Genetically Modified Profits  

(By Emma Fordham & Kate Green, published in The Occupied Times May 2012)

Remember “Frankenstein foods”? From time to time the Daily Mail veers erratically onto the side of environmentalists and hippies to rail against Genetically Modified Organisms and their appearance on our dinner plates.

Tony Blair tried to woo the bio-tech companies behind GMOs despite widespread distaste for eating tomatoes with fish anti-freeze genes in them. He failed, because the public and the tabloids were against him. Activists destroyed GM crop trials, consumers left GM produce on the supermarket shelves and journalists of all persuasions (and one royal) shrieked about the imprudence of tampering with nature.

While the Tories were in opposition they were largely anti-GM, so the Mail’s stance made sense. However, in 2010 Caroline Spelman became Conservative environment minister. Despite what some might consider a blatant conflict of interest (recently worked as a bio-tech lobbyist), she decided to turn the Tories around and get into bed with Monsanto.

Monsanto is a multinational biotech company; one of the largest producers of genetically engineered seed and of the herbicide glyphosate (marketed as “Roundup”). If we believe their PR rhetoric, it would seem that GM foods are about to save humanity from starvation and the ravages of climate change. By inventing drought-resistant crops, they think they can cheat their way out of the mess that profit-driven mega-corporations (like Monsanto) have gotten us into. By producing herbicide-resistant crops, they will enable entire fields, hectares and hectares of them, to be sprayed with chemicals that would kill conventional crops, but which will in turn increase the efficiency of food production.

The bio-tech companies claim that their GM super-crops will be good for us; they will be better for the environment, better for our health, better for delivering nutrition to the hungry. There is little evidence to back these claims and rather a lot of evidence to suggest the opposite. In which case, why are they spending billions inventing and patenting these things? Could it be an attempt to reap even more profits than they are doing already?

Drought-resistant crops are still in the trial stages. Trials show that they are not very good in variable climates, which is likely what we’ll have more of, as global warming and various associated feedback loops accelerate. Rather than rely on techno-fixes, researchers not associated with large corporations looked into natural methods of combating crop failure due to drought. They found that simple measures such as applying organic mulch material massively improves water retention in the soil whilst also improving the quality of the soil and locking in carbon. A triple bonus and no expensive contracts with multinationals for the farmers.

Bio-tech companies have tried to woo poorer nations with promises to increase yields and so end hunger and poverty. Some farmers responded positively only to find themselves locked into a nightmare. They entered contracts to buy seed and chemicals from Monsanto and the like, the seeds producing crops that could withstand the chemicals. The idea was to blast weeds out of existence, but in fact weeds have developed resistance to herbicides, requiring farmers to use more and more of these chemicals. Yields in many cases were far lower than farmers had been led to believe and they became caught in a spiral of poverty and despair, driving hundreds in India to suicide. Meanwhile in Argentina, where GM soya was adopted on a large scale and there has been massive exposure to glyphosate as a result, instances of health problems and toxicity have been recorded, despite this being a relatively ‘safe’ herbicide.

GM crops lend themselves to monoculture and large-scale farming. Soil is degraded and local communities are no longer growing the variety of foods they need to feed themselves. Independence is stripped away and multinational corporations reap the profits. As this realisation has dawned, fewer farmers in Asia, Africa and South America are prepared to act as pawns for these companies. As early as 1998, all African delegates (excepting South Africa) at an international Food and Agriculture forum stated that:

“We strongly object to the image of poor and hungry from our countries being used by giant multinational corporations to push a technology that is neither safe, environmentally friendly, nor economically beneficial to us… it will destroy the diversity, the local knowledge and the sustainable agricultural systems that our farmers have developed for millennia, and that it will thus undermine our capacity to feed ourselves.”

In India, massive grass-roots campaigns to keep agriculture GM-free have, through sustained levels of dedication and outrage, had some success at holding back the PR machines of the corporations. Hunger strikes, rallies of up to 50,000 farmers, a 4000-kilometre march through five states and intense petitioning of politicians has stemmed the rapid growth of GM farming in the country for now.

Health problems, dismissed by proponents of GM, have already been reported in India and helped to fuel the reaction against the bio-tech companies. Allergic reactions to genetically modified ‘bt’ cotton plants, in those who’d shown no such reactions to conventional cotton, have been documented. No one knows what the long-term effects of eating GM foods will be but research indicates that antibiotic resistant ‘marker’ genes can survive the digestive tract. As antibiotic resistance is already a problem that medical science struggles to keep up with, such indications are cause for concern.

One huge problem with GM crops which is consistently underplayed by the bio-tech companies is the risk of cross-pollination with conventional plants. Accidental spread of GM seed to neighbouring fields and contamination of non-GM foodstuffs within the food supply chain are all too common. A US trial of GM rice contaminated the global supply chain in 2006, destroying export markets for years. In 2009, GM flax from Canada contaminated supplies worldwide. GM crops are genies and the bottle-stoppers are nowhere near tight enough. They can’t be. And, just maybe, Monsanto and Co don’t care. Once the genie is everywhere, there’ll be no point in us complaining and trying to thwart their plans.

For now, there is reason to complain. GM crops have the potential to cause massive social, economic and environmental damage worldwide, yet they are poorly tested and regulations are weak. Loss of biodiversity, soil degradation, health problems and poverty traps are just some of the reasons to resist the pressure to switch to GM agriculture. Research suggests that organic methods are best suited to solving many of the problems that bio-tech apparently seeks to address. The research and cash being poured into techno-fixes could be well spent trialling low-tech agricultural solutions and helping to introduce them appropriately to growers worldwide.

As yet, GM is not rampant. In Britain, strong consumer distaste combined with well-organised ‘decontamination’ actions at trial sites have largely kept GM crops out of our fields and GM foods off our shelves. The fightback against profiteering agro-chemical companies is going on around the world – but they are persistent. In some kind of back-scratching exercise disguised as philanthropy, organisations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have been pouring funding into agriculture projects in Africa with one hand while acquiring shares in Monsanto – which is aggressively trying to capture the seed market in Africa with corporate-owned seeds and pesticides – with the other hand.

In September 2011, the UK Government ignored public and scientific objections by approving an application from Rothamsted Research to conduct a GM wheat trial in Hertfordshire. The GM wheat emits a chemical that it is hoped will drive aphids off the crop. Why this should be necessary, when encouraging natural aphid parasites and predators – like ladybirds – already works, is unclear. Research suggests that aphids may become accustomed to the alarm chemical and ignore it. Perhaps, by then, the ladybirds will have starved and wheat farmers will have to buy more and more, stronger and stronger, chemicals from the bio-tech firms.

Saving humanity from food shortages and climate change? Not likely. Profit motive? Certainly.


What’s in a Seed? GM Wheat and the Rights of Farmers

(By Emma Fordham & Ragnhild Freng Dale, published in The Occupied Times,  Aug 2012)

Maverick organic farmer and activist Hector Christie was arrested in May for pulling up genetically modified (GM) crops at the Rothampstead Research centre in Harpenden. On 24 August, he was fined a total of over £4000 for the damage caused, though the valuation has never been released to the defence. Christie, who pleaded guilty, explains the context and background of GM trials and the concerns underpinning his actions.

A ‘Take the Flour Back’ demonstration against GM wheat trials had been planned, and the idea of catapulting organic seed over the fence into the trial site had been mooted when Christie decided to take a preliminary look around. In what he describes as a rather miraculous series of events, he found a way into the site, helped by an unwitting security guard who went to the toilet at just the right moment. Christie was in the GM trial field for approximately three minutes, during which the prosecution has claimed he pulled up hundreds of plants. Christie says that he initially scattered organic seed, then pulled up and bagged just a few plants before peacefully giving himself over to the police for arrest.

“I didn’t get the seriousness of what I was doing,” Christie says. “There were dozens of police in cars and vans. As I was driven away from the site I saw several of them in lanes and lay-bys along the way. I innocently asked whether there had been a major crime committed in the area but was told they were all for me.”

Christie was held for sixteen hours and questioned intensively. The police, he claims, knew every protest he had been on, and asked about his friends in other protest networks. Bail conditions were largely about keeping him away from the Olympics; the torch was passing close to his home in north Devon the next day and officers seemed convinced that he intended to cause disruption.

Until recently, Europe has been largely GM free. The media and consumers have kept biotech companies at arms’ length, but that is changing now with a U-turn to allow wheat trials at Rothamstead, and a massive PR campaign by the Conservative government promising to solve the world’s food problem through rolling out GM crops with higher yield. “Cameron recently accepted £250 million from the biotech industry,” Christie claims, before suggesting that “they need to pay for the Olympics somehow.” The latter may only be speculations, but who stands to gain should be a question in the GM debate.

Anti-GM protesters are adamant that they are not ‘anti-science’, but argue that genetically modified crops are being forced into the land, onto the supermarket shelves and into our food chain and bodies with scant regard for safety, biodiversity, the right to choose, farmers’ livelihoods or anything else except profit margins. Whilst no reports currently show a definite health-GM correlation, sufficient long-term independent testing has not been conducted to rule out long-term effects – and “Take the Flour back!” fear the consequences will be impossible to reverse. The CEO of Rothampstead Research centre reasons that we must embrace this technology in order to feed the growing world population, but the people doing the monitoring are often the very same people who will make a profit from GM. Director of Rothamstead, Professor Maurice Moloney, has been involved in developing the Roundup Ready canola, a patented Monsanto crop causing major problems for Californian farmers. Christie and fellow activists therefore fear that the results will be kept out of the public domain or manipulated to suit the profiteers.

The film, compiled by a Cornish farmer, is about how GM has affected the livelihoods of American farmers. Those interviewed deeply regret being coerced into growing GM crops. Having been ‘hooked in’ they can’t back out, even though, after three or so years, the insecticides and herbicides that the GM crops have been engineered to resist become ineffective. More and more of these chemicals must be used until eventually no amount will get rid of the resistant superweeds that appear, which have to be pulled out by hand. Christie shakes his head in disbelief as he insists that “This is obvious! If you keep applying the same herbicide or pesticide, nature mutates and resistance builds up. GM is a one-trick pony.”

Christie says that “The livelihood and way of life of everyone who works the land is seriously under threat. That’s why I felt I had to do something… I have tried every angle to get this message out: Engaging with ministers, protesting peacefully, writing endless letters…”. He invokes the spectres of tobacco, DDT and asbestos – all substances believed to be harmless and used liberally with devastating consequences. In the Phillipines, biologist Mae-Wan Ho reports incidents of sudden illness and death amongst people living close to GM maize crops. This coincided with the flowering season of the maize, which has now been removed from some areas, whilst similar episodes occur elsewhere. The government has refused to investigate further.

Social consequences of patented seeds are no less dire. In the Speakers’ Forum at The Green Gathering, Christie began his talk with a dramatic tale of suicide amongst farmers. Vandana Shiva has reported that tens of thousands, possibly even hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers have killed themselves since GM crops were introduced. Patenting of seeds by biotech companies forces some of the poorest farmers in the world to buy new seed every year, which is bad enough in itself, but becomes untenable when promised yields fail to become reality, driving the farmers deeper into poverty and despair. The biotech companies are now making a beeline for Africa, partly funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and again Christie highlights the inalienable and sacred right of the farmer to save seed.

He also points out that the US, Canada and Australia (which have accepted most GM crops with alacrity to date) have all rejected GM cereals. Wheat is a grass species native to the UK, and pollen from GM wheat could potentially crossbreed or contaminate grasses and cereals far and wide, despite claims to the contrary from the biotech industry. In the US, where genetically modified crops are widespread, even papers such as The Daily Mail are reporting that incidents of pesticide resistant weeds and insects are on the rise. A report from 2005 also reveals the evolution of a resistant ‘super-weed’ at an old trial site for genetically modified oilseed rape, now resistant to herbicide due to a genetic cross-breeding. This is also happening in Japan, a country without GM crops of their own. Evidence of wild-breeding GM canola and even crossovers to its related species broccoli has been reported along transport routes and near harbours where canola oil is imported. Activists are organising to protect a biodiversity they fear is at stake, calling for the relevant corporations to take responsibility.

“They call us ecoterrorists, but they really don’t get the picture,” Christie complains. He hopes that his trial will raise awareness and help the larger cause. Bindmans, a leading London-based law firm, took up Christie’s case when it became apparent that abuse of process and other inconsistencies had occurred. According to one of Christie’s friends, “It looks like special branch and people ‘higher up’ have been caught red handed treating a protester like a terrorist. Incredibly dodgy and clumsy details have emerged.” The total costs and compensation he has been ordered to pay include a £350 fine, £15 victim surcharge, £85 CPS costs and compensation to Rothampstead Research for the damage caused. In previous hearings, the prosecution had increased the compensation claim to £51,900, but later lowered this to £3850 –  a mere fraction of the original claim.

Though Christie pleaded guilty to criminal damage of the crops, he has not made up his mind about whether to pay the compensation. What is certain, is that he will not give up his campaigning for biodiversity in future. He is passionate about small farmers’ livelihoods and right to choose, as well as the big issues of long term food security and biodiversity. On his Tapeley Gardens website he writes “Do we in the countryside want to give up control of our choices and businesses to a few ruthless, solely profit driven large corporations? The UK is an island, and as such we have the most fantastic opportunity to be a source of GM-free food, plus we have a potentially invaluable GM-free seed bank for ourselves and the world in the future.”


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