Award winning science writer Colin Tudge explains what's wrong not just with GMOs and Golden Rice but with the approach to agriculture that is driving them.
The Founding Fables of Industrialised Agriculture
Independent Science News, October 30 2013
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 pre-school aged children and 10 million pregnant women suffer significant Vitamin A deficiency sufficiently severe to cause night blindness according to the 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. The UK’s Agriculture and Food Research Council of the 1990s even had the words ‘Agriculture’ and ‘Food’ air-brushed out to become the Biotechnology and Biological Research Council (BBSRC). We have been told that GMOs increase yields with lower inputs and have been proven beyond reasonable doubt to be safe. Indeed, journalist Mark Lynas has been telling us from some remarkably high platforms that the debate on GMOs is “dead”; that there is now “a consensus” among scientists worldwide that they are necessary and safe.
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; and contra Mark Lynas, 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. Lip service is still paid to democracy (young men and women are sent to their deaths to defend the idea of it) but in truth we have rule by oligarchy: 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; though it has been repeated so often by so many people in such high places that it has become embedded in the zeitgeist. Whether the officially sanctioned untruths spring from misconception or from downright lies I will leave others to judge. But in either case, their repetition by people who have influence in public affairs, is deeply reprehensible.
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 Organization of the UN (FAO) has pointed out, half of it is wasted. The UN demographers tell us that although human numbers are rising the percentage rise is going down and should reach zero by 2050 – so the numbers should level out. 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.
The truth is that for commercial purposes – for the maximization of wealth – it is too easy to provide good food for everyone. A few years ago, after all, when the economy was tweaked a little differently, farmers in Europe and the US were embarrassed by gluts of wheat and maize; and as farmers have always known, gluts are second only to total crop failure as the route to financial disaster. The obvious and sensible solution would be to reduce production: to tailor output to need and to genuine desire. “Set-aside” was a crude stab at this. But the far more lucrative course is the one we have taken- to overproduce – and if it turns out that people really don’t need more food, then those who seek primarily to maximize wealth must pretend that they do. So the word is put around, backed by well-chosen and uncritical statistics, that we will need 50% more in the next few decades.
The resulting surpluses are then fed to livestock. Livestock that could, incidentally, be fed in more than adequate numbers if we made better use of the world’s grasslands, which account for about two-thirds of all agricultural land; or – which is a straightforward scam, though again it can be made to look respectable – the surplus wheat and maize can simply be burnt if labelled “biofuel”. “Demand” (in this scenario) is judged not by what people actually say they want (who ever said they wanted wheat-based biofuel, or cereal-fed beef rather than grass-fed beef?) but by what can be sold by aggressive PR and successfully lobbied through complaisant government.
Then we are told that the 50% increase we are said to need can be provided only by industrial agriculture and that this industry, like all human endeavour, works most efficiently when driven by the maximally competitive global market. The pious slogan that is meant to justify all this is “sustainable intensification”: more and more output per hectare, achieved by high tech. The magic bullet of GMOs is just part of the hype.
For if we really did need more food (and it would be good to produce more in some places) then the industrial high tech route is not the one to go down. As the IAASTD report  of 2009 pointed out – this being one of the few official reports of recent years that is truly worthwhile – the industrial farming that is supposed to be feeding the world in practice provides only 30% of the world’s food. Another 20% comes from fishing, hunting, and people’s back gardens – and the remaining 50% comes from the mostly small, mostly mixed traditional farms that the industrialists and their political assistants tell us are an anachronism; and small mixed farms can be the most productive of all, per unit area . Furthermore, to produce their 30%, the industrial farms gobble up enormous quantities of oil for their industrial chemistry with immense collateral damage, not least to the climate. In contrast traditional farms are low input, and at least when properly managed, need not be damaging at all.
More yet: traditional farms worldwide typically produce only about a half or even a third of what they could produce – not because the farmers are incompetent, as Western observers like to claim, but because they lack the most basic supports. For instance, if farm prices are left to the global market, they go up and down– so that farmers who have no proper financial support from banks or governments are subjected to dumping of foreign surpluses. They then cannot afford to invest upfront in more production. So they err on the side of caution, while western industrial farmers, or at least the richest ones, have often thrown caution to the winds. A little logistic help could increase the output of traditional farms – 50% of the whole – by 100%. Heroic efforts would be needed to increase the output of high-tech western crops and livestock even by another 10%, because the 10-tonne per hectare wheat fields and the 10,000 litre-plus dairy cows are already hard up against physiological limits (while the livestock is well beyond welfare limits). But all the official effort, and our money, is poured into more industrialization. Policy, agricultural and alas scientific, goes where the money leads.
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.
Mercifully, worldwide, many people are helping to bring the Renaissance into being. They range from setters-up of local farmers’ markets to organizations like ENSSER to the worldwide peasants’ movement, La Via Campesina. As many as can be fitted in congregate each year at the Oxford Real Farming Conference: the next one is in January 2014. Do come, and join the Renaissance. This is the cause of our age, for whatever else we may aspire to do, agriculture is the thing we absolutely have to get right.
1: Foresight. The Future of Food and Farming, GO-Science, 2011
2: International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), Island Press, 2009.
3: See for example Commentary IX (UNCTAD TER 2013): Comparative analysis of organic and non-organic farming systems: a critical assessment of on-farm profitability, Noemi Nemes, FAO