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The great GM food scare

Popular opinion is running high against food from genetically engineered plants, but is the enemy really GM science and technology or capitalism which misuses it in the service of profit?

Only a fruitarian or a nutarian can logically object to the genetic modification of plants as such. This is because humans have been genetically modifying crops ever since we took up agriculture in place of hunting and gathering. Agriculture when it started involved planting wild crops instead of simply gathering them. Over thousands of years, by selecting for planting the following year the seeds of the plants that had exhibited more of the desired characteristics, humans have considerably modified the genetic make-up of virtually all the cereals, vegetables and fruits that we eat. Until the end of the last century—when the gene was discovered—humans did not know exactly what it was they were doing when they improved plants for human consumption through such "artificial selection". But what they were doing was favouring certain genes at the expense of others and so in effect "genetically modifying" the plants in question.

Since the advent of scientific genetics in the last part of the 19th century plant breeders have known what they were trying to do—to change a plant's genotype—but were still largely restricted to the traditional techniques of artificial selection and cross-breeding. It was not until further advances in scientific understanding of genetics in the 50s and 60s allowed specific genes governing specific features to be identified that the prospect of a new technique for genetic modification was opened up: inserting a particular gene directly into a plant's DNA.

This technique which has come to be known as "transgenetics" or "GM technology" is in this sense an alternative to traditional plant breeding techniques, a short-cut to the same end of modifying the genetic make-up of the plants, fruits and vegetables we eat. GM technology was first applied experimentally to plants in the 80s and commercially only in the past decade. Today it is estimated that already perhaps 50 percent of all plantings in the US are of transgenetic seeds, though this is not yet allowed in Europe. At the moment transgenetic procedures in agriculture have been used mainly to make crops resistant to weed-killers and insects, but in the future it should be possible to directly modify plants' DNA so that they can grow in colder or warmer or wetter or drier or salty or less salty conditions; which would allow food production to be increased.

However, we are living in a capitalist world and it is in such a world that these techniques are being developed and applied, a world where the priority both of seed producers and farmers is profit. This has meant that GM techniques have not necessarily been used in the way they would have been in a socialist world where the priority would be satisfying people's needs not profits.

To blame the use to which these techniques have been put under capitalism on the techniques themselves rather than on capitalism is a mistake; a mistake, it has to be said, that is frequently made by many Greens and environmentalists and which leads to the more extreme of them adopting anti-technology and anti-science views.

Capitalist context
Various objections have been made to GM technology and crops. On examination most turn out to be objections to the use to which GM technology is currently being put or to the context—capitalism—in which it is being applied.

In May a Working Party set up by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics reported on Genetically Modified Crops: the Ethical and Social Issues. They examined both sides of the argument, summarising the case put by those against GM crops as follows:

. . . that GM food technology is a threat to human health and/or the environment and that its introduction will raise the profits of private suppliers whilst at the same time depriving poor producers of primary commodities access to markets and to the new varieties of seed (1.3).

Leaving aside for a moment the question of whether or not GM food is a threat to human health or the environment, it is clear that the third objection is not to the technique itself but to the possible effects of its application within the present economic system of production for sale on a market with a view to profit.

This is made even more explicit when the Report sets out in detail this part of the case against GM crops:

The question of whether we should be concerned about the distribution of the potential benefits of genetically modified (GM) crops arises on two counts. The first count is that commercial considerations will lead agrochemical and seed businesses to concentrate research and development (R&D) predominantly on markets in developed rather than developing countries. This is unlikely to encourage the prospect of using genetic modification for a significant improvement in food security for the world's poor . . . The second count is the fear that the commercial exploitation of GM crop R&D will only promote the profitability of a small group of large companies rather than the wider public interests of consumers, farmers and researchers (3.1).

The limitation of access to materials and processes by restriction of licensing is a major concern for organisations outside the main group of agrichemical multinational companies. We have already noted that most of the basic technologies of genetic modification are patented and that these patents are owned by the larger companies . . . (3.46).

Another concern is whether GM crops would radically change land-use patterns. If the modification of a crop were to make it much more profitable than many other crops, farmers might switch to it on a large scale (6.33).

All these things are indeed likely to happen within the context of capitalism. Existing GM crops have been developed and patented by multinational corporations such as Monsanto in order to increase their profits; the main market for present GM seeds will be large-scale agribusiness and it is on this market that Monsanto and the others will concentrate; if farmers can make more profits by growing GM crops they will do so and land use will change accordingly with any effects this might have on the previously existing ecological balance; peasants and small-scale farmers in the rest of the world will continue to be outcompeted and left to rot.

But this is not the fault of GM technology itself but of the type of agriculture that has developed under capitalism. Existing types of GM crops have been developed as a response to the ever-present pressures under capitalism on firms, including agribusinesses, to reduce their costs of production so as to be able to outcompete rivals in the race for profits. If GM crops were not cheaper to grow they would not have been marketed or planted commercially.

However, even if GM crops were banned (which won't happen—sooner or later Europe will be forced by competitive pressures to follow North America's example as the only way of avoiding being outsold on home and world markets) these pressures would still operate but would then have to operate—as they have done up to now—through the development of cheaper ways of growing non-GM crops that would still be to the detriment of "poor producers of primary commodities".

One of the objections to GM technology is to the "terminator" gene which at present has only been only been patented but which is a gene that would render sterile the seed of a crop modified by inserting it, thereby forcing farmers to buy seeds for the next season from the multinational agrochemical corporations instead of saving some of the season's crop as "seed corn" as they have done for generations. It is only under capitalism, where the aim is not to improve human welfare but to make a profit for capitalist investors, that such a mad idea could have been thought up. This is such a blatant misuse of GM technology that there is no use labouring the point that it is capitalism not the technology that is to be blamed.

A threat to health and the environment?
What about the other claims against GM foods? Do they harm the environment? Are they dangerous for humans?

Socialists can't claim any specialist scientific experience on these questions, only what the interested person can learn by studying the scientific literature. On this basis, while—after what happened over BSE—people are understandably sceptical about assurances of government officials or scientists employed by profit-seeking companies, it nevertheless seems to be the case that GM food need be no more dangerous to eat than non-GM food. Which is not to say that eating either is risk-free. Some current GM food may well contain antibiotic and chemical residues but then so does much non-GM food and this is no more an inherent feature of GM food than it is of non-GM food.

As to the effect on the environment, here again a confusion is often made between GM techniques and the context in which they are applied:

Critics argue that the development of GM crops is perpetuating chemical use, when the goal should be to move away from it (6.23).

This is indeed a likely effect of most of the GM crops commercialised up till now, but chemical use cannot be blamed on GM technology. Chemical agriculture is encouraged and perpetuated by the fact that being cheaper, in the relatively short-term perspective that capitalism is only capable of taking, it enables those who practise it to outcompete in terms of price and sales those who practise other forms of agriculture. Here again, the banning of GM crops would make no difference. Chemical use would continue.

Organically-produced food is undoubtedly better but it has to recognised that these days most organic farmers are in it for profit (having switched from non-organic farming to try to make more profits by catering to a specialist niche market) and that some of them oppose GM technology because they feel it would give their non-organic rivals a competitive edge. However, GM technology could allow the development of plant varieties suitable to organic farming and there is no reason why GM crops too couldn't be grown organically. The opposition organic/non-organic does not have to be the same as the opposition GM/non-GM.

Throw out the bathwater
People are right to be concerned about the food capitalism serves up to us but to blame GM technology for the effects of its application within the context of capitalism is to throw out the baby with the bathwater. As an extension of the genetic modification of crops that humans have been practising for thousands of years there can be no objection in principle to GM technology. Properly applied to enhance human welfare, as for instance by developing varieties of crops that grow better in conditions that are currently unfavourable, it is a baby that has a future in a socialist world free of profits, patents and markets. But by all means let us throw out the dirty bathwater that is capitalism. The sooner the better.