The issue of GM crops [genetically modified] has sprung up again after several years of quietness. One side tells us that these crops can feed the world and produce untold benefits; the other says that they are monstrous and should not be permitted. Who is right?
Humans have been genetically modifying crops for millenia through the process of breeding, in which crops with desired characteristics are selected and bred together, while others are discarded to become either extinct or rare varieties. The difference between this traditional breeding method is that scientists can now take a gene from one species and insert it into another to produce what they believe is a very desirable outcome. Objectors made the valid point that all these crops ahad been tested only in the laboratory, but field trials on how they fared in the broader ecological system were lacking, so we could not know of any unpredicted consequences that might arise when they were sown.
So what is the problem? Genetic modification is neither right nor wrong in itself. It is to be evaluated by the assessment of its consequences for humans and the environment as a whole.Take a recently proposed crop, which is under trial. Scientists are trying to insert a gene into cereals that enables their roots to produce the nodules that fix nitrogen into the soil. This can have great benefits for cereal growers, as they will not need as much expensive nitrogen fertiliser to add to their soil, saving them much cash. Objections might be that there could be unpredictable consequences that will arise later when these crops are grown. But there might not be. Living on fear of change is not an acceptable way to operate.
Yet we must also be wary.Scientists are human and make mistakes. They work for research firms that have a vested interest in their products success, and so scientists can be under financial pressures to conceal embarrassing data. It is very easy for humans to let their financial interests sway their judgment.
Perhaps the issue is not that crops are genetically modified, as there can be beneficial and harmful genetic modifications, but the overall game that is being played by the GM producers. A few years ago crops were being modified to be resistant to herbicides and pesticides produced by certain companies. These were broad spectrum poisons that killed indiscriminately, creating ecological deserts in which only monocultures were growing. They overlooked the organic principle that the soil is a living reailty, a vastly intricate eco-system which sustains itself. They killed friendly and unfriendly creatures alike. Bees were subject to poisonous intereference in their immune systems, jeopardising their vital role in pollination. This sort of GM modification was performed in the interests of companies with no respect for the environment.It was and is destructive of the eco-system on which all life depends.
There are further issues. For millenia farmers have saved seeds, but GM companies have tried to establish a seed monopoly, despite the efforts of ecological campaigners, such as Vandana Shiva, to prevent them. The aim seems to be to control the sale of GM seeds to farmers, making them buy new seed every year rather than produce their own. Effectively this is serfdom.
There are other problems, notably the problem of resistance. Take for example the Greenhouse Whitefly, Trialeurodes vaporarium. In parts of Britain this has become resistant to pesticides and now is very difficult to control by chemical means. Farmers speak of the spread of super weeds, which have become resistant to the herbicides produced by the seed companies. These are the unpredictable consequences which the envrionmentalists fear.
The problem may not be GM crops themselves, but the game that people play with them. I am using the word game in the philosophical sense of a pattern of activities with a purpose. Maybe there is some good that can be accrued from GM crops, but can we trust the GM companies to work in the interests of environemnt and people at alrge rather than their own profits. I very much doubt it. It is not that we should not trust scientists, but that we should repose unqualified trust in no one, business people, scientists, governments and eco-campaigners alike . None has a monopoly on wisdom, we must all realize that we have much of it to seek and that we rarely find it when pursuing our narrow financial interests. We must tread carefully in this matter.