Owen Paterson, the right-wing Tory hawk at Defra, has just delivered another forlorn call to the EU to surrender its principles and embrace genetically modified foods. Why is he so opposed to the deeply entrenched view among the public in every EU country that they don’t want commercial interests messing about with their food unless there are clear, proven and overriding benefits in doing so? Paterson said nothing new, but merely repeated 4 claims that have been made repeatedly before, namely that (i) GM will increase yields, (ii) will lower the use of pesticides and other chemicals, (iii) is a more efficient technology to reduce the impact of weather and disease, and (iv) is needed to feed the world as global population rises. All of these claims are demonstrably false.
On yields and pesticide use, there is indeed evidence from Canada and Argentina that, initially, yields increased and pesticide use fell. But Charles Benbrook, an independent US scientist who formerly worked for the US Department of Agriculture and has done the most thorough and lengthy investigation into this issue, found that over a 5+ year long period yields began to fall because glyphosate applications (the powerful chemical used in GM Round-up Ready systems) interfered with plant nutrient intake, increased pests and diseases, and reduced vigour and yield. He also found that pesticide use increased markedly longer-term because glyphosate-resistant weeds (known as super-weeds) abounded, requiring ever more toxic herbicides to eliminate them.
Nor is GM a more efficient technology than traditional cross-breeding in inducing new expressions in plants, e.g. to resist disease. It is in fact a qualitatively different and risky technology which can cross the species barrier, which naure itself would never do. Blasting GM DNA into a plant arbitrarily and out of a sequence of genes evolved over hundreds of millions of years to optimise the functioning of the organism is risky and unpredictable and bound to destabilise the biochemistry of the plant. There are alternative technologies, notably marker assisted selection, which are equally or better able to protect the plant against weather impacts or disease, but without any of the systemic risks to the functioning of the plant.
Nor is GM’s capacity to counter world hunger anything more than marginal to the point of invisibility when the real causes of famine or under-nourishment in developing countries are to be sought elsewhere. The real problems are rather a discriminatory trading system that subordinates poorer countries, bad or corrupt governments that mismanage their economies, gross maldistribution of land, and lack of population management policies.
If then there are no particular benefits from GM, but clear risks – environmental (no tests done on soil pollution or transgene flow), health (no systematic testing done at all), and farming (cross-contamination) – where does all the pressure for GM come from? Answer – Monsanto, the US company, and one of the biggest chemical companies in the world. It sees its chance to corner the world’s food supply and potentially rack up the biggest profits bonanza the world has ever seen. Enough said.