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When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me irrational

March 12, 2010

My food class are generally a sociable, helpful bunch, and so we often share set readings for the week and other interesting things we come across that are relevant to a topic we’re studying. Normally, we do this via our group mailing list, but this week, when we’ve been studying GM food, not only did more people share much more information, but we also did it mostly via social networking sites like Facebook – i.e. this was not only between us, but visible and accessible to our other friends and contacts, implying either that we thought they were more likely to be interested in the topic of GM food, or that we thought they should be! I also can’t help feeling that putting something as your Facebook status implies you feel more personally involved with an issue than just sending round a pdf from a reading list to your classmates.

I’m planning to write my dissertation on GM food aid. While the, ‘So what do you do?’ question often means that less than 10 minutes of small talk at parties can lead to me saying, ‘Well, I’m really interested in famine…’ while the person I’ve just met looks at me uncomfortably, I’ve also found that everyone has an opinion on it. I have talked about GM food with my optician and the man who fixed my radiator, to name but two.

Unsurprisingly, GM is a particularly hot-button topic: powerful, emotive, mobilising, and inspiring strong feelings. It is a focal point for wider debates about our relationship with nature, risk, food safety, international relations, deveopment, politics, economics, hunger and food security, democracy, power and the nature of knowledge.

With all these complex and exciting issues bubbling away under the surface, why, then, are most mainstream discussions about the hypothetical (or actual) risks and benefits of GM so polarised?

People seem to come down strongly on one side or the other, very pro (‘It has huge potential to feed the world! We can grow maize in the desert!’) or very anti (‘Noooo, it will play havoc with the environment and make us all grow three heads!’). I recently went to a talk at the British Library called ‘GM Crops and Food Security: Curing the World’s Growing Pains?’ and despite the title, the talk which introduced the topic focused on, essentially, a conflict between agricultural productivity on the one hand and biodiversity on the other. This is typical of most media coverage I have seen on the issue. It presents the issue as a zero-sum game: there are risks, but there are also benefits, and you have to weigh them up against each other. Since the food crisis in 2008, the debate has become more urgent – proponents of GM crops are emphasising their potential to grow food in challenging conditions (drought-resistant crops, salt-tolerant crops) and increase yields, thereby alleviating hunger in developing countries, ensuring food security and helping combat climate change. They acknowledge that there are risks, but argue that these are either negligible, misunderstood and/or wilfully exaggerated by activists/members of the public, or are a ‘necessary evil’ in the face of climate change, population growth etc.

I find this incredibly frustrating!!

Not only because the very first thing you learn about famine, even when reading books not intended for specialists, is that people don’t go hungry because there isn’t enough food on the planet, but because of market forces and socio-economic factors, they can’t afford to buy it (which makes it difficult to understand how GM will change anything, since it perpetuates the current model of intensive agriculture and unfair trade policy), but the narrow risk-benefit debate essentially closes off the possibility of asking searching questions about the causes of poverty and hunger and masks more sinister undercurrents of the debate.

Appealing to ‘science’ and ‘reason’, GM proponents insist that humans have been genetically modifying nature since the beginning of agriculture (true in some senses, but I cannot help thinking that modern biotechnology is qualitatively different) and that objections to GM crops are based on ignorance and fear. They claim there is ‘sound scientific evidence’ for the safety of GM crops and that if opponents understood the ‘facts’ they would come to accept the potential biotechnology offers.

However, these ‘facts’ and the ‘sound scientific evidence’ are far from being completely objective. All knowledge is produced by human being (complex bundles of beliefs, motivations and cultural practices that we are) acting within a particular political, social and economic context. The fact that ‘science’ is frequently invoked to support biotechnology and the growth of industry-funded research cannot be coincidental, and framing the debate in this way effectively discounts the myriad socio-political concerns.

Last week, we looked at agriculture and environmental degradation, and my tutor emphasised at the beginning of the class how important it was for anthropologists to understand the scientific issues in order to be able to talk intelligently about pesticides, salinisation, soil erosion, etc and be taken seriously. Having shamefully failed to pay attention to any of that stuff and written about how it had to be looked at in context, I decided that this week I would spend some time trying to get to grips with rudimentary genetics. Having given up all science as soon as my school would let me (and my biology teacher was mean, so that was first to go 😉 ), this was no mean feat. I now know what things like ‘DNA’, ‘allele’, ‘phenotype’, ‘recombination’ and ‘heterozygous’ mean; I know why only men are haemophiliacs even though it’s carried on the X chromosome; I learnt why sex is important, even though it seems illogical; I more or less understand what mitosis and meiosis are, though I doubt I could explain the latter. (I gave up at nucleotides, in the interests of effective time-management. They have something to do with nitrogen and are the base of DNA. Long-term project, long-term project.)

What struck me was that even in books with such innocuous titles as Introducing Genetics or Genetics 101, I came across statements such as,

‘Plant geneticists have also developed techniques to produce transgenic and genetically modified plant species that are resistant to disease and insect pests. This has served to increase crop yields around the globe, another benefit for a planet with an expanding human population,’

and (relating to the use of X-ray mutagenesis in creating new varieties in plant breeding),

‘Despite their unnatural origins, such crops are perfectly acceptable to organic farmers, though other approaches to genetic engineering, oddly, are not,’

as well as claims that people are ‘irrational’ for refusing to eat genetically modified food which may be harmful while happily eating, for example, cheeseburgers which they ‘know’ are harmful. One particularly obnoxious book, 50 genetics ideas you really need to know, exemplifies the idea that if laypeople understood the ‘facts’ they would stop being ‘irrational’ and embrace GM’s potential to improve our lives.  Although the scientific explanations were very understandable, and the author does conclude the section on GM crops by acknowledging that they are ‘not a panacea’, a pro-GM bias is still clear: he states that ‘GM crops fell victim’ to a crisis of confidence in food safety because they were launched in Europe shortly after the BSE crisis (‘an inopportune moment’), whereas there were no such issues in the US and GM food has been ‘eaten by millions of American consumers for over a decade without any adverse consequences’. (To which I add – as far as we know, because it’s not labelled so no-one has any way of connecting human health problems to GM food. ‘Sound scientific evidence’ indeed!)

Emotive language, partiality and unsubstantiated claims are as evident here as in the writing of environmental activists. This doesn’t just happen in ‘official’ science textbooks, of course: read the comments section after any newspaper article about GM and you will hear the same arguments. Why can those invoking science claim authority and objectivity? Why is science identified so strongly with technology, and presented as a unified entity? There is disagreement within science, and there are also legitimate scientists who are undecided about GM or believe it is harmful. Are they somehow not scientists? Is ecology not a science?

Going off at a complete tangent, I studied risk in childbirth for one of my other courses, and one of the key things that came out of it was how debates about risk are often informal debates about ethics and values. In one part of Canada, the state was trying to insist that Inuit women were evacuated to hospitals in large cities to give birth. The medical professionals portrayed this as a measure to reduce risk to the women and their children, but a) there was no evidence to prove whether giving birth in a hospital or in the community was safer (for the good reason that it’s generally not considered ethical to experiment on pregnant women!), and b) restricting the debate in this way closed off discussions about the relationship between the community and the state. Why did the doctors get to decide what was risky? Why couldn’t the women decide for themselves? Was this part of a wider assimilation of these communities into the dominant culture?

Essentially, to ask the question, ‘How much risk is acceptable to you?’ is to ask the wrong question. More appropriate would be to ask, ‘What sort of society do you want?’

I think this is equally the case with GM food. It is being promoted as the solution to a crisis in agriculture. This gives us an opportunity to ask all sorts of questions about the future of agriculture, but at the moment these are effectively silenced by the way in which debate about GM is framed.

GM crops may well have the potential to contribute to food security. I have read many, many environmentalists and social scientists, this week and previously, say that there is nothing inherently dangerous or harmful about GM technology, just that we don’t know enough about it and it needs to be properly regulated, and that since there are so many other, less risky ways of addressing food security, perhaps we could try things like land reform (it’s free!!) first before we start with the expensive, untested proprietary technology. But they won’t be the magic bullet they are claimed to be unless we look at the risks and benefits in context: who will benefit most and who will bear the risk? Who gets to decide what risks we take? Will this still seem like a good idea in 20 years’ time, or will we be overrun with superweeds?

I spent my whole afternoon trying to understand meiosis. I learnt that genetics is really fucking complicated. So, please, if I ask who’s funding the ‘sound scientific evidence’, or ask if there can be labelling so we can monitor any health effects, or suggest there might be other ways of looking at hunger, can we meet halfway? Because we really need to be asking these questions too.

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