Farming that takes account of the farmer and the consumer

With worthy intentions to “Feed the World” proponents of GM (genetically modified) agro-business seek to find a shiny tech solution to solve the problems of world hunger apparently aiming to end global poverty and world-wide inequality into the bargain. As Raj Patel notes in the introduction to Timothy Wise’s book ‘Eating Tomorrow ‘when you begin with the conviction that you’re going to feed the world, there’s nothing that can prick your conscience’. Gene-editing, it is argued, is nothing more than a speeded-up version of what the Austrian monk, Gregor Mendel had discovered in the latter half of the 19th century; with a few chops and changes in gene expression, yield is increased, weeds and other pests controlled and science is the victorious hero. Or as Arntzen and Chalmers enthuse in their article about GM ‘We have nothing to fear…there is no bad news, [1] Apparently science has the only answer to avert the inevitable looming devastating Malthusian check. However, this ‘control and command’ agriculture comes at a price, as Rachel Carson identified in 1962 in her ground-breaking book, ‘Silent Spring’ [2]  Gene-editing technology is inseparable from toxic chemicals, principally glyphosate and rather than seeking a partnership with nature it seeks to dominate it.  

In part 1 of this piece, I set out to illustrate stretched tensions, specifically in Mexico, that arise between those who own and control GM technology and are empowered by it, and those who GM culture seeks to dominate and are disempowered, losing agency through its relentless agenda.   Is it that a ‘monoculture of the mind’, to use Vandana Shiva’s phrase cannot see the nuance of what it displaces? [3] Tensions erupt between corporate shareholder profit versus food security on the ground, practical knowledge and solutions versus state control or corporate imperialism. Small economies are swallowed up in favour of neoliberal global economics and urban ‘power-point’ thinking. Local, and especially women’s livelihoods and food security battle cheap GM food in the Global North triggering hunger in the Global South. Commodity trading in Wall Street, profiting the few, trumps the idea of actual food feeding the many.  The shrinking diversity brought about by mono-cropping confronts head on non-chemical, integrated inter-cropping ‘peasant’ agriculture.  Is it possible for the small producer to wrestle power back from mega-project big agriculture, and under what conditions?  GM with its hand in glove relationship with damaging environmental issues and soil degradation creates a potential problem of land stewardship for the future whilst damaging the health of those in contact with its toxic chemicals today, the ‘science is king’ messages all the while stoked by a slick PR narrative.   In part 2, I further seek to understand if the technology is indeed a problem. I explore tensions between scientists search for evidence and the corporate message. We might ask the question is there such a thing as ‘good bio-tech’?  Would organic agriculture serve as a viable counterbalance and does that depend more upon what we might define and identify with the concept of organic?  Can other favourable technology be yoked in partnership with producers to improve food supply, yields and enrich farming community lives?  Finally, I conclude that innovative technology need not be a problem if the technology is openly accessible, viably researched and deemed safe and beneficial to producer, consumer and the planet.

Part 1.  Disempowerment and Agency; Paradise Lost and Partly Regained.

GM’s steam-roller approach to one size fits all agriculture that ignores local producers and at the same time imports U.S G.M-centric technology, honed in Iowa and thrust on Mexican farmers who have, over centuries, developed patchwork solutions to local conditions.  It represents a typical example of mega-project agriculture trying to dominate a local landscape and heritage, with promises of efficiency.

Mexico embodies and almost enshrines maize (corn) as something akin to God, it is food, spirit and nation. According to Mayan lore, God created humans from maize; national dishes are proudly generated into something uniquely, proudly Mexican.  In a David vs Goliath law case against Monsanto, Adelita San Vicente, lead plaintiff for the class action declared about the Mexican relationship to maize “Sin Máiz No Hay Páis” (Without Corn There is No Country) [4].   The diversity of maize envelops ranges of cob from small to large and from orange to deep purple, honed from many centuries of refinement stretching back to the Mesoamerican era some 9,000 years ago, in a land continuously dominated by a rich variety of maize, ‘a centre of origin crop’ which over centuries has adapted to a complex climate and variable terrain.  Maize is coaxed to good yields by an intercropping system, the so-called ‘three sisters’ of beans, squash and maize, which contribute different nutrients to the soil. It would seem therefore, an unlikely geography for multinational agro-chemical companies to single out for market domination, an arrogance of astonishing insensitivity, and almost akin to trying to sell sand in the desert. Yet in 2009 a consortium of biotech companies, including Monsanto, petitioned the Mexican government to grow GM maize in a test site in the north of the country [5].  Big agricultural projects symbolise to a nation that it has arrived on the global stage and is modern and progressive [6].  There is a palpable fear that not being part of the GM will leave a country in the dark ages of peasant agricultural practice rather than clean, modern, efficient production . A Mexican state eager for foreign investment swiftly, sycophantically and rapidly adapted national laws and regulations to make the ‘shoe of GM’ fit into Mexico.  The state, in its haste for capital and kudos, perhaps not foreseeing resistance in the form of legal objection to protect Mexico’s biodiversity in the guise of an injunction raised by a group of 53 individuals, petitioning that there would be inevitable gene flow which would threaten Mexico’s unique maize diversity. Peasants habituated to taking a few corn kernels in their pocket can take the GM corn far and wide and can quickly and unknowingly pollute the local maize diversity. As a Mexican Monsanto representative admitted “We can’t really ensure how grains are transported and where they end up” “It’s almost impossible to control” [7]. The theory of GM feeding the world with coloured graphs must look very glossy on a slick power-point presentation.  A suited and booted urge to control the rural environment from urban ‘ivory towers’, reminiscent of  the tensions between urban and rural cultures identified in Walter Goldschmidt’s ‘Industrialized farming and the rural community’[8] The empowerment of temporarily throwing a spanner in the works of GM expansion through legal means must have seemed like a sweet victory in Mexico, legal and patent law (very much embedded in US history, even enshrined in US law in 1790 [9]). The enforcement of the law and especially patent law, is the powerful bureaucratic paper weapons of choice used by Biotech companies, such as Monsanto to own and control seed. If as, claimed, by Monsanto, the seed is ‘substantially equivalent’ locals wonder why it needs to be owned and patented. The slick Biotech PR narrative remains that Mexico must re-establish maize as the principle commodity (not, of course, mentioning the word food at all) to feed a growing population set to explode by 2050, and ‘claim back food sovereignty’ without even pausing for thought about the root cause issues such as low corn prices, unfavourable trade deals, (NAFTA flooding the market with cheap corn) or other global economic forces, like the 2008 food crisis, where corn was diverted into ethanol.  A celebrated Mexican chef Marcela Bris notes wryly “I can’t make pozole from a commodity” [10].  Having to re-buy seed every harvest, doused with costly pesticide inputs, can indenture farmers into a sucking spiral of debt, as rocketing suicide rates in India attest [11]. Ironically, La Via Campesina, the international peasant movement, see seed saving as the very heart of food sovereignty, something Monsanto forbids.  Instead of investment in tools, irrigation, creation of agricultural jobs or access to markets, GM mega-agriculture promises labour saving (no more weeding) driving labour off the land and into the ballooning cities. The corporate monolith blunders forward for total domination of both white (uniquely Mexican) and the yellow corn they already dominate through animal feed or as Jaime Mijares Noriega, Mexican Monsanto representative concedes “In order for the penetration of biotechnology crops to be successful” domination “will have to be for both white and yellow corn, if it was only yellow, we would not be investing”.[12] Producers are often women, and it is often their land that is absorbed into mega projects, forcing them to walk further to farm the meagre land they are offered in return, destroying communities and families.  We can see this land-grab model enacted in Africa notably by the Chinese or US, as illustrated in Malawi, for mega-project agriculture, where even if the project is abandoned, the owners do not get their land back. One-eyed philanthropy (The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as an example) can unbalance local self-reliance and food sovereignty in the name of failing modern ‘efficient’ production, despite evidence to the contrary, and the emergence of problems like super weeds, now resistant to herbicides, and pesticides, obliterating vital pollinators in their wake.    Where the dollar flows, government often push a blatantly political agenda riding roughshod over local concerns. Back in Mexico, there is a rich satisfaction that it should be a woman, often those most disempowered by state policy, Olga Alcaraz, who leads one of the most successful cooperatives in Guayangare, who produce their own compost, reducing cost for expensive inputs, boosting their own self-reliance. [13] Local politics versus state politics also plays out in the Tlaxcala region [14] declared a GM Free zone inspired by the simple message that Mexico is not appropriate for GM maize.  Whilst the war certainly is not won, the battle to keep GM technology from domination chalks up a small victory.

Part 2 – Science fiction, Science fact; Technology for All

Myth making by the Biotech companies has evolved into both an art and a science it would seem.  Public perception is that genetic engineering of plants is a precise technology for transplanting genes but in reality, the technology is anything but precise. [15] Tensions erupt between biotech intent on telling the world that GM engineering is to a modern, effective solution to solve world problems and the scientific community who seek to analyse the claims, through the scientific method. The scientists reasonably attempt to ascertain if GM crops effect the integrity of the food supply, has a benefit to yield, is fit for human consumption, is safe to handle or has environmental consequences for the planet. In a justifiable pursuit of the truth, the scientists seek the actual evidence to back up the glittering promises, and to find standardisation that might make sense of the data. Even in esteemed institutions such as The U.S.A’s  NASEM (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine) and despite a constitutional requirement to be independent, 20% of scientists were found to have industry ties [16].  The fact is, according to Ralph Nader [17] it is impossible to verify that genetically modified crops ‘perform as advertised’ because companies have elected to veto work by independent scientists, or have had articles blocked in journals for not being flattering.  When independent scientists do manage to publish worrying results, 30 year careers are ended over night as happened to Dr Árpád Pusztai when he found far reaching negative results in rats studies fed GM potatoes.  From the study serious concerns emerged; the rats developed palpable tumours, developed hormone dysregulation and pituitary shutdown – The British Government with backlinks to the US government, and in turn Monsanto were not so thrilled with the news – and Pusztai was summarily swiftly dismissed from his post.  An example of Governments preferring to ignore the precautionary principle in favour of relentless adoption of the technology.[18] Similarly, molecular biologist Gilles-Eric Séralini of Caen University, in a study examining rats fed GM corn loaded with glyphosate (the herbicide to kill weeds employed by Monsanto), found rat deaths escalated, developed kidney issues, and large mammary tumours in the females were observed. Despite the study having been accepted for publication in a leading journal, under pressure this peer reviewed paper was withdrawn. [19]

Actual proof of bumper yield is also thin on the ground and despite an initial gain in yield (eg with eucalyptus), long term the yield gain is lost, super-weeds mutate in the presence of the herbicide and the resulting mono-cropping degrades soil fertility [20]. Even for crops with an apparently humanitarian halo, the actual evidence for effectiveness is scant. In the face of Golden Rice, an engineered vitamin A rich grain, saving poor children from blindness, the American Council on Science and Health maintains that sceptics are irrational luddites stating “It’s truly mind-boggling that this technology, which has already provided so many benefits and continues to do so, is being demonized to such a great extent. It’s a sad commentary on how susceptible a population deficient in scientific understanding can be to fear mongering activists with a scary agenda”.  At once disguising the fact that the technology has not ever been properly studied and metaphorically patting the activists on the head for not ‘getting’ the science, a clear dark art, using emotion not science to make the case.  Michael Pollan maintains, however, that Golden Rice is “purely rhetorical technology” [21] and that the amount of rice needed to be consumed to change Vitamin A status would be impractical.  Instead of solving root cause problems such as irrigation, access to food and food-waste, the technology it would seem, concentrates food-supply (and the right to health) in to the hands of the few with the commodification and privation of “the building blocks of life” a ‘violence’ of possession and ownership, as noted by Vanda Shiva.[22]

Biotech bumps heads uncomfortably into other systems of agriculture, who struggle to protect their livelihoods and markets. Legal battles of Bio-tech vs Organic, largely lost in Canada [23] have sparked a ground-swell of resistance and activism for the promotion of organic.   Certainly, consumers have been largely successful in the EU in forcing labelling of GM food products probably unaware however, that animal feed seeps into the food-chain unlabelled and unnoticed.  Organic, moreover can be used as a marketing term and rather than democratising the food chain which might otherwise empower the producer, instead, supermarkets controlling the food-chain can charge a hiked premium to the consumer and deliver a pittance to the farmer. What we might imagine as the romantic vision of the family farm has turned instead into Big Organic; not so much ‘counter-culture as a bean-counter-culture’.[24]

Technology need not be the problem – there are many good examples from focussed crop breeding to bread-making but the methods are adaptable and made compatible with the geography, climate and culture where they are implemented  in particular paying close attention to soil health.[25]

Back in Mexico, Victor Suarez, head of Mexico’s largest independent association of basic grains farmers, recognises that complex problems require complex solutions not simplistic gene snipping. Monsanto represent a powerful political lobby with access to government, a veritable emperor with no clothes, in possession of bulging marketing budgets, and slick power-point presentations.  Suarez’s organization sums up a different mind-set “Peasant Agriculture with Integrated Knowledge Systems” (conocimientos integrales).  It is to technology of a different sort that he turns to improve yields and into the bargain hand the control to the producers – his organisation looks at the latest science with regards to soil and plant microbes, all the while promoting technological progress, making the farmer viable, and not dancing the environmentalist’s sustainability tune either.  The producers keep their own seed, make their own compost, using much less expensive fertiliser and even use the same Bt bacterium to control pests that Monsanto implant into its corn and cotton.  Improving farmer’s soil is everything.  It is a gradual transition from expensive inputs, wresting back control from the seed companies and the chemical companies. Food sovereignty is king, not the northern consumer who may want organic food, whatever the cost and even if it is produced by transnational companies or the environmental agenda controlled by outsiders, is ignored, in this model, in favour of food sovereignty.  In other wresting of corporate power communities use the ancient ‘mano vuelta’ system, sharing labour and resources and not letting the market determine their collective futures, evocative of Anna Tsing’s mushroom foragers at once attached to the capitalist system (they sell the produce to markets) but engaged on their own terms [26]


GM technology with its god-like acclaimed agenda to feed the world, solve global poverty, and reinvent biology, does not live up to its inflated promises as humanity’s saviour either in terms of benefit to increase yield or improving the lives it says it seeks to serve, namely the producers of our food, and the world it wants to feed.  The god of science that gives it its rationale is thin on evidence, in a system captured by paid ‘experts’ willing to take the dollar, whilst independent scientists struggle to be heard. The existing technology, ignoring ‘the precautionary’ principle, blunders on using toxic carcinogenic chemicals as its handmaiden. Instead of using local knowledge, for example, seeds, produced over many centuries that are adapted to local conditions, the GM culture seeks to serve its own corporate plan, a new ruthless Imperialism.  It is Olga Alcaráz who notes that GM would be great if it made the maize resistant to floods, heat and cold in step with climate change.  Livelihoods and knowledge tossed aside with assured confident knowledge that the corporation knows best.  Technology per se is not the problem, as shown by Suarzez’s use of conocimientos integrales, where the benefits of that technology can be utilised  more democratically, feeding communities and allowing for real food security and sovereignty and moreover without being salves to a fickle market fuelled by the Global North. Émile Durkheim’s “The Division of Labour in Society” ultimately talks of the dependence of bonded networks, the connectivity of human society that allows it to have everything it needs, each dependant on each other to survive a sentiment that perhaps Wendell Berry might agree with;  He notes that any perceived gains by the means of chemical-mono-cropping, mega-project agricultural-industrial agriculture, (and we might add particularly GM) cannot be off-set by ‘its enormous ecological, economic and human costs which are bound eventually to damage it’s productivity’. Control of GM technology inevitably means a few corporate winners, an increase of risk pollution to the planet, and a great many losers, in terms of communities staying in control of livelihood, cultural heritage, food security and freedom to farm adaptably to suit local conditions, local climate and terrain.

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