Food sustainability: Modified opinions
Editorial, The Guardian, Friday 4 December 2009
Historians of the future may mark the early 21st century as the point where the science of agriculture finally broke into public understanding. Ten years of ill-tempered debate over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has had many malign effects, not least adding to public scepticism about science and scientists. But it has had one benign one. It has pumped dye into the veins of the global food business, graphically illustrating the monopolistic ambitions of agribusiness and ultimately, perhaps, its ability to control the very food we eat.
On Wednesday night a debate on GMOs at the illustrious Royal Society of Chemistry HQ in London suggested a breakthrough. Afterwards the feeling was that it was a win on points for the GM sceptics. This is not what was meant to happen: the scientific community, and the government, insist Britain's future food sustainability depends on employing some form of GM to increase yields, as the Royal Society recently argued. But they can take heart: the debate was less a defeat for GM than for the way it has developed. The corollary is that if the government really believes that the only way to increase yields is through GM technology, it will have to fund this itself.
The winning argument on Wednesday was not really about science at all, but about the ethics of a method of increasing yields that delivers such power into the hands of the multinationals. Yesterday the Soil Association published a report claiming that next year's GM soya bean seed will cost US farmers almost half as much again as this year's. Genetically modified seed is, as a technology, intended primarily to benefit the corporations that develop it. Claims that it is the way to save the world came later. This does not necessarily make it a bad technology; it only means as Sussex University's Erik Millstone argued in the debate its commercial trajectory is too narrow to provide much in the way of answers to global hunger. It is a technology developed for large-scale agriculture in advanced capitalist economies that has scant regard for other producers or other economic models. It has been accompanied by unsubstantiated claims which, according to independent scientists backed by the powerful voice of Scientific American, cannot be tested, since all research on GM seed has to be licensed as part of the impenetrable defences erected by agribusiness around its expensive patents.
This model excludes all kinds of developments that might make a more significant contribution to food sustainability than merely increasing yield (often by enabling heavier use of herbicides or pesticides). Food sustainability in an era of climate change requires not only, nor even primarily, higher yields, but greater resilience the ability to survive in harsher conditions and on poorer soils. There is work to be done on developments that would lower the need for high-cost (and often high-carbon) inputs, by for example developing crops grown as annuals into perennials, or breeding varieties that do not require soil cultivation, or that improve the soil by fixing nitrogen.
Here, GM may be a small part of the answer. But it has a mixed record in Asia, where it has tended to enrich the rich and impoverish the poor, and it is unlikely to be any part of the answer to food security in Africa for the foreseeable future. As the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation pointed out last year, there is enough food for everyone. It just isn't available in the right places. Subsistence farmers are cut off from all but the most local markets, and if they take the risk of buying commercial GM seed their increased yield might just lower local prices. They need simpler improvements. And globally the need is for publicly funded science to investigate sustainable agriculture in the widest possible meaning of the word: better farming practices, a viable pricing system and, for the global north, a radical change in patterns of consumption.