CUMBRIA FARMER CUMBERLAND NEWS Friday 21st November 2003

THE POLITICS OF GENETIC MUTILATION

by Tom Griffith-Jones, Land Agent and organic farmer

There's an eerie silence within our farming community over the issue of genetically-modified crops. Maybe it's a subject that doesn't concern us, as a predominantly livestock-rearing area. Anyway, somebody else is going to make the decisions about it, maybe the Government, maybe the EU, maybe even the World Trade Organisation (WTO). so what is the point in us bothering?

Well, our future is on the line, yet again. This is not just about can we make ends meet? can we sell our produce for a fair price? can we invest in the buildings and equipment which we need to survive? will we have anything left to live on when we retire? This is about whether big business is going to get away with leading us down a dead end in which it takes control over all our crop inputs, charges us heavily for the privilege, and does untold damage to the wider environment which it neither understands nor cares about. Sadly, its success, if we do succumb, will be short-lived, and the end when it comes looks to be very dead indeed.

The great advantage of the farming industry is that it is one of the few where the decisions of individuals can make a real difference. We are an amalgam of a myriad of small businesses, making our own decisions. And if enough of us tell the Monsantos of this world to get lost, they will. If we don't buy their products, if we don't like their business ethics, if we wont be told how to farm, if we resist their bullying and immoral litigation, as Percy Schmeiser -www.percyschmeiser.com - in Canada has done, then we can shape a future which works. If we don't speak up now, and stand up to them, then the future will be genetically mutilated, and coming generations will have to pay the price.

So how could a simple new technology, claiming to bring improved yields with less chemicals, be potentially so damaging? There are a number of reasons. The first is that the claims don't stand up to scrutiny. It is always suspicious when an agrochemical company boasts that a new product needs less of its chemicals. In the field, farmers in North America are finding that they are using more, not less, chemicals. Two farmers from Canada were on tour over here earlier this month, debating with farmers from the UK who had been taking part in the field scale evaluations of GM crops. The Canadians were emphatic that the GM crops had caused more problems and expense than they had saved. In Manitoba, one of the prairie provinces, GM maize is now listed as one of the ten main weed species in the province, and that is after only seven years of these crops. Far from saving on spray usage, extra sprays have to be used to remove these Roundup-resistant volunteers. Yields are no higher, and often lower than the non-GM version. It is no longer possible to grow organic oilseed rape in Saskatchewan, because of the contamination of the crop by GM volunteers, and a large industry has been destroyed. Even the seed merchants are finding it impossible to keep their seed clean of GM contamination.

As a result of all these difficulties, 95% of Canadian farmers don't want GM wheat, which the biotechnology companies are now trying to get approved. The message from the visiting Canadians was: "learn from our mistakes - don't repeat them".

Vandana Shiva, the Indian environmental and anti-globalisation campaigner, addressed the anti-GM march in London last month. She explained that she had become involved in global issues as a direct result of a meeting she attended in India in 1987, at which these biotechnology companies laid out their proposals for taking over control of agriculture in that country, and others. They intended to take control of the seed industries through buying up the seed merchants, many of which they already owned. By patenting their GM varieties, so that saved seed could not be used, and by selling only the GM seeds, they had it all sewn up! They were quite blatant about their intentions. She was so incensed at this abuse of free trade that she took up the fight for which she has become famous.

This is the context in which we are working. For their own reasons, these companies are keen to force their new technology down our throats. But there is no need for it.. This is not a technology driven by the demands of agriculture. It is devised purely to take control of a key sector of the agricultural supply industry, to enable those companies to profit from that control. To achieve that, they have enlisted the support of politicians at the highest levels, resulting in strange decisions being made, for odder reasons. The instructions to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from the White House to facilitate and expedite the approval of GM variants is a case in point, as was the appointment of a lawyer with close Monsanto connections to do the expediting. Last month the EU commissioner for the environment, Margot Wallström, told journalists in London that the US biotech companies had tried to lie to Europe in an attempt to force GM crops on us. Far from developing these crops to solve the problems of starvation in the world, as they claimed, they had done it to "solve starvation amongst their shareholders", she said.

It seems odd that all these problems should arise from a technology which was supposed to have passed the strict tests of the FDA. But when one looks behind the scenes at how the FDA dealt with the issue, as one can because of the 40,000 pages of their documents released for the court case brought against them by the Alliance for Bio-Integrity - see www.bio-integrity.org -one quickly sees that the science went out of the window, as perceived self-interest and political expediency came in.

A detailed look at the science needs a whole article to itself. Suffice it to say here that leading scientists in the field have stopped their research because they consider the outcomes potentially too dangerous. The modification of the DNA itself requires violent assault on the essential and powerful defence mechanisms of the cells. It uses the vectors of disease, bacteria and viruses, to penetrate these defences. These organisms are known to have no concern for the well-being of the host - or should I say victim - cells.. Once modified, the DNA no longer operates under the control of the victim cell, and its efficient functioning is usually disrupted as well. So why do it, for no benefits to society?

Luckily, some of our local politicians are alert to these problems. Already the Lake District National Park Authority and Cumbria County Council have declared their areas GM free. This is a great start. Now we need Tony Blair to put in his hearing aid and listen as well.