Response: Owen Paterson and the GM debate

Owen Paterson, environment secretary for the Conservative Party, is not a plant scientist or an ecologist. He is not remotely ‘green’, famously opposed to wind farm development, and a firm supporter of shale gas extraction in spite of substantial risks including the near irreversible pollution of water supplies.  With his installation, the Conservatives have eschewed any remaining greenwash from their laughably transparent attempt to become the “greenest party ever” a few years back.

Owen Paterson has also never claimed to be a psychic.

So, why he feels qualified to decide whether or not GM foods are a safe bet for “the economy, the environment and the public”, as stated in a talk last week at the Rothamstead centre for crop research, is not clear to me.

Through selective breeding we have altered many species far beyond what would naturally occur, to benefit ourselves. GM is just one step further in this progression, giving us the power to change plants to meet our needs with unprecedented flexibility.

I find it difficult to wholly support GM for three main reasons. The first is a spiritual, ethical one. Out of step with the detached objectivity of science. Inserting the gene from a jellyfish into a tomato just does not sit right. It is easy to see why the public, in Europe at least, has to date been quite strongly opposed to GM.  This means that here, unlike the US, Brazil, and many other nations, genetic manipulation of plants is very heavily restricted.

Mr Paterson wants this to change.

My second reason for opposition is the incredibly short period that GM crops have been field-tested. In use since the 1990s, we simply cannot yet tell what the long-term effects of the widespread use of GM will have on natural systems.

Strong opposition to GM in Europe, including the UK, has created a highly complex and slow regulatory system, meaning that small, publicly funded research programmes are stifled. Public distrust also manifests itself as vandalism to research sites. Well-meaning projects including humanitarian efforts akin to ‘Golden Rice’, face constant set backs, and must operate beneath a veil of secrecy that furthers the distance between science and the public. So it is easy to see why plant geneticists are in favour of Paterson’s urge to boost GM research here.

However, the portrayal of GM as a silver bullet to solve our admittedly increasing ills is a fallacy.

“The political debate here in Britain in recent decades has been based on a false premise: that we can either produce more or look after the environment.” declared Paterson. “The truth is we need to do both and we won’t be able to do so unless we embrace innovation in all areas – agriculture, agronomy, commerce and technology.”

Let’s think about that statement for a minute.

At present around one third of food is wasted globally, in the supply chain from field to fork. In wealthy nations, this wastage is astonishingly avoidable: consider crops left to rot in the field only due to failing to meet supermarkets’ high standards for vegetable shape, produce chucked from supermarket shelves due to slight damage or overcautious sell by dates, or discarded at home after poor planning.

In developing countries the main problem is infrastructure, with technical limitations on harvest and storage, and getting products safely to market.

The point is that we currently produce more food globally than we use. So while GM could boost crop yields, perhaps the top priority should not be to produce more, but to find a way of better using this latent productivity by reducing wastage.

That we need to protect the environment from agricultural damage is no lie. In fact, the problem goes far beyond the need to protect, to the need to restore.

Decades of abuse through modernised, mechanised agriculture, has resulted in widespread ecological decline. Damage to habitats, colossal losses of species, and huge problems with soil erosion continue to systematically degrade the life support systems of our planet.

The vision championed by Paterson, that GM will boost productivity and free up land for nature, or that GM will reduce farmers’ reliance upon agro-chemicals, is thus a strong argument in their favour.

This argument lies in the increasing realisation that modernised agriculture is in no way sustainable. Not only are we trashing habitats, modern farming relies on massive inputs of unsustainably produced fertilisers to restore the productivity of degraded soils, and huge greenhouse gas emissions (not that Paterson is worried about those).

However, the portrayal of GM as the only solution to these problems is a knee-jerk reaction by those with a vested interest in maintaining this modernised form of agriculture as the global status quo.

This brings me to my third objection to GM.

Note that each time, the economic benefits were placed first in Paterson’s rhetoric – “economic, environmental and public benefits”.

Large biotech companies do not aim to solve the problems of the developing world. Where large intensive agricultural systems are installed, it is typically corporations, not local farmers or governments who benefit.

What these corporations are aiming towards is for the widespread adoption of GM to enable the continuation of industrial agriculture as we see it today. A licence for monocultural systems and damaging agricultural practices. Perhaps GM will buy us a little more time, stalling ecosystem degradation, but even with two decades worth of field trials it is too early to tell whether this will hold for the long term.

Farming must once again work with nature as an ally, rather than a beast to subdue.

This approach has been proven around the world: organic, de-centralised, small scale agriculture can indeed work to boost food security and curb environmental degradation. Cuba provides a prime example of this ‘agroecological’ system.

But wait! Since 2009, Cuba too has begun to explore the use of genetic modification, running field trials of pest resistant corn.

There are, however, two important differences in this case. Firstly, Cuba’s project is entirely state funded, with no input from agribusiness and no profit-making objective. Secondly, Cuba did not begin to tackle its food security problems by running to GM first, but has begun to explore using specific techniques to augment sustainable agricultural systems already well established.

GM presents some very interesting opportunities for specific problems in a rapidly changing world. Paterson did not touch upon climate change, (not surprising, given his outrageous denial of climate change), but the potential role of GM in enhancing crop drought resistance, for example, should not be ruled out due to ethical grounds of whether or not we should ‘mess with genetics’.

It is clear that we must quickly move toward integrated, sustainable agricultural practices in step with natural processes, promoting justice for local communities over corporate profits. GM could and should form a part of this system if necessary, and for this to happen we need informed debate and well supported research programmes.

But I believe that Paterson’s cherry picking examples of humanitarian or environmental benefits to fast track GM’s widespread adoption hides a murkier objective. We will only be able to truly evaluate the role of GM in a sustainable future if we can move the debate beyond the spheres of politics or corporate greed.

All statements are the opinion of the author and not Ecopost as a whole. Zak Gratton is a 4th year Ecological Science student at the University of Edinburgh. Follow Zak on Twitter @ZakGratton.

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