The GMO Deception
The Soil Association, like other proponents of organic agriculture around the globe, takes a clear stand against GM ingredients in food and crops. But anyone opposed to GM agriculture often finds him or herself between the onslaught of the well-oiled and even better funded PR machine of big agrochemical companies and eminent GM supporters like the former environment minister Owen Paterson who told the Oxford Farming Conference in January that Europe would become a ‘museum of world farming’ without GM. In discussions with GM supporters I’ve been called everything from being anti science to wanting to return to the middle ages and being a Luddite. Lacking a degree in biochemistry I’ve often wished for a summary of not just the arguments against GM, but the science to back them up, written in a style that you don’t need a degree to understand it. This year I got lucky: The GMO Deception, edited by Sheldon Krimsky and Jeremy Gruber, Skyhorse Publishing, 2014, is just such a summary. The book is a collection of 57 articles and essays written mostly by international scientists (from London’s King’s College to the Union of Concerned Scientists in the US) but there are also several contributions by campaigners and activists summarizing for example the consequences the spread of GM cotton has had in India. The articles are grouped under eight headlines from ‘Human and environmental health’ to ‘Labelling’ or ‘Regulation, Policy and Law’. The book starts off with a chapter on ‘What is genetic engineering?’ which tells you how genes are modified and that it’s not quite as straight forward as the agrochemical companies would like you to believe: The authors explain why the ‘insertion of foreign DNA is an imprecise and uncontrolled process’ and that ‘introducing or deleting new genes can affect other genes in the plant’. The technique is as sophisticated as ‘trying to do heart surgery with a shovel.’ (page xxxvii)
The chapter is key to understanding why so far the only GM traits in crops are herbicide and/or pest resistance, why genetic modification has made little to no progress with complicated traits like drought, salt or flood resistance and why yields don’t surpass those of conventionally grown or organic crops. It’s because ‘The genome of plant seeds and animals are not like a set of Legos where bio-technicians can plug in or delete genetic components with great precision. These genomes are more likened to ecosystems where one change in a gene can induce unpredictable changes in the other parts of the system.’ (p 340)
At the same time several authors make the point that biotechnology has enormous benefits: Marker Assisted Selection (MAS) has helped to speed up traditional plant breeding by making the selection process much more efficient.
Several chapters deal with labelling issues and why it’s been the best tool yet to prevent agrochemical companies from forcing GM seed onto farmers and GM containing foods onto consumers.
Do I have some qualms with the book? Yes I do. Every paper has a section that tells you who the authors are and what their expertise is – great. It also gives you the date when the article or essay was first published – which would be just fine if there was also an update that told us what has changed since. Maybe the facts are still the same, but if I’m reading about a lawsuit filed against the EPA (US Environmental Protection Agency) in 1999 I do assume that it’s had some kind of outcome by now.
But that’s a minor point. And sometimes it’s not the stringent argument, backed up by studies that make the case. For me it was an aside that made things fall into place. One article deals with Indian farmers taking a stand against GM crops, one of which are pest resistant GM aubergines, in India known as Bt-brinjal. The piece of information that totally perplexed me was that in India 4,000 varieties of aubergines are grown, ‘each linked with regional recipes’. How can anyone believe that Indian farmers would ever need or want a GM variety?