Posted by: Mahdi Ebrahimi | November 25, 2007

Rethinking Agriculture

The main danger of genetic modification is the control over agriculture it grants to transnational companies. We need to get back to first principles on farming

Dick Taverne is a clever man who has been led astray by hype. Genetic modification (GM) may have useful roles to play in agriculture, but it does not offer the bounty Taverne and his fellow enthusiasts believe it does. GM crops do not routinely outperform those bred by traditional means, and there has been no demonstration that GM crops can sustain their high performance in the real world, as opposed to the cosseted plots of the showpiece farm. More broadly, the good that GM might in principle do is far outweighed by the harm, in particular the control of world agriculture by transnational companies. Whatever the theoretical advantages of GM, the world is unlikely in the foreseeable future to use it in an advantageous way.

The example with which Taverne opens his article—“golden rice”—is a case in point. As Taverne says, golden rice contains carotene, the precursor of vitamin A, courtesy of a gene from a daffodil. But Taverne does not mention that carotene is one of the commonest organic molecules in nature. It is present in all dark green leaves—the many that manifest worldwide as “spinach” and cabbage—in yellow roots such as carrots and varieties of cassava, and in fruits such as papaya and mango.

Vitamin A deficiency is indeed a huge health problem. But this is because millions of people no longer have access to horticulture. English country people had their cottage gardens; much of traditional African agriculture is horticulture; and in China, the islands of higher ground around the traditional paddy-fields are dripping with green leaves and fruits of all kinds. What happened to local horticulture? One answer is that it has been swept aside to make way for industrialised, monocultural agriculture that insists on rice or another cash crop to the exclusion of all else.

How come traditional horticulture has been swept aside to make way for cash crops? Why is there such enthusiasm in high places for such a shift? Behind this absurdity lies the idea that economic “growth”—increases in GDP—correlates with human wellbeing. So long as governments are fixated on GDP, agriculture will be encouraged to maximise wealth rather than wellbeing, and cheap, local horticulture will fall foul to the monoculture of cash crops that produce oodles of wealth but do not grow what people need. In short, if we really want to solve the world’s food problems, then we have to rethink the way that agriculture is designed from first principles, as I explain in my most recent book, “Feeding People is Easy.” Throwing fancy technologies like golden rice at fundamentally flawed systems is obviously ridiculous. Zambia’s decision, in 2002, to reject imports of GM maize probably had less to do with health fears and more to do with the observation that accepting GM means accepting systems of agriculture designed to make rich people richer rather than feeding poor people.

Taverne tells us that 10m farmers, including 9m in poor countries, are growing GM cotton. This may be true, but it’s not particularly interesting. There are between 1 and 2bn farmers worldwide. Ten million is therefore between 0.5 and 1 per cent of the whole; not exactly overwhelming, particularly when you consider that poor farmers, and their governments, are under constant pressure to make the switch to GM. Also, cotton is not for eating; it is, and always has been, a cash crop. If from the outset you are growing a crop for cash, then you might as well get the best yield. If it fails, you lose money, but need not starve. With staple food crops—rice and horticulture—the equation is different. Besides, cotton is beset by particular pests that do yield to particular resistant genes. Here, the GM technology seems to work.

On the less pressing issue of biology, one often hears the glib assertion that genetic engineering does nothing unparalleled in nature, as transfer of genes between unrelated species also occurs in the wild (mediated by viruses). Not so. One important detail is that genes in a state of nature are shot through with “introns”—lengths of DNA that do not code for protein. Introns were once written off as “junk”—but we now know that they are serious regulators and modifiers of gene function. But genes for engineering purposes are transferred without their introns. Important? Who knows? Scientists who should know better offer such glib assurance that nothing can possibly go wrong—just as they did with nuclear power, and thalidomide. Why? Because they are obliged to work for commercial companies who want quick results. As the commercial competition increases, it gets harder and harder to work for humanity as a whole.

Why should Dick Taverne be taken in by all this? For the same reason most politicians are taken in. They are not scientists, and to get up to speed they talk to directors of successful laboratories and flick through company brochures which show people getting richer by growing GM crops, but do not show the much larger group of people getting poorer as they are thrown off their land. Taverne and other people in positions of influence need to rethink from first principles: how in practice agriculture operates, and what it is for.

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