Planet Waves | It's Life, But Not As We Know It


It's life...
but not as we know it

A Perspective from England
on Genetically Modified Foods

by Merrick
Planet Waves Digital Media

Science, capitalism and professional politics,
like most other religions, present themselves
as solutions to the problems they create.


Although the first genetically modified organisms were created in the 1970s, nothing much happened in the way of opposition, or even widespread knowledge about it, until the crops were being commercially grown and it started appearing in our food in the late 1990s.

There are many reasons why the campaign against Genetically Modified (GM) foods in the UK has been so successful, but there are two significant factors in this country that don't apply as much elsewhere. Firstly, for the last five years there have been numerous environmental direct action campaigns. Whilst those campaigns have been focused on other issues (mostly road-building), they have familiarised the public with the idea of direct action, and have generated a lot of sympathy towards it for addressing issues ignored by the short-term and urban based thinking of professional politics.

The second key factor is the string of food scares that have hit the UK over the last 10-15 years. Every year or two there's a major news story about a threat to public health through food. Salmonella in eggs, botulism in yogurt, Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE or 'mad cow disease') causing the human equivalent Creutzfeld Jakob Disease ('CJD', which leaves people's brains literally rotting inside their skulls), E-coli in cooked meats, and the list goes on. (Incidentally, many people have noticed how these things are always problems with animal products).

The campaign against GM tapped into the fears that the food scares have created, and a large part of the discussion was concerned with the unknown effect of putting new and unnatural genetic combinations into the genetic organism of humans. Environmental concerns were given a good airing, and so were some of the questions of morality, spirituality and principle, but the focus is more on the immediate and self-concerned issue of food. To prove this you only need to look at how all the major supermarkets in the UK have stopped using GM material in their own-brand foods, but are quite happy to sell GM cotton.

One activist I know has suggested that the next time we rip up a GM crop and the media are there we should start eating some of the plants. This would make clear that the food-scare idea is secondary to us, and so give prominence to the issues of environmental damage and corporate control of essential commodities.

The environmental issue is essentially that releasing entirely unknown organisms that are designed to be supernaturally resilient into the world could easily and terrifyingly backfire. We know what can happen when radically different new species are introduced to a country. The examples of dogs effect on Australian wildlife (the dingo is the descendant of domestic dogs brought by the Dutch), or of cats on the bird and rodent populations of New Zealand, and of any number of plants brought as ornamentals to the US and Asia by colonists that have all spread to wipe out a diversity of wildlife that is never coming back. Weed-and-weedkiller-resistant plants crossing with another hardy weed (pollen can travel 3 miles and more) may produce and unstoppably resilient plant. This plant then infests our food crops ruining our food supply, or else the food supply of a crucial part of the ecological jigsaw is wiped out.

GM is not like a chemical spill which can be cleaned up clean up, or even like nuclear waste - it might take thousands of years, as in the case of Chernobyl, but it will eventually disappear. GM organisms are actually alive. They are alive and they will replicate. Once it gets out into the environment it is probably impossible to stop or recall.

All of these issues have been understood and publicised by the environmental groups in the UK, with it being the highest priority issue for centralised Greenpeace, localised Friends of the Earth, and the autonomous direct action groups like Earth First!. The co-operation between these groups has also been impressive, and this has added to the strength and effectiveness of the campaign. While each of the groups have done work under their own name, there have also been new groups formed, often comprised largely of people from these established organisations, but because they're under a specifically anti-GM banner they feel more able to work together without having to refer to established methods and concerns.

Indeed, to use a term borrowed from US Earth First!, the anti GM campaign has been keen to use every tool in the box. People have contacted schools and lobbied for GM foods to be taken off the menu. There have been anonymous covert crop-trashings in the middle of the night. There have been 'accountable' actions where groups have written in advance to the farmer and the police telling them they're coming, then pulled up one plant and handed themselves in saying they want a court case because the GM threat is arguably illegal.

Whilst the legal challenges failed to stop the planting of new test crops, the cases against campaigners were very successful for the campaign. One person was prosecuted for putting stickers on GM soya products in a shop and charged under a law aimed at preventing poisoning unsold food! The case was laughed out of court. After GM corn was destroyed in Devon, three people were charged with Criminal Damage. Because this was no simple field of corn but a test site for the collection of valuable data they were charged with £600,000 ($1million) of damage. They prepared a defence based on their action being necessary in order to prevent a greater crime. The GM companies and the government were fearful of the trial. With massive public opposition to GM, it was likely that a jury would return a verdict of Not Guilty. This would herald a free-for-all on trashing GM crops. Two days before the trial all charges were dropped.

Earlier this year a group of Greenpeace activists (including one of their directors, Lord Melchett) did come to court. They had trashed a crop, including driving on to it with an industrial lawnmower. They were charged with Criminal Damage to, and also Theft of, the crop. They too presented a defence of necessity, and the jury acquitted them of theft and failed to reach a decision on the Criminal Damage. They were found not guilty last month in a court decision that surprised the country.

Leading GM corporation Monsanto started to sense a problem, and employed the services of Burson Marsteller, a PR company specialising in 'greenwash'; they worked for Shell after the Brent Spar and Ken Saro-Wiwa scandals, they worked for BP at the time of the facts about their involvement with Colombian death-squads were revealed. Their list of clients include many of the most vicious and irresponsible of the corporations at work in the UK.

Realising it was an issue of public trust and a will to get hard facts, their publicity campaign included giving out the contact details for anti-GM groups. Rather than simply being the usual environmental debate of a clash of priorities and paradigms, they shifted it right over to the moral plain. Knowing that the arguments about profiteering and corporate control were not going to win them any favour, they made claims that GM foods are necessary to feed the world, and people campaigning against it were therefore wanting to starve people out of idiotic anti-scientific emotive selfishness. Their slogan for their full-page newspaper ads was 'Food - Health - Hope'.

Fortunately the public are not that stupid, and Monsanto's paper-thin arguments were easily shredded, not just by seasoned environmental campaigners but even by those of a milder disposition and less experience. I remember laughing out loud at what a thorough job a guy from Christian Aid was doing of rubbishing a Monsanto guy on a TV debate.

The campaign was being pursued on every conceivable front. There were meetings with the buyers for the supermarkets. The large supermarket chain Iceland was the first to guarantee GM-free for its own brand foods, with their chief famously declaring 'these are Frankenstein's foods!'. Several national newspapers joined in, using special anti-GM logos on any story to do with the issue. People were leafleting supermarket customers, others filled trolleys with GM foods then covered them in biohazard warning signs. The whole thing snowballed rapidly, with all the major supermarket chains being forced by consumer pressure to follow Iceland's lead. Despite Tony Blair's assurances that GM is safe, over 80% of people in the UK want GM foods banned. Under pressure, the government has leaned on food producers to label GM foodstuffs, and asserted that the rights of organic growers must be safeguarded. But GM is a genetic pollutant; it will cross-pollinate with other crops, rendering them no longer organic. There cannot be organic crops and GM crops. It's an either/or choice.

Whilst GM poses a huge and irreversible threat to organic farming in the long term, in the short term it has been the best thing that ever happened to it. Almost overnight organic went from being a small range of expensive vegetables found in health food stores for strange hippies to being a mainstream guarantee of quality. This week Tesco, one of the Big Four chains of supermarkets in the UK, have launched a full 30 second TV ad that is solely showing how extensive their organic range is. Whilst I realise that ethical consumerism is not a solution and merely a way to do slightly less irreparable and suicidal damage to people and planet, it is still unquestionably a step in the right direction. We live in a culture that says that ordinary people can't do anything, yet ethical consumerism puts moral choices into everyday life, and as such is empowering and can be the start of far greater positive change.

Many people started out as part of such boycotts and have got more involved in the campaign from there. This has been helped by the diversity of the campaign making it easy for everyone to find it personally accessible, and also the urgency of it encourages rapid work and decisive action. Unlike the USA, commercial growing of GM crops hasn't yet happened in the UK. The crops have to be tested before full-scale growing is allowed. The tests are few and relatively small, so it doesn't take a lot of work to trash them. And then they have to be re-grown next year in order to get the results. After two years of sustained and extensive crop-trashing, in 2000 many tests are taking place in northern Scotland in a cynical attempt to protect them by making them geographically remote from most UK activists.

Nonetheless, the delays that have already been inflicted on the growing of GM crops in the UK have given time for some facts to surface. Perhaps most interestingly, GM crops seem not to have delivered the hugely increased yields their makers promised, and almost invariably cannot survive with just a single dose of pesticides. Data collected from farmers in the US has shown many to have a drop in yield compared to growing the non-GM crop. The GM companies are now no longer trying to say they're improving yields, and are struggling to show they aren't decreasing yields!

This is par for the course in GM. The first GM food put on sale was the Flavr Savr tomato. It was engineered to ripen longer on the vine and still be hard enough for picking, packing and transport. It has been withdrawn because it bruised easily, produced a lower yield than non-GM, and wasn't disease-resistant. When Monsanto brought out BT Cotton it promised resistance to bollworm. Nearly half of the two million acres planted in the southern US suffered heavy infestation. A group of the Texan sued Monsanto. That's all well and good if you're an American who can afford to sue. If you're a Bangladeshi farmer you probably can't afford lawyers and your family will starve. In the ex-Soviet republic of Georgia, Monsanto's New Leaf potatoes lost two-thirds of the entire crop to a disease called phytophora ('potato blight')because they were not suited to local conditions. Many of those farmers are still in debt. The lists of similar cases go on and on.

What actually works best in any country is small-scale farming of native crops. Figures from the UN show this time and again, all around the world. Figures for Syria show farms between one and two and a half acres are over three times as productive as farms over 35 acres. A similar study in Nigeria has the small farms over four times as productive. In Mexico the UN found farms of 7-10 acres were over 12 times as productive as farms of 37 acres. This is because small farms tend to produce several crops at once, thus reducing nutrient depletion. They're more likely to compost any waste, they use all the land (eg shrimps, crabs, and herbs cultivated in rice paddies), and a whole load of stuff that agri-business simply cannot effectively do. Even the World Bank (a key player in this whole World Trade Organisation/ corporate domination thing) has recognised this -- their study in north-east Brazil estimating that redistribution of land to small-scale units would increase output by around 80%.

And small-scale farms mean lots of different strains of crops being grown, thus protecting against the vulnerability so clearly demonstrated by the GM crops like Flavr Savr, BT Cotton and New Leaf. The Irish potato famine was due to a blight that swept across Europe, because Europe mainly grew a few strains of closely-related potato. The same blight was present in the Andes, but there the farmers plant as many as 46 varieties, and the blight only affected a few. The European farms were restocked from potatoes from Andean farmers. This is where the 'feed the world' line crosses with the more compelling anti-GM arguments that concern human and environmental wellbeing. (These parts are more compelling cos they're not dealing with their simple and disprovable emotive spin on the issue) : the problems of reliance on these few single crops. Maybe we should try learning from the mistakes of the past instead of saying that the world can't survive without us repeating them.

All of this contrasts sharply with Monsanto's 1998 UK advertising campaign that said of GM, 'slowing its acceptance is a luxury our hungry world cannot afford'. While that advert was running there was a meeting of the UN Food And Agricultural Organisation about genetic resources. Delegates from 24 African countries gave a joint statement saying 'We strongly object that the image of the poor and hungry from our countries is being used by giant multinational corporations to push a technology that is neither safe, environmentally friendly, nor economically beneficial to us. We do not believe that such companies or gene technologies will help our farmers to produce the food that is needed in the 21st century. On the contrary, we think it will destroy diversity, the local knowledge and the sustainable agricultural systems that our farmers have developed for millennia and that it will thus undermine our capacity to feed ourselves'.

In India farmers have been burning the GM crops (then having a whip-round to compensate the farmer who was growing it). Major charities to do with feeding the starving oppose GM. As well as Christian Aid who I've already mentioned, there's Action Aid whose Chief Executive said 'Rather than reducing world hunger, genetic engineering is likely to exacerbate it. Farmers will be caught in a vicious circle, increasingly dependent on a small number of giant multinationals, such as Monsanto, for their survival'.

We have to look at why people are starving in these countries. The UN World Food Programme reports that the world already produces 150% of the food required to provide every single human with an adequate and nutritious diet. Remember the Ethiopian famine in the mid 80s? At that time Europe was importing coffee, meat, fruit and vegetables for humans and linseed, oilseed rape, and cottonseed for animal feed. In 1998 Gebre Egziabher, General Manager of the Environmental Protection Authority in Ethiopia said at the UN 'There are still hungry people in Ethiopia, but they are hungry because they have no money, no longer because there is no food to buy'.

The growing global corporate power demands that money be made from anything that it can be made from. If a farmer in India grows wheat and uses it to feed his family, saving some as seed for next year's crop, then no money moves around. In the same way that the pharmaceutical industry ridicule any method of healing that doesn't depend on their overpriced (and often exaggeratedly effective) drugs, so the biotech companies are ridiculing any food production that doesn't at least use their chemicals (and preferably GM stuff), while making overblown claims about the effectiveness of their products.

We should also learn another lesson from the effect of the Western pharmaceutical industry; that corporations are quite happy to poison us while claiming they're helping us. As I said, the UK is used to food-health scares, and GM is being seen as another one of these. Perhaps rightly so. Because the GM corporations can single out genes, they like to imply that they know what the genes actually do. This is as ludicrous as saying that because I can separate my VCR from my TV I therefore know the function and effect of my VCR's components.

Genes are not Lego bricks, they recombine in different ways. One GM product is a potato with a lectin gene in (from snowdrops). In lab tests on rats, potatoes with lectin added had no effect. Potatoes with the lectin gene caused dramatic and severe organ shrinkage, leading to death in a matter of days. Whether such effects translate to humans is anyone's, but it clearly establishes that gene-splicing is a different thing than just adding the two parts together. A lighted match and petrol do not just make petrol with a match in.

A strain of GM tomato contains a nut gene; no substance of nut, just a genetic code. It causes allergic reaction in people with nut allergies. According to our understanding of genetics this simply cannot happen. But it does. They really do not know what they are doing, they are like a room full of babies with a box of scalpels. Monsanto are the same company that gave the world Agent Orange, the carcinogenic sweetener Canderel and the cow-growth hormone BST that comes through in milk and has been linked to a mass of health problems. Due to World Trade Organisation law, the EU is being forced to drop its ban on BST milk. Our governments will have to poison us cos it's illegal not to!

The European Union's Parliament has also passed a law absolving GM producers from any liability for any damage GM foods may cause to people in future. That really is as sinister as it sounds. I'm all for the idea of an integrated Europe without armed conflicts or restrictions on travel, but the EU have shown that's not what they're about. They are simply a tool of the corporations who are not there to help us.

The corporations don't want to feed people. They want to make money. What makes them money is selling their wares around the world, and it's a lot easier to do that to giant agri-businesses than to subsistence smallholders. If that means that some people starve then they'll live with it. Monsanto are developing a 'terminator' gene that means seeds from a plant are sterile, thus forcing a farmer to buy from them again next year. The Monsanto guy I saw on Channel 4 News was embarrassed about this and say it's just at the idea stage and probably won't happen; the guy from Christian Aid could quote Monsanto's patent numbers for it. Companies don't patent for the fun of paperwork and paying lawyers. Unless it is banned then the Terminator gene will be used.

How is that going to feed the world? How is that anything more than cynical enslavement? Biotech company Novartis have a patented technique that turns off genes that are critical to a plant's ability to fight off many viruses and bacteria; the only way to turn them back on is to spray a chemical only made by Novartis. Zeneca has patents pending in 77 countries for its 'Verminator' technology that makes a plant's germination and growth dependent on a chemical cocktail sold only by Zeneca. This isn't chemistry to add assistance -- this is chemistry to reverse inbuilt weakness. There is no possible benefit to the farmer or consumer.

We know, not only from all the hard evidence I've quoted above from the UN and the GM companies themselves, but from the evidence of our own lives that life is best organised by those who have to live with the consequences of the organising. The nearer that power over the life of you and your community is to the will of you and your community, the better life is. The corporations and their PR people such as politicians are not there to help us. The advent of GM foods proves this clearly and unarguably.

Make no mistake, their 'feed the world' line is a lie. They know many people have an intrinsic faith in technology and Western science. They know that those of us who are suspicious of it tend to have a high degree of empathy with those who suffer at the hands of western corporate domination. So they make it look as though if we disagree with them we do harm to those with whom we empathise. It's cynical posturing and devious marketing. Science, capitalism and professional politics, like most other religions, present themselves as solutions to the problems they create.

William Brigham, a British GM farmer, was more accurate than he could have realised when he said, "this is not just about genetically modified organisms -- it's about whether we want democratic government or anarchy".++


Merrick is an anti-GM foods activist in England. He has written this article for Planet Waves, and sends it with this statement: "This article, like all my other writing, is anti-copyright. Anybody may use any part of it for any purpose without any permission needed or fee payable. Where it does get used, it'd be nice if it was reproduced in full, and it'd also be good if I could be told about it. If it's going into anything that might make some money, or if the user has a policy of paying people, then I'm certainly not averse to being paid."

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