You might have caught the Environment minister Owen Paterson on this morning’s Today programme extolling the virtues of GM crops as efforts are once more renewed to convinced the British (and European) public that GM crops are both safe and essential. Paterson’s rhetoric was, typically for an MP, short on evidence and rather heavy on the emotion, particularly playing on the benefits to the environment and for the world’s poor (something the Tories are well known to be concerned about).
Chief amongst his examples of the need for GM crops was the development of ‘Golden Rice’ and the difference it can make in reducing blindness in the Philippines. ‘Golden Rice’ is produced by Syngenta, a chemicals company specialising in pesticides and seeds (“We are helping growers around the world to meet the challenge of the future: to grow more from less“). ‘Golden Rice’ reduces incidence of blindness by, supposedly, acting as a vitamin A supplement. Of course, vitamin A supplements do the job just as well but, unfortunately, vitamin A isn’t owned by anyone so there isn’t the profit to be made from it in the way there is from ‘Golden Rice’.
Seeing as Paterson was thin on the ground regarding facts about ‘Golden Rice’ on the Today programme, I thought I’d have a dig around myself. Here’s what I found:
- Syngenta, the corporation behind ‘Golden Rice’, also lobbied hard against the EU ban on pesticides believed to be causing the decline in bee numbers. Lobbying that appeared to have the effect of the British government rejecting the ban (Paterson was particularly opposed to it).
- Vitamin A deficiency is already declining in the Philippines, suggesting that existing programmes are working but need to be extended to communities that are harder to reach. As a result, it’s not clear that ‘Golden Rice’ will be the solution Mr Paterson (and friends) claims.
- There are doubts that ‘Golden Rice’ even has the effect that Paterson claims. According to the International Rice Research Institute: “it has not yet been determined whether daily consumption of Golden Rice does improve the vitamin A status of people who are vitamin A deficient and could therefore reduce related conditions such as night blindness.
- There is also the element of control, as there is with all GM crops and this is the real issue at the heart of the GM debate. As one pressure group puts it: “Any larger farmers, and any trading of the Golden Rice or cross-bred varieties containing the Golden Rice traits, would be subject to agreements, conditions and royalties levied by Syngenta. Syngenta gives no warranties relating to safety or nutritional quality, and expressly states it will accept no liabilities or costs arising from the breeding, growing or consumption of the rice crop.“
It’s this final point that is the most crucial. The argument against GM crops is not, or should not be, solely about health and environmental issues (although they are important). Ultimately the introduction of GM crops will pass even more power over the food-chain into the hands of a small number of very powerful corporations. And the consequences of this are disturbing.
Earlier this year the Supreme Court in the United States made clear the power that would be passed into the hands of companies like Monsanto. According to The New York Times:
The Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Monday that farmers could not use Monsanto’s patented genetically altered soybeans to create new seeds without paying the company a fee.
Farmers who buy Monsanto’s patented seeds must generally sign a contract promising not to save seeds from the resulting crop, which means they must buy new seeds every year. The seeds are valuable because they are resistant to the herbicide Roundup, itself a Monsanto product.
But the Indiana farmer, Vernon Hugh Bowman, who had signed such contracts for his main crop, said he discovered a loophole for a second, riskier crop later in the growing season.
For that second crop, he bought seeds from a grain elevator filled with a mix of seeds in the reasonable hope that many of them contained Monsanto’s patented Roundup Ready gene.
Monsanto sued, and a federal judge in Indiana ordered Mr. Bowman to pay the company more than $84,000. The United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which specializes in patent cases, upheld that decision, saying that by planting the seeds Mr. Bowman had infringed Monsanto’s patents.
The shift towards the patenting of seeds, what should be a product of nature freely available to all of us, is troubling to say the least. It is this kind of corporate tyranny that we should all be arguing against when it comes to the introduction of GM crops. Do we really want large corporations having this much control over our food production? It seems like the Conservative government certainly do, particularly as they are lobbying hard to force the EU to ‘remove regulatory and political barriers‘. GM crops are back, good news for large corporations keen to increase profits, bad news for freedom, democracy and, ultimately, us.