The Founding Fables of Industrialised Agriculture

Governments these days are not content with agriculture that merely provides good food. In line with the dogma of neoliberalism they want it to contribute as much wealth as any other industry towards the grand goal of “economic growth”. High tech offers to reconcile the two ambitions – producing allegedly fabulous yields, which seems to be what’s needed, and becoming highly profitable. The high-tech flavour of the decade is genetic engineering, supplying custom-built crops and livestock as GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms).

So it was that the UK Secretary of State for the Environment and Rural Affairs, Owen Paterson, told The Independent recently that the world absolutely needs genetically-engineered “Golden Rice”, as created by one of the world’s two biotech giants, Syngenta. Indeed, those who oppose Golden Rice are “wicked”: a comment so outrageous that Paterson’s own civil servants have distanced themselves from it.

Specifically, Golden Rice has been fitted with genes that produce carotene, which is the precursor of vitamin A. Worldwide, approximately 5 million pre-school aged children and 10 million pregnant women suffer significant Vitamin A deficiency sufficiently severe to cause night blindness according to the WHO. By such statistics a vitamin A-rich rice seems eminently justified.

Yet the case for Golden Rice is pure hype. For Golden Rice is not particularly rich in carotene and in any case, rice is not, and never will be, the best way to deliver it. Carotene is one of the commonest organic molecules in nature. It is the yellow pigment that accompanies chlorophyll in all dark green leaves (the many different kinds known as “spinach” are a great source) and is clearly on show in yellow roots such as carrots and some varieties of cassava, and in fruits like papaya and mangoes that in the tropics can grow like weeds.

So the best way by far to supply carotene (and thus vitamin A) is by horticulture – which traditionally was at the core of all agriculture. Vitamin A deficiency is now a huge and horrible issue primarily because horticulture has been squeezed out by monocultural big-scale agriculture — the kind that produces nothing but rice or wheat or maize as far as the eye can see; and by insouciant urbanization that leaves no room for gardens. Well-planned cities could always be self-sufficient in fruit and veg. Golden Rice is not the answer to the world’s vitamin A problem. As a scion of monocultural agriculture, it is part of the cause. Syngenta’s promotion of it is yet one more exercise in top-down control and commercial PR. Paterson’s blatant promotion of it is at best naïve.

For Golden Rice serves primarily as a flagship for GMOs and GMOs are very big business – duly supported at huge public expense by successive governments. It is now the lynch-pin of agricultural research almost everywhere. The UK’s Agriculture and Food Research Council of the 1990s even had the words ‘Agriculture’ and ‘Food’ air-brushed out to become the Biotechnology and Biological Research Council (BBSRC). We have been told that GMOs increase yields with lower inputs and have been proven beyond reasonable doubt to be safe. Indeed, journalist Mark Lynas has been telling us from some remarkably high platforms that the debate on GMOs is “dead”; that there is now “a consensus” among scientists worldwide that they are necessary and safe.

In reality, GMOs do not consistently or even usually yield well under field conditions; they do not necessarily lead to reduction in chemical inputs, and have often led to increases; and contra Mark Lynas, there is no worldwide consensus of scientists vouching for their safety. Indeed, the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER) has drawn up a petition that specifically denies any such consensus and points out that “a list of several hundred studies does not show GM food safety”. Hundreds of scientists are expected to sign. Overall, after 30 years of concerted endeavour, ultimately at our expense and with the neglect of matters far more pressing, no GMO food crop has ever solved a problem that really needs solving that could not have been solved by conventional means in the same time and at less cost.

The real point behind GMOs is to achieve corporate/ big government control of all agriculture, the biggest by far of all human endeavours. And this agriculture will be geared not to general wellbeing but to the maximization of wealth. The last hundred years, in which agriculture has been industrialised, have laid the foundations. GMOs, for the agro-industrialists, can finish the job. The technology itself is esoteric so that only the specialist and well-endowed can embark on it – the bigger the better. All of the technology can be, and is, readily protected by patents. Crops that are not protected by patents are being made illegal. Only parts of the EU have so far been pro-GM but even so the list of crops that it allows farmers to grow – or any of us! – becomes more and more restricted. Those who dare to sell the seed of traditional varieties that have not been officially approved can go to prison. Your heritage allotment could soon land you in deep trouble. …

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