GM, Corporate Feudalism and the Dark Ages (21/3/2008)

NOTE: Some more comment on the recent pro-GM editorial in the magazine Country Life .

1.Editorial: Jury Still Out on GM Foods

2.Open Letter: GM, Corporate Feudalism and the Dark Ages


1.Jury Still Out on GM Foods
Editorial, Western Morning News, 21 March 2008

It is remarkable to think that little more than a decade ago the food debate was focused on European over-production and the creation of wine lakes and mountains of unwanted beef, butter and grain. Then the talk was all about taking land out of production to stop farmers churning out food no one wanted. The prospect of food shortages - at least in the prosperous West - had virtually disappeared.

The incredible growth of the Chinese and Indian economies, causing rising demand for meat and milk, combined with several poor harvests across the globe and pressure to put land over to biofuels, have dramatically changed the picture. Now there are real fears that food could be running short. Prices are up and national food security is back on the agenda.

Against that background it is hardly surprising that a responsible and well-informed publication like Country Life should be advocating genetically modified food, accusing the British Government of 'immoral' and 'criminal' behaviour by ignoring GM. Yet this is a far from simple or straightforward issue.

It shouldn't be forgotten that the main reason GM foodstuffs have failed to take off in Britain is consumer resistance. The public don't trust the technology and the might of the agrochemical business that would benefit from more GM take-up has not been able to convince them that GM is good for the individual, good for the environment or good for farmers.

It is true, as Country Life says, that an expanding world population and growing demand from people in the developing world for more meat and more dairy products in their diets will put extra pressure on food producers. But genetic modification, with its potential threats to the natural world, the control it gives to seed suppliers and the doubts expressed by consumers about safety, is not the way ahead.

There is much that can be done to boost farming and improve the incentives for farmers to increase their efficiency. That is the route to adopt, at least in the UK, where the pressure against GM is strong. If, over time, the serious questions surrounding genetic modification of food plants and animals are satisfactorily answered then that too may prove to be part of the answer to feeding the world. But at the moment most people think GM is little more than a means by which chemical companies and seed suppliers can enhance their profits, at who knows what cost to the rest of us.


Mark Hedges, Editor,
Country Life Letters
20th March 2008

Dear Editor

GM, Corporate Feudalism and the Dark Ages

I have read your Editorial in the March 20 edition of 'Country Life', which has been given additional exposure through the Telegraph newspaper. I am amazed that a journal which purports to represent the 'countryside community' should have chosen this moment to promote the interests of the GM industry in such an unbalanced way, and to demonstrate its lack of awareness of what that industry is trying to do to all of us. Sadly, the piece is full of inaccuracies and misapprehensions. It could well have been written by Dr Helen Ferrier of the NFU, or by Clive James of ISAAA, who is one of the chief spin doctors for the GM industry.

You seem to think that 'designer crops' produced by the GM industry will somehow solve the problems associated with over-population, desertification, loss of plant diversity, nutrient depletion in soils, and even sea level rise. Dreams about wonderful technical fixes are obviously alive and well. If only life were so simple. In fact the GM industry is itself heavily implicated in the creation and exacerbation of these problems. Around 97% of the GM crops currently grown are herbicide tolerant or designed to express insecticides; they emphatically have NOT increased yields, and they HAVE increased the usage of proprietary chemicals including Roundup and Liberty. GM farming is essentially industrial/chemical farming associated with very high energy inputs; any extension of GM farming will inevitably lead to a great increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

GM crop varieties are also patented life forms (which is an outrage in itself, if you are concerned about ethics and the Christian message) and those who grow them are debarred from seed saving or from passing either seed or harvest through unapproved channels. Big commodity farmers are probably happy enough with this situation in the US, Canada, Brazil and Argentina, but small farmers are turned into serfs in a world of corporate feudalism. That is why so many African states are desperately worried about the activities of the GM corporations, which are supported ruthlessly by US and WTO diplomatic pressure. That is why thousands of small farmers growing BT cotton in India have committed suicide.

You repeat the lie that GM is a means of speeding up the process of selective breeding that's been practised for millennia. It is absolutely different in a number of respects, creating new varieties that are uniquely unstable and erratic in their behaviour and which have the potential to cross-pollinate and out-compete in the wild, with wholly unforeseen consequences. There are increasing signs that they are also harmful to the health of animals and humans since they contain unique proteins and toxins. The implications of GM farming for biodiversity are horrendous, as the signatories to the Cartagena Protocol know full well. And while the biotechnology multinationals are trying to breed their new wonder varieties using GM techniques, they are systematically buying up seed merchants and their catalogues, and removing 'inconvenient' local varieties from the seed lists. Not so long ago, there were hundreds of canola (oilseed rape)varieties available in Canada; now, after the predations of Monsanto and the other GM corporations, there are 28 GM varieties and only one non-GM variety left.

The scenario which opens up is truly terrifying. We will have a world in which three or four gigantic GM corporations will literally control the world's seed supply and hence the world's food supply. Farm chemical use will rise inexorably, in association with the management of herbicide-tolerant crops and also to counteract the spread of 'superweeds'. The corporations will impose a very small number of GM crops onto subservient communities, and in locations which are ill-suited for them. Crop failures and famine will increase dramatically, not decrease. Locally adapted indigenous crops, bred over millennia in response to local climatic and soil conditions, will be systematically squeezed out because Monsanto, Cargill and other huge companies will have claimed ownership of them and then wiped them off seed catalogues.

There is no sign whatsoever of salt-tolerant or drought-tolerant GM crops performing any better than plants developed by traditional and new breeding methods, let alone providing any 'quick fix' or even long-term fix for the problems which the world will face in the coming decades.

Your final paragraph, relating to the Christian message, suggests that GM technology 'has the potential to alleviate some of the dangers' which we face over coming decades. The GM industry trots out this argument all the time, but the manner in which it operates is in fact profoundly anti-Christian. It replaces the old concept of respect for all living things with the practice of life-form patenting and ownership. It replaces the concept of stewardship with the unrestrained pursuit of the profit motive. It replaces the concepts of freedom and self-determination with the practice of corporate control and feudalism. It replaces love and beauty with lies, scientific fraud, brutal enforcement of patents, and the vilification of those who have the courage to stand in the way of corporate ambitions.

You refer to the Dark Ages in your arguments in support of GM 'enlightenment.' Well, you are welcome to your opinion; but my nightmare vision is of a world inhabited by our children and grand-children and controlled by a few gigantic biotechnology corporations who feed us poisonous food and tell us it is good for us, who control farmers through patents and contracts and tell them that is the only way forward, who destroy fragile environments and communities and pretend that their actions are benign, and who systematically remove the ability of independent scientists, farmers and even governments to innovate, adapt and benefit from the accumulated wisdoms of past generations. In the world of Monsanto, there is nothing but contempt for the very idea of 'the commons.' That is not a world that I want any part of -- and shame on you, Mr Hedges, for seeking to promote it through the pages of your magazine.

Yours sincerely,
Dr Brian John
Trefelin, Cilgwyn, Newport, Pembs SA42 0QN

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