Beyond good and evil: the truth about GM crops
The Environment Secretary is wrong to call opponents of Golden Rice "wicked", because it closes down a very necessary debate, writes Nathan Oxley
Are you in favour of "rolling out" GM crops, or do you want little children in Bangladesh to die? In an interview for the Independent, Owen Paterson, the UK Environment Secretary, has called opponents of GM technology "wicked", and accused them of "casting a dark shadow over attempts to feed the world".
In particular, Paterson uses the example of Golden Rice, which researchers hope will provide a way to reduce vitamin A deficiency in some poor countries. The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) is developing Golden Rice for the Philippines and Bangladesh, and hopes to use it to improve nutrition for poor people in those countries.
The story is simple enough. Children and others are developing night-blindness linked to Vitamin A deficiency, leading to many avoidable deaths; GM crops are being developed, which could help poor people; Golden Rice has beta-carotene in it; beta-carotene can be turned by the body into Vitamin A; Golden Rice is "ready to go" but is held up by regulation; therefore opponents of GM are "allowing" children to die "because of a hang-up by a small number of people about this technology". Pretty shocking, right?
If you join the dots in the way Paterson has done, it’s almost impossible to see GM as anything other than a battleground for the life and death of the world’s poor, with Paterson on the side of the angels; and anyone who questions this narrative with feet firmly planted among the infernal legions of Satan himself.
This account is connected to a web of other stories. GM "feeding the world" is one such story, in which ideological or irrational concern about GM is stopping efforts to produce more food and thus leading to starvation. It taps into a wider narrative where any questioning of new technology is painted as "anti-science". In another related story, anti-science greens oppose the "rolling out" of new technologies because they want to keep the developing world poor. Some GM crops make it necessary to use fewer pesticides, fertiliser, or water, so opponents of them must have it in for farmers and vulnerable communities.
But although you might commend Paterson for putting some passion into his arguments, focusing the debate on food and agriculture down to a simple good-and-evil question about GM crops actually serves to close down a truly moral discussion. This comes powerfully to light when you look in between the joined-up assumptions to ask a different set of questions.
Firstly, where are the voices of poor farmers in this debate? They will, presumably, be at the core of efforts to roll out Golden Rice and other GM crops, but their voices are absent from much of the rhetoric bouncing back and forth in the West. This is perhaps inevitable, given that politicians and well-funded researchers have much better platforms through which to make their voices heard. But it does mean that the different views on GM from farmers may be drowned out. The many criteria they use to choose their crops and methods, and the various options they see for their own futures, are crucial, but they don’t get a look in.
Secondly, where is the science exactly? The story told above hides some important assumptions, including a) that the link between Golden Rice and preventing night blindness is cast-iron, and b) that Golden Rice is ready to roll. In fact, IRRI has recently sought to clarify the position of the science in response to other enthusiastic statements in the media. The nutritional link still needs to be established through trials at community level; and the regulatory process is still some way from completion. This suggests that, as an organisation deeply committed to the Golden Rice project, IRRI recognise that media hype is unhelpful to the often slow, painstaking process of completing and approving controversial research.
There are other dots too: the extent to which we’re happy with corporate control over food production, which varies depending on which technology is examined; concerns about biodiversity and the environmental effects of using large mono-cultures; how to provide access to food and varied diets; how best to respond to wildly fluctuating food prices, which can foil the best-laid plans of governments to feed their citizens; and so on. These are also questions with a moral dimension, even if they don’t yield easy or convenient answers.
Even throughout the course of developing Golden Rice, uncertainties and questions have been opened up at many points, as Sally Brooks shows in her book on the recent history of rice biofortification. Having an open debate on the benefits and drawbacks of using GM technology, alongside other ways to tackle nutrition and help farmers, is surely a good thing. It can help regulators, farmers and consumers to make informed choices and join in the conversation about how and where new technologies can, can’t, should or shouldn't be applied.
Owen Paterson’s remarks are clearly polemical, and are perhaps made at least partly out of frustration with campaigners, some of whom undoubtedly exaggerate their case, and cause headaches for industry or governments who want to move forward in certain ways. Campaigners, too, don’t always play fair and their messages could be similarly examined. But the tone of Paterson’s remarks ultimately serves to narrow the debate. Feeding the world doesn't come down to GM or not, and to imply otherwise is to close down a vital discussion with implications for lives and livelihoods worldwide.