I wrote some blog posts a while back about GM crops that were prompted by Mark Lynas’s notorious speech to the Oxford Farming Conference. This has led me into various blogosphere debates with GM proponents like Steve Savage, Rachael Ludwick and Graham Strouts – mostly polite, but not always. I suppose the main point of blogging is to put out ideas and try to use what comes back to you to reflect more deeply on the issue, so this essay is an attempt on my part to do that. It’s an awful lot longer than a regular blog post, and I don’t expect anyone will read it – it’s really just my own little aide memoire for organising the issues in my mind. If anyone does read it and wishes to comment that’s great. I’ll read any comments with interest, but I’m going to avoid engaging in any more shouty, ego-fuelled blog wars so please excuse me if I don’t reply.
I was prompted to post on Lynas’s talk because of what struck me as his blatantly rhetorical use of the word ‘science’ to discredit GM opponents – indeed, the rhetorical efforts of GM proponents to position GM as ‘scientific’ and its opponents as ‘unscientific’ is beginning to attract some critical academic scholarship. GM proponents (such an unwieldy phrase…henceforth in this essay I shall label them ‘Genomic and recombinant advocates, triumphalists and enthusiasts’ or GRATEs for short –enthusiasm is endearing and advocacy is expected, but it’s the GRATEs’ great triumphalism that grates)…er, where was I, oh yes the GRATEs use the irreproachable cachet of science to smuggle in a whole series of essentially political commitments to their favoured agricultural choices, in a process that Kinchy aptly calls ‘scientized politics’. A glance at the fairly risible scientific content of Lynas’s speech – his inferences from the German E. coli outbreak, his comments on Australian transgenic wheat, his analysis of food safety – should be sufficient to convince the informed reader that it is scientized politics and not science that’s at play here. Indeed, anyone propounding the notion that public policy can be decided by ‘science’ rather than ‘ideology’ would be well advised to take a course in political science or sociology to find out what ‘ideology’ actually means – and if that doesn’t work then really there’s no hope for meaningful debate. Even the geneticist Adam Rutherford has described synthetic biology as being like a ‘political movement’.
Still, we all use rhetorical devices – it’s not as if the GRATEs are alone in this. So it may be that beyond their rhetoric they do have sound reasons for their positions. That’s what I’m going to look at in the rest of this essay, mostly in relation to golden rice – “the poster crop for the potential of the private sector to help the poor” – which undoubtedly for that reason seems to be the main focus of debates on the ethics of GM and certainly has been in my case, but also touching on other GM issues. So the remainder of the essay falls into eight parts:
- Throwing (pre)caution to the wind
- The arms race accelerates
- Ms Carson’s anthrax and Herr Haber’s allotment
- The white man’s burden
- Golden promises
- Let them eat broccoli
- But it’s free!
Throwing (pre)caution to the wind
The precautionary principle places the burden of proof that a new technology is not harmful upon those seeking to implement it, and so enjoys an obvious popularity with anti-GM activists and an equally obvious notoriety amongst the GRATEs. Clearly it’s impossible to be 100% sure about the future consequences of any new technology so a rigorous interpretation of the precautionary principle would mean that no new technology was ever implemented – hardly a tenable position.
Bjorn Lomborg doubtless had this issue in mind when he suggested that if the humble potato had to jump through the extensive regulatory hoops applied to modern GM crops then it probably wouldn’t pass muster. It’s a fair point inasmuch as one can’t assume that conventionally bred crops are necessarily safer than GM ones. But potatoes weren’t in fact grown on any significant scale as food crops for well over a century after their introduction into Europe precisely because people considered them poisonous – their rise reflected a process of slow acculturation. In the world we now inhabit, once a crop has passed its regulatory hurdles it has the potential to quickly reach millions of stomachs, whose owners may not even know that they’re eating it.
A transgenic crop like golden rice (engineered to have additional Vitamin A in order to address the disabling and potentially lethal effects of Vitamin A deficiency) is essentially a medical intervention targeted at large numbers of impoverished people with highly compromised health and few choices over what they eat. Therefore, as with any medicine, I think we need to be pretty sure that the cure is better than the disease. In common with many GRATEs, Ingo Potrykus, co-inventor of golden rice, complains that the regulatory burden for GM crops like golden rice is too great and has delayed its implementation by 10 years. I suspect many drug companies feel the same about their products, and would prefer a lighter regulatory touch. Well, they would wouldn’t they… But even if they’re ultimately proved right it’s only really with long historical hindsight that anyone can judge whether the application of the precautionary principle was too stringent or too lax in any given case. And there are surely grounds for erring on the side of stringency.
The GRATEs make much of the delays to the implementation of transgenic crops, but by any historical standards their spread has been astonishingly rapid. Less than twenty years after the first commercial GM crops were grown, the latest figures show that there are over 170 million hectares globally planted to GM crops (or at least to GM ‘events’ – but why not use the industry’s own figures?). I’d be surprised if any other new agricultural technology in human history has spread so far, so fast. I don’t think the GRATEs are on firm historical ground in suggesting that transgenic technology has been subjected to inordinate delay.
The GM debates of the 1990s were much concerned with the safety of GM crops, in which context the label ‘Frankenfood’ was coined. Interestingly, a recent study has shown that the term ‘Frankenfood’ now occurs more frequently in GRATE treatises as a way of ridiculing anti-GM activism than among anti-GM treatises themselves. The debate has moved on, and it’s probably true that some of the original fears over the risks to human health of GM crops were unfounded – though uncertainties do remain about the safety of GM crops, and the GRATE shibboleth about GM being a safer, less ‘scattergun’ approach than conventional breeding is not well founded. On the other hand, it seems pretty likely that the prodigious ingestion of soya and maize, key GM crops, in modern diets is unhealthy whether we’re talking about transgenic varieties or not. The larger health issues are about the grain and grain-legume rich diet furnished by modern industrial agriculture, to which the GM industry is accessory.
The arms race accelerates
Indeed, it’s this uber-industrialisation, not specifically caused by GM crops but further potentiated by them, that seems to me the main problem. Every agricultural intervention invites a response from the natural biota that we term ‘pests’ (typically weed plants or insects that directly or indirectly compromise crop growth), but generally speaking the more monolithic the intervention the quicker and more thoroughly it will be neutralised by the natural response. The advantages of pesticide tolerant GM crops are already being negated by the emergence of pest tolerance and secondary pests, to the extent that some farmers no longer see any economic advantage to their GM seeds. This isn’t a problem specifically of GM crops, although it can be compounded by the direct transfer of resistant transgenes to wild pests, which is GM specific, and for which there is now clear evidence. But it is a problem of large-scale GM monocultures. There are ways to try to get around it – pest refugia, high lethal doses, new varieties to outsmart the resistant pests. Some of them may work for a while, depending on a vast range of wider agronomic factors. But the way GM technology is being implemented represents an acceleration and a narrowing of the agricultural arms race which leaves an increasingly large number of people at the mercy of technical agronomic innovations whose future success we cannot guess. Perhaps there’s an unlearned lesson here from the green revolution of the 1960s and 70s, where the initial high yield increases have often dwindled away largely in the face of pest response . Meanwhile there are serious concerns about the impact of GM crops on biodiversity, both cultivated and wild – which has been the scientific basis of the EU ban on GM crops.
Ms Carson’s anthrax and Herr Haber’s allotment
This is a bit of an aside, but a recent GRATE meme (though not, I submit, a great meme) is that Rachel Carson – pioneer of environmentalism and whistle-blower on the environmental damage of postwar industrial agriculture – would have approved of GM crops, typically on the grounds that they are a bio-smart and not a chemo-dumb approach. Perhaps she would also have favoured anthrax over Trident as her preferred weapon of mass destruction for the same reason. It’s a neat rhetorical strategy to recruit a hero of your opponents to your own cause, and of course it’s a great help that she’s dead and cannot speak for herself. Personally I think she might be pretty narked that after the first generation of agri-technophiles tried to destroy her reputation, a later generation is invoking it for their cause. Anyway, I reckon Fritz Haber would have been a strong supporter of organic agriculture. As a nationalist who devoted most of his life to the technological glorification of Germany, he was sacked by Hitler for being Jewish and died shortly thereafter a broken man. Had he lived longer and seen the ultimate course of German nationalism, I think he would have recanted his erstwhile politics, recasting them into a more internationalist conception of food sovereignty, and devoting his prodigious skills to working for local self-reliance to become an outspoken advocate of municipal allotments and green manuring. But of course I could be wrong. Perhaps we should let the giants of the past rest in peace and conduct our contemporary arguments in our own names, not theirs.
I’m going to move on now to talk mostly about Golden Rice, a GM crop that – as mentioned above – has been engineered to contain high levels of Vitamin A in the hope that it might treat Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) in susceptible populations – a condition that causes blindness and the death of an estimated 250,000-500,000 children annually.
I have no reason to doubt that the people working on Golden Rice are genuinely concerned about this appalling disease and that Golden Rice may eventually have some role to play in lessening its impact. However, the emotive issue of children’s deaths from VAD is often used by GRATEs as a kind of moral high ground with which to berate GM critics – disreputably in my opinion, firstly because the facts scarcely bear out their case and secondly because their approach usually reveals a much greater concern for advocating GM crops than for tackling poverty and disease. Indeed, even Gordon Conway, an unequivocal supporter of GM technology, wrote that “the public relations uses of golden rice have gone too far” when he was president of the Rockefeller Foundation, which funded some of the golden rice research. A while back, Jeremy Cherfas wrote “Golden Rice, as a poster child for engineered biofortification, has come a long way. Those promoting it have become much less strident and have sought to build alliances”. Well, stop the press, the latest news is that they – or at least their camp followers – are getting strident again…
It’s worth pointing out that a child can get all the Vitamin A it needs by eating the equivalent of half a carrot a day, and that people suffering from VAD are basically people who are too poor to eat anything much other than rice, or other Vitamin A deficient staples. It’s also worth pointing out that it’s not currently known whether golden rice can actually reduce the burden of VAD – this is the subject of currently ongoing trials. Nevertheless, it’s widely claimed that golden rice can save thousands or millions of lives, and do so more cheaply than other interventions.
As far as I can see, there’s little evidence behind these claims – the most convincing I’ve found is the economic evaluation undertaken for India by Alexander Stein and colleagues, who suggest that the implementation of golden rice could save somewhere between 8 and 59% of the burden of ill health (disability and death) from VAD in India (which is quite a big margin of uncertainty really…) at a price that may prove cheaper than Vitamin A supplementation programmes. I’ve looked at this study and as far as I can judge it’s competently done, but it’s based on ex ante analysis (which is economist jargon for ‘we made the numbers up’) rather than on what’s actually happened and inevitably it makes various simplifying assumptions that are questionable – these include not incorporating the full costs of developing golden rice, not incorporating the full benefits of other remediation programmes, and simply assuming that golden rice will reach those most in need of it through the Indian public distribution system (PDS) and other routes.
I wrote to Professor Matin Qaim, one of the study authors, on this latter point. His view is that the price of golden rice would be the same as ordinary rice so there’s no reason to expect differential access by income level. Plausible perhaps, but I’m not so sure…other research has suggested that PDS rice goes disproportionately to the better off, and indeed there is a mass of similar such issues about the distribution of VAD and its remedies that requires proper analysis before anyone can draw firm conclusions about its efficacy and cost-effectiveness. For example, the main thrust of the golden rice project is to give the seeds to poor farmers in rural areas where other interventions have been less successful. However, some studies suggest that the main burden of VAD falls upon the rural landless rather than rural farmers, and there seems to be little analysis of how the rice will reach the plates of the landless. Nor is there much analysis of institutional problems in the distribution of golden rice to rural areas. The lesser success of other VAD treatments such as Vitamin A supplements in rural rather than urban areas has been to do with factors such as poor transport and communications infrastructure, the limitations of rural extension services, conflict and conservatism among rural communities and so on. I don’t see any reason to suppose that these will not equally afflict the implementation of golden rice – a point made by Jansen and Gupta in their analysis of ‘biotechnology for the poor as unrealised promise’. Moreover, if we don’t even currently know whether golden rice can actually reduce the burden of VAD, we certainly don’t know its capacities after several generations of seed saving and replanting by poor farmers in a variety of local conditions.
None of this suggests to me that golden rice has no potential role in tackling VAD. I find it fairly easy to agree with Stein et al’s modest conclusion that “Golden Rice should therefore be considered seriously as a complementary intervention to fight VAD in rice-eating populations in the medium term” – although it would be nice if there were some economic evaluations of the many other lower tech interventions that are recommended by the WHO and other public health experts such as supporting breastfeeding and community gardening so that we could do some proper comparisons.
At any rate, seriously considering something as a complementary intervention is a very far cry from tendentious claims that golden rice is obviously the best intervention, or even more hysterical accusations that its critics are morally culpable for VAD-related child deaths. As I mentioned above, the GRATEs like to raise the spectre of children’s deaths to impugn the moral standing of golden rice sceptics but there’s no evidence behind their claims and (memo to self) no need for sceptics to rise to their bait.
Let them eat broccoli
As far as I can see VAD is caused by poverty, and most especially by the kind of grinding, abject and politically powerless poverty that is the special misfortune of the rural landless. This is something that the GRATEs gloss over far too readily – the approach is exemplified by Lynas, who writes “No-one disputes that a balanced and nutritionally-adequate diet is the best long-term soluton to vitamin A deficiency and malnutrition in general. But achieving this requires the elimination of poverty (which is why rich countries do not have this problem), something which will take time and decades of economic growth in the developing world.” Note the slippage in those words between the absolute dietary privation of VAD and the total ‘elimination of poverty’. Note the rhetorical closure to the possibility that poor people may have Vitamin A adequate diets.
People who actually know and care about poverty in the ‘developing world’ do not gloss over the issues in such a way. They take seriously the question of rural infrastructure development, land rights, extension services, and access to diverse diets. They do not shrug their shoulders and point to evidence that commercial vegetable growing is economically difficult, but consider why it’s difficult, what can be done about it, and consider carefully the differences between commercial and self-provisioned vegetables. The reason that a GM enthusiast such as Gordon Conway devotes relatively little attention to GM in his book One Billion Hungry: Can We Feed The World is because he cares more about tackling poverty than he does about trumpeting GM – which is not something that can be said about most of the GRATEs who have jumped on the golden rice bandwagon.
GRATEs often say, apparently quite reasonably, something along the lines of ‘it needn’t be either/or – why not both golden rice and other interventions’. Well, no reason really – except that the funding and policy environment supportive of the former is often explicitly antithetical to the latter. Other interventions usually involve a more explicitly political foregrounding of poverty as the problem and more unglamorous legwork in poor communities. The attraction to funders, governments and scientists of doing cutting edge biotech research in a well-appointed institute rather than community advocacy and development in squalid squatter villages are fairly obvious – a criticism of the older biotech ‘green revolution’ that still holds true. But if the proposal is genuinely to examine the potential contribution of golden rice alongside other possible interventions, then yes – why not?
However, often that isn’t the proposal. The giveaway phrase is ‘let them eat broccoli’. Intended as a put down to golden rice critics who suggest that the priority solution to VAD must be dietary diversification, this phrase lays bare the real concerns of those that use it, which are (1) to ridicule GM critics and (2) to promote a GM solution as the only viable one. In so doing, I think they reveal their ignorance of development issues and their lack of any real concern over the pathologies of poverty, which are not ultimately going to be solved by supply side interventions, as Edward Carr has nicely argued. Biofortification (GM or not) normalises poverty in much the same way that many drug therapies normalise pathology. Of course, that’s not an argument against using biofortification or drug therapy, but it is an argument against the deep bias our political culture displays in favour of acute and remedial high tech interventions that tackle only proximate causes, rather than low tech preventive interventions . This bias stalks the ‘let them eat broccoli’ phrase.
The phrase is obviously a reference to Marie Antoinette’s much-misunderstood ‘let them eat cake’ but I wonder why ‘broccoli’ has been chosen as the substitute term…
The white man’s burden
…ah yes, it must be because broccoli is redolent of fancy, middle-class, European cuisine, so the term implicitly locates anti-GM sentiment in the effete organic sensibilities of comfortably-off Europeans. Indeed, various GRATEs are pretty explicit in their attempts to portray anti-GM sentiment as an outmoded affectation more or less exclusively restricted to wealthy Europeans, an accusation that has been effectively criticised by Jansen and Gupta. The contrary and rather obvious truth is that there are supporters and opponents of GM crops in every region of the world and among rich and poor alike. It’s certainly possible to dispute the arguments of anti-GM activists from the global south, but it’s not possible to dispute the fact that these activists exist.
I think the GRATEs’ attempts to portray anti-GM activism as an elite European phenomenon is at best patronising, and in some respects implicitly racist. What they’re effectively saying is that people in the global south are incapable of making their own reasoned judgments about GM crops and are hoodwinked by western activists. The GRATEs’ argument then becomes a version of the ‘white man’s burden’, that venerable apologetic for colonialism which held that it was the weighty but necessary responsibility of the colonizer to liberate the colonized from their poverty and ignorance by recourse to the superior technology and wisdom of the colonizing power. There’s a pretty long history in the global south of colonial projects dreamed up by western experts – often very well intentioned – which go badly wrong, usually to the detriment of the people who were supposedly to be helped rather than to said experts. Suspicion over golden rice is historically rational, however much certain (other) wealthy westerners wish to peddle it as their latest act of selfless benevolence.
Chief contemporary betrayer of this revamped white man’s burden in the eyes of the GRATEs is Greenpeace, which campaigns globally against GM crops, including golden rice. To be honest, I’ve struggled to find out exactly what the GRATEs’ case against Greenpeace is, other than simply disagreeing with its stance. Specific allegations are rare. Ingo Potrykus himself concedes that anti-GM activism hasn’t actually slowed the development of the golden rice project. It’s often remarked that Greenpeace is well resourced financially, though I can’t see what that has to do with the arguments for or against GM crops. Possibly some Greenpeace campaigns have understated levels of Vitamin A in golden rice, which is perhaps reprehensible, though of course nobody yet knows what impact golden rice would actually have on the burden of disease. And Greenpeace blew the whistle on a golden rice trial in China which indisputably wasn’t following proper research protocols – no case to answer there, as far as I can see.
If anybody can point me to the smoking gun that shows how Greenpeace is responsible for the avoidable deaths of children from VAD, then I’d be interested to take a look at the evidence. Personally, I think it’s no bad thing for civil society to have pressure groups lobbying for causes, and if we want to allocate blame to international organisations for causing avoidable suffering among the global poor I’d suggest that the callous protectionism of EU and US agricultural policies, the one-sided free trade agenda of the G8 and the WTO, the many anti-poor policies of the World Bank and the IMF, and the foreign policies of the major global power blocs are orders of magnitude above Greenpeace in the gallery of shame.
But it’s free!
The GRATEs make much of the fact that Syngenta has licensed golden rice to be distributed freely to poor farmers. Of course, nothing is ever actually ‘free’ – there is always an opportunity cost involved, and it would be nice to see a serious analysis of how alternative investment strategies in community development might stack up in comparison to the total costs of the golden rice project.
Still, on the face of it Vitamin A packed rice seeds given away to poor farmers sounds like a pretty good deal (though I suspect it may seem less so to such farmers themselves for the reasons outlined above – western corporations have previous). Perhaps it’s true that eco/lefty opinion is overly suspicious of such corporate largesse, which may be actuated by genuine humanitarian motives rather than being the Trojan horse that many on the eco-left suspect. Equally I suspect the GRATEs are often underly suspicious. But it’s not really about one’s personal politics. The whole discourse of political economy in the west over the last thirty odd years has, very explicitly, taken the line that social interests are best served by the pursuit of private profit and that maximising shareholder value is the fundamental corporate duty – it’s been a political embodiment of Adam Smith’s dictum “I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good”. And yet in the case of golden rice, all of a sudden we’re expected to believe precisely the opposite.
Even if there are genuinely humanitarian motives at play in the actions of the biotech corporations, the fact is the global economy is not structured to accommodate them – a point that Potrykus makes in complaining about the lack of institutional structures to support public good biotech initiatives, though bizarrely he blames this on a regulation-obsessed public sector rather than a deregulation-obsessed public sector. Witness, for example, Monsanto’s smallholder programme which “represented an attempt to ‘mainstream’ the values and principles of sustainability into Monsanto’s operations, but…this led to the distinctive philanthropic and developmental aspects of the programme being undermined by competing commercial and financial pressures”. As somebody who has likewise tried to run a business along ethical and sustainable lines but ultimately came to grief in the face of such pressures, I sympathise. But not too much. The basic model on offer here is the same one that says it’s best to let rich people generate wealth without limitation, and then – if they so wish – allow their wealth to trickle down to the poor. Curiously, that model always appeals most to the rich, and the trickle just never does quite seem to put a stop to poverty. The point is not that large corporations are evil – they’re just doing the job that we expect of them. The evil is in the way that we have structured the economy to depend on their largesse.
I have no idea how all this will play out over the coming years. I doubt anyone does. I don’t see any basis for supposing that GM technology will put the control of seeds back into the hands of farmers and small local companies when the whole thrust of the seed business has been precisely in the opposite direction, GM or no (witness the latest EU seed law). The big sociological story of our times is urbanisation in the global south: UN projections suggest that by 2025 there will be 454 million extra urban dwellers in China, India, Bangladesh and the Phillipines compared to 2010, and 173 million less rural dwellers. I’m sure that will spell upward mobility for some, but not many – the other big sociological story of our times is rampant land grabbing and slum expansion. So in the future there may well be a big urban market for golden rice provided by large mechanised commercial farms who are paying their dues to Syngenta, and Syngenta shareholders would probably demand nothing less.
Or maybe golden rice will tick along as an intervention for the rural poor from which Syngenta make no money, vindicating their decision to ditch biofortified rice as a commercial venture and earning them corporate brownie points for continuing their support. Maybe somebody will develop a non-GM crop with high Vitamin A levels, and make it freely available through third sector routes so that the bottom drops out of the golden rice (non)market. Presumably the GRATEs would have no problem with that.
GRATEs are wont to say that GM technology is just another tool in the box, and what’s so wrong with that? My feeling is nothing, probably. I don’t think the technology as it stands will greatly revolutionise agriculture, and I think we may already be seeing the diminishing returns kicking in of the kind that happened with the earlier green revolution. Maybe future generations of GM technology will have more to offer than the present one which, despite its undeniable cleverness, is not really genetic engineering but merely ‘genetic tinkering’ in Ford Denison’s phrase. All I really have to say is that despite blustering assertions to the contrary the evidence isn’t there yet on golden rice or on most other GM technologies, so the GRATEs really ought to scale back on the strident self-righteous moralism that all too often afflicts them. Of course, I’m well aware that most people don’t give a flying fuchsia about what I have to say on GM crops or on anything much else besides, but if you’ve read this far you’re obviously not among them, so thanks for coming along.
 BBC Radio 4 ‘Start the Week’ 15 Apr 2013
 Raj Patel 2007. Stuffed and Starved, London: Portobello Books, p.136
 J.W. Purseglove (1968) Tropical Crops: Dicotyledons, Harlow: Longman; C. Heiser (2007) Seed To Civilisation, Indo American Books.
 Conway, One Billion Hungry, op. cit.
 Vaclav Smil (2001) Enriching The Earth, Cambridge: MIT Press.
 Patel, Stuffed and Starved, op cit.
 Conway, One Billion Hungry, op cit; see also [ref]
 Paul Richards (1985) Indigenous Agricultural Revolution, London: Hutchinson.
 Geoffrey Rose (1993) The Strategy of Preventive Medicine, Oxford: Clarendon.
 Eg. Robert Paarlberg Starved For Science, Cambridge: Harvard University Press
 Richards, Indigenous Agricultural Revolution op cit; Conway, One Billion Hungry, op cit; James Scott 1998 Seeing Like A State, New Haven: Yale University Press.
 The Land Issue 13; Mike Davis 2006 Planet of Slums, London: Verso.
 Conway One Billion Hungry, op cit
 Ford Denison 2012 Darwinian Agriculture, Princeton: Princeton University Press