The Greens and Genetically Modified crops


Why it’s more complicated than the headlines show.

Well…everything is, isn’t it?

Over 10 years ago while exploring all things alternative during my student days, I took part in a picket organised by Greenpeace outside a branch of Sainsbury’s on the issue of Monsanto & it’s work on all things GM. At the time, the issues for me were about health and safety of the surrounding environment regarding the research, and the role of a profit-making multinational and the incentives around it. I soon found out I wasn’t cut out for picketing in cold weather on a noisy traffic-jammed street. Ditto with being part of groups that bore similar traits of top-down organisations: i.e. decision taken from up on high with the foot soldiers expected to fall in line.

The scare story that we were all briefed about was that these multinationals were creating new forms of crops that we did not know what impact they would have on the environment, while at the same time being made into a form where farmers from poor countries would not be able to replant using seeds from their produce, but be dependent on going back to the multinationals because GM would stop such plants from reproducing in the natural manner. This was around the time that Naomi Klein’s “No Logo” book (& the issues around) was high in activists minds.

I didn’t go back to Greenpeace following that picket – I think it was a mixture of feeling really uncomfortable at that picket combined with not really feeling any connection with the people in the group. That along with generally being a foaming ball of ‘angry’ that was spiralling downwards with depression, I was probably not the nicest person to be around with in those days.

The following year I sort of took the decision to take a step back from following all of the bad stuff that was happening in developing countries – on the grounds that it was messing me up because I took the burdens of the world on my shoulders emotionally. You know those really intense people who complain about absolutely everything because someone somewhere happens to be worse off than you are, and that by doing X, Y and Z you are somehow contributing to their condition? That was me back in 2001. It sucks the life and soul out of a person. Basically I had forgotten how to have fun in life. Hence why in 2002 I thought the best thing to do with all of this was to take a big step back from it all. Hence why I took little interest in the GM debate (along with a whole host of stuff that otherwise underpinned my degree) since 2002.

Fast-forward 12 years and Puffles’ timeline explodes with a spat between the Green Party and the science lobby. The confrontation came in a field near Harpenden. Anti-GM protesters wanted to trash a field full of GM wheat while pro-science people wanted to demonstrate against them. Trashing GM crops is not a new form of direct action. Greenpeace’s Lord Melchett in 1999 was arrested for doing just that. I guess what’s changed now is the science lobby have started to get their act together regarding political lobbying. The Green Party ended up getting involved in this following London Mayoral Candidate Jenny Jones blogging here.

There are three issues raised by this confrontation for me. The first is for the anti-GM protesters.

Are they protesting against the science, or its application?

As one person on Twitter said, it’s difficult to say we must take action against global warming because of the science, but then be against GM research because of the science. What makes climate change science more ‘acceptable’ compared to GM science?

The second one is for science communicators.

Don’t your complaints that people have misunderstood the science behind GM reflect more badly on you as science communicators than demonstrators protesting about what is a very complex subject, that they happen to have misunderstood?

Or is it a reflection of the sort of society we currently live in where money, fame, glamour and celebrity are everything? (Thus anyone trying to communicate anything else gets drowned out).

The final one is for everyone.

Who’s driving this flying umbrella?

What I mean is who are the vested interests that control the direction of scientific research? I come back to my concerns about the multinationals – and it applies not just to the GM industry but to things like medicine and renewables too. What might be good for the bottom line of a multinational may not be good for wider society. There’s also the risk of research going down blind alleys because the financial incentive for what might otherwise lie at the end is such.

Take mental health. As someone who has been on medication since 2006, I can’t help but feel the financial incentive for big firms looking for treatments for mental health is one that involves taking medicine regularly for a period of time. The financial incentive isn’t there to look at things like the lives that we are leading, the food that we are eating or for things like counselling and other therapies. Does the private/corporate financial interests skew research funding towards one and away from another? If so, by how much and why?

It’s one of the reasons too why I’d like to see more transparency about charities raising money for other illnesses. Lots of people have been, and continue to raise money in good faith for these causes – and I admire them for it.

My fear though is that the money they all raise risks being used to subsidise the future profits of a large pharmaceutical firm who, having benefited from all of the money raised in helping fund its research, finds a cure but then charges a hefty price for said cure having patented the cure that millions and millions of people contributed towards discovering.

The issue for me therefore is not the science, but the institutions behind the scientists: Who is in control and what are the levels of transparency? This for me is where campaigners on both sides may be best advised to sit down and talk to (and listen to) each other. That way the science can be subjected to greater scrutiny – and who knows, that scrutiny may just uncover some goings on in some of the large organisations behind some of the science. Because if transparency is good for the public sector, isn’t it good for the private sector too? Especially if it involves science.


One thought on “The Greens and Genetically Modified crops

  1. There are two sides to the issue of the terminator gene (that stops GM plants from reproducing). Many anti-GM campaigners were worried about the effects of GM plants spreading outside the fields contaminating other crops. In theory terminator genes significantly reduce this risk. However as noted there are issues about such technology making 3rd world farmers dependent on multinationals. Arguably on this specific issue multinationals are damned if the do and damned if they don’t!

    However I agree that there should be a rational debate around if/how such technologies are applied and who should be allowed to “own” the technology. Unfortunately this debate about weighting up the risk versus the benefits – and in many ways becomes quite detailed and relatively boring. However unfortunately instead of engaging in this debate many “Greens” tend to it as “natural and pure” versus “unnatural and contaminated”. This type of appeal to emotion poisons the debate and kills rationality. Unfortunately I suspect however such language plays will with the general public and the large elements of the “Green” support base. This leads to the situation where there are few voices offering a rational alternative (except for a few publicly funded scientists), which means that such organisations engaged in such research are not properly held to account!

    My personal view is that ideally we need a much more scientifically literate green movement which accepts that people are not going to give up their comfortable lifestyles and hence we need technologies such as GM and nuclear to meet our future food and energy needs: –

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