The nonsense of GMOs and the staggering inadequacies of experts

As revealed in this week's leaked minutes the government's commitment to GM crops is unswerving. Revealed once more too is its arrogance; for it acknowledges public resistance but hopes that “opposition might eventually be worn down by solid, authoritative scientific argument”. Most worrying of all, though, as always seems to be the case in agriculture, is the truly astonishing ignorance of people in high places. The arguments for GMOs that have been dinned on us this past 15 years from ministers, corporations, and the scientific experts from whom they claim their authority, are based on an almost sublime misreading of the world's food problems. Indeed, GMOs are part of a political and economic trend that is threatening all humanity.

The crucial claim for GM crops is that are necessary. They can hugely out-yield traditional varieties, and can be made especially rich in protein and vitamins. The world's population is rising fast and without GM, the story has it, famine and increasing deficiency are inevitable. To oppose their development is to be effete to the point of wickedness.

Human numbers are indeed rising and GM crops can be highly nutritious and productive—but that is not the whole picture. Nothing like. The world population now stands at six billion and the UN says it will reach 10 billion by 2050—but then human numbers should level out. Present productivity could easily be doubled by improving traditional breeding and husbandry, so whatever the possible virtues of GMOs, absolute necessity is not among them. Present-day deficiencies are almost never caused by an inability to produce enough. Angola is good example: it is always bordering on disaster yet it has two-and-a-half times the area of France and every kind of climate, yet has only 12.5 million people. Its farmers, so close observers agree, are highly accomplished. Famines result not from inability but from the civil war that raged for 30 years (and has only just stopped). Worldwide, perhaps the one example of genuine shortfall in recent years was in Asia in the 1960s and '70s, which led to the Green Revolution. But this was a one off: the once-for-all provision of wheat and rice that could withstand heavy doses of fertiliser. It needs no repeating. Besides, it was achieved a decade before GMOs came on board.

In the short term, more production leads merely to glut—and a drop in world prices. Thus coffee has fallen by nearly 70 per cent on the world market this past five years (though not of course in Starbuck's) and tea and even cardamoms are going the same way. GM will increase the gluts: disastrous for farmers; great news for the traders, who under WTO rules can simply buy from the “most efficient” producers, which in truth means the most desperate.

In truth, behind the claim that GMOs are necessary lies a deep and racist failure to appreciate traditional farming. It's assumed that Third World farmers, with their small farms, cannot cope. But all who have looked closely know that traditional farmers in all continents are remarkably adept. Their greatest need, as for farmers everywhere, is for financial security: especially small loans with regulated rates of interest. Technological innovation becomes pertinent—if at all—only when the traditional ways have been given half a chance, and shown to be lacking. Almost never has this been done.

But, say the enthusiasts, GMOs are not just an ad hoc technology. They are part of the transition from peasant-based, low-output subsistence, to industrialised production based on biotech, modern chemistry and machines. This self-evidently is “progress”. Modern, high-production technology “liberates” the peasants—enabling them to migrate to the cities, to work for proper wages. We see the transition in India, home (together with China) to the world's fastest-growing IT industry. Even more to the point: modern farming is profitable, as traditional farming is not. The profits contribute to GDP and everyone benefits. To oppose such progress, in whatever form, is again to be effete.

This—rather than concerns with health or even with wildlife—is the crux of the objections. Industrialised farming with GMOs, chemistry, and machinery, is indeed amazingly productive and potentially profitable, just as is claimed. But extra productivity can be harmful, while profit is achieved primarily by cutting labour, which traditionally is the most expensive input. In Britain and the US, only about one per cent of the labour force works on the land. In India as in the Third World as a whole, it's 60 per cent. That means that in India alone 600 million people live on the land: one and a half times the total population of the expanded EU. If India farmed as the British do, 594 million of them would be out of work. India's IT industry, flaunted as the hope for the future, currently employs 60,000—which falls short of what would be required by 10,000 to one. To replace the status quo with high-tech low-labour industrialised agriculture would create social problems on a scale that mercifully has not yet been seen. Yet this is expressly what GMOs are intended to do. For the foreseeable future (surely the next few centuries) the world's economy has to be primarily agrarian.

Ironically, one victim of the GM madness is science itself, for in principle GMOs could be of real use. I saw an example in Brazil last autumn: GM papaya, designed to resist local diseases. This is high-tech as it should be: designed by the people (Brazil's own scientists) for the people, to solve problems identified by the country's own farmers. Contrast this with GM “golden rice”, widely presented as an unequivocal triumph. Golden rice is fitted with a gene that produces carotene, which in effect is vitamin A—lack of which causes blindness in tens of millions of children. But carotene is one of the commonest organic compounds in nature. It is the yellow pigment in fruits such as papaya and mango (which until modern commerce took over was so common in the Caribbean that it was free) and occurs in quantity in all dark green leaves, such as spinach. People who practice horticulture have no fear of vitamin A deficiency; and traditionally, horticulture was universal. Modern, corporate farming—monocultural rice, or maize grown for export as cattle feed—is a prime cause of the deficiency that leads to blindness. It's all good for the GDP but emphatically not for people.

In truth, the prime task for people seriously interested in humanity's food problems is to help the world's small farmers. Technical upgrading is certainly desirable, and could include GM. But wholesale transition of the kind now in process, in which GM has become a key player, is a disaster. GMOs have drawn attention to the disaster, and for this perhaps we should be grateful. They are also drawing attention to the shortcomings of government and of experts in general. That needs urgent attention too.

Colin Tudge's latest book, So Shall We Reap, on world food production, is available from Penguin at £20.00.