Governments these days are not content with agriculture that merely provides good food. In line with the dogma of neoliberalism they want it to contribute as much wealth as any other industry towards the grand goal of “economic growth”.
High tech offers to reconcile the two ambitions – producing allegedly fabulous yields, which seems to be what’s needed, and becoming highly profitable. The high-tech flavour of the decade is genetic engineering, supplying custom-built crops and livestock as GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms).
So it was that the UK Secretary of State for the Environment and Rural Affairs, Owen Paterson, told The Independent recently that the world absolutely needs genetically-engineered “Golden Rice”, as created by one of the world's two biotech giants, Syngenta. Indeed, those who oppose Golden Rice are “wicked”: a comment so outrageous that Paterson’s own civil servants have distanced themselves from it.
Specifically, Golden Rice has been fitted with genes that produce carotene, which is the precursor of vitamin A. Worldwide, approximately 5 million preschool aged children and 10 million pregnant women suffer significant Vitamin A deficiency sufficiently severe to cause night blindness according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). By such statistics a vitamin A-rich rice seems eminently justified.
Yet the case for Golden Rice is pure hype. For Golden Rice is not particularly rich in carotene and in any case, rice is not, and never will be, the best way to deliver it. Carotene is one of the commonest organic molecules in nature. It is the yellow pigment that accompanies chlorophyll in all dark green leaves (the many different kinds known as “spinach” are a great source) and is clearly on show in yellow roots such as carrots and some varieties of cassava, and in fruits like papaya and mangoes that in the tropics can grow like weeds.
So the best way by far to supply carotene (and thus vitamin A) is by horticulture – which traditionally was at the core of all agriculture. Vitamin A deficiency is now a huge and horrible issue primarily because horticulture has been squeezed out by monocultural big-scale agriculture — the kind that produces nothing but rice or wheat or maize as far as the eye can see; and by insouciant urbanization that leaves no room for gardens. Well-planned cities could always be self-sufficient in fruit and veg. Golden Rice is not the answer to the world’s vitamin A problem. As a scion of monocultural agriculture, it is part of the cause. Syngenta’s promotion of it is yet one more exercise in top-down control and commercial PR. Paterson's blatant promotion of it is at best naïve.
For Golden Rice serves primarily as a flagship for GMOs and GMOs are very big business – duly supported at huge public expense by successive governments. It is now the lynch-pin of agricultural research almost everywhere. In reality, GMOs do not consistently or even usually yield well under field conditions; they do not necessarily lead to reduction in chemical inputs, and have often led to increases ... there is no worldwide consensus of scientists vouching for their safety. Indeed, the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER) has drawn up a petition that specifically denies any such consensus and points out that “a list of several hundred studies does not show GM food safety”. Hundreds of scientists are expected to sign. Overall, after 30 years of concerted endeavour, ultimately at our expense and with the neglect of matters far more pressing, no GMO food crop has ever solved a problem that really needs solving that could not have been solved by conventional means in the same time and at less cost.
The real point behind GMOs is to achieve corporate/ big government control of all agriculture, the biggest by far of all human endeavours. And this agriculture will be geared not to general wellbeing but to the maximization of wealth. The last hundred years, in which agriculture has been industrialised, have laid the foundations. GMOs, for the agro-industrialists, can finish the job.
The technology itself is esoteric so that only the specialist and well-endowed can embark on it – the bigger the better. All of the technology can be, and is, readily protected by patents. Crops that are not protected by patents are being made illegal. Only parts of the EU have so far been pro-GM but even so the list of crops that it allows farmers to grow – or any of us! – becomes more and more restricted. Those who dare to sell the seed of traditional varieties that have not been officially approved can go to prison. Your heritage allotment could soon land you in deep trouble.
As GMOs spread – and governments like Britain’s would love to follow the US lead in this – they could soon become the only options; the only kids on the block. Then all of agriculture, the key to human survival, will become the exclusive property of the few huge companies that hold the patents. By every sane judgment this is a horrible prospect. Among many other things, the obvious loss of biodiversity will make the whole world even more precarious than it is right now, especially if climate changes the growing conditions year by year.
Yet our government’s support for GM technology and for the thinking behind it is unswerving. Government wants agriculture to be seen as big business. A virtual coalition of corporates and government, with establishment scientists in attendance. This monolith, and the crude thinking on which it is founded, is a far bigger threat to humanity than North Korea or “terrorism”, or the collapse of banks or dwindling oil.
Yet we have been assured, time and again, that there is no alternative; that without high tech, industrialized agriculture, we will all starve. This is the greatest untruth of all. Specifically we have been told that the world will need 50% more food by 2050.
The Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government, Sir John Beddington, said this in his “Foresight” report of 2012 on The Future of Food and Farming. His argument was, and is, that a billion out of the present seven billion are now undernourished; that numbers are due to rise to 9.5 billion by 2050; that people “demand” more and more meat as they grow richer; and that meat requires enormous resources to produce (already the world’s livestock gobble up about 50% of the world’s cereal and well over 90% of the soya). So of course we need 50% more – and some have raised the ante to 100%. Thus the message comes from on high, we must focus on production, come what may.
But others, including some far closer to the facts, tell a quite different story. Professor Hans Herren, President of the Millennium Institute in Washington, points out that the world already produces enough staple food to support 14 billion – twice the present number. A billion starve because the wrong food is produced in the wrong places by the wrong means by the wrong people – and once the food is produced, as the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN (FAO) has pointed out, half of it is wasted. Nine and a half billion is as many as we will ever have to feed – and we already produce 50% more than will ever be needed. The task, then, is not to increase output, but to produce what we do produce (or even less) by means that are kinder to people, livestock, and wildlife; more sustainable; and more resilient.
Finally, we are told that the high-tech, global market approach to food production keeps prices down. Small, mixed, traditional-style farms are said to be far too expensive because they are labour-intensive. But in fact, about 80% of what people spend on food in supermarkets goes to the middle-men and the banks (who lend the money to set up the system in the first place). So the farmers get only 20%. If those farmers are up to their ears in debt, as they are likely to be if they have gone down the industrial high-tech route, then a fair slice of that 20% goes to the banks. At most, the farm labour costs that we are supposed to try so hard to keep down probably account for less than 10% of the total food bill. It’s the 80% we need to get down. When farmers sell directly to customers they get 100% of the retail price; through farmers’ markets they typically get around 70%; and through local shops at least 30%. With different marketing the small farmers can certainly make a good living – and farming as a whole in Britain could easily soak up all the million under-25s who are presently being invited to wile away their days in the job centre. (But then, agricultural economists don’t tend to take social costs into account).
In short, agriculture in Britain and the world at large needs a sea-change – an “Agrarian Renaissance”: different ways of farming and marketing and – emphatically — different people in charge. The oligarchy of corporates, government, and compliant academe has failed. Farming that can actually feed us is innately democratic. Worldwide, the farmers know best – but the oligarchs rarely talk to them. They are content merely to impose their scientific and economic and scientific dogmas: high tech in a neoliberal market.
This is an edited version of an article first published 30 October 2013 by Independent Science News (independentsciencenews.org). Reprinted with permission.