Live from the Real Farming Conference: why genetically-engineered food is about politics not science

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Posted Jan 7 2016 by Dave Darby of

I’m at the Real Farming Conference in Oxford, and I’m writing this as a session on GM food is taking place. I’m sorry to have missed it, but I fell into a conversation until it was too late to join the session. However, I know someone who attended that session, and she’ll hopefully write a blog for us later. So for now I’d like to write about a couple of sessions on science that I attended yesterday.

The first session was on GM food, with Helena Paul and Ricarda Steinbrecher of Econexus, who prefer to use the term genetic engineering rather than modification. They argue that modification sounds too benign for a process that involves the corporate takeover and industrialisation of food production. So genetic engineering it is.

Much of this session was aimed at scientists, and therefore a lot of it was beyond me. However, the real meat of the session was about what scientists don’t know, or at least don’t seem to understand. Genetic engineering is not just about the science. When the genetic code is changed, there are knock-on effects on the organism, on the ecosystem in which that organism lives, and on human society. Research hasn’t been done into this, and in fact, it’s so complex that maybe we’re not yet in a position to do the research. But we can’t just look at the genes in isolation if we want to understand the effects of genetic engineering.

There doesn’t appear to be much recognition of this in the scientific community – who tend to ask the ‘how’ questions but not the ‘why’ questions, or if they do, they accept the explanation offered by their employers. This doesn’t apply to all scientists, obviously, but to a large percentage of them. Most scientists working in genetic engineering for the food industry believe that they are helping to ‘feed the world’ or to provide cheaper food – but they’re not. All they are doing is giving more power to the corporate sector. That’s what GM food is for. If we’re really interested in feeding the world, we need to move to a system of organic smallholding. Smallholdings provide more food per hectare than large-scale monoculture farming – see here. Furthermore, there is no global food shortage.

The next session was about the corruption of agricultural science, with Helena Paul again, plus Michel Pimbert of Coventry University and Dr Jonathan Latham of Independent Science News. The corruption they talked about was mainly that almost all research and development funding in food science is focused on industrial, corporate agriculture, because of the influence and wealth of the corporate sector. There is also corporate control of the peer-review process, with some journal editors now drawn from the industry (Monsanto and Syngenta were mentioned, specifically).

Dr Latham then launched into a history of the development of the power of science, starting with the Roman Emperor Constantine. In 300AD, the Roman Empire was on the verge of collapse. With no defined means of succession, in effect each emperor had to seize power. They had to control the army, the political system and the people. Constantine obtained the support of the Christian community. Previously, paganism involved dispersed power, but Christianity was monolithic and centralised, and after Constantine converted the Empire to Christianity, the combination of church and state became the paradigm for ruling Europe for 1000 years. By the late Middle Ages, a budding science was beginning to show that church teachings were wrong – notably about the Earth being the centre around which the sun and stars revolved. Church power weakened but science wasn’t strong enough to fill the void, but the parliamentary system began to grow to fulfil that role. Now, science is becoming more powerful, supported as it is by the corporate sector, and there is a presumption that science can answer everything.

But – of course science can’t answer everything – it can’t tell us what to do with our new-found understanding of the universe, and it can’t tell us how to organise ourselves. And it can’t tell us how to achieve true democracy – decisions about GM for example, are more and more seen as purely scientific, including whether we do it or not. Meanwhile, even if Europeans don’t want to eat GM food, there is still a huge input of GM products into Europe, via animal feed. Brazil now has around 40 million hectares under GM animal fodder, with all the ecological damage and rainforest removal that that entails. Argentina has 24 million hectares, and Paraguay 10 million. These enormous areas are typically aerially sprayed with Roundup, and we heard of many thousands of people who have been expelled from their land.

At this point, from the audience, Colin Tudge said that scientists are not educated enough to understand the implications of their actions. It caused amusement amongst the audience, but I think it’s more diplomatic to say that scientists are not philosophers. They can solve (relatively) simple problems, but not complex social or ecological problems. I think that we should be very careful not to denigrate scientists – after all, we know about biodiversity loss, climate change and soil erosion because of scientists. We can’t really point to their work when we want to, but put them down when they’re working on things that we disapprove of. Better just to point out that they’re not philosophers I think.

Another audience member brought up alternative medicine, and how people like Rupert Sheldrake are shunned by mainstream scientists. On this point, I’m on the side of the scientists. When Einstein or Newton produced their work, even though it was paradigm-changing, it was immediately accepted by the scientific mainstream because it worked – it made sense. There’s a reason that Rupert Sheldrake and (some) alternative medicines are not accepted by most scientists, and I’d say that it’s not the fault of the scientists. I can imagine the Daily Mail articles now: ‘Loony tree-hugging organic farmers embrace homeopathy and morphic resonance’. I think we should stay well away, as it leaves us open to ridicule. Scientists are good at telling us about the cosmos, about sub-atomic particles (in fact, we’d know nothing about either if not for scientists), and whether a remedy works or not.

One final conversation I had about GM was with a woman I’d been sitting next to, and who had been texting and checking Twitter throughout the session. When I said that we didn’t need GM to feed the world, she said that Indian peasant farmers might disagree with me. I wanted to talk about the way that GM may well involve a repeat of the destructive effect of the Green Revolution for Indian farmers, but I assumed that I’d be wasting my breath, so we just agreed to disagree. I won’t say which organisation she was representing, but I think she would have been more suited to the corporate agribusiness conference taking place in Oxford at the same time.

To summarise: scientists are not in a position to tell us whether genetically-engineered food is a good idea or not. GM is not about feeding the world, it’s about putting more of our food supply into the hands of the corporate sector. If most scientists don’t understand this, it’s not surprising – it’s not their job.