The Socialist 27 February 2013 |
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Should socialists support GM foods?
The first genetically modified (GM) plant was grown in 1983. Thirty years later, should socialists agree with Con-Dem environment minister Owen Paterson that GM foods could be beneficial for society?
Yes - but demand science for social need, not profit
Debate over the genetic modification of crops raises questions for socialists and environmentalists as to the role of GM, as well as the wider issue of science under capitalism.
Last year, protesters threatened to destroy GM crops at Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire. In response, scientists launched a YouTube appeal in defence of their research, which seeks to modify wheat crops by making them resistant to aphids.
Socialists should not oppose GM research in principle. As with all scientific advancements, the question for socialists is never simply 'right or wrong?' Rather we ask which class controls it and in whose interest will it be used?
Often the debate centres on moralistic ideas of 'playing god', or as one of the protest banners put it, 'nature does it best'.
Yet, from eradicating deadly diseases to establishing agriculture and developing flight, human history has relied on consistently challenging nature and natural laws.
To declare everything which occurs naturally to be unalterable is to turn our backs on thousands of years of progress.
However, scientific research exists within the constraints of capitalism. From applying for research grants to publishing findings, big business plays a crucial role in deciding which research exists, the direction it takes and who reads it.
As education budgets are cut and universities are turned into free market competitors, scientists are not able to carry out research simply for the sake of science. They have to find a funder and increasingly this is the private sector.
This is just as true for research into renewable energy being controlled by oil giants such as BP, as it is in the field of medicine, where the pharmaceutical giants' competition for profit comes before sharing vital scientific breakthroughs.
For GM crops, the Rothamsted research was carried out on spring type wheat, which is more commonly used in the US than Europe.
The US presents a more profitable market for selling the research. This shows that while GM could be a weapon in the fight against the global food crisis, the primary aim of such research under capitalism is the profits of US agriculture.
The crisis in global food production is itself a savage indictment of the failings of capitalism. The only long-term solution remains a democratically planned economic system, which can only be brought to existence through socialism.
As unavoidable as this truth is, GM research still represents a potential transitional solution to alleviating global hunger.
The research should focus on crops which could be used in sub-Saharan Africa and similar crisis areas.
The research should be publicly funded and democratically accountable, with findings published openly so the results can be read and shared for global benefit.
No - potential damage from GM is enormous
Ben rightly points out that agribusiness capitalists control the type and direction of agricultural research and that they do so in their own interests.
Much of the research done - with the profit as the main aim - is of questionable social and human benefit, while some is undeniably worthwhile.
But genetic modification research and use in agriculture is in a category of its own, because whatever the potential benefits are, the possible damage to the environment and our health could be enormous.
We certainly should not "declare everything which occurs naturally to be unalterable," but this doesn't mean that all alterations are desirable and progressive.
The accumulation of greenhouse gases causing climate change is one example of potentially disastrous consequences of 'alteration'.
Genetic modification is not simply an extension of the relatively harmless plant and animal breeding that has long been practised.
That type of change didn't involve the imprecise transfer of genes between very diverse species as is taking place in genetic engineering today.
It is impossible to confine the modified genes in a crop - test sample or otherwise - to a patch of land and stop them from affecting the environment further afield.
There hasn't been anywhere near enough research done on the potential effects of such spread, but some of the studies carried out indicate unpredictable and harmful consequences, including more weed and insect tolerance to herbicides and insecticides and a decline in biodiversity.
Despite the unknown consequences, 160 million hectares of land globally were producing GM crops by 2011.
Some studies have indicated possible alarming effects on the health of the millions of people eating foods containing genetic modification; more research on this is urgently needed.
The European Union is presently discussing whether to allow GM crops (beyond trials) to be grown in Europe, many of them modified to give resistance to certain herbicides.
Growing them is predicted to lead to a large increase in herbicide usage (due to an increase in herbicide resistant weeds), polluting the environment unnecessarily and probably leaving greater toxic residues in the food we eat.
The global 'food crisis' doesn't need GM foods to solve it. Enough non-GM food can be produced to feed everyone on the planet simply by planting non-GM seed instead of GM; it is poverty that is mainly responsible for starvation.
In fact GM foods are tending to worsen poverty and hunger, as farmers are forced into dependency on the expensive GM seed and herbicides of the agribusiness multinationals.
In a socialist society, it may be feasible to genetically modify crops in a safe and beneficial way, as it will be possible to carry out the necessary safety precautions and investigations and thoroughly assess - by democratic discussion and decisions - what is done.
Today however, in capitalist society, socialists should say a firm no to GM use in agriculture. There is little evidence of its benefit - except to the mega profits of multinationals like Monsanto, Syngenta and Bayer - while at the same time evidence of the risks has been growing.