Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

GMOs: How The Greens Went Anti-Science

Me in the maize (from a recent Newsnight)
For environmental campaigners, it's often our victories we have to apologise for, rather than our defeats.

Greenpeace has never, as far as I'm aware, had to explain its attempt in 1995 to stop the M65 motorway being built by sending a rainbow coloured digger to disrupt the construction work.

However it is still apologising for the mistake by its PR team - actually a guy called Hans with a radio - sending out a wrong estimate of the amount of oil on the Brent Spar, a claim almost nobody printed.

That's because whilst the M65 was eventually built and still spans Stanworth Valley, the Brent Spar wasn't dumped at sea but was towed back to port to be eventually sawn up into giant hula hoops after a humiliating climbdown by Shell that instead helped sink John Major's government.

Similarly if those of us who'd campaigned against Genetically Modified Organisms had failed miserably we'd now be totally forgotten.

Instead we won and the clip of me being nicked is still being used by the BBC to illustrate every news item it ever runs on GMOs. Even my mum is tired of seeing it.

As a result we've been accused of causing mass starvation in the Third World and compared to Climate Change deniers and those who dispute the link between HIV and AIDS.

Things came to a head in May this year with the Take Back The Flour action against a field of wheat Genetically Modified to ward off pests with its a pheromone laden pong. The protesters were fewer in number and easily held back by the security, whilst a phalanx of scientists with laptops were on hand to push the independence of their science. So has the anti-GMO campaign finally hit the buffers?

It's a long time ago now, but I remember being quite amazed at how the whole thing panned out. I was at Liverpool docks in February 1996 when Greenpeace targeted the first shipload of GM soya coming into the country. We carried out a public engagement at a nearby supermarket and the usual question was "what's a GMO when it's at home like?" - and that was from the local group volunteers.

A couple of years later, when Greenpeace had moved on to trying to stop oil drilling in the Atlantic Frontier - a campaign that failed miserably thanks to a spy in the German office telling BP their plans - I started to hear story from from friends in Earth First! that their anti-GMO supermarket actions were getting good public support.

This was remarkable news. EF! had a healthy disregard for PR so anyone caught up in one of its actions usually had absolutely no idea what was going on. Never-the-less some shoppers, caught up in the chaos as EF! activists jammed the checkouts with trolley loads of potentially GM contaminated food which they refused to pay for, had expressed an interest in what it was all about.

This was only a few short years since John Gummer has failed to persuade his daughter to eat a potentially BSE contaminated beef burger and had so sparked a massive food scare. In the end this was a lucky escape as the death toll looks like being in the low hundred, rather than the hundreds of thousands that was once feared.

The country was ripe for another good food scare, and all that was needed was a right leaning tabloid to steam in with some nonsense about Frankenfoods and we were away. Not that we can blame the Daily Mail entirely for eclipsing serious campaigning with Mad Scientists and so on, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth jumped on the band wagon too.

All this meant that by the time Lord Melchett and the rest of us steamed into the field of T20 maize in July 1999 it was all over bar the shouting.

And you can see why the scientists were spooked. From their point of view a bunch of technophobes had teamed up with the forces of reaction and progress had been stopped in its tracks.

What the Daily Mail's agenda was I don't know, but whilst most environmentalists have mixed views of technology, we don't generally hate science. When the ice caps melt and or the oil tanker sinks, its to the science that we look to measure the problem.

So what were we doing helping a right wing rag scare the Great British public?

There was a time that you could find almost as many reasons to oppose GMOs as there were groups opposing them. Indeed it seemed if we could only eradicate these pesky plants we'd have paradise on earth.

For some this was about corporate control of the food chain. Having one giant company controlling every stage of food production seemed like the sort of protectionism Adam Smith was supposed to have saved us from, but funnily enough it was only anti-capitalists who were telling people this.

Then and there were those concerned about the developing world who saw GMOs as the Green Revolution Part Two.

Both these views are valid, but in a sense the actual technology was of only minor relevance to the argument. Certainly it was hard to see how a University loosing its trial crop of blight-resistant spuds in the night was going to seriously impede global capitalism.

For others though, including me, it was a sudden realisation that most of or countryside was not disappearing under roads or airports, but under monolithic fields of intensively grown crops. The destruction caused by a road might be rather more obvious, but the battery of chemical weaponry deployed by the modern farmer could be just as damaging. Most of the GM crops that were due to be planted were resistant to a broad spectrum herbicide, meaning it killed everything that wasn't genetically modified to resist it.

There were concerns that these artificially introduced traits could escape into the wild either by the esoteric method of horizontal gene transfer, or just by cross pollinating related species. These superweeds now seem to have arrived.

However whilst that is a problem of GMOs going wrong, the problem of them going right may well be worse.

Monsanto claimed that the new crops introduced the concept of 'Total Weed Control'. Farmers might like the idea, but wildlife wasn't too keen.

If Organic farming is what we want and conventional farming a step too far, then GMOs were two steps too far. 'Green Concrete' was my favourite phrase about GMOs, but it just didn't have the same appeal as 'Frankenfoods'.

The problem with all these issues though is that to get any traction, they required people to think of someone, or something, other than themselves. Not very easy in the consumerist nineties.

So we took the line of least resistance and spun an anti-science, food scare story.

Was it worth it?

Well it now seems that sixteen years of growing GMOs in the USA has increased, rather than decreased, the amount of herbicides and pesticides being sprayed on the fields.

On the other hand nobody has actually been shown to have died from eating a GMO, so a cynic might say that both sides were wrong and that GMOs have proved to be neither dangerous nor useful.

The answer is surely that the technology that allows us to transplant genes, that is now so simple you can pretty much do it yourself in your bedroom, is essentially neutral, and its what we use it for and why that counts.

Pretty obvious really, but it seems to have been forgotten.

Winning a campaign is important. If you don't it's just gesture politics. But victory can't come at any cost. What you say has to mean something and you are still accountable for your words. More importantly what you say needs to be consistent.

You can't tell the public to trust the science on Climate Change, but not on GMOs. You can't complain that the technology is in the grip of the evil multi-nationals and then attack independent scientists when they do the work instead.

So I don't regret my actions with Greenpeace; it's good ridence to T20 maize and its like, but I do regret some of the words we used. GM tampons could give you toxic shock - did I really say that? (I can't actually remember if I did - but it was in the script for the Greenpeace supermarket tours I used to lead.)

However there may have been another angle on GMOs that we should have used, but totally failed to spot.

Peak Oil is the end of cheap oil. People usually imagine that it will mean more expensive fuel and fewer cheap holidays, but that may be missing the main point.

The way our food gets to our plate depends at every stage on cheap oil. From the manufacture of the herbicides and fertiliser, to the red diesel in the tractors to the fuel that ships the end result up and down the motorway network. Peak oil will change the game completely.

The alternative to GMOs that campaigners plugged was Organic farming. It might not make you (much) healthier and you might not be bothered about whether its better for the birds and bees, but when the cheap oil runs out at least your organic veg box will still turn up.


TheOldTechnician said...

Even without oil and NG, you can still have nitrates. You only need hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and energy to make them. Google the Haber process. Without hydrocarbons, solar, nuclear, wind, etc. can supply the energy.

Martin Porter said...

I think the day we have the renewable energy to spare to make food is a long way off.

We need to get back to a situation where food production is a means of obtaining energy, not of consuming it.

TheOldTechnician said...

If you don't have enough food, it'll be everything that's not food production that would be considered spare uses of energy.

In either case, all modes of food production consumes energy. First, the plants themselves consume solar energy and, then the farmer consumes energy to work in the fields. Part of this consumed energy is then released in us as chemical energy. Fertilizers don't add energy to the plants per se. They enhance the plants to absorb greater amounts of solar energy by providing them with the materials in which to make their cells.

Martin Porter said...

Another point I didn't make was that we appear to have passed the level at which the planet can reabsorb all that Nitrogen back into the ecosystem, hence the algal blooms that mark the estuaries of all major rivers on satelite photographs.

Unknown said...

Fine blog Martin. There's not many who are so nuanced in their views about GM technology. In general terms it is the use of nitrates which both promotes weed growth (as well as crop) thereby necessitating herbicides, and results in lush crop growth (requiring growth regulators) which is both disease prone (requiring fungicides), and attractive to insect pests (requiring insecticides). At the moment I dont support any applications of GM as they dont seem to make any contribution to sustainable agriculture, but its good to keep an open mind eh....