Update on the GM industry in the UK and beyond

In the UK

The GM industry and its lobby are clearly pushing for GM in animal feed as part of a longer strategy to promote and normalise the presence of the technology, thereby opening up UK and European food markets and ensuring GM-free food becomes an impossibility. Such a situation would also benefit US feed exporters. Campaign groups such as Friends of the Earth Europe have questioned the legality of the EU's plan, yet European regulators are arguing that food security is still possible if animal feed contains no more than 0.1% traces of GM.

This percentage game is a dangerous one, of course, because as soon as we start to descend down this slippery slope, it will become impossible to resist GM on general political and environmental principles, such as food sovereignty. The industry's strategy is to slowly introduce GM in this way by claiming it is such a small amount, and only in animal feed, that there is no need to worry so much. This will have the effect of normalising the presence of GM in our food chain and will open up the UK and Europe for more and more GM imports, and eventually cultivation of GM in the UK.

And globally

The situation globally is looking much the same as in the UK and the EU, if not worse. Arguments are being made that there is already so much GM around that it has to be an essential element to any 'sustainable' global agriculture plan. However, transgenic crops only covered about 4% of the global cropland area in 2004 (see the IAASTD report below). The case is usually framed in terms of the challenge of feeding a growing population, which is such a massive issue that we must use all available techniques, even though research has shown that small-scale farming methods, without technologies like GM, are more appropriate to deal with one of the main challenges we face in the coming decades.

The Final Report of the Foresight Global Food and Farming Futures Project was delivered on 24th January on behalf of Government by Sir John Beddington, the Chief Scientific Adviser to the government. The report can be found here.

The report was anticipated by those interested to see how it was going to differ from the 2009 report the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), titled 'Agriculture at a Crossroads'. This was a global scientific assessment of the future of agriculture initiated in 2002 as a global consultation process, sponsored by the World Bank and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and involving the private sector and NGOs. Other sponsors included the Global Environment Facility (GEF), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), World Health Organization (WHO), and the governments of Australia, Canada, Finland, France, Ireland, Sweden, Switzerland, US and UK, as well as the European Commission. The IAASTD was approved by the UK government and 57 others (although not by Australia, Canada, and the U.S.). The report can be found here.

The IAASTD report

The objectives of the report were “to assess the impacts of past, present and future agricultural knowledge, science and technology on the reduction of hunger and poverty, improvement of rural livelihoods and human health and equitable, socially, environmentally and economically sustainable development.”

One of the main themes of the report was biotechnology and the environmental and human health impacts of transgenic crops. The report did not rule out the use of GM as part of a global agricultural strategy, yet confirmed the proposals of small-scale farmers movements, such as La Via Campesina, for ways to secure future food and realise food sovereignty. It found that small-scale, agro-ecological and organic production methods protected from damaging globalised markets and based on local knowledge, and women's skills especially, were the way forward to tackle problems of hunger, equality and the environment now and in the next 40 years.

However, the IAASTD report assessed different possible future scenarios and concluded:

“Overall, it is likely that the elimination of a powerful tool like transgenesis would slow but not stop the pace of agricultural research and improvement. As a result, humanity would likely be more vulnerable to climatic and other shocks and to increased natural resource scarcity.”

It acknowledged the risks of the privatisation of the plant breeding system and the concentration of market power in input companies. Yet, it also made claims about the effectiveness of biotechnologies being augmented by integrating local and tacit knowledge.

The Foresight report

This report, as expected, offered no additional proposals to the much more detailed IAASTD report, while costing a lot of public money to carry out. Caroline Spelman, MP Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and Andrew Mitchell, MP Secretary of State for International Development, were involved in preparing the report. In June 2010, Corporate Watch reported on Spelman, who used to run the biotechnological company Spelman, Cormack & Associates, when she first came into this role in 2010. Mitchell is part of DFID, which has a long history of 'dodgy development', as a www.corporatewatch.org.uk/?lid=3655">series bearing this title recently published by Corporate Watch demonstrates very well.

Unsurprisingly, the Foresight report advocated the use of GM technologies more strongly than the IAASTD report:

“New technologies (such as the genetic modification of living organisms and the use of cloned livestock and nanotechnology) should not be excluded a priori on ethical or moral grounds, though there is a need to respect the views of people who take a contrary view.”

The report claims that there are 'real sustainable gains' to be made by combining biotechnological, agronomic and agro-ecological approaches to agriculture. It is critical of the small number of companies that have come to dominate the global food supply chain and the corresponding concentration of corporate power, but then goes on to say:

“However, there does not seem to be an argument for intervention to influence the number of companies in each area or how they operate – provided that the current numbers of major companies in each area and region of the food system were not to contract to a level where competition was threatened, and provided that all organisations adhere to high international standards of corporate governance.”

The Foresight report claims that the spread of Western farming methods, the expansion of seed companies and large corporations continuing to buy up farms in the global south, is part of the 'solution', whereas the IAASTD report was much more critical.

Mainstream newspapers, like the Guardian and the Independent, seem to have uncritically accepted the claims of the Foresight report, following the technofixation ideology that it espouses (see here and here, for example). Interestingly, the Daily Mail, following on from its track record of criticising the potential onslaught of GM the last time round, has been more critical, writing on 6th February that investment in farming is essential, but the "right investment", not large GM companies controlling more and more land in the global south.

The way forward

Both reports promote GM technologies, though in different ways and to different degrees. The Foresight report's conclusions seem to have particularly been made in order to force acceptance of GM foods in the UK. However, if we want our global food strategy to involve the most productive, just and sustainable agricultural methods, then the best way forward is to base our food system on the biodiverse and ecological practices of the majority of small-scale, local food providers. This will ensure we maximise ecosystem functions in every locality, a conclusion based on first-hand experience over more than 40 years of the ability of small-scale food providers to grow enough food for themselves, their communities and provide excess for the market. We need to protect the rights of these farmers to continue with such practices free from the corporate menace that is GM.