Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Genetically modified what?

This report on the Greenpeace website tells how Greenpeace supporters have been protesting against Sainsbury's selling of milk produced by cows fed on genetically modified feed imported from the States. We are told "The supermarket chain produces milk from cows fed on GM".

The pedant in me asks "GM what?" GM is, of course, an adjective, not a noun. These cows are being fed on a diet of genetically modified (or, at best, genetic modification). This makes no sense. And yes, I'm a grammatical pedant. But it occurs to me that this is important. It is important to make sure that we make sense, so that we can remember what we're talking about. These cows are being fed on American maize which has been genetically modified to be resistant to glyphosate herbicide. By buying the milk from these cows, we are supporting the growing of this maize, and its possible hybridisation with other varieties.

We do need to have our attention drawn to this. But banners such as "There's something scary in the dairy" give the impression that there is some kind of taint that passes from the maize, through the cow, and into its milk. The milk is already two stages removed from the original genetic modification. How far removed must something be to no longer carry the taint? Talk of "shipments of GM" as if there is a single, evil, crop called "GM" makes it easy to forget that we need to investigate each modification we make, because each one is different. If we ban one genetic modification on one species, do we, should we, ban them all?

The UN is recommending more use of GM crops in developing countries, to overcome food shortages and nutrition problems. Greenpeace decries this as a "technical fix". Now, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with a good technofix. Spectacles are a technofix for people with poor sight. But "good" is the operative word here. Greenpeace is right to draw attention to what is often the real problem in developing countries: the trade imbalance between them and the developed world, which leaves farmers producing cash crops, which are no use to them, at a loss, in order to sell them at a cheap price to us first-world consumers. Like the air conditioner that cools the house by turning on the chiller while leaving the heating switched on, a technofix that fails to take account of the underlying problem is wasteful and, ultimately, unhelpful.

But simple hunger isn't the only thing being addressed here. The protato, for example, isn't primarily designed to increase yield. It is designed to correct dietary imbalances. What is the alternative to a new high-protein potato? Make them eat more meat? That's not particulary affordable for a poor Indian family, even if they aren't vegetarian for religious reasons. Nor is the creation of large amounts of grazing land where no grazing land has been before particulary environmentally friendly. And importing the high-protein South American amaranth (from which the genes are taken) and planting it in a new environment might be at least as bad for biodiversity as a GM variety of a crop already in use. It's not just the GM varieties which hybridise with the native plants.

We have it easy in the developed world. We can import whatever we like, from wherever we like, and if it's not in season we can force it, or preserve it in carbon dioxide. We can eat kiwi fruit, for heaven's sake. We can eat strawberries and green beans all year round. And mangoes. All this stuff about a varied, balanced diet is for the rich, for those who can afford not only to eat peaches and cucumbers, but to turn them into skin cream instead of eating them. Our poor family in India eat what they can grow on their farm, plus a few things they can buy in their local market -- which is generally whatever the other farmers are growing on their farms. If it doesn't grow "round here", they won't be able to get hold of it.

Currently, most biotechnology research is concentrated on a few crops in the developed world. That's where the money is. We can afford to pay biotech companies for that little bit of extra convenience in spraying our crops with something that is guaranteed to kill everything else but the thing we're trying to grow. There's less money in making "what grows round here" better in quality. But it could give people a better life.

The survey the UN cites indicates that the farmers are willing to give it a try. If we run our technofix alongside other fixes, such as trade reform, then we might be able to save lives. But there is such a thing as hubris. We developed-world people have waded in before thinking we know all the answers. We should proceed with caution -- not the caution that makes us too frightened to do anything, but the caution that makes us step back and look at what we're doing, and consider carefully what could go wrong, and how we are going to deal with it if it does.

1 comment:

Hubert Macfie said...

Speaking in basic, non analytic-paralytic terms, I would say that those who work against GM products because of what they see as ethical and/or mystical issues are themselves behaving unethically. They would prevent the existence of crops that could prevent under- and malnutrition for the impoverished masses - one might say that they are quite evil in their obstructiveness.

There is not a shred of evidence for any deleterious health effects of GM crops (leaving out the incorporation of genes from, say, Deadly Nightshade). The objections to the environmental effects of such production are the same as those against conventional crops. If you don't want environmental "contamination", don't allow farming of any sort.

The history of innovation in the life sciences and technologies is full of shock and horror over breaches of supposed boundaries between the "natural" and the holy/unholy/"playing God"/against the natural order/whateveryouwill. You may remember the objections to the first heart transplants. Before that, in the early Fifties, there were similar scruples over corneal transplants. In the 19th century, there was a resistance to anasthesia because it was thought that pain was intended especially in childbirth (what an evil and inhumane idea!). In mediaeval times the study of anatomy was impossible because dissection of bodies was prohibited.

In time the economic and humane advantages of these courses of action ensured that the objections were overridden, and I am sure that this will be true of GM crops. Even so, it is highly exasperating to observe this irrational obstructionism.