation (e.g. Monsanto’s RoundUp) and apply it to their fields in quantities that would damage or kill non-GM varieties of the crop.
This exacerbates the familiar ecological impacts of conventional industrial farming, since in practice it promotes mechanisation and the devotion of large tracts to a single variety of crop (monoculture), and encourages generous herbicide use, which is known for example to disrupt soil microbiology and undermine crops’ immune responses.
Typically, such negative impacts are addressed through the application of yet more pesticides and fertilisers, bringing yet more degradation to the soil, stresses to the local ecology, and entailing significant emission of greenhouse gas, And the cycle continues, meaning that any initial investment in the industrialised model might end up locking farmers into that model.
As I already pointed out, while these problems are not unique to GM crops, GM is, in its current incarnation, deeply wedded to an unsustainable high-input and monocultured model of agriculture.
And unfortunately, even its supposed benefits may be transient: going back to the example of GM herbicide-tolerance, we find that the list of weeds which have developed resistance to glyphosate is long and growing, prompting farmers to resort to other, more potent herbicides, which then exacerbate the environmental degradations already discussed. Moreover, the unintended (though entirely foreseeable) emergence of battle-hardened, resistant weeds pose severe threat to conventionally-bred crops on neighbouring farms, and even to wild ecosystems.
So, say I am a struggling farmer who needs to increase my fields’ productivity. I buy and plant a GM variety of my favourite crop. There’ll probably be a period of higher and less variable yield after the transition, which is great. But after a matter of years the benefits can begin to disappear, until I am once more a struggling farmer – except now my crop diversity, farm labour, and soil health have all been sacrificed, my weedkillers are more toxic, I’ve trashed the surrounding environment, and my neighbours are all dealing with herbicide-resistant weeds.
Once all the parasitic wasps are gone, there will be nothing to inject their young into the bodies of still-living aphids.
There are other categories of crop (e.g. ones which produce pesticides), and several broader questions (e.g. gene transfer) which need to be addressed to get a full understanding of the scientific debate around GM agriculture. It’s unnecessary for my purposes to go into them here; but I hope the foregoing discussion of agritech has illustrated to some degree that GM may introduce problems as well as solve them.
In light of the above, and the discussion to come, I argue that the promotion of Golden Rice is something of a publicity stunt designed to cultivate acceptance of GM agriculture in both the developed and the developing world. The likes of Syngenta construe their distribution of Golden Rice in poor countries as a humanitarian action; but it can equally be seen as a cynical penetration and conquest of these emerging markets. (Indeed, there are clear parallels with Nestlé’s actions which led to the infant formula scandal of the 1980s.)
Control of Productive Land
If you’re thinking that I’m being unfair to the other side of the argument, remember that my main purpose is to illustrate and counterbalance the superficiality of the Nobel laureates’ open letter. Blinded by a form of scientific absolutism, it would yet appear they believe that “science” extends only as far as genetic engineering and molecular biology. As we have seen, there are important (and mainstream) considerations from the fields of ecology and genetic adaption.
But we also saw hints of an even broader intellectual landscape, one that includes fields of social science – for if we are interested in helping humans, rather than simply (“simply”) understanding the natural world, some perspective on human institutions like economics, business, intellectual property, and sociology is indispensable. It is only with a human-oriented approach that we can ask the crucial question of who does and who should control agricultural production.
Because the fact is that practicable alternatives to GM agriculture exist, ones which deliver autonomy and ownership to farmers, rather than ceding it to corporate interests. I cannot stress enough how troubling it is that control over the global food system is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few dozen agritech and supermarket giants which, having reached limits to their power in/over the wealthy countries of their birth, now seek to extend their reach to poor countries who can offer little resistance to the Western capitalist juggernaut, and whose populations may be unable to effectively regulate transnationals.
A food system that prioritises Western shareholders over the feeding of people and the resilience of production, that puts the demands of capital before the livelihoods of small farmers, the integrity of communities and local markets, and stewardship of the environment, is nothing to be proud of. It benefits neither the producers alienated from their land and their traditions, nor consumers alienated from food itself.
I’m not saying that any intervention by the institutions of wealthy countries in the affairs of the global poor is bound to disadvantage the latter. Nor do I believe that self-interest is categorically wrong. But here the agritech companies have all the cards, and farmers are being tricked out of their their assets, their self-determination, and potentially the health of their environment and families – all for the benefit of the rich.
Such a pattern of affairs is familiar, it is difficult to reverse, and it is unconscionable. Farmers in poor countries should have a right to executive ownership of their agricultural land, both as a matter of social justice and as a more practical matter of restoring functionality to a broken food system.
What are the Alternatives?
Though nothing in global agriculture is simple, the problems which GM technology seeks to address have a variety of solutions which are less corporate, less technologically intensive, more empowering, and much much cheaper. Traditional farming practices such as crop rotation, crop diversification, and soil management can all deliver substantial yield increases, improve nutrition, and control pests for a fraction of the cost. These techniques protect the resilience of the soil rather than degrading it, and relieve some of the reliance on imported fertilisers and pesticides.
Soil health in particular has been severely hit by excessive use of such agrichemicals, and by the emphasis on industrial monocultures which would be impossible without them. Furthermore, it is the lack of diversity in crops and crop varieties which has contributed needlessly to the impoverished diets of the global poor.
This brings us back to Golden Rice, which, under corporate control and rooted in a resource-intensive (and insufficiently internalised) model, may only excerbate the underlying problem of crop and diet diversity. I find it shameful that the scientists who signed the open letter have been duped into the Western collective obsession with hi-tech neoliberal solutions, and the agritech industry’s fairytale of feeding the world through industrialised monocultures: there are plentiful farmer-oriented alternatives for combating vitamin A deficiency. For instance, green vegetables and even other (established, non-patented) varieties of rice which would grow well in regions where VAD is acute contain abundant vitamin A.
From both nutrition and economic perspectives, there’s a lot to gain for subsitence farmers in diversifying their crops. Perhaps they need more access to information and training in sustainable farming practices (which may have been lost during industrialisation); perhaps they need better weather forecasts and access to markets; perhaps they need capital to invest in local infrastructure; but they almost certainly need secure land rights and decision-making power over what they grow and how. They need to be able to protect and nurture their soils. Indeed, many small-scale farmers in developed countries would benefit from similar innovations. But none of this is profitable for agribusiness, who send their missionaries to monopolise agricultural information in rural areas.
In presenting GM technology as the only option, the Nobel laureates reinforce the story that agritech companies want us to hear. But it is neither the only option, nor even the best option. Unfortunately it is an easy option for us in the developed world, as we benefit from our institutions’ predations far from home, while ignoring our responsibility for them.
Now, there absolutely may come a day when GM crop science is advanced enough to deliver tangible benefits that outweigh the foreseeable costs. It may be that governmental or philanthropic labs begin once more to compete with commercial ones in development, productive capacity, informative reach, and distribution network. I cannot predict the state of biotechnology and global agriculture thirty years from now, and I don’t rule GM out of our agricultural future. But there are pressing concerns about our agricultural present to which GM is not the answer, and in fact represents part of the problem.
So for now, and for ever more, any decision to further relinquish control over our food systems must not be made lightly.
Some of my latter observations about corporate behaviour apply beyond agribusiness (in a future post, I intend to discuss a relevant issue with finance in developing markets). But I think it’s credible to claim that nowhere are such patterns of more immediate consequence than where they impact on food, hunger and nutrition.
And though my take on these issues, and on GM agriculture in particular, has perhaps been simplistic or partisan, I’m pleased that in one day’s writing I have done a more thorough job than 110 Nobel laureates! As ever, it’s hard to tell whether their letter’s shortcomings were down to ignorance or disingenuousness – and hence whether I should feel despair or betrayal.
In this post, I’ve tacitly adopted the more generous interpretation (ignorance). And if this is the case it only goes to show that eminent scientists, even those who proclaim that science is both a process of knowledge acquisition and a body of established fact, may still end up conflating the two. In seeing only the idealised “scientific case” for GM agriculture, while failing to apply their critical faculties to the wider issues of social institutions and human wellbeing, they expose a disappointingly weak grasp of reality.