Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Blooming GM 2

John complains about an abnormal foxglove at this year's Chelsea Flower Show.

There is nothing new about artificially bred flowers at Chelsea Flower Show. Horticulture (and for that matter agriculture) has always depended on creating variants that don't exist (and probably wouldn't survive) in the wild. This process has always carried risks of environmental side-effects, as well as the risks of unknown foodstuffs.

Supermarkets are currently encouraging farmers to produce variants of fruit and vegetables that have better appearance and longer shelf-life, even though this is often associated with a reduction in the levels of vitamins and minerals. I even heard somewhere that they have been demanding sweeter, less bitter broccoli, even though many nutritionists believe that the bitter taste in such vegetables is associated with their anti-oxident and therefore cancer-protecting properties.

Update: reference added. Adam Drewnowski and Carmen Gomez-Carneros, Bitter taste, phytonutrients, and the consumer: a review. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 72, No. 6, 1424-1435, December 2000. [abstract] [full article]

GM merely amplifies an existing process, and amplifies the existing risks. What matters to me (and I think to POSIWID) are the effects of the process, not whether it is achieved through GM techniques or more old-fashioned plant-breeding techniques.

While I am wary about GM, I prefer to frame the debate on a more general process of which GM is merely the most recent and (possibly) the most technologically efficient version. The tactical purpose of the process (whether GM or not) is to align horticulture and agriculture to the commercial interests of certain companies, and to screw the farmers.

But what of the ecological effects of GM? While the businesses promoting GM obviously care about public opinion of GM, and may want to pose as good corporate citizens, they probably don't really care much about the environment itself. But I think this means they don't care either way - I have no reason to suppose that they actively and consciously want to destroy or endanger the environment, or that such an outcome would be of any commercial or strategic benefit to them. Surely the POSIWID here is not a secret business conspiracy, but more like the Tragedy of the Commons.

Update: see article by Donella Meadows. Poor Monsanto (Whole Earth Summer 1999). "Corporate demonizing will not transform industrial agriculture, but less hubris and more openness to organic agriculture might help."


To take a longer view, I've been reading the Iliad. Just look at the quantity of food production needed to sustain a ten-year war against Troy. The history of civilization depends on agricultural productivity and surplus - from Mesapotamia and Egypt to "Turnip" Townsend and Jethro Tull. So the purpose of food surplus is Pyramids and War.

GM is just the latest episode in this long history.


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