Frankenpolitics: The Left's defence of GMOs
09.01.14 @ 08:50
The global movement against genetic modification, it is fair to say, does in general spring from the green-left side of the political spectrum, but is anti-GM campaigning actually that left-wing?
In May last year, UK activists from Take the Flour Back announced that they were going to "decontaminat" - or tear up - GM wheat being tested by the Rothamsted Research institute, one of the oldest agricultural research bodies in the world.
The grain being tested gives off an odour that repels aphids, and also attract wasps that parasitise the insects. As a result, the wheat, developed by publicly funded scientists, would require less synthetic pesticide - a development that is hardly likely to deliver profits to the pesticide manufacturers.
The next month, a 30-year-old research project in Italy, involving transgenic olive trees, cherry trees and kiwifruit vines - one of the longest-running GM trials in Europe - was ordered destroyed with only a few days' notice by a court under pressure from an anti-GM group, the Genetic Rights Foundation.
The hoped-for result of the non-profit research, lead by plant scientist Eddo Rugini at the University of Tuscia, not concocted by any moustache-twiddling villains at Monsanto HQ, would again be a limit in the need for pesticides.
Students and colleagues stood by the aging Ruggini in solidarity amid the olive groves, but still the bulldozers arrived to rip up his life's work. The elderly scientist was devastated. Colleagues encouraged him to move to the United States, where he had received offers of work and where the mood is less fearful, but he replied despondently that he was simply too tired now.
When I was in Mexico last year investigating a series of bombings of nanotechnology researchers by eco-anarchists, I met a husband-and-wife team of molecular biologists working at a public university whose lab had twice been the target of anti-GM arsonists of a similar ideology to the nanotech bombers.
The scientists described themselves as socialists and strong supporters of the recent mass Yo Soy 132 protests against electoral corruption by the right. They were also keen to say how they were very much opponents of agribusiness.
Indeed, they said how they were frustrated that historically a great deal of crop research had been performed by Northern experts with little knowledge of the needs of Mexican farmers and consumers. So their aim instead was to develop transgenic crops resistant to drought and insects that built on local knowledge. Their work developing GM crops was a product of their belief in social justice, not an exception to it.
Is it beyond the imagination of anti-GM activists that genetic modification could be used for public benefit instead of private profit? The activists may well be sincere in opposing social injustice, but all the same, they think that these problems arise from something inherent in the technology. In so doing, the complaint is in fact about technology and progress itself.
The Left used to be quite clear that technologies used in the context of colonisation and exploitation in another political and economic context could be liberatory. We did not want to do away with industry, but rather capture it and run it democratically.
There is nothing intrinsically malign about any particular technology outside of the context in which it is used.
Anti-GM activists are too often guilty of a variety of cherry-picking that New York Times environment correspondent Andy Revkin has called "single-study syndrome" - embracing a single study or handful of studies that fly in the face of the wider consensus.
In 2011, the Journal of Coastal Research published a study that purported to show that global sea-level rise has actually slowed since 1930. Subsequently debunked by climate scientists and research from the US Geological Survey, this one, single article has nevertheless been seized on by conservative climate sceptics around the world, and the authors, James Houston, retired director of the US Army Corps of Engineers’ research centre in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Robert Dean, emeritus professor of coastal engineering at the University of Florida in Gainesville, have toured US climate-sceptic conferences.
While the US green left was correctly quick to condemn the Tea Party embrace of this single climate-sceptic paper, the anti-GM lobby continually refers to last year's 'study' by Gilles-Eric Seralini claiming to show how GM corn causes cancer in rats and infamously discredited for its jaw-droppingly poor methodology.
When the Journal of Food and Chemical Toxicology retracted his paper in November after he refused to withdraw it, the French scientist went on the attack at a Brussels press conference with liberal MEP Corinne Lepage, the former French environment minister at his side, claiming to be subject to censorship by Monsanto.
Lepage for her part warned of the influence of biotech pressure groups in the European capital and called for the resignation of the European Commission's chief scientific advisor, biologist Anne Glover, for her “regular pro-GMO declarations” and falsely accused her of being a former employee of Monsanto. Worldwide, GM opponents say that their hero Seralini has been the victim of an “orchestrated media campaign” to “silence” him, paid for by the biotech industry.
But the criticism came from all quarters, not just Monsanto and friends.
In a rare joint statement, the French national academies of agriculture, medicine, pharmacy, sciences, technology and veterinary studies denounced the study as a “scientific non-event” that “spread fear among the public.”
The country's Higher Biotechnologies Council (HCB) declared: “The study provides no scientific information regarding the detection of any health risk,” while the National Agency for Food Safety [ANSES] said simply but witheringly: “The data are insufficient to establish scientifically a causal link.”
At last year's annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) - the 125,000-strong professional association of US scientists - president Nina Fedoroff said she was now "scared to death" by what she described as an anti-science movement. "We are sliding back into a dark era," she said. "And there seems little we can do about it.”
She spoke about academics and government researchers being stalked and intimidated over their research into climate change; email hacking, Facebook campaigns calling for them to be fired; expensive PR efforts by oil companies and think-tanks working to discredit the concept of anthropogenic global warming; and toe-curlingly shameless displays of scientific illiteracy by prominent Republican politicians.
We are familiar with these sort of attacks on science from the right, of blimpish Tory climate denialism and Louisiana textbooks telling children that the existence of the Loch Ness Monster is proof that evolution is wrong. But Fedoroff was just as frightened of the vandalism, intimidation and violence directed towards biotechnology researchers from the green left.
“I am profoundly depressed at just how difficult it has become merely to get a realistic conversation started on issues such as climate change or genetically modified organisms,” she continued.
Have Monsanto and Syngenta managed to bribe the entire French and American scientific establishments? Well, if you read GMWatch, you probably think so. The leading anti-GM website actually believes the AAAS to be “captured from the top down.”
This is as absurd and poorly argued as right-wing accusations from denialist bloggers like Watts Up With That's Anthony Watts that the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been captured by Greenpeace.
It should be a deep embarrassment to progressives, but the truth is that anti-GM activists are as guilty of anti-scientific thinking with regard to their pet subject as the Koch Brothers or the American Enterprise Institute are on global warming.
While there are a tiny number of scientists that question anthropogenic global warming, the overwhelming consensus is that human activity is responsible for the sharp increase in atmospheric CO2 over the past two centuries. Equally, while Gilles-Eric Seralini may be a professor of molecular biology at the University of Caen, the overwhelming scientific consensus is that there is no risk to human health or the environment from GM as a suite of techniques. Pointing at Seralini's work and shouting “Look! Science-y!” ain't enough.
This 2013 statement from the AAAS on the subject really does give a sense of how anti-GM is as fringe as climate denialism: "The science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe. The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society, and every other respected organization that has examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion: consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques.”
"We don't need it anyway"
Nonetheless, opponents will regularly claim: “GM isn't a isn't a useful technology anyway,” or “We don't need it.”
Let me ask you: Is the mass-production of insulin useful? Bacteria were some of the first organisms to be genetically modified by researchers. One of the earliest such instances of this was the insertion of the human insulin gene into E. coli bateria to produce synthetic human insulin, or "Humulin" - indistinguishable from the pancreatic human version, developed by San Francisco biotech firm Genentech and first commercialised in 1982. Do go ask those with diabetes how useful this GM product is.
Sadly, without any evidence other than the claim that humulin is 'unnatural,' anti-GM groups like groups like the US Organic Consumers' Association, Natural News, GM Watch and the Center for Food Safety want diabetes patients to opt for so-called natural animal insulin purified from the pancreas of cows and pigs over what they feel is the 'Frankenmedicine' variety, claiming that doctors have been coerced into “forcing patients off natural insulin” by Eli Lilly.
A range of human proteins helpful for a variety of medical conditions have also been produced since the 1980s through related processes, including blood clotting factors for haemophiliacs and human growth hormone to combat dwarfism - proteins that were previously derived from cadavers and as such risked transmitting diseases. Hepatitis B and HPV vaccines have been developed using genetic engineering.
Or how about cancer modelling - is that useful? Would these critics of GM say that “we do not need” the OncoMouse, the laboratory mouse genetically modified to carry a gene that when activated increases the chance that the mouse will develop cancer, thus making it extremely useful for cancer research?
Looking to the near future, if via the development of self-destructive GM mosquitoes, we can do away with mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria, dengue fever, and chikungunya amongst others, is not that useful?
This is not science fiction dreaming.
A 2013 trial deployment in Brazil of mosquitoes engineered by a small Oxford biotech company to be sterile showed an incredible 96 percent suppression of dengue mosquito, Aedes aegypti. The trials were organised by the University of Sao Paolo and funded by the government.
Efforts to trial the GM mosquitoes in Florida last year however ran up against furious residents het up by fibs by environmental groups, despite the real public-health danger presented by the steady northward spread of mosquito-borne diseases as the climate changes.
Mosquitoes cause more human suffering than any other organism. Over a million people die every year from diseases spread by our ancient buzzing companion. If the sterile insect technique proves to be as successful as hoped, this will be one of the greatest advances in the history of our species, up there with the discovery of antibiotics and vaccines.
The Left should be fighting to ensure that all parts of the world affected by mosquito-borne diseases get full access to GM mosquitoes, rather than just those regions that can afford the technique, and not campaigning to stop the trials.
And let us just ask farmers themselves whether they find GM useful.
In 1996, when Argentina first approved the cultivation of GM crops, it refused to grant Monsanto a patent for its Roundup Ready soybean seeds. The country has loose intellectual property rights for plant varieties, an intellectual property regime that has been the source of longstanding battles between Argentina and the company, with the government at one point denouncing Monsanto's aggressive patent protection efforts as “extortion.” As a result of the impasse, 'pirate' use of the product soared.
The country is now the third largest producer of GM food in the world after the US and Brazil. By 2005, while some 80 percent of the country's soybean acreage was planted with Monsanto's Roundup Ready, only 28-50 percent of soybeans were 'legally' sold.
Meanwhile in Pakistan, far from being a case where farmers were forced into the use of GM, widespread smuggling of corn, wheat, cotton and vegetable seeds forced the government to give up on a completely ineffective ban on the technology. As of 2012, some 90 percent of the cotton grown in the country came from genetically modified seeds, while few farmers pay any royalties. Similar piracy occurs in Brazil. Why? Because of the generous savings accrued from the reduced inputs that are required.
"Meddling with Mother Nature"
Anti-GM protesters also argue that GM is fundamentally dangerous because “we're meddling in things that we only half understand.” Well, we knew even less about genetics when we started artificial selection (a.k.a. breeding) around 10,000 years ago.
Plant breeders from the beginnings of crop cultivation sought out desirable traits in wild plants, unpredictably shuffling the genes of species via cross-breeding. It is not true of course that cross-breeding is the same as modern genetic modification, but tangerines and nectarines for example are cultivars that certainly do not exist in nature, and broccoli was engineered from a relative of the cabbage by the ancient Etruscans. Cauliflowers are no more 'natural' than Flavr Savr tomatoes. But difference with cauliflowers is that we are so used to them that we think of them as 'natural,' and hence 'good.'
To say that we are developing organisms “that have never been seen in nature before” is true. But the poodle, achieved through selective breeding, had also “never been seen in nature before.”
In the middle of the last century, our initial understanding of genetics allowed us to use chemicals and radiation to begin to accelerate the genetic changes we desired, resulting in products that were more nutrient-rich, hardier, and more drought-resistant. Then in the 1970s, modern molecular genetics and the invention of large-scale DNA sequencing permitted a profound improvement in our understanding of genetics. This in turn resulted in the creation of new methods that allow the very precise addition of useful traits to organisms.
The difference between ancient and modern genetic modification is, you could say, just the level of precision.
"It won't solve hunger"
Another argument made by critics is that GM will not solve world hunger as some GM boosters claim. This at least is correct. There is - right now - more than enough food to feed the world's population and then some. It is not underproduction that is the problem, but lack of an egalitarian distribution.
So while this situation continues, why can we not, for example, improve nutrition through technology? Dietary micronutrient deficiencies - the lack of vitamin A, iodine, iron or zinc - produce marked increases in blindness, susceptibility to disease, and child mortality around the world.
Golden Rice, a variety of rice genetically engineered to be enriched with beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A, was created with the aim of improving the nutrient-density of meals in those areas of the world where rice is all people can afford. After its development by publicly funded researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and the University of Freiburg, biotech firm Syngenta subsequently developed a variety that produced 23 times more beta-carotene than the original Golden Rice. It is to be offered to poor farmers royalty-free and farmers may keep the seeds for replanting.
Greenpeace opposes its release as it could open the door to wider deployment of GM technology, and the venerable anti-GM campaigner Vandana Shiva argues that in focussing on vitamin A deficiency, the promoters of Golden Rice will prevent the wider, necessary discussion about the causes of malnutrition.
Globally, some 10 million children under the age of five die every year - a large number of them from diseases that could be prevented by better nutrition. Arguing that they need to die so that people will wake up to the barbarities of capitalism is itself barbaric. And yet Shiva keeps being invited to lefty conference after lefty conference!
Those infamous suicides in India
But what about the campaigners' favourite GM horror story, the infamous sharp rise in farmer suicides in India since the introduction in 2002 of varieties of cotton genetically modified to express Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) genes to produce resistance to bollworms?
A disingenuous 2005 PBS Frontline documentary suggested that the use of GM seeds from Monsanto and Cargill have led to increased debt burdens, with farmers forced into indentured labour to pay off loan sharks. But in 2008, the International Food Policy Research Institute, an independent agricultural research institute that has been sharply critical of multinationals, mounted the most extensive investigation into the subject, sifting through peer-reviewed journal articles, official and unofficial reports, media reports and broadcasts, and found “there is no evidence in available data of a 'resurgence' of farmer suicides” since 2002, and sharply criticised “media hype … fuelled by civil society organisations.”
The study found that the phenomenon of farmer suicides has been largely constant since 1997, arguing that the reasons for the growth in suicides - which is occurring across society - is complex, involving indebtedness, poor agricultural income, a downturn in the economy that had caused the re-ruralisation of urban-dwellers, the absence of counselling services, inadequate irrigation and the difficulty of farming in semi-arid regions.
The decision by the government to reduce minimum support prices, World Trade Organisation policies and continued western cotton subsidies that make local cotton uncompetitive must also be taken into account.
A parallel investigation from economist K Nagaraj of the Madras Institute of Development Studies noted that “mono-causal explanation of this complex phenomenon would be totally inadequate.” The author argues that suicides are concentrated in regions with high and predatory commercialisation of agriculture and very high levels of peasant debt.
He notes that cash crop farmers are more susceptible than food crop growers and argues that one must look to a massive decline in investment in agriculture, the withdrawal of bank credit at a time of climbing input prices, a crash in farm incomes, growing water stress and efforts toward water privatisation.
Remove Bt cotton from the equation and all these other factors remain untouched. Focussing on genetic modification and ignoring the real causes - as Nagaraj puts it: an “acute agrarian crisis in the country, and the state policies underlying this crisis” - is a dangerous distraction.
One issue that anti-GM campaigners have half-right surrounds the spread of 'superweeds' that can tolerate a certain herbicide nearby herbicide-resistant GM crops. Weeds that are susceptible to the herbicides die off while those that are not continue to live. This is just natural selection and would happen anyway, but evolution has been sped up by farmers' over-reliance on a single weedkiller.
It is indeed a serious problem, and resistant weeds have spread rapidly in the US, choking off production at a cost of millions in losses.
But this can be solved by a switch to a different herbicide or better crop rotation, with varied planting cycles, more temperate herbicide use and more locale-specific seeds. As these techniques vary season to season and year to year, resistance would evolve much more slowly.
Such a medley of tactics is just pretty elementary integrated pest management, but these practices have been forced out or forgotten as the supermarket chains pressure producers to grow as cheaply as possible.
Non-herbicidal solutions and such variability in planting practice will increase costs. Additionally, the likes of Monsanto and Syngenta make no money if a farmer plants “cover crop” - a crop planted primarily for purposes of soil quality or fertility, pest and weed control or disease prevention. Meanwhile, agribusiness research is biased towards where the money is - newer, stronger herbicides. For these companies, superweeds are just another market opportunity.
The crucial point though is that over-reliance on certain products doesn't come from genetic modification, but the economics of the modern farming system.
Activists also regularly accuse GM of being 'linked to' the production of hectares upon hectares of monoculture crops, reducing biodiversity and contributing to soil erosion. Monocultural production can indeed be a problem, but this is an issue with non-GM monoculture as well. So criticise monoculture - and the economic relations that encourage its development - not GM.
By focussing on GM as the cause of superweeds and monoculture, campaigners are again letting the real villain - the free market - off the hook.
Do not forget that there large corporations that have a great deal at stake here as well and are bankrolling many groups involved in the anti-GM fight. We have to acknowledge that the anti-GM position actually benefits a range of multinational corporations.
In last year's Califormia ballot initiative to try to legislate GM food labelling, the second-largest backer of the Yes campaign, Mercola Health Resources, is a dietary supplement firm whose owner, Joseph Mercola, according to Quackwatch, has three times been warned by the FDA to stop making illegal claims about his products.
Union-busting Whole Foods Market also backed the Yes side, while Just Label It, the national pressure group fighting for GMO labelling, was chaired by the head of Stonyfield Farm, an organic dairy firm that is 85 percent owned by French multinational Danone, simultaneously both the largest dairy product company and bottled water company in the world, whose 2010 revenues amounted to €19.3 billion.
The Cornucopia Institute, which was naming and shaming organic food companies whose parent firms backed the No side in California, was clear it is onside with Big Organic: “The Cornucopia Institute … stresses that the organization is not against corporate involvement in organics. We welcome corporate involvement in the organic food industry, but only when the parent company subscribes to the values that the organic food movement is based on.”
As the institute's consumer guide to who was funding the two sides of the battle made graphically clear, they do not believe the antagonism is corporate behemoths vs family farmers, cooperatives and peasants; the division is 'chemical' vs. 'natural.'
You say you are concerned about corporate control of the food industry? Well, you could actually be an accidental shill for a group of multinational corporations in this fight.
Remember how the biofuels industry initially was touted as a green alternative to fossil fuels by environmental groups, but when it was discovered that they were worse for the environment, biofuel producers pulled (and continue to pull) all manner of tricks to prevent their loss of subsidies. Could it not be that the organic industry is engaging in the same behaviour now?
Organic is big business these days. World organic food sales soared from $23 billion in 2002 to $52 billion in 2008, is the fastest growing sector of the American food marketplace, and as of last year, most independent organic food processors in the US had been swallowed up by multinational firms. And one could imagine that they might not want their profitable new market endangered.
A 2012 meta-analysis (basically a study of lots of studies - in this case 66 of them covering 34 crop species in both the developed and developing world) found that overall, average organic yields are 25% lower than conventional. So, in using up a third again the amount of land that conventional agriculture does, organic does not come off well in terms of land-use.
This is not industry spin; it comes from researchers with McGill University's Land Use and the Global Environment Lab in Montreal, a team of people very much dedicated to environmental preservation. (Not that the quality of a conclusion should be judged based on who it is doing the concluding. Bad research doesn't become good research when it's done by someone with good politics, and vice versa.)
If you were into Dan-Brown-style collusion and intrigue, you might be driven to remarking to yourself how convenient GM food scares, promoted by researchers funded by supermarket multinationals, are at a time when the evidence is beginning to show that organic food offers no additional nutrition, contains 'natural' pesticides that can be as toxic as synthetic ones, is less effective in preventing the spread of pathogens, and may actually be worse for the environment.
There are significant interests out there who stand to gain a lot from the continued mistaken belief that anything that has been genetically modified is inherently harmful.
I should add here that I do not want to beat up on organic too much. There are many other issues to consider than just yield and direct and indirect land-use, such as energy use, water use, water quality, nutrients, impact on biodiversity, carbon emissions, etc. For some crops and in some contexts, organic beats conventional.
But surely if GM can reduce pesticide use and water use, isn't this a good thing? A 20-year study at 36 sites in six provinces in northern China published in the journal Nature last January suggested that the deployment of Bt cotton provided a boost to biodiversity from a “marked increase in abundance” in beneficial insect predator ladybugs, lacewings and spiders as a result of the reduction in the use of pesticides.
Best of all, if one day we can grow delicious GM tomatoes in Sweden instead of importing them from Italy, cultivate GM coffee in Scotland instead of Columbia and GM cocoa in Massachusetts instead of the Ivory Coast, will not this significantly reduce carbon emissions from transport?
In the end, what is going on here with opposition to genetic modification is the import into left-wing thinking of the logical fallacy of an 'appeal to nature' - the idea that what is found in nature is good and what is synthetic is bad. The origins of this scepticism of science, industry and progress can be found in romanticist counterrevolutionary thought that emerged in the 18th Century in opposition to republican movements.
It is a cuckoo's egg in the nest of the Left.
Transferred to human ecology, the inherent conservatism of this should quickly be revealed: Everything, or everyone - peasant, lord and king - has his place within the 'natural order.'
It is a defence of the status quo against the 'unintended consequences' of social programmes by interventionist governments. How alike are the arguments against genetic engineering and 'social engineering'!
The American left-wing economist and anti-Vietnam-War activist Michael Albert years ago issued a jaunty, curmudgeonly aphorism that should be made into stickers that need to be slapped onto every environmentalist and food sovereignty activist's notebook, laptop and bike frame: "There is nothing truthful, wise, humane, or strategic about confusing hostility to injustice and oppression, which is leftist, with hostility to science and rationality, which is nonsense."
Let's uproot an unjust political economy, not GM crops.
The author is a European affairs journalist and science writer. A version of this article first appeared on his blog