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Genes in the Food!

The opponents of GMOs are not alone in the misuse of the image of “escape.” McHughen, in his manifesto against the regulation of biotechnology, claims that spatial isolation of fields in which transgenic crops are growing is utterly useless because the transgenes have already escaped onto roadsides and other fields through seed that is inevitably spilled from sacks, trucks, and machinery in the very process of transportation and planting. But this small amount of spilled seed is irrelevant. What is properly of concern is not the escape of a virulent infection, but that a constant rain of millions of pollen grains produced by hundreds of acres of a transgenic crop will over and over produce hybrids with weedy species at the margins of cultivated fields and eventually result in a new weedy form that will be unusually invasive or competitive.


Most of what is written about GMOs is quite parochial, concentrating on their effects in North America and Europe. While we expect nothing more from the National Research Council or from an indignant Canadian plant engineer, the general lack of interest in the effects of biotechnology on the third world seems in contradiction to the rather moralistic tone of the public discourse. Predictably, the most famous example of a piece of biotechnology that is supposed to be good for subsistence agricultures is cited by McHughen, but, unfortunately, it does not do the work intended. A serious problem of nutrition in some rice-producing regions, causing blindness, is a lack of vitamin A. A transgenic variety, Golden Rice, has been created with the promise that if it is ever cultivated, it will provide the missing vitamin. But Golden Rice—not to be confused with Green Revolution rice—does not, in fact, provide vitamin A. It is enriched in beta carotene, a precursor of the vitamin (hence the golden color), which can only be converted to vitamin A in the body of an already well-nourished person. The developers of Golden Rice have not dealt with this problem in their publicity releases. Rissler and Mellon have a brief final chapter entitled “International Implications,” but these are largely the extension of the ecological risk arguments already made for the United States and do not deal with promised nutritional benefits.

The only recent book that deals with the effect of agricultural biotechnology in the third world and embeds it in a more general discussion of agricultural technology in general is Vandana Shiva’s Stolen Harvest.4 Shiva is what is called a “cult figure” for opponents of GMOs, but her book will give a detached observer more the impression of a cheerleader. She might have used her knowledge of Indian agriculture and her immense prestige among environmentalists to provide a credible up-to-date analysis of the effects of agricultural technology and market structures on third-world economies. Instead, she has produced a conjunction of religious morality, undeveloped assertions about the cultural implications of Indian farming, unexplained claims about the nature of the farm economy in India and how biotechnology destroys it, and unanalyzed or distorted scientific findings. Stolen Harvest is an opportunity squandered.

So with no further elucidation we are told that seeds and biodiversity are “gifts from nature and their ancestors” that Indian farmers have received; that “food security is not just having access to adequate food. It is also having access to culturally appropriate food”; that “the smoke from the mustard oil used to light the deepavali lamp acts as an environmental purifier.” While Shiva makes the undoubtedly correct claim that conversion to high-yield Green Revolution varieties has resulted in less fodder for cattle and less green manure for fields and has displaced the culture of legumes, other vegetables, and fruits, she nowhere explains why Indian farmers have engaged in this self-destructive activity and how the global structuring of agricultural trade in combination with the internal economy of India has driven them to it. Indeed, she never shows that Indian farmers are worse off than before the introduction of agricultural technology.

Most disheartening of all, Shiva’s reports of facts are not always as complete as they need to be. In a discussion of genetically engineered soybeans she writes that “infants fed with soy-based formula are daily ingesting a dose of estrogens equivalent to that of 8 to 12 contraceptive pills.” It turns out, however, that the soybeans contain a nonsteroidal estrogen whose physiological activity is less than one thousandth the activity of the standard hormone. I learned this fact, not men-tioned by Shiva, by consulting the very article from which she says her dosage figure was calculated.

The real present danger to third-world agriculture from transgenics is elsewhere. Much of the agricultural economy of these countries depends on growing specialty commodities like lauric acid oils used in soaps and detergents, once found only in tropical species. Now, with recombinant DNA, these are produced by canola. Why buy palm oils from the politically unstable Philippines, where 30 percent of the population depends on it economically, when we can grow it in Saskatchewan? Caffeine genes have been put into soybeans. Why not Nescafé from Minnesota?

No unequivocal conclusions can be drawn about the overall effect of genetic engineering technologies. It is clear that any manipulation of organisms, whether by conventional means or by genetic engineering, poses some danger to human health, to present systems of agricultural production, and to natural environments. All of these potential effects have led to a fairly effective apparatus of government regulation whose chief deficiency is its dependence on data supplied to it by parties whose prime concern is not the public good but private interest. Nothing is significantly changed in this situation by the introduction of genetic engineering. The technology provides a method for transferring a specific gene into a crop, rather than the uncontrolled mixture of entire genomes that takes place when two varieties or species are crossed. On the other hand the random disruptions of regulatory genes of the recipient that may take place are totally uncontrolled. On balance, it is impossible to say whether we have achieved greater or lesser control over the unintended consequences of mucking around with nature.

We find ourselves in a puzzling situation. None of the books on the subject of GMOs gives us any reason to think that the known dangers to human health and natural ecosystems posed by agriculture have become radically greater because of the introduction of genetic engineering as a technique. Nor do we even have a single case of a catastrophe that might have engendered widespread public anxieties.

Yet in North America, and much more so in Europe, there is a widespread, passionate, and politically effective opposition to the use of recombinant DNA techniques in agriculture. Only a rare defensive newspaper advertisement paid for by the Council for Biotechnology Information speaks against the general consciousness, and we all know whom they represent. Is this just another chapter in MacKay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds? A hint at the answer can be found in a series of full-page newspaper advertisements created by the Turning Point Project, a coalition of over sixty political action organizations including Food First, the Sierra Club, and Greenpeace. One set of advertisements had as headlines:

Unlabeled, untested…and you’re eating it
Biotechnology = Hunger
Genetic Roulette
Who plays God in the 21st century?
Just the usual anti–genetic engineering stuff? Consider another set:

Can industrial agriculture feed the world?
The myth of efficiency
America’s last family farms?
Well, it’s not just genetic engineering that is being opposed. It’s really part of the organic food ideology. The next set of headlines makes a new connection:

Global Monoculture
Globalization vs. Nature
Invisible Government
Somehow we have moved from DNA to the WTO, but we are not finished. The progression is completed with

Monocultures of the mind
If computers in schools are the answer, are we asking the right question?
The Internet and the Illusion of Empowerment
E-Commerce and the Demise of Community
Now we understand the Turning Point Project. They’re a bunch of Luddites. Right century, but wrong movement. The followers of the unseen King Ludd and Captain Swing from 1811 to 1830 were industrial and rural laborers thrown out of work or trying to live on poverty wages, who destroyed knitting and threshing machines that had displaced their labor. Their objection to technology was not ideological but pragmatic. If we want to find the nineteenth-century equivalent of the sources of Turning Point consciousness, we must find it in the movement that began with Blake and ended with Rossetti, Ruskin, and the pre-Raphaelites, in the call to arms against the dark Satanic Mills:

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.
That nineteenth-century discontent was the reaction of a middle class repelled by the spiritual and physical ugliness created by a surging industrial capitalism to which they sensed no attachment. One might think that because the rise of industrial capitalism occurred so long ago and the culture it created has become so much the basis of European and American life, any truly popular new romantic movement against it would be inconceivable. But what was then a struggle against the rise of its dominance is now a struggle against its last consolidation in spheres of life that seemed set apart.

Until twenty years ago there were four intimate aspects of our personal lives that we assumed to be produced by individual artisanal activity. They were medicine, entertainment, sport, and vegetables. Some penetration of capital into those spheres had, of course, occurred but they were invisible to us. Since then our family physician has become a corporate health care practitioner; television, popular music, books, and film are owned by a few major conglomerates; baseball players are paid millions by owners who are paid millions by television networks who are paid millions by advertisers; and now Monsanto wants to tell me what to eat.

One consequence has been the creation of a false nostalgia for an idyllic life never experienced. I once bought a new computer in a large computer supermarket in a shopping mall in Boston. The salesman offered to carry the machine out to my car in the parking lot and as we approached the rear of the car, he spotted my green and white Vermont license plate. “Vermont!” he said, “That’s where I really want to live.” “Oh,” I replied, “have you spent much time in Vermont?” “Oh, no,” he said, “I have never been there.” The independent family farmer, tilling the soil, in touch with nature, making decisions about what and when to plant and harvest from his craft knowledge, sitting down at dinner to a groaning board of home-grown victuals prepared by his aproned wife, is our last connection with an authentic life. We want to preserve it. Unfortunately, we are a hundred years too late and GMOs are the wrong target. To understand the situation we need more mental fight and fewer arrows of desire.

The history of American and European agriculture over the last hundred years has been a history of the increasing dominance of industrial capital over farming. In 1900 the inputs into farming were predominantly self-produced. The farmer saved seed from the previous year’s crop to plant, the plow and tillage machinery was pulled by mules fed on forage grown on the farm, 40 percent of planted acreage was in feed crops, and livestock produced manure to go back on the fields. Now the seed is purchased from Pioneer Hi-bred, the mules from John Deere, the feed from Exxon, and the manure from Terra. The rise in purchased industrially produced inputs has had two effects. A major increase in yields per acre has driven down the price paid to farmers for their product. Simultaneously the farmers’ costs of production have risen. There has been no escape from this dilemma for an individual farmer. Because the price paid for a farm product is determined by the aggregate production from all farms, no individual farmer can push prices up by holding down production. Thus he must increase production when other farmers do, but the result of all these individually economically rational acts is mass suicide. Smaller and smaller margins between farm income and expenses have led to increasing farm debt and bankruptcies.

The consequence of the growing dominance of industrial capital in agriculture for the classical “family farm” has been the progressive conversion of the independent farmer into an industrial employee. More and more farm operators and their spouses are only part-time farmers, trying to support their farming from outside income. That is why the confusion between farm family income and income from farming in the appendix to the NRC report is so misleading. In 1997, 60 percent of farm operators were also employed off the farm and 40 percent worked at alternative employment for more than two hundred days a year. They work as truck drivers, salespeople, secretaries, and factory workers. Car companies now put their assembly plants in the rural counties of the farm belt to take advantage of this labor force. It is not Jerusalem that has been built in the green and pleasant land, it is the dark Satanic Mills.

The creation and adoption of genetically modified organisms are the latest steps in this long historical development of capital-intensive industrial agriculture. Roundup Ready herbicide-resistant soybeans have been created by Monsanto so that farmers will be able to use its powerful herbicide, Roundup, while at the same time buying Monsanto seed. The farmers accept the cost of the new variety and its chemical partner because the use of such a powerful general weed killer will reduce the number of herbicide treatments or mechanical tillage passages through the fields, freeing them for the hours in the automobile assembly plant that they need to keep their farms. For the farmer there is no escape from engineering, whether it be mechanical, chemical, electrical, or genetic.

  1. 4

    The classic work on the effects of biotechnology in the third world is Calestous Juma’s The Gene Hunters (Princeton University Press, 1989), which remains the basic source for an economic and historical analysis of the effect of agricultural technology in Africa and Asia. Because the work is a dozen years old, it antedates most of the actual development of GMOs and the immense growth of public discourse and anxiety about the subject.

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