Of holism, particularism and photosynthesis

I’ve been hoping to get back to my Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, albeit by a roundabout route, but it’s busy days on the farm at the moment so it’ll have to wait. Instead let me offer a few scattered thoughts to follow on from the discussion last time of RoboBees, nature vs humanity and Clem’s enthusiasm for photosynthesis – thoughts prompted by an article in the New Scientist that I recently read under the misapprehension that it was hot off the press, only to find after drafting this post that it was published nearly three years ago (but still, I think, a propos). Never let it be said that Small Farm Future isn’t bang up with the latest science…

Anyway, where I want to go in this piece ultimately is some mildly philosophical thoughts on nature and farming, and on holism and reductionism, and the links between these two dualities – thoughts with some upbeat implications for a small farm future. But first I’m going to have to take you through another ecomodernist vale of tears. So for those of a nervous disposition – be warned.

My starting point is that trusty old ecomodernist standard that photosynthesis – the process at the foundation of complex life on earth by which plants convert solar energy and carbon dioxide into the chemical building blocks of their tissues – is chemically inefficient and can be improved by human bioengineering. I’ve heard this point made quite often without further elaboration in the ecomodernist circles that I eavesdrop into from time to time, and my instinct has always been to dismiss it as a typical example of ecomodernist hubris.

But in the New Scientist piece I mentioned, Michael Le Page gives a slightly more detailed overview than usual of the issue, and reports on research that he says has “taken a huge step forward” in engineering improved photosynthesis by inserting a faster-photosynthesising version of the key RuBisCo enzyme from a cyanobacterium into a tobacco plant1. From here, Le Page leaps to the favoured productivist ideology of the ecomodernists, arguing “This seems like great news in a world where demand for food, biofuels and plant materials like cotton continue to increase, and where global warming will have an ever greater impact on crop production. More productive plants mean greater yields”. Then, he makes another huge leap of logic…but I’ll come to that in a moment.

I’m not a biologist so I’m going to frame the issue to the best of my limited abilities and put out a call to anyone better grounded in this than me to put me right if my reasoning is flawed. So, as I understand it, the chloroplasts in plant cells where photosynthesis occurs derive originally from free-living cyanobacteria, as Le Page describes. At some stage in the evolutionary past (though not, I think, ‘a billion years ago’ as Le Page claims) some such cyanobacteria were incorporated into the cell architecture of ancestral plant species. They’ve retained some, but not all, of their original DNA independently of the plant’s, but the plant cells see to it that they live in a cossetted, beneficial environment (they know which side their bread is buttered) and the result is that chloroplasts turn over and mutate at a slower rate than free-living cyanobacteria, which are more subject to direct evolutionary selection pressure. My guess is that this is what Le Page is driving at when he says that the “enslaved cyanobacteria” of plants have had “little scope to evolve” and are therefore less well adapted to today’s relatively carbon dioxide impoverished environment than free-living cyanobacteria which “have been able to evolve unfettered”.

But it’s not as though plants haven’t innovated evolutionarily in photosynthetic matters. As Le Page himself points out, plants have evolved the more efficient C4 photosynthetic pathway – in fact, this has evolved independently at least 31 times within various plant genera, mostly in the warmer climates where the C4 pathway works best. So why have plants been able to evolve more efficient forms of photosynthesis but not the super-efficient ones of the cyanobacteria? I don’t know, but my guess would be it’s not because the ‘enslavement’ of their cyanobacteria makes them evolutionarily unadventurous (which strikes me as the misguided application of a human metaphor to the natural world). Even if mutation in chloroplasts turns over more slowly than in cyanobacteria, plants have been around a very long time and, other things being equal, the advantages of more efficient photosynthesis are such that just a few mutations along these lines across the whole history of the plant kingdom would quickly propagate itself. So my guess is that ‘other things’ aren’t equal. Or to put it another way, plants are not reducible to their chloroplasts – there are numerous forces acting on the whole plant which it has to deal with as a complete organism in its environment. And these doubtless create trade-offs for the plant between photosynthetic efficiency and other desired characteristics – maybe drought tolerance and speed of growth?

If that’s so, it still doesn’t mean in itself that it’s necessarily a bad idea to engineer more photosynthetically efficient plants. But it suggests that the resulting plants may not be so well adapted to other aspects of their environment. And this, in a nutshell, is the tragedy of agriculture. For example, wild cereals would never naturally evolve the characteristics bred into them to suit human purposes – namely, short stems to ensure that as much of their photosynthate as possible goes to the desired seed, and non-shattering rachis to ensure that as many of the seeds as possible go into the desired grain harvester. Put such a plant into a wild grassland and it would be instantly outcompeted by tall-stemmed, shattering varieties – which is why farmers have to spend their days ploughing, weeding, spraying and so forth. My feeling is that Le Page’s “supercrops” with their “turbocharged photosynthesis” will only be “super” when they’re cossetted in the field or garden – just like other genetic monstrosities such as the bread wheats that humans have created down the ages.

If I’m right it may be a blessing, because Le Page thinks otherwise – in his view, these supercrops may outcompete wild plants, and the inference he draws is that we should not only let them do so but actively promote this outcome, in his words by “upgrading many wild plants too”. His rationale for the ‘upgrade’ of crop plants is the familiar ‘land sparing’ argument: in his words, “boosting agricultural yield to feed more people with less land”. And his rationale for the wild upgrade is this: “Wild animals need to eat too, and we’re not leaving much for them. An ecosystem based on superplants would support more life overall”.

Well, that suggestion leaves me as outraged as the next right-thinking greenie, but I want to focus my attention on the logical structure of this argument, which I find curious. At issue is an old debate in ecology as to whether the assemblages of organisms we call ecosystems have some emergent higher-order structure – whether the ecosystem is, as it were, a ‘superorganism’ – or whether it’s a more random, dynamic and competitive order with no equilibrium state or baseline by which we can say ‘Ah, here’s a proper ecosystem – intact and in balance’. The current orthodoxy in ecology, as I understand it, inclines towards the latter view, as elaborated for non-specialist audiences by the likes of Andy McGuire and in Emma Marris’s book Rambunctious Garden2.

Marris’s book has a cover endorsement from ecomodernist granddaddy Stewart Brand, and I suppose it’s not hard to see why. If there’s no stable ecological baseline, no ‘right’ ecosystem, against which to judge human fiddling with the rest of the biota, then there can be no objection in biological principle to any kind of bioengineering or plant ‘upgrade’ that somebody might deem worth a shot. But that argument cuts both ways. By the same token, there can be no objection in biological principle to filling the countryside or even the national parks with peasant farmers pursuing a putatively less ‘efficient’ form of ‘land sharing’ agriculture. The relatively efficiencies of high-tech commercial agriculture and low-tech peasant agriculture are difficult to determine, and it’s by no means a given that the former outscores the latter. But the beauty of the ‘random ecosystem’ argument is that it doesn’t matter. If it were true that the natural world was a thing of delicate balance entirely outwith human affairs that was apt to collapse in a heap at the hint of human presence, then I could see the logic of the ecomodernist position, at least theoretically – get people into cities well away from ‘nature’, grow food in the most efficient, lowest land-take manner possible, go vegan etc. In practice, I don’t think this is a good idea because for numerous reasons I think human environmental impacts in the long-term and possibly even the short-term will be greater, not lesser, if we go down this route. But theoretically at least, it’s a position that might make sense. If, on the other hand, we accept that humans are a part of the natural world and will inevitably affect it, just as all other organisms do, then the logic of ‘sparing’ land for nature becomes harder to discern. Of course, humans affect nature disproportionately to our numbers (or perhaps a better measure would be to our biomass), so whether we’re ‘sparing’ or ‘sharing’ it’s surely a good idea for us to attend to our impacts on the natural world – but there’s nothing written in the book of nature that tells us what those impacts should be. So there’s no ecological rationale for Le Page’s plan to ‘upgrade’ wild plants so that wild animals have more to eat.

Maybe what’s going on here is another set of contradictions around another dualistic debate – holism versus reductionism. We face some big, broad problems in the world – like how to feed humanity sustainably. Meanwhile, the scientific method has been spectacularly successful at understanding the world not so much in a big, broad holistic way, but in small, particular, reductionist ways. The problem with ecomodernism as I see it is that it makes the characteristically ‘modernist’ category error of trying to resolve the duality by addressing the general from the particular, by solving big, broad problems using small, reductionist means. I’d like to propose the opposite approach, of trying to solve small, particular problems by big, broad means. Take any person in the world – what are the main problems they have to solve as an individual to live well? How about food, clothes, shelter and conviviality? And what are the main factors obstructing them? I don’t think the photosynthetic inefficiency of the eukaryotic cell tops the list.

When I published my critique of the Ecomodernist Manifesto somebody tweeted a response along the lines of “Not beyond the wit of humanity to solve our problems. Maybe beyond the wit of @csmaje.” Well, it certainly is beyond my wit to solve humanity’s problems, and I’m inclined to think that it’s also beyond humanity’s collective wit to solve its collective problems. But then again I don’t have to solve humanity’s problems, and nor does anyone else. Solving my individual problems concerning food, clothes, shelter and conviviality stretches my wit quite enough, but at least it seems potentially achievable. So my contention for debate is this: IF WE COULD ONLY STOP TRYING TO SOLVE THE PROBLEMS OF THE ‘WORLD’ AND FOCUS ON OUR OWN DANGED PROBLEMS, THEN THE WORLD WOULD BE A LESS PROBLEMATIC PLACE.

Let me be clear: I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t care about other people or other beings; I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t work collectively with others; I’m not arguing that private vice equals public virtue, along the lines of Adam Smith. One of the ironies of the Smithian position is that it takes a strong, universalist body like a centralised state to break down local connections sufficiently to enforce the pursuit of ‘private’ self-interest. I’m just arguing that specific problems addressed holistically at the local level may prove more tractable than general problems addressed specifically at the global level. All of those terms are up for debate, but my starter for ten would be that small-scale, local, ‘land-sharing’ agroecological farming based on tried and tested materials and methods will do a better job of feeding the world and the rest of the biota too than Le Page’s superplant upgrade. And I say that in full awareness that there are various major global crises underway, including mass extinction. I agree with Le Page that “we are way, way past the point where we can preserve Earth the way it was before we came to the fore”. I just don’t think particularistic solutions to holistic problems of the kind he offers will best overcome them.

In his book Darwinian Agriculture – my go-to text for sensible scepticism about the wilder claims of both biotechnology and ‘alternative’ agriculture – ecologist Ford Denison reports that the claim to be able to engineer improved photosynthesis has been around for about forty years and is not likely to be realised “anytime soon”3. After discovering that the cyanobacteria ‘upgrade’ of tobacco wasn’t exactly the latest news, I spent a bit of time searching the web for an update on this breakthrough – not so diligently that I can be sure of this, but I failed to turn up anything published within the last year or two to suggest that the ‘upgrade’ was closer to reality. Could this be yet another one of those fabled ecomodernist technologies, like nuclear fusion, destined to recede ever onwards into the almost theres of the future? If you can bring me any further news of this particular hereafter, I’d be happy to hear it…

Notes

  1. Michael Le Page. 2014. Turbocharge our plants. New Scientist. 224, 2989: 26-7.
  1. Emma Marris. 2011. Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World. Bloomsbury.
  1. Ford Denison. 2012. Darwinian Agriculture: How Understanding Evolution Can Improve Agriculture. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

The devil shops local

Veterans of this blog may recall that some time ago I had a fascinating discussion about the ‘balance of nature’ with a curious fellow who turned out to be none other than the devil himself. Well, blow me if I didn’t meet him again as I journeyed home from the Oxford Real Farming Conference. He was sitting in a shadowed corner of the train carriage, hunched over a thick pile of papers and books, but unmistakeably my old friend Nick. We had another very interesting conversation so I thought I’d write it down as well as I can remember it and publish it here:

Chris: Hello Nick! Long time no see…

Nick (shielding his papers with his arms): Shhh! Don’t let anyone know who I am.

Chris: Oh, sorry. The devil in disguise, huh? What are you reading there?

Nick: As a matter of fact I’m looking at some very interesting findings, and between you and me I don’t think you’re going to like what they have to say…

Chris: Oh yes? How so?

Nick: Well, it turns out that this local food thing that you’re so into isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Chris: Is that so? Who says?

Nick: Well, for starters there’s this very interesting book by a chap called Leigh Phillips.

Chris: Oh god.

Nick: Look, I do read your blog, you know. I realise that you’re not exactly Mr Phillips’ biggest fan. But it’s not just him. Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams (S&W) say much the same in this new book of theirs. And even someone that I know you rate very highly has written a sniffy article about local food.

Chris: Who?

Nick (triumphantly): George Monbiot!

Chris: Oh god.

Nick (grinning malevolently): You see? Just admit it, you’re onto a loser with this one.

Chris: Look, George is a busy guy, he can’t always get everything spot on. As to the others…Well, I’m going to be publishing a critique of S&W soon, and I’ve already done one (in fact, more than one) for Leigh Phillips. Anyway, let’s leave the personalities out of this. What are their actual arguments?

Nick (rubbing his hands together): I thought you’d never ask. Let’s get started with the concept of food miles. All the authors I’ve mentioned point out some problems with it. Turns out that food grown locally may have a higher carbon footprint than food grown further afield – for example tomatoes for the UK market grown in sunny Spain rather than in heated tunnels in the UK. What do you have to say about that?

Chris: Since when did the devil care about carbon footprints – I’d have thought an overheated world would be right up your street?

Nick: That’s not the point. Do I detect a bit of evasiveness here?

Chris: No. They’re right.

Nick: You what? You agree with them?

Chris: Yes.

Nick: So you don’t even support local food yourself then!

Chris: Let me try to unpack this as succinctly as possible. If you tomato-pick particular examples such as, er, early tomatoes, then you can sometimes show that the non-local product has a lower impact than the local one. It may have other impacts that you’re excluding from your analysis, such as the water issues involved in transporting watery tomatoes from arid Spain to rain-soaked Britain. But leaving that aside, yes if you feel the need to buy early season tomatoes in Britain in the supermarkets you may be better off getting Spanish ones. Favoured anti-localist examples like the tomato gambit aside, I’m not convinced that the globalised food commodities in the average British shopping basket in total turn out better than their localised equivalents, but maybe they do. Localism, however, doesn’t just mean buying local – the point of it is that it’s aiming for a transformation of the food system, a transformation of that basket, so that we move towards a situation in which people start eating mostly what their locales can actually provide at a sensible cost – cost here being measured in carbon, in soil retention and other such environmental measures, as well as financially, and socially. The consumerist mindset expects to get whatever food your money will command from wherever in the world can produce it most cheaply, with any additional considerations such as carbon intensity factored in. If you accept its logic, then you’ll be wowed by figures like the relative carbon emissions of a kilo of British lamb versus a kilo of New Zealand lamb. But if you don’t, you’ll be more interested in how much lamb your local agriculture can realistically and sustainably provide. The anti-localist might say “A kilo of New Zealand lamb sold in Britain may be environmentally better than a kilo of British lamb sold here”. The localist might reply “Fewer kilos of more local, more carbon intensive lamb may be environmentally better than more kilos of non-local, less carbon intensive lamb”. Substantial and sustainable local sufficiency is a long-term goal, though. More pressing currently is retaining small-scale and local agriculture in the first place, so that you have something to work with. I’m inclined to think that that’s more important at the moment than kilo for kilo, theoretical carbon audits of local and non-local products.

Nick: Well, you say that – but Monbiot points out that a kilo of lamb protein produced on a British hill farm can cause more carbon emissions than someone flying to New York. That’s a stunningly high carbon cost. And Phillips says that it’s better to import fresh granny smiths all the way from New Zealand during the English summer than keeping British ones in cold storage…

Chris: I think George is overreaching himself a little there – those crazily high figures derive from an outlying datum on farm-level soil carbon. Soils have highly variable properties as sources or sinks for GHG emissions for reasons not directly related to how they’re farmed, so I don’t think it’s really fair to say that upland British lamb is always worse than lamb from elsewhere, or indeed from arable products. Saying the carbon cost of local food “can be higher” prompts the question of how often it actually is. And Leigh Phillips – hmm, I think he’d be better off wondering why there’s been a massive diminution in apple varieties (such as long keepers) associated with the rise of the global food system, or even – now here’s a radical thought – contemplating the possibility of not eating things that are out of season.

Nick: Ha! Anybody would think you’re opposed to the notion of consumer sovereignty.

Chris: Yes I am, as elaborated in some detail in my writings. One advantage of localism is that it stops people from thinking and writing in terms of consumerism’s generic ‘we’, replacing it with a more specific one. So it’s not “where should ‘we’ buy our apples from” as some global supply-chain efficiency issue. It’s where should ‘we’ here in our town or village buy our apples from as part of our own self-provisioning. And if the answer is “nowhere right now” or “nowhere very easily, because we live in a city of 30 million people” it prompts a much more interesting and urgent set of questions about producer-consumer relations in the present political and environmental context.

Nick: But the implication of all this is that a local food agenda involves a top to bottom overhaul of the entire political economy.

Chris: Quite.

Nick: Are you some kind of dangerous radical?

Chris: Look who’s talking.

Nick: Keep me out of this. Anyway, S&W – who, by the way, are radical leftists – say that the problem with the local food idea is that it flattens the complexities it’s trying to resolve into a simplistic binary of local-global. The bigger question, they say, relates to the priorities we place on the types of food we produce, how that production is controlled, who consumes that food and at what cost.

Chris: Yes, and those are exactly the questions raised in the local food movement. S&W’s critique is fatuous. It’s like saying that the problem with leftism is that it flattens the complexities it’s trying to resolve into a simplistic binary of left-right. Leftism. Localism. They’re just labels referencing diverse, dynamic and complicated movements. The point is that we ‘localists’ can’t see any plausible ways of tackling the profound problems we face in the contemporary world without a stronger turn to the local. S&W do have some interesting thoughts on this, and I’ll say more about them in another post, but the idea that localism only amounts to minimising food miles or buying artisanal bread or whatever is sheer nonsense. It suggests to me that the likes of Phillips and S&W just haven’t bothered to do much proper research into the local food movement.

Nick: OK, OK, but Phillips makes the interesting point that small-scale local production uses up more land than more technology-intensive agriculture because not every plot of land is equally well suited to all types of plant and animal. That’s got to be right – regional specialisation surely makes sense?

Chris: Phillips is mixing up a few different things here. The ‘uses up more land’ point sounds like the land sharing/land sparing debate which I and many, many others have written extensively about. I’m not going to dwell on it here, but much depends on what gross outputs the two agricultures produce, and also on whether ‘using’ land for agriculture turns out to be the same as ‘using up’ land. The other point about regional specialisation is more interesting. Of course it’s true that different locations are differentially suited to different products, and there’s been agricultural specialisation for centuries (such as dairy on the claylands and arable on the chalklands in my neck of the woods – chalk and cheese as they say). But specialisation operates at different spatial scales, and at larger ones it starts to get problematic. Some soils and climates are better than others for just about any crop, but beggars can’t be choosers – we can’t grow everything the world needs in the Ukraine or central California. Sometimes land that’s good enough to grow something is good enough. The real issue isn’t soil quality, but the logic of capital, which forces farmers to try to economise in every conceivable way. Finding the optimum soil for the crop is only one such way. Finding cheap and pliant labour is another. Developing large diesel-hungry machines to substitute labour yet another. Often enough, you get all of those combined – for example in East Anglian vegetable production, where vegetables are grown on deep, fertile, well-drained, stone-free soils, employing massive labour-saving and energy-hungry machinery and below-minimum-wage illegal workers furnished by criminal gangmasters. The soil I have isn’t as good for growing veg on, or probably as good for growing anything on, and I can’t produce vegetables as cheaply – but I guarantee that I can produce them at a lower carbon cost and without criminal labour exploitation. Talk of optimising agricultural production on global scales is all very well, but under conditions of globalised capitalism what that amounts to is basically soil-eating, labour-eating, climate-eating lowest common denominator consumerism. Substituting local for global production doesn’t necessarily overcome that in and of itself, but it’s a start. Localism negates the logic of unbridled capital accumulation.

Nick: Maybe so, but local agriculture has its own problems, doesn’t it? I mean, Phillips points out that customers of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) schemes complain about getting too many weird vegetables that they don’t really know what to do with and end up wasting them. So local agriculture isn’t necessarily very efficient, is it?

Chris: Would this be the same Leigh Phillips who thinks that the Earth has a carrying capacity of a hundred quintillion people?

Nick: Yes

Chris: And he’s worrying that CSA schemes produce slightly more waste than conventional food systems?

Nick: Yes

Chris:

Nick: You’ve gone all quiet. Are you all right?

Chris: Sorry I was just rendered temporarily speechless.

Nick: Here, sniff a bit of this brimstone.

Chris (gagging): Yuk – thank you, that’s better. OK, so here’s the thing – the difference between CSAs and mainstream retail isn’t that the CSAs produce more waste but that the waste in the system is borne by the consumer who pays for it, and therefore notices it. Surely that’s a good thing? There is literally no waste production on my farm. We sell what we can, and since our customers are resourceful types who know how to cook a twisty carrot we waste less on that front than the mainstream retailers. What we can’t sell we try to eat ourselves. What we can’t eat we try to feed to our livestock. What we can’t feed to the livestock we compost to help restart the growing cycle. All Phillips is pointing to here is the fact that food waste in local production has more consumer visibility, rather than being hidden within a huge supply chain. And that people don’t know how to make use of fresh, local vegetables. That’s supposed to be a problem?

Nick: Fair enough. Still, there are some big kit technologies that people need which are never going to be furnished by all you silly little wannabe peasants. Take some of the GM technologies supported by Phillips, like releasing transgenic mosquitoes to tackle malaria…

Chris: Is this the same Leigh Phillips who emphasised conservation biologists’ inability to predict what would happen when a few wolves were released onto a small Canadian island?

Nick: Yes

Chris: And he thinks it’s a good idea to release transgenic mosquitoes over vast stretches of malarial country?

Nick: It would seem so, yes.

Chris:

Nick: More brimstone?

Chris (gagging): Thank you.

Nick: He mentions other food-related GM technologies too, and takes a well-aimed swipe at Séralini’s laughably flawed glyphosate study. Anti-GM types love latching on to Séralini because he’s a properly credentialed scientist who published in a credible journal. But his paper has now been retracted. In Phillips’ words, “Pointing at Séralini’s work and shouting “Look! Science-y” ain’t enough”.

Chris: I’ve pretty much given up debating GM. One day the truth will out: I suspect that GM will have some kind of role to play once it’s been properly detached from corporate control – probably one that will confound both its strongest critics and its strongest proponents. I also suspect that glyphosate will turn out to be quite dodgy. Meanwhile, it seems pretty clear to me that publication bias is in play, with findings uncongenial to the GM case receiving way, way more critical scrutiny than their pro-GM counterparts, both in the research community and in the shouty realm of the blogosphere where such self-appointed biostatistical experts as Marc Brazeau – food writer, chef and trade union organiser – like to hold forth. I’m tempted to say that pointing at Séralini’s work and shouting “Look! Retracted!” ain’t enough either. However useful GM techniques ultimately prove to be, I’m not convinced that they’re a major point of economic transformation in the food system, which is still geared to the good harvest/bad return conundrum. Meanwhile, as Phillips himself concedes, we’re already starting to experience various social and agronomic problems with the current range of GM crops, such as the emergence of glyphosate-tolerant weeds…

Nick: Ah well, Phillips covers that – he points out that it can be tackled by various methods, including use of more locale-specific seeds…

Chris: How do more locale-specific seeds make any difference to weed resistance if they have glyphosate-tolerance built in?

Nick: He doesn’t say.

Chris: I don’t suppose he would. Ach, I’m done debating GM in general and Leigh Phillips’ take on the world in particular. Life’s too short to work my way through any more of his non-sequiturs and tendentious logic. Besides, I’m nearly at my station. Let me just summarise: we need to ditch the notions that food miles or the relative per kilo carbon intensity of given foods or the arguments in favour of so called ‘land sparing’ exhaust the rationale for local food production. We need to ditch tendentious and evidence-free notions about CSAs creating food waste, and we need to give scientific research around GM crops at least – oh, another century, I’d say – before anyone’s likely to be in a position to say anything with much confidence about them.

Nick: Gosh, well you’ve certainly convinced me. From now on, I shall be mingling with the tattooed and bearded twelve dollar marmalade-smearing kale botherers down at my local farmers’ market.

Chris: You’re just saying that, you old devil.

Nick: No, honestly…

Chris: So the farmers who live in your neck of the woods – are they mostly small-scale, local operators or big agribusiness types?

Nick: Big agribusiness types, on the whole.

Chris: Ha! I rest my case.

GM and the obfuscation of science: or, the denialist Mark Lynas

In my previous post, I mentioned the problematic way in which GM proponents tend to appeal generically to “the science” in support of GM crops, a point amplified by Ford Denison in his comment. Encouraging, being as Ford is a scientist…though not necessarily “the scientist”. Some of his own scientific work hinges on the complexities of the biological tradeoffs involved in trying to develop ‘improved’ crops that deliver on all the demanding traits humans ask of them. But as a social scientist, here I’m going to take a different tack and focus on some of the problems associated with making generic and normative truth claims (for example, of the form “…the science says that we should adopt crop x”) on the basis of the scientific evidence. There is, I think, a tendency in the GM debate to invoke science as metaphor (hard, objective, unarguable) in a battle with politics (soft, perspectival, debatable). So here for your consideration are five levels of obfuscation involved in generic claims that ‘the science’ supports GM crop technologies.

1. Peer review, only peer review.

There is, to be sure, a lot of nonsense out there on the information superhighway, so there’s something to be said for restricting your evidence base to credible sources, such as peer reviewed scientific journals. But in these days of ‘evidence-based policy-making’ (or ‘policy-based evidence making’ as some wags call it), peer review has assumed an evidentiary cachet whose weight it really can’t bear. I mean, they’ve even published a paper by an ignorant greentard such as myself in a scientific journal, so on the Groucho Marx principle peer review surely can’t be that rigorous…And in any case, there are plenty of peer reviewed journal articles pointing out the shortcomings of GM technologies, such as this one

2. Scientism

Ah, but that’s in a social science journal – not proper science at all. Social scientists put on all sorts of airs and graces, and even admit to not being objective. Proper scientific research is, as Peter Medawar explained, about the art of the solvable. It can’t answer questions like ‘Is treating vitamin A deficiency with golden rice an appropriate intervention in terms of social benefit?’ but it can answer questions like ‘was there increased morbidity in a treatment group exposed to golden rice compared to a control group?’ By ruling wider questions – policy questions, political questions – out of the purview of science proper, a lot of awkward issues around GM can be deflected. This manoeuvre is called scientism, but it doesn’t have an awful lot to do with science. It’s more a social ideology about the primacy of certain kinds of knowledge. GM plant scientist Pamela Ronald’s book Tomorrow’s Table about the errors of opposing GM is full of a gentle, patrician scientism which guides the reader towards the right kind of journals that will inculcate the right kind of views on GM. Ach, but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence…

3. False positives, false negatives…

Well, the absence of scientifically acceptable evidence (‘acceptable’, that is, in the sense of getting through peer review in the kind of journals scientism is prepared to acknowledge) against certain GM technologies isn’t total. But of course, as GM proponent Steve Savage argues, a peer reviewed journal article is only the beginning of a conversation about the merit of the research – the fact that it queries a GM technology doesn’t mean it’s right. Very true. Savage goes on to savage the failings of certain choice studies that question aspects of GM/biotech. But of course his strictures apply to studies finding in favour of GM technologies just as much as those finding against. Are findings reporting safe and beneficial results from GM technologies treated with the same level of critical scrutiny as those that find otherwise? The possibilities for publication bias in the scientific literature are legion. What we need is systematic reviews that attempt to address this. But I’m not sure what we need is what we’ve yet got. Still, here’s a study that reports statistically significant correlations between author affiliation to the GM industry and study results favourable to GM crops. Food for thought.

4. The discreditable practice of discrediting

With really high profile negative findings you can take the next step on the publication bias road and exert political pressure to get the study discredited and retracted. The retraction vultures have had their fill in cases such as the Pusztai and Séralini affairs, and are currently circling around the glyphosate cancer study. It’s not that any of these research findings are necessarily beyond reproach – it’s just that ol’ problem of publication bias again, if the papers that feel the methodological heat are systematically more likely to be ones to which the GM industry objects. The Séralini affair has now spawned an interesting secondary literature – including this analysis which argues that if Séralini’s methods are flawed then so are those used by Monsanto in studies reporting no raised rat morbidity. Eventually, I think, the truth will out. Meanwhile, I’m not inclined to put too much trust in the (often opaque) processes by which studies disfavoured by the GM industry lead to journal retractions. Why not avoid publication bias and legalistic interpretations of peer review by letting studies that pass initial peer review stand? In my eyes, the discrediting of studies that are sceptical about the merits of GM technologies is itself becoming discredited.

5. Denialism denied

Failing all of the above, you can simply dismiss opposition to GM crops as an ‘anti-GMO denialist myth’ as per Mark Lynas. The ‘denialist’ concept troubles me. Ironically non-scientific, it’s an “as everybody knows…” rhetorical strategy designed to circumvent debate and stigmatise one’s interlocutor. Thus has Edward Skidelsky referred to denialism as a “word that thinks for us”. I like his argument that “The extension of the “denier” tag to group after group is a development that should alarm all liberal-minded people. One of the great achievements of the Enlightenment—the liberation of historical and scientific enquiry from dogma—is quietly being reversed.” Spot on – there are instructive paradoxes involved in dogmatic appeals to ‘the science’ and in unreasonable appeals to reason in the GM debate, probably on both sides. I suppose in some contexts – Holocaust denial, climate change denial – ‘denialism’ does at least refer to the active denial of something that has manifestly happened. But what is it that GM ‘denialists’ are denying? Not that GMOs exist, or that they’re being grown. Nope, they’re just denying that growing them is a good idea. Of course, you can disagree with their reasons for thinking so. And indeed that’s what Lynas’s concept of denialism amounts to. GM denialists are people who disagree with Lynas and his ilk about GM crops. Well, two can play at that game. So henceforth I plan to refer to Lynas as ‘the denialist Mark Lynas’ on the grounds that he disagrees with me.

From Science to Society

In my humble opinion, both GM critics and GM proponents spend too much time arguing over what “the science says” about GM crops. The science is important for sure, but it doesn’t ‘say’ any single thing. And indeed, as eco-panglossian guru Stewart Brand sagely writes in his book Whole Earth Discipline, “nothing is fully established scientifically, ever”. Strange that in the same book he should later write “the science is in” in favour of GM crops.

Enough of this nonscience. Let us stop appealing to ‘the science’ just because it sounds grander and more objective than appealing to ‘the politics’. The issues around GM crops are political and sociological as much as scientific: the overuse of a handful of GMOs – thereby driving the rise of resistant weeds and pests, potentially transferring transgenes to wild crop relatives, and compromising human and ecosystem health – is a sociological issue. The fallacies around the notion that GMOs are pro-poor technologies are sociological in an even more fundamental way. And so are the affinities between GMOs and the neo-improver ideology of large-scale corporate agribusiness. I’m yet to be convinced that these are not all serious problems with existing GMOs, though I wouldn’t go so far as to say that they fatally undermine the possibility of useful GM crops in the future. But ultimately the debate ought to be about what kind of society we want, and therefore what kind of farming we want. It ought to be about how we can best solve problems like poverty and malnutrition. These issues are sociological and political, not just scientific. ‘The science’ on GM crops is, well…just the science.

GM & glyphosate: Rachel Carson (sort of) speaks…

Well, thanks to those of you who commented on my recent annual vs perennial grains marathon. I invited Tim Crews of the Land Institute to respond, and he said he might, but it looks like he’s decided not to. So I guess the whole thing goes the way of many academic debates before it: ‘you’re wrong’, ‘no, you’re wrong’. And only time will tell. Though I’m quietly confident that in fact it is me who will ultimately prove to be right – a conclusion to which my research has pointed with remarkable consistency over the course of my career. Meanwhile, I think Ford Denison may be writing something about the debate, so it’ll be interesting to read that (STOP PRESS: here it is).

Anyway, now it’s time to move on – and what better topic to choose than plant breeding’s Scylla to the Charybdis of perennial grain breeding? Yep, you guessed it – GM crops.

OK, OK, I know I vowed to avoid this issue – one that’s so balefully polarised as to make any kind of productive debate with the other side seem impossible.  On GM, I have engaged amongst others with the ingenuous, the angry, the emotive and the merely vapid without worthwhile result. No more, I have said solemnly to myself, no more. But there are some new angles to explore, so the time is right for just one more whirl. Well, two in fact – I need to descend slowly from the giddy heights of those multiple linked perennial grain posts, so I’m going to acclimatise to normal service with a GM two-parter.

Part One concerns glyphosate, which isn’t intrinsically linked to GM technology in and of itself – except that, well, it kind of is, on account of the fact that glyphosate-resistant crops constitute about 80% of the GM crops grown worldwide1. All the talk of golden rice, Hawaiian papaya, Bt cotton etc somewhat blinds us to that brute fact. So if there are problems with glyphosate, then basically there are problems with GM crops, at least as they currently manifest.

And it looks like there may be some problems with glyphosate. One that’s received a lot of attention lately is a possible link to raised cancer incidence, as reported in this study. But there’s another set of interesting potential problems which have been outlined by Thierry Vrain, a retired Canadian government agricultural scientist.

Vrain has set out his thesis in an open letter to the Canadian minister for health. I précis it as follows:

1. Glyphosate is sufficiently persistent and ubiquitous in the environment for it to find its way into the human body

2. Glyphosate’s main action is to interfere with an enzyme possessed by plants and some bacteria and fungi but not by animals, so it doesn’t have acutely toxic effects on people.

3. However, glyphosate does have a toxic effect on the microbial population of the human gut, and may therefore cause chronic human ill health through impeding normal gut function

4. Glyphosate also has chelating properties, which may result in reduced availability of trace metals essential to a healthy human diet

Well now, I don’t know if he’s right but it strikes me as an interesting line of argument – albeit one that’s quite difficult to prove without costly chronic morbidity studies, which I don’t believe have yet been undertaken. I can think of various reasons why Vrain’s fears may prove unfounded, but I don’t think there’s yet any conclusive evidence against – a trawl through the internet reveals various dismissive screeds about his views such as this and this, which for the most part ignore his actual reasoning in favour of generic appeals to the ‘science’ in support of GMOs, while ridiculing the discredited ‘pseudo-science’ that Vrain invokes.

I’ll say more in my next post about science, pseudo-science and the discreditable practice of discrediting studies. But when it comes to a scientist raising questions about the wisdom of a mainstream agricultural technology and then getting this kind of blowback from the technology’s proponents, I get a funny feeling of déjà vu. Doesn’t it all sound a bit Rachel Carson – vilified in her time for daring to raise even the possibility that there might be a problem with DDT, but ultimately proved right? Whether Vrain will turn out to be right or not is of course unknown, but if he is then given the ubiquity of glyphosate we have quite a problem on our hands. So I assume that everybody would support the establishment of rigorous, independent, long-term studies to look into the issue. Well, everybody but those with a vested interest in GM. Monsanto is already calling for the cancer study to be retracted. Now why would that be?

Let me just reiterate my point about independent chronic toxicity studies. GM proponents like Steve Savage and Graham Strouts have invoked the spirit of Rachel Carson to their cause, implying that GM crops and/or glyphosate are safer than the biotechnologies of yore and Carson would have supported them. As I’ve argued previously, this strikes me as a somewhat sneaky tactic to appropriate an environmentalist icon to their own particular agenda and thereby clothe it with the reflected legitimacy of her name. And, being dead, Carson conveniently lacks a right of reply. Well, I don’t have the temerity of Strouts to ventriloquize with such confidence what Carson would have supported, but given the nature of the battle over DDT I suspect that if she were alive today she might well be calling for rigorous, independent, long-term studies to investigate a possible association between glyphosate and chronic human morbidity. So I’d hereby like to invite Steve and Graham to gather together with me in homage to the spirit of the woman that we all revere and join me publicly in that call so that Vrain’s thesis can be tested.

Meantime, I think I’ll put my plans to incorporate glyphosate into organic farming on ice…

Notes

1. Or at least it did around 2008, according to this paper: http://www.agbioforum.org/v12n34/v12n34a10-duke.htm. If anyone has some more up to date figures, I’d be keen to see them.

Why Poor Peasant Farmers Shouldn’t Be Allowed To Grow GM Crops

Note: I’m duplicating this post here, as for some strange reason beyond my ken comments were closed on the version below

OK I admit it, my title is pure clickbait. Who the hell am I to say what poor peasant farmers should or shouldn’t be allowed to grow? It’s just that the GM debate largely seems to involve well fed westerners getting angry with each other, ostensibly on behalf of poor farmers, whose own voices are rarely heard. So I decided I’d kind of make that explicit in my title. I thought it would be obvious that the title was a wind up, but when I mentioned it on Steve Savage’s ‘Applied Mythology’ site, Steve came back at me with the suggestion that this was ‘green imperialism’. Hmmm, well, I’ll be returning to the question of imperialism later. To be fair, Steve isn’t one of the shrillest GM proponents around. For a flavour of the common tone, here’s some choice words from Patrick Moore, who I discussed in my previous post, aimed at GM Watch: “You are murdering bastards, and deserve to rot in hell for your anti-human sins”1. Or how about this from Small Farm Future’s go-to eco-panglossian, Graham Strouts, addressing our CEO Chris Smaje’s opposition to golden rice: “this is literally as repugnant as going to Bangladesh, smashing up charitably donated children’s wheelchairs and demanding they be completely banned unless the charity also aligns itself with your political manifesto.”

Please, enough. What makes me angry is self-dramatising wealthy westerners professing their anger at each other in the name of the poor. But maybe that’s getting a bit too meta. In any case, I’d like to suggest a truce. Why don’t we GM sceptics acknowledge that not all of the technology’s proponents are uncaring corporate stooges, and in return maybe those proponents could acknowledge that our scepticism is grounded in an understanding of the issues more considered than the notion that poor peasant farmers are happy in their simple poverty.

I can’t say I’m too hopeful about getting this truce off the ground. Technological issues are invariably social and political issues: the heat in the debate stems ultimately, I think, from the radically different political understandings of poverty and its redress entertained by the two parties. But for my part let me concede the possibility that certain GM crops may prove in time to be of some use in ameliorating the consequences of poverty, heretical though that statement might seem to some of my peers in the anti-GM movement, and indeed might have seemed to my younger self. But let me also say that I am not convinced by arguments that current GM crops offer much help to poor people. As Dominic Glover has aptly written, “the simplistic narrative of GM crops as a straightforwardly successful pro-poor technology has persisted in spite of the highly equivocal evidence emerging from the field”2. Below I give in brief 8 reasons why it seems to me this pro-poor narrative is indeed simplistic. If GM proponents want to carry the day by the quality of their arguments rather than the violence of their invective, I’d like to see them honestly address such points, while leaving the insults at home.

1. The Overproduction of Cash Crops: as Peter Robbins shows in his excellent book Stolen Fruit: The Tropical Commodities Disaster3 there is a problem with global over-capacity in the production of many cash crops grown for global markets by poor smallholders. He, and other authorities besides4, argue that it’s necessary to redeploy a good deal of peasant production into growing for local needs in order to avoid the vicious circle of productivity gains and falling prices (exacerbated by middleman market capture). And yet most of the debate around potential smallholder GM cash crops (coffee etc) seems locked in the productivist paradigm that believes higher productivity will yield higher incomes for poor farmers. I don’t suppose the problem of overproduction should be taken to mean that it’s never useful to develop better yielding or pest resistant varieties, but doing this alone without attention to the economic structures within which the production of those crops occurs won’t help. The way global commodity markets work for poor farmers is basically to set them against each other by pressurising them to produce more. So perhaps instead of concluding that better yields from GM crops are pro-poor, one should say that they’re likely to be temporarily pro some poor farmers at the expense of other ones.

2. The Logic of Agricultural Improvement: some people do benefit financially from productivity gains, however. It’s a pretty robust result of agricultural economics that these people are the richer, more heavily capitalised farmers or businesses that are better able to take advantage of economies of scale (though more on that questionable concept another time) and manipulate their market access – with examples ranging from 18th century England5 to 21st century India2,6. There are those who argue that in ‘a fairly typical scenario’ lower margins are offset by higher productivity for poor small-scale farmers – but in fact it depends, empirically and case by case, on a whole series of factors including price elasticity of demand, the relative tradeoff between margins and productivity and so on. And if there is a ‘typical scenario’, it’s that richer, not poorer, farmers reap the greatest benefit. Generally speaking, it’s these richer farmers who are able to access pricier GM seed and the various other inputs (including knowledge) that can make them effective2,6. The get out clause here, which has been the get out clause for the ideology of agricultural ‘improvement’ through the ages, is that these are the best, most efficient farmers (and it’s interesting how Dominic Glover identifies that same implicit moral judgment in studies of Bt cotton). Not terribly pro-poor on the face of it, except with the additional argument that the poorer, less ‘efficient’ farmers do better if they get out of farming, allow the richer farmers to scale up and produce cheap crops for them, and get themselves better paid jobs in the city. Thus, the benefit of urbanisation has become an important plank in the arguments of the eco-panglossian neo-improvers – just as the old time improvers justified enclosure on the grounds that it was better off for everybody if independent smallholders were removed from the land. The trouble is, Stewart Brand and his camp followers don’t prove that this is true simply by asserting it, however loudly and often. Getting poor farmers off the land and into cities is not necessarily pro-poor7, and the dichotomy of ‘village’ stasis versus city dynamism is just bad sociology. Moreover, if you follow Giovanni Arrighi’s line of argument, urban economic development can in fact be achieved by the success of peasant farming and is not some exogenous force delivering prosperity from without8, but maybe that’s a discussion for another time.

3. Learning the lessons of the green revolution: as I’ve argued elsewhere, the legacy of the original (non-GM) green revolution of the 1960s is remarkably contested. It doesn’t say an awful lot for the analytical precision of social science that scholars can’t even agree whether it saved or impaired millions of lives. But even sensible commentators who are broadly positive about its legacy agree that mistakes were made and many of the advances have been reversed9: the green revolution, once again, benefitted the richer farmers, benefitted particular areas more than others, was uneven in adoption in relation to issues such as farmer wealth, access to credit, irrigation and so on, and led to long-term yield declines as a result of secondary pests, variable farmer behaviour and other agronomic phenomena10. And yet it seems we’ve learned little from that experience: the same issues with secondary pests, farmer behaviour, irrigation, regional and socioeconomic differences, broader social context and so on afflict the implementation of GM crops like Bt cotton2, and likewise tend to be swept under the carpet by their proponents.

4. Corporate dreams and peasant realities: I wrote in my previous post about the serious error involved in supposing that peasant farmers have hitherto been untouched by capitalism, and that industrial farming and its biotechnological toolbox are simply waiting in the wings for them, ready with a helping hand. As has been demonstrated so many times before, only ‘farmer first’ agricultural development has much chance of achieving traction for poor farmers long-term, and even that is a challenge11 – neither the corporate sector nor its charitable offshoots in the form of organisations like the Gates Foundation are set up to deliver it. As Ian Scoones has argued,

“economic returns are highly variable, dependent on a range of factors. GM crops only perform well in good varieties, and it is these that have the largest effect. The start-up costs and technology fees sometimes put the GM seeds out of reach of poorer farmers, and those who are the major adopters tend to be relatively richer and with more land and other assets. And finally – and perhaps most critically – it is the institutional and policy environment that makes all the difference. Without support, credit and sustained backing, the new technologies very often fail”12

He goes on to say:

“proprietary technologies are critical to the agribusiness model. Some claim that patenting (or other forms of proprietary control) is essential for innovation and continued business viability. But such a model is rarely pro-poor. Only through publicly-based, open-source arrangements will poor farmers’ needs get a look in. Thus, it is not sensible to expect too much ‘pro-poor technology’ to emerge from the corporate sector, even if some spin-offs may be on offer through intellectual property-sharing agreements or licensing arrangements. The basic products, because of the mode of their design and delivery, are unlikely to offer much of a solution.”12

Having good, publicly-funded agronomic institutions devoted to the public benefits of agriculture would go a long way to helping good implementation of agricultural development programmes for staple crops – but these are much scarcer on the ground than they were, most certainly not as a result of anti-GM activism. Still, this is where GM crops may have a role to play in the future, albeit that the hype over such crops as golden rice and virus resistant sweet potato has far exceeded results on the ground to date.

5. Long-term trends: The main technically successful GM crops adopted by poor farmers globally are Bt ones. But how long will they remain successful? The well supported agricultures of wealthy western countries are not arguably doing an especially great job with refugia to limit pest resistance. What are the chances among poor small-scale farmers trying to squeeze a bit of extra income out of their plots today? The evidence on GM crops, farmer behaviour and pesticide use is equivocal at best2,13, and so too is the evidence on pesticide/herbicide effects – as for example in Séralini’s work. Incidentally, I’ve got a little article out on the Statistics Views website about the Séralini affair, amongst other things. I do find it a bit strange the way GM proponents so often vaunt ‘science’ as the basis for their views, while treating research and researchers they dislike to ad hominem dismissals which fall far short of scientific standards – as in this Pharisaic and gloriously non-scientific appeal to the science justifying biotech.

6. Conventional breeding successes: quite often, benefits attributed to GM technology turn out to be benefits associated with the particular variety into which the GM event is inserted2. Quite often, conventional breeding, operating at the whole plant and ecological level, is more successful than the gene by gene tinkering of GM breeding – for example, in the case of drought tolerant crops, often touted as a big GM gain, but not yet realised14. Indeed, there are good biological reasons to think that this will be a tough nut to crack and (forgive me for mixing my perennial crop metaphors) now that the lowest hanging fruit has been picked, further GM gains may get trickier12,13.

7. The keys and the lamppost: In relation to objections of the sort I’ve raised above, a common response from GM proponents is something along the lines of “well, no one’s saying it’s a panacea, but we need every possible tool in the box to fight the scourge of poverty”. Maybe so; as I said above, I wouldn’t personally rule out the potential contribution of any GM technology. But it’s surely worth paying attention to which levers will be most effective in the context of the systemic factors reproducing poverty, and I for one suspect that plant breeding of any kind comes fairly low on the list. I found Benjamin Edge’s argument on Steve Savage’s blog quite instructive in this respect: essentially that the seed industry can’t tackle poverty, it can only breed new seeds, so it might as well do that. It’s a bit like the drunk looking for his keys under the lamppost, because it’s too dark to see anywhere else. Collectively we can, if we wish, devote resources to combating poverty in the most effective ways possible, and it seems to me unlikely that those ways will turn out to involve much plant breeding, particularly breeding proprietary GM crops in the corporate sector.

8. What about YOU! Another of Benjamin Edge’s arguments, which is also much favoured by other GM proponents: all these sceptics moaning about GM crops – if they think there are better ways of combating poverty, why aren’t they actually doing something about it? I don’t think this argument is really serious enough to merit a response, but if it is then it’s one GM proponents need to tackle too, because not even the most hardcore GM enthusiast seems prepared to argue that their favoured crops alone will banish poverty. But I think it’s symptomatic of a political failure in the pro-GM case, which individualises poverty and the response to it, and erases its institutional causes. Why invest in developing higher yielding crops when the gains to the poor will be traded away by the extant discriminatory economic structures? When it comes to the ‘imperialism’ Steve Savage mentioned, I see more of it in the pro GM case – in particular in its insistence on a singular, top-down development path, in its avoidance of the systemic economic forces reproducing poverty, and in its neo-improver disparagement of peasant farming and of anyone who speaks up for it.

References

1. https://twitter.com/EcoSenseNow/status/438092798592442370

2. D. Glover, 2009. Undying Promise: Agricultural Biotechnology’s Pro-poor Narrative, Ten Years on, STEPS Working Paper 15, Brighton: STEPS Centre.

3. Zed Books, 2003.

4. Eg. I. Perfecto et al, 2009. Nature’s Matrix, Earthscan; http://www.edwardrcarr.com/opentheechochamber/

5. M. Overton, 1996. Agricultural Revolution In England, Cambridge Univ P.

6. Mal, P., Reza Anik, A., Bauer, S., & Schmitz, P.M. (2012). Bt cotton adoption: A double-hurdle approach for North Indian farmers. AgBioForum15(3), 294-302.

7. http://smallfarmfuture.org.uk/?p=531; Banerjee, A. & E. Duflo, 2012. Poor Economics, Penguin; or maybe J. Neeson, 1996. Commoners, Cambridge Univ P.

8. G. Arrighi, 2007. Adam Smith in Beijing, Verso.

9. G. Conway 2012. One Billion Hungry: Can We Feed The World, Cornel Univ P.

10. See Patel, R. (2013). ‘The long Green Revolution’, Journal of Peasant Studies40, 1: 1-63; Perkins, J. (1997). Geopolitics and the Green Revolution, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

11. P. Richards (1985). Indigenous Agricultural Revolution, Hutchinson.

12. http://steps-centre.org/2011/project-related/gm-crops-10-years-on/

13. F. Denison, 2012. Darwinian Agriculture, Cornell Univ P.

14. http://www.nature.com/news/cross-bred-crops-get-fit-faster-1.15940?WT.ec_id=NATURE-20140918

 

Why poor peasant farmers shouldn’t be allowed to grow GM crops

OK I admit it, my title is pure clickbait. Who the hell am I to say what poor peasant farmers should or shouldn’t be allowed to grow? It’s just that the GM debate largely seems to involve well fed westerners getting angry with each other, ostensibly on behalf of poor farmers, whose own voices are rarely heard. So I decided I’d kind of make that explicit in my title. I thought it would be obvious that the title was a wind up, but when I mentioned it on Steve Savage’s ‘Applied Mythology’ site, Steve came back at me with the suggestion that this was ‘green imperialism’. Hmmm, well, I’ll be returning to the question of imperialism later. To be fair, Steve isn’t one of the shrillest GM proponents around. For a flavour of the common tone, here’s some choice words from Patrick Moore, who I discussed in my previous post, aimed at GM Watch: “You are murdering bastards, and deserve to rot in hell for your anti-human sins”1. Or how about this from Small Farm Future’s go-to eco-panglossian, Graham Strouts, addressing our CEO Chris Smaje’s opposition to golden rice: “this is literally as repugnant as going to Bangladesh, smashing up charitably donated children’s wheelchairs and demanding they be completely banned unless the charity also aligns itself with your political manifesto.”

Please, enough. What makes me angry is self-dramatising wealthy westerners professing their anger at each other in the name of the poor. But maybe that’s getting a bit too meta. In any case, I’d like to suggest a truce. Why don’t we GM sceptics acknowledge that not all of the technology’s proponents are uncaring corporate stooges, and in return maybe those proponents could acknowledge that our scepticism is grounded in an understanding of the issues more considered than the notion that poor peasant farmers are happy in their simple poverty.

I can’t say I’m too hopeful about getting this truce off the ground. Technological issues are invariably social and political issues: the heat in the debate stems ultimately, I think, from the radically different political understandings of poverty and its redress entertained by the two parties. But for my part let me concede the possibility that certain GM crops may prove in time to be of some use in ameliorating the consequences of poverty, heretical though that statement might seem to some of my peers in the anti-GM movement, and indeed might have seemed to my younger self. But let me also say that I am not convinced by arguments that current GM crops offer much help to poor people. As Dominic Glover has aptly written, “the simplistic narrative of GM crops as a straightforwardly successful pro-poor technology has persisted in spite of the highly equivocal evidence emerging from the field”2. Below I give in brief 8 reasons why it seems to me this pro-poor narrative is indeed simplistic. If GM proponents want to carry the day by the quality of their arguments rather than the violence of their invective, I’d like to see them honestly address such points, while leaving the insults at home.

1. The Overproduction of Cash Crops: as Peter Robbins shows in his excellent book Stolen Fruit: The Tropical Commodities Disaster3 there is a problem with global over-capacity in the production of many cash crops grown for global markets by poor smallholders. He, and other authorities besides4, argue that it’s necessary to redeploy a good deal of peasant production into growing for local needs in order to avoid the vicious circle of productivity gains and falling prices (exacerbated by middleman market capture). And yet most of the debate around potential smallholder GM cash crops (coffee etc) seems locked in the productivist paradigm that believes higher productivity will yield higher incomes for poor farmers. I don’t suppose the problem of overproduction should be taken to mean that it’s never useful to develop better yielding or pest resistant varieties, but doing this alone without attention to the economic structures within which the production of those crops occurs won’t help. The way global commodity markets work for poor farmers is basically to set them against each other by pressurising them to produce more. So perhaps instead of concluding that better yields from GM crops are pro-poor, one should say that they’re likely to be temporarily pro some poor farmers at the expense of other ones.

2. The Logic of Agricultural Improvement: some people do benefit financially from productivity gains, however. It’s a pretty robust result of agricultural economics that these people are the richer, more heavily capitalised farmers or businesses that are better able to take advantage of economies of scale (though more on that questionable concept another time) and manipulate their market access – with examples ranging from 18th century England5 to 21st century India2,6. There are those who argue that in ‘a fairly typical scenario’ lower margins are offset by higher productivity for poor small-scale farmers – but in fact it depends, empirically and case by case, on a whole series of factors including price elasticity of demand, the relative tradeoff between margins and productivity and so on. And if there is a ‘typical scenario’, it’s that richer, not poorer, farmers reap the greatest benefit. Generally speaking, it’s these richer farmers who are able to access pricier GM seed and the various other inputs (including knowledge) that can make them effective2,6. The get out clause here, which has been the get out clause for the ideology of agricultural ‘improvement’ through the ages, is that these are the best, most efficient farmers (and it’s interesting how Dominic Glover identifies that same implicit moral judgment in studies of Bt cotton). Not terribly pro-poor on the face of it, except with the additional argument that the poorer, less ‘efficient’ farmers do better if they get out of farming, allow the richer farmers to scale up and produce cheap crops for them, and get themselves better paid jobs in the city. Thus, the benefit of urbanisation has become an important plank in the arguments of the eco-panglossian neo-improvers – just as the old time improvers justified enclosure on the grounds that it was better off for everybody if independent smallholders were removed from the land. The trouble is, Stewart Brand and his camp followers don’t prove that this is true simply by asserting it, however loudly and often. Getting poor farmers off the land and into cities is not necessarily pro-poor7, and the dichotomy of ‘village’ stasis versus city dynamism is just bad sociology. Moreover, if you follow Giovanni Arrighi’s line of argument, urban economic development can in fact be achieved by the success of peasant farming and is not some exogenous force delivering prosperity from without8, but maybe that’s a discussion for another time.

3. Learning the lessons of the green revolution: as I’ve argued elsewhere, the legacy of the original (non-GM) green revolution of the 1960s is remarkably contested. It doesn’t say an awful lot for the analytical precision of social science that scholars can’t even agree whether it saved or impaired millions of lives. But even sensible commentators who are broadly positive about its legacy agree that mistakes were made and many of the advances have been reversed9: the green revolution, once again, benefitted the richer farmers, benefitted particular areas more than others, was uneven in adoption in relation to issues such as farmer wealth, access to credit, irrigation and so on, and led to long-term yield declines as a result of secondary pests, variable farmer behaviour and other agronomic phenomena10. And yet it seems we’ve learned little from that experience: the same issues with secondary pests, farmer behaviour, irrigation, regional and socioeconomic differences, broader social context and so on afflict the implementation of GM crops like Bt cotton2, and likewise tend to be swept under the carpet by their proponents.

4. Corporate dreams and peasant realities: I wrote in my previous post about the serious error involved in supposing that peasant farmers have hitherto been untouched by capitalism, and that industrial farming and its biotechnological toolbox are simply waiting in the wings for them, ready with a helping hand. As has been demonstrated so many times before, only ‘farmer first’ agricultural development has much chance of achieving traction for poor farmers long-term, and even that is a challenge11 – neither the corporate sector nor its charitable offshoots in the form of organisations like the Gates Foundation are set up to deliver it. As Ian Scoones has argued,

“economic returns are highly variable, dependent on a range of factors. GM crops only perform well in good varieties, and it is these that have the largest effect. The start-up costs and technology fees sometimes put the GM seeds out of reach of poorer farmers, and those who are the major adopters tend to be relatively richer and with more land and other assets. And finally – and perhaps most critically – it is the institutional and policy environment that makes all the difference. Without support, credit and sustained backing, the new technologies very often fail”12

He goes on to say:

“proprietary technologies are critical to the agribusiness model. Some claim that patenting (or other forms of proprietary control) is essential for innovation and continued business viability. But such a model is rarely pro-poor. Only through publicly-based, open-source arrangements will poor farmers’ needs get a look in. Thus, it is not sensible to expect too much ‘pro-poor technology’ to emerge from the corporate sector, even if some spin-offs may be on offer through intellectual property-sharing agreements or licensing arrangements. The basic products, because of the mode of their design and delivery, are unlikely to offer much of a solution.”12

Having good, publicly-funded agronomic institutions devoted to the public benefits of agriculture would go a long way to helping good implementation of agricultural development programmes for staple crops – but these are much scarcer on the ground than they were, most certainly not as a result of anti-GM activism. Still, this is where GM crops may have a role to play in the future, albeit that the hype over such crops as golden rice and virus resistant sweet potato has far exceeded results on the ground to date.

5. Long-term trends: The main technically successful GM crops adopted by poor farmers globally are Bt ones. But how long will they remain successful? The well supported agricultures of wealthy western countries are not arguably doing an especially great job with refugia to limit pest resistance. What are the chances among poor small-scale farmers trying to squeeze a bit of extra income out of their plots today? The evidence on GM crops, farmer behaviour and pesticide use is equivocal at best2,13, and so too is the evidence on pesticide/herbicide effects – as for example in Séralini’s work. Incidentally, I’ve got a little article out on the Statistics Views website about the Séralini affair, amongst other things. I do find it a bit strange the way GM proponents so often vaunt ‘science’ as the basis for their views, while treating research and researchers they dislike to ad hominem dismissals which fall far short of scientific standards – as in this Pharisaic and gloriously non-scientific appeal to the science justifying biotech.

6. Conventional breeding successes: quite often, benefits attributed to GM technology turn out to be benefits associated with the particular variety into which the GM event is inserted2. Quite often, conventional breeding, operating at the whole plant and ecological level, is more successful than the gene by gene tinkering of GM breeding – for example, in the case of drought tolerant crops, often touted as a big GM gain, but not yet realised14. Indeed, there are good biological reasons to think that this will be a tough nut to crack and (forgive me for mixing my perennial crop metaphors) now that the lowest hanging fruit has been picked, further GM gains may get trickier12,13.

7. The keys and the lamppost: In relation to objections of the sort I’ve raised above, a common response from GM proponents is something along the lines of “well, no one’s saying it’s a panacea, but we need every possible tool in the box to fight the scourge of poverty”. Maybe so; as I said above, I wouldn’t personally rule out the potential contribution of any GM technology. But it’s surely worth paying attention to which levers will be most effective in the context of the systemic factors reproducing poverty, and I for one suspect that plant breeding of any kind comes fairly low on the list. I found Benjamin Edge’s argument on Steve Savage’s blog quite instructive in this respect: essentially that the seed industry can’t tackle poverty, it can only breed new seeds, so it might as well do that. It’s a bit like the drunk looking for his keys under the lamppost, because it’s too dark to see anywhere else. Collectively we can, if we wish, devote resources to combating poverty in the most effective ways possible, and it seems to me unlikely that those ways will turn out to involve much plant breeding, particularly breeding proprietary GM crops in the corporate sector.

8. What about YOU! Another of Benjamin Edge’s arguments, which is also much favoured by other GM proponents: all these sceptics moaning about GM crops – if they think there are better ways of combating poverty, why aren’t they actually doing something about it? I don’t think this argument is really serious enough to merit a response, but if it is then it’s one GM proponents need to tackle too, because not even the most hardcore GM enthusiast seems prepared to argue that their favoured crops alone will banish poverty. But I think it’s symptomatic of a political failure in the pro-GM case, which individualises poverty and the response to it, and erases its institutional causes. Why invest in developing higher yielding crops when the gains to the poor will be traded away by the extant discriminatory economic structures? When it comes to the ‘imperialism’ Steve Savage mentioned, I see more of it in the pro GM case – in particular in its insistence on a singular, top-down development path, in its avoidance of the systemic economic forces reproducing poverty, and in its neo-improver disparagement of peasant farming and of anyone who speaks up for it.

References

1. https://twitter.com/EcoSenseNow/status/438092798592442370

2. D. Glover, 2009. Undying Promise: Agricultural Biotechnology’s Pro-poor Narrative, Ten Years on, STEPS Working Paper 15, Brighton: STEPS Centre.

3. Zed Books, 2003.

4. Eg. I. Perfecto et al, 2009. Nature’s Matrix, Earthscan; http://www.edwardrcarr.com/opentheechochamber/

5. M. Overton, 1996. Agricultural Revolution In England, Cambridge Univ P.

6. Mal, P., Reza Anik, A., Bauer, S., & Schmitz, P.M. (2012). Bt cotton adoption: A double-hurdle approach for North Indian farmers. AgBioForum15(3), 294-302.

7. http://smallfarmfuture.org.uk/?p=531; Banerjee, A. & E. Duflo, 2012. Poor Economics, Penguin; or maybe J. Neeson, 1996. Commoners, Cambridge Univ P.

8. G. Arrighi, 2007. Adam Smith in Beijing, Verso.

9. G. Conway 2012. One Billion Hungry: Can We Feed The World, Cornel Univ P.

10. See Patel, R. (2013). ‘The long Green Revolution’, Journal of Peasant Studies40, 1: 1-63; Perkins, J. (1997). Geopolitics and the Green Revolution, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

11. P. Richards (1985). Indigenous Agricultural Revolution, Hutchinson.

12. http://steps-centre.org/2011/project-related/gm-crops-10-years-on/

13. F. Denison, 2012. Darwinian Agriculture, Cornell Univ P.

14. http://www.nature.com/news/cross-bred-crops-get-fit-faster-1.15940?WT.ec_id=NATURE-20140918

 

Scientists Behaving Normally: Junk science, Nonscience and Bias

I was all set to post as previously threatened another screed about golden rice in the wake of my spat on Steve Savage’s website with some of his commenters, when all of a sudden Steve releases a new post on the somewhat related issue of scientific evidence, which is perhaps of more general interest. So I think I’ll hold off for now on the golden rice and go with the science/evidence theme. In other news, I’ve been tangling with the former poet laureate on the Guardian letters page and with proponents of the pig swill ban among other things over at the Food Climate Research Network. Goodness, am I really that argumentative? Probably, alas. What a good thing I’m confined to this little window in the blogosphere (click x, top right).

Anyway, Steve’s argument is that science is a conversation which only begins with publication in a peer-reviewed journal, and that the system is hijacked when scientists aggressively move their findings into the mainstream public conversation before the scientific conversation has reached a consensus.  The basic lines of his argument are hard to fault, I think, except that the tendency for scientists to grandstand their conclusions for personal or political reasons is hardly new (think Edison vs Tesla), and ‘scientific consensus’ can often be an elusive destination. But the funny (actually, quite predictable…) thing is that all Steve’s examples of this deplorable practice are ones that have emphasised the negative effects of the mainstream food and farming system he champions. For many of us more sceptical of this system than Steve, the deplorable practice runs at least as much in the opposite direction, as for example in aggressively favourable public prejudging of golden rice by folks that Steve happily links from his blog.

Part of the problem, I think, is that because science has been so successful at unteasing causalities and informing technological developments we invest unreasonable expectations in it to arbitrate between different views of how the world should be which are ultimately rooted in politics and philosophy and which therefore cannot be resolved by scientific experiments. Steve wants there to be scientific conversations, but he doesn’t want Séralini’s study linking GM maize to cancer in rats to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, even though it’s apparently made it through the peer review process twice and was retracted in circumstances that were opaque at best.

That doesn’t seem very conversational of him – surely it’s better for these things to be available in the publicly-accredited scientific domain so that the conversation can truly begin. No doubt the study is flawed – almost all studies are flawed somehow or other. But the Séralini affair and others of its ilk does make me wonder whether there’s some publication bias going on in the world of GM research. If one or a few studies suggest a link between a GM crop and disease, it doesn’t mean that the case against GM crops is closed. A single study rarely proves anything. But you might expect to find the odd study in the scientific literature linking a GM crop to a negative health outcome of some sort even if only on the grounds of simple probability – the fact that there seem to be none (and the fact that those like Séralini and Pusztai who’ve attempted to suggest one have been so relentlessly hounded in ways quite alien to disputes in less politicised scientific arenas) is to me suspiciously redolent of publication bias, or worse. And not just to me – a study published in Environmental Sciences Europe argues that there have been ‘critical double standards’ in the evaluation of Séralini’s study as compared to the feeding studies conducted by Monsanto on their maize.

From publication bias to confirmation bias – one accusation among several levelled at me on Steve’s site by David Röll. My exchanges with Röll have led me to think that he’s basically a wind up merchant and I’m probably taking his comments way more seriously than I should, but hey let’s try to derive something useful from his windy rhetoric. So I’ll admit it, yes, I suffer from confirmation bias. And so, manifestly, does Steve Savage. And everyone else, surely. We all come to particular views over a period of time as a result of various direct and indirect influences and experiences, but the world’s complexity generally exceeds the neat lines with which we seek to organise it. When we encounter scientific research that appears confirmatory of our worldviews we latch on to it gleefully, again I’d argue in part because of the somewhat excessive cachet of science-as-truth in our culture. And when, inevitably, we encounter plausible research that challenges aspects of our worldviews, we look for flaws and rationalisations. And why not – that’s surely all part of ‘the conversation’. Nobody abandons a slowly accreted worldview overnight. Though hopefully addressing its contradictions and contrary evidence allows us to get more nuanced in our understandings.

The Berkeley physicist and philosopher Thomas Kuhn built an influential theory about the history of science around the notion that confirmation bias is part and parcel of the scientific process – a philosophy that can be summed up by the old cliché that you can determine the eminence of a scientist by the length of time they obstruct progress in their discipline. But the great thing about science – almost uniquely among human endeavour – is that its procedures ultimately enable it to overcome confirmation bias and the passing opinions of influential savants. As someone trained in social science rather than natural science, the misery of my discipline is that we just don’t have the same procedures available for escaping ideological blinders. On the other hand, the joy of it is that – economists aside – for the same reason we’re not so prey to the hubris of supposing that our convictions exist above the messy world of politics and argument, issuing instead like some fount of sweet water from the uncorrupted well of pure knowledge. Which is why I consider misguided the shrill appeals to ‘reason’, ‘science’ and ‘logic’ for deciding in favour of agribusiness-as-usual as a solution to contemporary problems promulgated by the likes of Graham Strouts and David Röll and, albeit less aggressively and more informatively, Steve Savage (though that’s not to say that there’s no role for these qualities in addressing such problems).

Science can overcome confirmation bias, but the process of this overcoming is neither fast nor simple. What particularly worries me is the apparently growing use of the label ‘junk science’ to summarily dismiss from consideration research or analysis that isn’t consonant with the supposed consensus asserted by the person deploying the term – the surest way for science to forget the radical questioning that gives it its edge over other modes of thought and to become just another church intent on dispatching the heretics. George Monbiot has shown how the junk science label arose out of corporate efforts to deny the scientific evidence on the consequences of tobacco and, more recently, on climate change. On a much smaller stage, the way that David Röll sought to dispatch my scepticism over golden rice was cut from the same cloth – it’s so much easier to dismiss your opponent for junk science, Gish gallop, conspiracy theory or whatever than actually engage with their arguments.

Well, there are those I’ve accused of Gish gallop myself – time is pressing, and why work through a foot-thick tissue of questionable assumptions and dodgy evidence (especially when the person concerned is only likely to respond with ad hominem abuse). But if you don’t engage with the specific arguments, it opens the door to your own confirmation bias and certainly gives you no right to consider your case proven. In many situations, science does not speak with one voice, and cases of outsider science becoming mainstream are legion. Much as I despair when someone says exactly this in justification of earth vibrational essences, perpetual motion machines or other nonsense (I’m thinking more of things like plate tectonics, the Alvarez hypothesis and the symbiosis in the eukaryotic cell), that fact remains. And in any case, all this talk of ‘the science’ in relation to essentially political commitments on food, farming and society is misleading – the advantages and disadvantages of different farming futures do not only or even mainly lie in what ‘the science’ tells us, but in what kind of social worlds we wish to inhabit. Which was pretty much my position in the FCRN debate, and is a recurrent theme on this blog. So thanks for coming back for more.

After Eden

Happy new year of the family farm (…any bets on how many more of them will be gone by year’s end?) Over the next couple of weeks I’ll mostly be sat in the cab of a digger trying to carve a new family farm out of the wilderness here in northeast Somerset – so please excuse any delays in your regular blog service. Anyway, here’s a quick post to chew on.

A few years ago I published a paper called ‘Genesis and J. Baird Callicott: the land ethic revisited’ in the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture1. The paper engaged with the writings of environmental philosophers Aldo Leopold and the eponymous J. Baird Callicott, and in particular the latter’s superb essay on the Biblical story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden2. The story bears on something that’s become a bit of a theme in my blog posts of late, namely ideologies of ‘historical progress’. I won’t précis my analysis here, but basically I see the Eden story as a brilliant caution against two kinds of romanticism that are all too prevalent in contemporary environmentalism – on the one hand, the notion that we’re on a historical downslope from a perfect past towards a degenerate future, and on the other the notion that we’re on a historical upslope from a backward past to a perfect future. What Genesis offers us instead is the prospect of hard work to earn our daily bread, unavoidable alienation from the rest of creation, and the certainty that we’re going to keep screwing up. And to that, while I’m scarcely religious myself, I can only say ‘amen’.

I’ve received a couple of responses to the paper recently. One was from that duke of dubious dualisms, self-styled ‘eco-sceptic’ Graham Strouts. When I mentioned my paper and its analysis of these two problematic romanticisms on his blog, Strouts replied, “Bullshit. You’re just another two-bit alarmist anti-nuke/anti-GE activist just like all the other greentards, completely ignorant and happy to spread misinformation to score political points. Green elitists like you really don’t deserve the ‘running start’ civilisation has given you”. Ah well, intellectual nuance isn’t really Graham’s forte. I’ll be coming back to ideologies of historical progress and the charge of green elitism in a further post before laying that topic aside for a while. Suffice to say for now that anyone who writes of their first person gratitude that ‘we’ aren’t still uneducated and unhealthy peasant labourers really shouldn’t be throwing stones from their glasshouse at others’ alleged ‘elitism’.

The second response came in an email from Ray Tincknell, who as I understand it is a professional agricultural scientist – and how refreshing it is to engage with an actual scientist rather than the science wannabes who swell the ranks of the ‘eco-sceptics’. Ray’s comments in fact focus on the agricultural practices we follow at Vallis Veg (explained in more detail on our soon-to-be-updated website), rather than my analysis of Genesis (and, just to clarify, I certainly don’t look to the Bible for practical farming inspiration – who needs God and Moses when there’s Ian Tolhurst and Jenny Hall?

Anyway, here is my summary of Ray’s main comments about our sort of practices:

  • green manure leys are good for sustainable soil and nutrient management but, if generalised, would be ‘extravagant on scarce resources of land’
  • the avoidance of modern chemical pesticides for fear of human or ecosystem health risks, if generalised, would lead to crop losses
  • rejection of GM technology is obstructing the development of crops that could lead to better weed control, disease resistance and drought tolerance
  • rejection of synthetic fertilisers and herbicides leads to more tillage, which has a substantial fossil fuel requirement
  • the above practices raise the costs of production, which makes it difficult for our kind of farming to break out of niche markets

Interesting comments, to which I’d essay the following brief responses:

1. It’s true that without synthetic fertilisers per hectare yields are usually (though not necessarily always) lower. However, I don’t agree that this makes our practices extravagant on scarce land resources. Thinking locally, if we weren’t doing what we’re doing our land would most likely be used for horses, which nobody eats (oh, hang on a moment…) or at best for cattle, and almost certainly not for conventional vegetable production. I’d argue that the most relevant comparator is our land’s likely alternative use, and not its theoretically maximum yield – and on that count, our approach enhances productivity. Generalising that point more globally, I’d argue that many other practices can be criticised for their extravagant use of scarce land before the argument bites on organic farming. These include the inefficient over-production of meat, food waste and biofuels, the global misallocation of synthetic fertilisers (too much on the already nutrient-rich soils of wealthy countries, too little on the poor soils of poor countries) and questionable recreational practices such as horseyculture and barn conversions. As I suggested recently on the Biology Fortified site, per hectare yields are only one among many things that require optimisation in farming. Energy use, carbon emissions, labour inputs and food for humans are others – and if we decided to prioritise some of them, we might find that certain organic methods started to look the opposite of extravagant.

2. My main concern with pesticides is the emergence of pest resistance, though human and ecosystem health are also big issues. It’s not a black and white issue, and of course all methods of pest control encourage pest resistance (something that uncritical proponents of both organic farming and GM technologies too easily seem to forget), but my understanding from the work of agronomists and ecologists who aren’t necessarily organic advocates is that modern chemical pesticides have their limitations (and increasingly so, as agriculture’s economic and biological base narrows), and that basic organic procedures such as polycultures and cultural control need to be in the mix.

3. Personally, I’m no longer necessarily wholly opposed on principle to any kind of GM crop, but I haven’t been convinced by the case for any such crop that’s currently out there. My main concerns with GM (not all of which are specific to GM techniques) are pest/weed resistance, including direct transgene transfer to wild competitors, the elusiveness of tradeoff-free transgenic improvements (as per Ford Denison’s arguments), over-emphasis on crop level rather than farm-level or bioregional solutions, the association with increasing corporate control of the seed industry and its implications for crop diversity, and a failure to learn past sociological lessons of why biotech solutions to social problems don’t usually work. I’ve written about the latter a bit recently in discussion with Ford Denison and also in the context of the nonsense about golden rice put about by the likes of Graham Strouts and Owen Paterson.

4. Yes, the reliance of organic farming on tillage creates a substantial fossil fuel requirement, which is exacerbated by the tendency of organic farming to scale up and try to beat conventional farming at its own game, which it probably never will. Then again, synthetic fertiliser production is also hugely fossil energy intensive. By my reckoning – which admittedly is pretty back of the envelope – my type of small-scale, locally-oriented farming can deliver enough calories and protein to feed the UK population comfortably with a lower energy intensity than conventional farming. I found it quite hard to put together this analysis because DEFRA keep no national statistics on on-farm energy use. I think that tells its own story, but if we want to save energy I suspect that small-scale farming is probably the way to go.

5. Yes, our costs of production are higher. But this isn’t just some inevitable outcome of natural market logic. It reflects a whole series of policy decisions about food, energy, labour, land use and the environment which were not the only possible decisions, nor in my opinion the best ones. I’ll aim to post something more specific about this in the future. Currently what we do at Vallis Veg is indeed very ‘niche’ – in fact, commercial fruit and vegetable production of any kind is very niche, which is a nutritional scandal. But for all sorts of reasons – environmental, nutritional, social, political – I think it would be good if what we did could become less niche. And the only way I can think of helping to make that happen is by doing it. Oh, and by banging on about it on this blog.

Anyway, my thanks to Ray and – in this season of good cheer – maybe even to that snarky and incorrigible old panglossian Mr Strouts for prompting me to think about these things.

 

References

1. Smaje, C. (2008) ‘Genesis and J. Baird Callicott: the land ethic revisited’ Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, 2,2: 183-198.

2. Callicott, J.B. (1999) ‘Genesis and John Muir’ in Callicott, J.B. Beyond the Land Ethic, Albany: SUNY Press.

The Green Revolution, The Guardian and a very busy schedule

Well, busy times here at Small Farm Future just now – our editorial team have been travelling the length and breadth of the country giving presentations and consultations and writing articles for Statistics Views and letters to The Guardian. All good stuff, until Mrs Spudman put her foot down this morning and made us actually go to the farm and pick some bloody vegetables for the box scheme for a bloody change. The ignominy! The team were just about to head back indoors to write a blog post when we discovered that the chicken coop door closer needed fixing…and a sheep had its head stuck in the fence…and a field drain needed some attention…and, well anyway…

Meanwhile, back in the blogosphere I’m aware that I still need to answer Clem’s sociological question about settlement scale. And I’ve also got postings in the offing on amongst other things permaculture, composting, potato growing, a revolutionary new cultivation tool, Vallis Veg Version 2.0 and all the other posts that I’ve been promising to write over the last year but haven’t yet. In the mean time I have to give another talk next week and start upping the ante with our house move onto our farm site. Ah well, at least all these trying labours keep me from contemplating the dreadful half-emptiness of my glass.

And so for now I’m going to have to fob my readership off with nothing more than a link to my recently published article on The Green Revolution. Was it a good thing? You might think that thousands of highly trained social scientists would at least be able to come up with a robust answer to a simple question like that. But if you do, you’d be sadly mistaken.

In other news, Small Farm Future’s editor-in-chief has a letter in today’s Guardian criticising Professor Dale Sanders FRS, director of the John Innes Centre. Truly a clash of the intellectual titans, then. Sanders wrote in support of golden rice, a topic on which this blog has cogitated lengthily in the past, and so was well prepared to issue a stinging counterblast. My intervention has already generated some hate mail. Well, perhaps ‘hate’ is too strong a word, but ‘slightly miffed mail’ doesn’t sound quite right. Anyway, now that I’m a veteran of the GM wars of several months standing I’m already getting wearily familiar with the standard tropes of the pro-GM brigade: ‘ideological opposition to GM’, ‘let them eat broccoli’, ‘rich westerners who can afford to oppose GM’ etc etc. Is it too much to ask that we rich westerners who find ourselves on opposite sides of the GM debate could agree that we all want the poverty and suffering of non-rich non-westerners to be alleviated, but we happen to have very different views about how best to go about it? Yes, thought so.

More soon…

GM Crops and agribusiness: a long view

Today I thought I’d post some thoughts on the thoughts of another blogger (hey, the blogosphere can be so self-referential, no?). The man in question is Steve Savage of Applied Mythology, a blog that aims to make the case for the virtues of business-as-usual biotech agri. I’ve been following Steve’s blog for a while now, and though I disagree with the position he takes in virtually every one of his posts, I’ve definitely learned a few things along the way. Some relate to agronomic issues based on his insights as an industry insider, others have more to do with seeing how pro-biotechnology arguments get framed rhetorically.

Quite often, Applied Mythology attempts to present socio-economic and political issues as agronomic or biotechnological ones – as in this argument about the basis of US agriculture’s export success, or this inference that American slavery may have emerged as a result of a plant disease. But here I want to focus more specifically on a rhetorical strategy used to support transgenic crops, which is deployed in one of the site’s recent posts, and indeed in several previous ones, as well as more widely within the debate over GM. Its general structure is as follows: Pest or disease A threatens to wipe out the entire crop of B in country C; fortunately, transgenic variety D is available to save the industry, except irrational and anti-scientific environmental organisations En are trying to prevent its implementation. Let’s stop them!

There are various lines of weakness in this kind of argument. I’ll just mention a couple. The first is the notion of ‘saving’ an industry. I suppose the phrase is defensible, but rather than ‘saving’ the industry I think it would be more apposite to say ‘temporarily averting a crisis until the next one comes along’. Media treatments of transgenic crops regularly proceed as if the technology has somehow overcome the problem of plant pests and diseases once and for all. The truth is otherwise. Surely the best that can be said for it is that it may enable plant breeders to respond to emerging threats with new varieties more quickly. Actually, that brings to mind another rhetorical strategy among GM proponents, which is to assert strongly but very briefly the weakest part of its case (that GM crops put an end to plant disease problems) and then wax lengthily on the weakest part of its opponents’ case (that there is demonstrable evidence of harm to human health). Here’s how it’s done (this article is also noteworthy for displaying another common mechanistic logical chain: population A has a low incidence of disease B, apparently as a result of eating a lot of C, which is high in ingredient D – so if we can synthesise D cheaply and add it to diets worldwide we can reduce the global incidence of B. I’m not saying that that reasoning is necessarily always misguided, but I wouldn’t say it’s always guided either…transfats spring to mind).

Anyway, my basic point is that GM proponents are often guilty of not taking a longer view. So I was interested to see that Dr Savage, most definitely a GM proponent, has given a talk called ‘Humans vs pests, the long view’. Dodgy asides about slavery excepted, I thought it was a pretty good talk and a decent introduction to the issue of crop pests, albeit one that didn’t have much to say about transgenic technology as such. But what did ring out clearly from the talk – and this is my second point – is that export-oriented, cash-crop agriculture is often hugely reliant on a handful (or less) of crop varieties that possess the demanding suite of characteristics making them suitable for mass cultivation, export, storage and remote sale. This monocultural tendency makes them vulnerable to emerging pests and diseases, as in the story of gros michel bananas, so major commercial varieties often have a limited lifespan before they must be replaced by another variety, often one bred in part from some obscure variety growing non-commercially in a centre of diversity.

In this respect, the case for GM dovetails with the case for a large-scale, monocultural, export-oriented, cash-crop agriculture. A small-scale, polycultural, locality-oriented, self-provisioning agriculture is not without its pest and disease problems, but generally it has fewer such problems (or at least fewer ones of such gravity that it requires biotechnology to ‘save’ it) and many more potential solutions to them up its sleeve than its big-scale counterpart. And indeed its big-scale counterpart may rely on it for keeping alive potentially useful crop diversity from which new varieties can be created, even as it attempts to supplant it economically. Despite GM proponents touting it as a technology for poor small farmers, it seems to me to have much greater relevance to and affinity with big agri cash cropping. Certainly, there are instances where losses of key crops among peasant farmers can be severe, no joke when you’re living on the margins of subsistence (the reasons for that, of course, being entirely political and not fundamentally remediable by improved crop varieties). The rhetorical strategies typically employed by GM proponents in this instance though tend to the emotive – like here and here. But what would be the long-term consequences of such farmers accepting a transgenic fix to the problem (from whom? at what cost?) compared with solutions derived from their own long adaptive engagement with crop diversity and cultural controls, as excellently analysed in Paul Richards’ book Indigenous Agricultural Revolution and possibly also by the IAASTD report? I don’t know, but I’d be interested in seeing some good analysis.

Until then, I’m inclined to the view that if you think it’s a good thing to have a global agriculture dominated by export-oriented cash-crop industries, then you’ll probably think it’s a good thing to have transgenic technology to help get you out of the holes those industries find themselves in. Whereas if, like me, you think we’d be better off moving towards a social model of agriculture based more on locality self-provisioning, then transgenic technology seems less relevant, and indeed something of a threat to the agriculture we favour. Wouldn’t it be great if we could look into the future and see how all these various technologies and farm systems will play out in the truly long view, way beyond our individual lives? Then we’d know if our cherished ambitions for the kind of farms, and thus the kind of societies, we want to see turned out to be prescient or mere historical dead ends. But since that’s not possible, all we can do is work for the future we want to see as best we can with the knowledge currently available to us. Steve Savage’s talk basically assumed a labour-shedding, export-oriented agriculture of commercial monocultures. In the food systems I’d like to see in the future such an agriculture would be vastly curtailed, and I think that probably means the importance of GM crops would be vastly curtailed alongside it.