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Profitably Modified Food

Research to improve food supplies and nutritional quality is worthwhile, but under capitalism its findings are distorted in the interests of profit.

Genetically modified crops of maize and soya were first introduced, in the United States, in 1983 and proved cheaper to grow and gave higher yields. Both are used extensively in the growing market for readymade meals and are attractive to multinational companies; soya is used in about 60 percent of processed foods. Agribusinesses have invested in GM crops on a large-scale: last year about 7.7 million hectares were used for growing them.

Although it seems an advantage to have GM crops that are resistant to pests, cross-pollination could lead to the development of "super weeds" that are difficult to eradicate, endangering future food supplies. There is the danger that producing crops that insects will not eat will lead to their extinction and that birds and other small animals that feed on them will be imperilled. However, the real danger under capitalism comes from the development of a gene that produces sterile seeds.

The profit gene
Normally cereal farmers save a part of the grain produced in one year so it can be sown and harvested in subsequent years. But in March 1998 the United States Department of Agriculture, jointly with Delta and Pine Land Co, patented the "Terminator" technique which introduces a "transgene" into plants. The crops are harvested normally, but the germ of the grain is biologically sterile and seeds have to be purchased each year. In May 1998, Monsanto acquired Delta and Pine Land Co, and is patenting the "Terminator" gene in 87 countries and negotiating exclusive rights with the United States Department of Agriculture (Guardian, 22 February). This modification of crops is not designed to feed the hungry, but to increase profits. Indeed, the sale of grain that cannot be harvested again is likely to decrease food supplies amongst the very poor if they cannot afford further supplies. At the moment 80 percent grown in developing countries are from seeds saved from one season to the next.

Faced with growing resistance to GM food, Monsanto adopted the advertising slogan "Food-Health—Hope", claiming that the attempt by the European Union to stop their use was preventing them ending hunger in underdeveloped countries. But the sale of crops which are sterile will enslave the world's poorest farmers to multinational agribusinesses.

Also, genetically-modified seeds can be patented whether or not they are sterile. Monsanto has advertised in farming journals in the USA, threatening farmers with legal action if they save "Biotech", a GM seed which is not sterile, for planting the following year or if they sell surplus grain to their neighbours. Thus, Monsanto is creating a monopoly of the supply of its patented foodstuffs.

The British government has set aside more than £15 million to encourage biotechnology firms to expand in Britain; Monsanto received part of a £1.5 million incentive to expand investment in Scotland (Independent on Sunday, 14 February).

About 500 sites in Britain are used for the experimental growing of GM crops although none is used for commercially grown food. Tony Blair has said that he would have no hesitation in eating GM food. Blair's assurance is coloured by the government's commitment to fund research, and the fear that British farmers could become uncompetitive if GM crops are produced more cheaply abroad than food grown by traditional methods.

There may be other reasons too. Lord Sainsbury is a major contributor to the Labour Party, reported to have donated £3 million to New Labour (Times, 26 January). He was ennobled by Tony Blair in 1997. Until 1997, Lord Sainsbury was chairman of Sainsbury's supermarket chain. His position as the Minister of Science is seen as a conflict of interest as Sainsbury's supermarkets use GM ingredients or derivatives in 1,500 of its own brand products. In addition, Diatech which has exclusive rights to the "genetic switch" used to boost the effectiveness of GM crops. Lord Sainsbury relinquished control of the firm when he joined the government, but still profits from the invention. He also has links with Dupont UK and Zeneca plc, engaged in researching and producing genetic material. New varieties of GM wheat will be promoted through a British company called Plant Biosciences. One of its directors, Dr Roger Freeman, is a director of the Sainsbury Laboratory and of Diatech. The John Innes Centre has a "research alliance" with Dupont UK and Zeneca plc. It is grant-aided by the Biotechnology and Biological Research Council whose funding is decided by Lord Sainsbury (Daily Mail, 17 February).

There is a growing resistance to GM foods; the Vegetarian Society has withdrawn its logo from foods believed to contain genetically modified material because they may have been tested on animals and a number of councils have withdrawn GM foods from schools because of parental concern. Thirty environmental groups have demanded a five-year moratorium on planting GM crops. This, together with widespread public concern, and Marks and Spencer's announcement that they will not stock any brands of GM food has forced Agricultural Minister, Jeff Rooker to announce the postponement of planting modified crops until Autumn 2000. The government is also trying to allay public fears by soon making it compulsory to label all GM products. As yet, the government's attempts to placate public opinion have failed; there have been too many food scandals and misleading information in recent years for politicians to be credible.

Research to improve food supplies and nutritional quality is worthwhile, but the manipulation of food for profit, such as Monsanto's "terminator gene", is an indictment of capitalism. Such an abuse of scientific knowledge would simply be inconceivable in a socialist society geared to meeting needs. What would be the point of modifying a crop so that its seeds were sterile? Only capitalism could think up such a project, let alone implement it.

CARL PINEL