I was listening to an interview given by Owen Paterson who is the UK minister for Environment which is to say effectively the minister for Agriculture. Mr Paterson is an engaging speaker who speaks in an informed way on his subject and I was moved to look up more about what he had to say on the subject of GM crops.
He has launched a media offensive this week to campaign for GM to be promoted. The reason that you are bored by this article already is because if you are American you have accepted (if you’ve thought about it at all) that genetically modified is just part of the food chain and you’re not even told whether your food is GM or not, whereas if you are European these products are not even offered any more because the public hates them and since they have to be identified consumers have the choice and no-one will buy them. If you live in the Third World it’s different but I’ll get to that later.
You’d think that for us Europeans that would be the end of it; I mean, we’re all staunch capitalists – supply and demand etc – no-one wants this stuff. But no, making a surprisingly good case for someone who is basically arguing that we should eat like Americans, the conservative environment minister makes a high-profile argument that resistance to GM crops is immoral, because there are people dying of hunger, right? He makes some good arguments that it would be churlish to dismiss, based on thzt image of the misunderstood, benevolent scientist who only wants to make the world a better place.
All the rice growing countries that haven’t been prepared to accept Golden Rice, that was offered to them free and makes the plant include nutrients that prevent deficiency disease blindness in young people. It isn’t stated, but you have to assume that their governments are ignorant and/or corrupt to reject such an offer. Although many parts of the third world have learned by bitter experience to distrust free offers.
Paterson is a good enough speaker (maybe sincere) to get the interviewer to look at the thing on his terms. It’s not a stretch for the BBC to implicitly agree with the assumption that governments in Africa and Asia are misguided and ill-informed. And we can see how far UK public opinion has moved when the European Union and its member states Germany, France and Austria get the same slightly indulgent, slightly exasperated pat on the head from a concerned parental figure. Apparently there are no scientific arguments against GM crops – no American citizen has a mention of them on his or her death certificate and the USA has been able to reduce the amount of acreage devoted to agriculture, leading to an increase in “wilderness” space which could benefit Europe as well (the US has plenty of wilderness – like Detroit that used to be a motor industry city, or the Oklahoma dust bowl – people have always been ready to move on).
In Europe, our options are rather different. In the seventies, when Don Henley sang “There is no more new frontier/ we have got to make it here” he was talking about the Hotel California, but in Europe that has been true for longer. In England it’s only farms and golf courses that prevent our cities merging into each other; and the golf courses are gradually turning into housing estates. I don’t trust farming – as an industry, it has too much influence and it tends to narrow minded self interest – but I’d rather my food was grown or raised by farmers than a few agro-businesses.
So when the minister says that the European opposition to GM crops is based on emotion and politics, not science, I start to wonder. First, when did we start to think of France and Germany as foolish children that need to be guided in the same way as our former imperial possessions? Second – what do you mean by politics? You can’t separate the politics from this issue, because:
1. Do we British really want to live in an EU where the best farming land has been bought up by giant corporations producing a high concentration of edible mush and every other hectare is available for housing development: and where all the patchwork of agriculture in Provence or Tuscany or wherever else our middle classes like to spend their holidays has gone bust even more spectacularly than in this recession?
2. If we are being offered wilderness on our doorstep, how does this square with the idea that we have a moral obligation to produce more food to deal with world hunger? (which no analysis suggests is due to a shortage of food or food growing capacity in the world as a whole – if you were serious, you could ease a lot of it by ceasing to force countries mired in international debt to grow cash crops instead of food that their people can eat). If we increase production per acre we can either grow the same amount of food on less land or increase the amount of food we grow, not both.
3. “No adverse environmental effects” – because you use less pesticides. You don’t need them because in the environment you have created only your own genetically modified plants will thrive. So you are creating a monoculture which means you lose so much that may be useful in future and leave what’s left vulnerable to new pests that don’t even exist yet but will take the place of the old and sweep through crops that are all the same so all equally vulnerable (the USA, that we are urged to look to, recently almost wiped out its bee population as a result of aggressive agriculture, and as Einstein noted if the bees go, humans go not long after).
4. Economics. Big companies make GM crops: they make them sterile, so each year you have to go back and buy a new lot. You can’t use what you’ve grown to make the next generation of crops. The strategy is called Monopoly. That’s one of the problems with a free gift that is free today. One word – Monsanto.
5. If science is the only issue, why bang the drum about GM crops. Technology wise this is yesterday’s news – a farming version of Betamax. The science has moved on and you can get the same bang for less bucks; although a few big companies still have a lot of investment sunk into GM.
6. Mr Paterson is actually engaged in politics, so it’s strange that he dismisses it. If GM crops were so great, according to the market theories that he’s supposed to represent people would want them instead of needing to have the minister of environment force them to eat their GM greens.
And that is the big puzzle. Why is Mr Paterson so eager to spend government money telling us about this wonderful stuff? He knows the EU is not going to change its policy, so maybe this is another Conservative anti-EU bluster; but then the reason why the EU won’t change is because GM crops are massively unpopular with voters, so perhaps there’s another reason.
Well; Mr Paterson has travelled extensively in the USA in his role as a UK farming specialist politician, where he not only met , I suppose, a lot of agro-industrialists (he quotes some of them in his speech today) but he also made a name as an expert in the problem of bovine TB.
Here is a link to a 2005 article in Farmer’s Weekly where he is bemoaning the unwillingness of ordinary people to support the wholesale culling of wild animals in order to reduce TB in cattle.
If only people were prepared to slaughter more wild animals all would be well (ignoring his own evidence that cattle brought the disease and that restrictions on moving them around were probably the most important measures to prevent spreading disease.
At the moment, in England, government officials are getting ready to implement a final solution in respect of an animal that has lived here for more centuries than anyone knows, living underground in sets that have developed over hundreds of years and many generations. Farmers blame badgers for bovine TB, so they must die, even though extermination in Ireland hasn’t done any good. There is a scientific rationale for this: put at its highest the government’s advisers believe that killing 70% of all the badgers in England might reduce the number of cows which get TB by around 15% at best. The only problem with that hypothesis is that no-one knows how many badger corpses amounts to 70% of all of them. I suppose, taking away the sentiment, it’s a question of values whether you regard the extermination of a species as a price worth paying so that beef livestock can continue to move around the country freely to maximise EU subsidies (sorry, I meant farming productivity).
I still have an interesting question. I’m sure that Owen Paterson is an honest man, but I’m wondering whether those pulling his strings are more interested in flogging the dead horse gene carrot of GM crops, or stirring up a public health debate that isn’t about whether it’s right to proceed with a massacre that has no support from scientists given that it will be expensive, marginally effective if successful, uncertain in its long term effect and certain to produce a short-term worsening of the situation if badgers prove so unreasonable as to flee the homes where they are to be terminated.
Strangely enough, that vigorous defender of science over politics Mr Owen Paterson is the prime mover and defender of this policy. See below
A cynical person might conclude that taxpayers’ money is being used to make a hopeless PR case for GM crops only to create a smoke screen behind which the first planned badger massacres might take place without interruption.