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.

GM, Golden Rice and Greenpeace

I wrote some blog posts[1] a while back about GM crops that were prompted by Mark Lynas’s notorious speech to the Oxford Farming Conference[2]. This has led me into various blogosphere debates with GM proponents like Steve Savage[3], Rachael Ludwick[4] and Graham Strouts[5] – 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[6]. 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’[7]. 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’[8].

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”[9] – 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!
  • Conclusion

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[10] 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[11] – 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[12]. 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[13] (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[14]. 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[15]. 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[16]. 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[17], to the extent that some farmers no longer see any economic advantage to their GM seeds[18]. 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[19]. 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[20] . Meanwhile there are serious concerns about the impact of GM crops on biodiversity, both cultivated and wild[21] – 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[22]. 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[23]. 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.

Golden promises

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[24].

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[25] – 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”[26] 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”[27]. 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[28]. 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[29]. 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[30], 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[31], 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[32], 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’[33]. 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”[34] – 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[35], or even more hysterical accusations that its critics are morally culpable for VAD-related child deaths[36]. As I mentioned above, the GRATEs like to raise the spectre of children’s deaths to impugn the moral standing of golden rice sceptics[37] 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.”[38] 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[39] 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[40]. 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’[41] that still holds true[42]. 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’[43]. 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[44]. 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[45] . 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[46], an accusation that has been effectively criticised by Jansen and Gupta[47]. 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[48].

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[49]. 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[50]. It’s often remarked that Greenpeace is well resourced financially[51], 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[52] – 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[53]. 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”[54]. 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)[55]. 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[56]. 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[57]. 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[58]. 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[59]. 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[60]. 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.

[8] BBC Radio 4 ‘Start the Week’ 15 Apr 2013

[9] Raj Patel 2007. Stuffed and Starved, London: Portobello Books, p.136

[11] J.W. Purseglove (1968) Tropical Crops: Dicotyledons, Harlow: Longman; C. Heiser (2007) Seed To Civilisation, Indo American Books.

[17] See for example,; Gordon Conway (2012) One Billion Hungry: Can We Feed The World, Ithaca: Cornell University Press

[20] Conway, One Billion Hungry, op. cit.

[23] Vaclav Smil (2001) Enriching The Earth, Cambridge: MIT Press.

[28] Patel, Stuffed and Starved, op cit.

[34] Stein et al, op cit

[39] Conway, One Billion Hungry, op cit; see also [ref]

[41] Paul Richards (1985) Indigenous Agricultural Revolution, London: Hutchinson.

[45] Geoffrey Rose (1993) The Strategy of Preventive Medicine, Oxford: Clarendon.

[46] Eg. Robert Paarlberg Starved For Science, Cambridge: Harvard University Press

[49] Richards, Indigenous Agricultural Revolution op cit; Conway, One Billion Hungry, op cit; James Scott 1998 Seeing Like A State, New Haven: Yale University Press.

[55] Jack Kloppenburg 2004 First The Seed, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press; William Cronon 1991 Nature’s Metropolis, New York: WW Norton;;

[57] The Land Issue 13; Mike Davis 2006 Planet of Slums, London: Verso.

[59] Conway One Billion Hungry, op cit

[60] Ford Denison 2012 Darwinian Agriculture, Princeton: Princeton University Press

Organic glyphosate?

I promised a post this week on technology and the Amish but for various reasons I’m going to hold that over for a couple of weeks – mostly pressure of work, including attending the launch of a UK Via Campesina branch over the weekend, a very exciting development. More on that in another post soon.

Still, I don’t want to disappoint my avid readers so I thought I’d tide you over with a few thoughts on glyphosate, culled from some links on Ford Denison’s excellent Darwinian Agriculture blog.

First up is this interesting discussion about herbicides and organic farming. The problem: you grow a grass/legume ley – the key organic fertility-building strategy – but then you need to get rid of it in order to plant your crop. How? In organic farming you basically have to till, which isn’t great for a whole bunch of reasons already discussed on this blog. And it’s energy intensive, which is one of the factors underlying the common refrain that organic farming compares unfavourably with ‘efficient’ conventional agriculture. So should organic farmers learn from their conventional counterparts and start killing off their leys with herbicides like glyphosate? Of course, that’s presently banned under organic standards, but maybe it’s time to rethink the rigidity of the standards and make them deal better with difficult ecological tradeoffs like tillage/herbicide. Or so says Andy McGuire in his blog post. Cue interesting, well informed and polite discussion. How refreshing.

I’ve argued before on this site that the heavy soils and moist climate hereabouts in Somerset incline me to think that judicious tillage in my situation may not be the great evil that is often supposed, but on balance it’s hard to get too enthusiastic about tillage as a wise agricultural strategy. With drier climates and lighter soils there’s little doubt that it is a great evil – soil erosion is one of the greatest threats to agricultural sustainability – and since such regions are often major food exporters this isn’t a problem that anyone can dismiss lightly.

So should we lobby IFOAM to allow glyphosate derogations? Well, it would help if President Obama could nationalise Monsanto once he’s outsmarted the NRA and removed every last gun from the US. And about as likely. Even then I’m not really persuaded about the wisdom of using glyphosate routinely, but there’s a genuine dilemma here. Other ideas discussed on the website included grazing regimens and that good old permaculture standby, mulching. Of course mulching would be great, but it’s not practical on agricultural scales – so perhaps here’s yet another argument for small-scale horticulture over agriculture. Mulching is a lot of work, mind you. And with millions of merry mulchers, you do wonder where all that mulch would come from. Invest in the used carpet trade – you read it here first.

Andy McGuire made the interesting point that glyphosate may be a once in a lifetime discovery – in other words, it won’t be easy to find another comparably effective non-selective, translocated and (relatively?) benign herbicide. A shame, then, that glyphosate resistance in weeds is already developing apace (they say a picture’s worth a thousand words, and the photo on the previous link of glyphosate-resistant corn being overtopped by what’s now glyphosate-resistant ragweed speaks volumes for what’s wrong with modern agriculture). Moreover, the possibility of direct gene flow from transgenic glyphosate-resistant plants to weedy wild plants now seems established. Be afraid. But don’t be surprised – there’s no such thing as an ideal agriculture. Pests and weeds will adapt to whatever management strategies you apply to the agroecosystem. But I’d have thought that if your management strategy involves copious routine spraying of a non-selective herbicide, then it’s fairly obvious that the useful lifespan of your chosen toxin will probably be short. Perhaps there’s another unlearned historical lesson there from the story of antibiotics.

So how about this future scenario, which appeals to my sense of historical irony? On conventional farms weed resistance renders glyphosate ineffective as a routine management measure, forcing farmers to resort to energy intensive and environmentally destructive tillage, at least until they’ve re-established some kind of crop-weed balance on their farms. Meanwhile organic or quasi-organic farmers, whose farms lack the superweeds, use glyphosate sparingly, spraying just a small proportion of their fields every few years as part of a mixed overall farming strategy, thereby keeping resistance at bay. And the press write endless accusatory articles about the inefficiency of ‘conventional’ agriculture compared to the sensible mixed strategies of the mainstream organic farmers, and gleefully point out that conventional agriculture will never feed the world. Well, everyone  can dream…

Science, Ideology and GM

I only posted a couple of weeks ago about GM crops and Mark Lynas, but a fortnight’s a long time in agriculture (and even longer in the blogosphere), so time for a few updates.

Lynas, you may recall, is the political science graduate and some time environmental activist who’s now made his peace with corporate agribusiness, the nuclear industry etc and gave a rousing speech to the Oxford Farming Conference about the benefits of transgenic (GM) technology. One of his big themes was the need to embrace science in considering the case for GM crops. Another one was the misdeeds of the organic movement – for example, dismissing as “simplistic nonsense” the Soil Association’s arguments that people in the west should “eat less meat and fewer calories overall so that people in developing countries can have more”.

Entertainingly, this Soil Association view appears to be pretty much exactly the line taken in a new report from the UN Environment Programme lead authored by Professor Mark Sutton, an environmental physicist from the Centre for Hydrology and Ecology at Imperial College London. Which all sounds pretty scientific to me. I haven’t had sight of the full report yet, but judging from the press release it advocates “lowering personal consumption of animal protein among populations consuming high rates by voluntary reduction and avoiding excess” and it also advocates a rebalancing of global agricultural nutrient distribution from the over-nutrified west to the under-nutrified south, the effects of which would seem quite akin to having fewer calories in the west so that people in developing countries can have more.

One would like to think that Lynas will now put his hand up and admit that it was simplistic nonsense to call the Soil Association’s position simplistic nonsense, given that its view has been sanctified by science. However, I rather doubt he will, since as I suggested a couple of weeks ago his talk had very little to do with actual science, and a lot to do with invoking the word “science” as a kind of religious incantation to justify his views. Meanwhile, various people have been writing interestingly on the questionable scientific case for GM – including Colin Tudge, Brian JohnFord Denison, John Vandermeer, Doug Gurian-Sherman, Eric Holt Giménez and Peter Melchett. Their credentials as scientists may vary, but collectively they’re rather superior to Lynas’s. Unfortunately their views didn’t get as much airplay – perhaps, as a political scientist, Lynas knows more about how to play the game of politics.

Ultimately, though, I think it’s a grave error to frame this whole debate in terms of “the science”. I was prompted to post on Lynas’s talk because of how blatantly rhetorical his appeal to the concept of “science” was. But as a social scientist like Lynas, I don’t have the biological background always to be able to sort the scientific wheat from the chaff in everything I read about GM. One might think that there should be public institutions employing disinterested scientists to do this on behalf of laymen like me. But that would turn scientists into priests (ironically something of a problem in contemporary society, as demonstrated in Lynas’s lecture) – and many of the questions about GM are not scientific ones anyway.

For example, to ask whether it’s possible to manipulate the rice genome in order to make it synthesise beta-carotene and produce ‘golden rice’ is a scientific question. But to ask whether we should tackle Vitamin A deficiency globally by introducing golden rice is not. Here we might turn to the skills of development experts, anthropologists, sociologists, epidemiologists and economists – though I’m a bit cautious about the economists, because of their tendency to make their analyses seem more scientific than they actually are. So how about this for a rule of thumb? Any question involving ‘can’ goes to the scientists, because they’re good at figuring out new ways of doing things. Any question involving ‘should’ goes to the anthropologists and sociologists, because they understand how effects ramify throughout societies, and also because it would be good for them to have to make some tricky policy decisions for a change rather than criticising everybody else’s. And any question involving ‘how’ goes to the economists, because they’re good at calculating how to get people to do things using tax incentives and stuff, but otherwise get above themselves. No place in my team for political scientists, but I’m sure Mark Lynas has things to be getting on with.

I mention golden rice in particular because it’s been the subject of a debate between myself and self-styled ‘ecopragmatist’ Graham Stouts. It’s been a bruising affair, the kind of testosterone-fuelled, heavyweight battle witnessed in the lower reaches of the Screwfix Western League on wet winter weekends here in Somerset. I’m not sure that Stouts’ diatribes against me really need to be taken too seriously, but he did cause me to muse over the problematic way the word ‘ideology’ is so often used these days, and the difficulties faced by anyone who questions the modern ideology of ‘progress’, since they immediately invite the charge of backwardness or anti-progressiveness from within that same ideology. The debate also raised questions concerning the practicalities of relieving diseases of poverty.

On the latter score, Stouts considers my views on GM to be “morally repugnant” and akin to “going to Bangladesh, smashing up charitably-donated children’s wheelchairs and demanding they be completely banned”. My feeling about histrionics of this kind amongst GM proponents is that they doth protest too much. And funnily enough the International Rice Research Institute has just issued a press release which rather punctures some of the overinflated claims being put about by GM ideologues proponents on golden rice. A case of the people actually doing the work being rather more modest about it than the camp followers. It was ever thus.

My view remains that when the problem is poverty but the preferred solution is bioengineering Vitamin A into a grain, it’s worth looking very carefully at the political context of the solution. The research I’ve read so far doesn’t suggest to me that golden rice is likely to be the best route to go down even for the palliative relief of Vitamin A deficiency, though I don’t think it should be ruled out entirely. Stouts may be able to clarify his position if he replies to my last posts on his website, but when it comes to the charge of ‘moral repugnance’ my feeling is that GM proponents like him are dishonourably using the emotive issue of children’s suffering to spin their own particular line on GM. I’ll come back to the issue of golden rice in a future post. In the mean time, I guess the lesson I’ve learned from the GM debate is that scientists can’t tell us what to do, so we all have to try to become our own GM experts as best we can. In truth, to quote the inimitable Sweet Brown, ain’t nobody got time for that. But maybe we just have to try.

There was an amusing little sideshow in my debate with Stouts that centred around the Amish. But this post is already too long so I’ll pick up on that next time – not because I particularly want to spin out this GM debate any further, but because the Amish issue links back nicely to last week’s post on R. Ford Denison, and forward to future posts on agrarian populism.

Five Reasons Why Mark Lynas Is Wrong About GM Technology

Mark Lynas has garnered a lot of publicity recently in recanting his opposition to GM crops. He’s joined the growing bandwagon of renegade environmentalists – the so called ‘neo-environmentalists’, who include the likes of Patrick Moore, Steward Brand and James Lovelock – in adopting techno-fixer arguments about the necessity of high tech solutions to the world’s environmental problems.

I’ve read the text of his recent GM speech, and listened to his further defence of his views on the BBC’s ‘Hard Talk‘ programme, and I find his arguments unconvincing and spurious for five main reasons. Most of them turn on the point that the neo-environmentalists would have us believe their views are grounded in something they call “the science” but which on closer inspection turns out be an ideological and rhetorical use of the word “science”, and in fact a rather unscientific one.

And so, the reasons. Number one – Lynas says environmentalists accept the scientific consensus on climate change but ignore it when it comes to GM crops. It’s a false parallel. The science on climate change has shown in the face of much denial that climate change is happening and that it’s anthropogenic. What it hasn’t shown – and what it can’t show – is what, if anything, we should do about it, although it may help to clarify the implications of whatever decisions we take. By contrast, nobody has ever questioned that GM is a viable, implementable technology – the question is whether we should in fact implement it, on which “the science” is equally as impotent in its ability to answer as in the case of climate change. “The science” can address whether GM technologies are safe (probably, but maybe we shouldn’t be too hasty), whether they use more pesticides (yes and no), whether they will eliminate the problem of pests (no) and whether they will increase yields (maybe or maybe not). But it can’t tell us whether we should embrace the technology – though there are certainly plenty of scientists like R. Ford Denison, John Vandermeer, and the signatories to the IAASTD Report who have expressed their doubts – usually in relation to efficacy rather than safety.

Number two – well then, what can tell us? Revealingly, Lynas says he rethought his stance on GM when somebody asked him if he also opposed the wheel on the grounds of corporate control in the automotive industry. Let’s leave the question of corporate control to Point Five and enquire into the rather puzzling comparison Lynas makes between wheels and GM crops. So let’s imagine somebody inventing the wheel – maybe they reckoned it would make it easier for them to tote their harvest home, the invention worked, and the idea caught on. In other words, the invention tackled a specific problem faced by specific people at a specific time. Thousands of years later it’s easy for us to read back into that invention some kind of fateful historical decision that has culminated in our eight-lane highways and all the rest of it. But no such fateful decision was ever made, and the notion that it was is a kind of modern scientistic fallacy that has little to do with actual science. Turning a question of practical science (‘how can I solve this problem’) into a social ideology (‘the scientific solution of problems inherently constitutes social progress and is therefore a good thing’) is nothing more than an act of faith. If we adopt GM it should be because it solves a particular problem, not because it represents ‘progress’. Now, I accept that some people genuinely think GM does solve problems – though I suspect biotechnologists are heavily overrepresented in this particular category (Lynas’s tendency to value their opinion on GM more than anyone else’s seems rather like placing special value on turkeys’ opinions about Christmas in this respect). But if we’re going to implement GM technology, let’s debate exactly which problems it solves, exactly whose problems it solves (who are the winners and losers from its implementation), and whether these prospective solutions are likely to remain stable over time. Maybe, just maybe, cultures that deliberate actively about the paths they wish to take (like the Amish, for example, an easy target for Lynas’s derision) have something to teach cultures like ours that obsess over every new toy in the store.

Number three, to undertake that debate properly requires us to address the politics of the food system, and this is almost wholly absent from Lynas’s analysis. Take his well-worn example of golden rice, a transgenic crop with supplemental Vitamin A which can boost the health of vitamin-deficient poor people and potentially prevent blindness in children. The relevant political question Lynas doesn’t ask is why are these people suffering from Vitamin A deficiency in the first place? Could it be because their income or land access is so attenuated that they can’t afford to grow or buy the fresh vegetables that could otherwise provide the Vitamin A they need? And if so, whose interests are being served by promoting GM rice rather than, say, land reform? As Evan Eisenberg sagely wrote, it’s not the fiascos of biotechnology that we should fear, but its successes.

Number four is a slightly more oblique version of the preceding point. Lynas appears to have no conception of feedback, rebound effects or constrained demand. Like many of his neo-environmentalist chums he desires a world in which people mostly live in cities and have food grown for them with highly intensive, ‘land sparing’ methods, thereby reserving more land for wilderness. The stupidity of this idea really needs a whole book to unpick. One starting point is the need to question whether a ‘land sparing’ agroecosystem of industrial monoculture plus wilderness is in fact ecologically superior to a ‘land sharing’ agroecosystem of small agroecological farms, which is far from a foregone conclusion. Another is to ask why Lynas considers it likely that the urbanised masses he wishes to see will have any interest in preserving the wilderness rather than, say, demanding more meat or biofuels, thereby continuing to push the agricultural frontier into the wilderness. Lynas dismisses as “simplistic nonsense” the Soil Association’s view of an “ideal world in which people in the west eat less meat and fewer calories overall so that people in developing countries can have more”.  Instead he imagines an ideal world in which per hectare crop yields can expand limitlessly in lockstep with increasing demand from populations untethered to any sense of local resource limitation. Simplistic? In a passing moment of lucidity elsewhere in his speech Lynas says “It is not enough to sit back and hope that technological innovation will solve our problems”. Quite.

Number five is where, suddenly, a flicker of political insight does momentarily inflect Lynas’s stentorian voice. His enthusiasm for GM is not, he says, mere apologia for corporate interests, as he’s a supporter of open source GM solutions. This ‘open source GM’ idea seems to be quite a favourite among neo-environmentalists, but a cursory inspection – or even a detailed analysis, perish the thought – of seed industry history gives no support to the narrative of unfolding democratisation and commons rights, and Lynas gives us no reasons to suppose that things will be any different with GM. And to be honest, perhaps that’s for the best. One good reason for concentrating control of seeds – in fact, the only good reason I can think of – is that without it the world of seed sales fills with hucksters, conmen and snake oil merchants. Can you imagine it? Dr Smaje’s magic GM beans – no pests, no fertiliser required, sow them overnight and you too can have a golden goose. Pest refugia? Pah – that’s for losers. Herbicide tolerance in weeds? Let your neighbours worry about it if they want to. Terrifying.

I could go on – I could mention Lynas’s embarrassingly ignorant attack on organic farming, his selective uses of statistics that are every bit as unscientific as those of the anti-GM zealots he excoriates, and so on and so on. But enough is enough. For what it’s worth, I don’t necessarily think that GM crops should never be used. I suspect in the future the whole hoo-hah about GM will be seen as a diversion from the real political issues about the food system, and GM technologies will be seen at best as just another tool in the box, not some kind of global saviour. In the mean time, I’d suggest that any given GM technology should not be used until the key questions have been satisfactorily answered. What problem is this solving? Who will benefit, and who will lose out? How is it likely to pan out in the long term? The answers to those questions will almost certainly prove very much more complex than Mark Lynas would have us believe.