Turning the GM screw

In case you think the biotech industry is to blame for turning the screw which is pushing GM into our fields and down our throats, this is only half the story.

Before the biotech industry, came the US government who prepared the ground (at the US taxpayers' expense). In the years before gene technology became a practical reality, the US government started subsidising farmers to grow key crops such as soya, maize, sugar-beet and cotton. At the same time, it paid scientists to develop GM.

The technology was then sold to the biotech industry for commercialisation, and two areas of US law which might have inconvenienced GM progress were refined to ensure biotech-friendliness. Thus inexplicably, life became an invention which could be patented, and safety became a voluntary option whose goal-posts could be arranged by the industry.

Patents on genes confer legal ownership of any seed containing that gene, and enable total control over what can be done with the seed. The biotech industry can thus impose far-reaching, legally-binding contracts on the farmers who buy GM seed. Amongst many pages of other restrictions, the contracts prohibit seed-saving, seed-sharing and seed comparison. GM seed patent rights can be enforced even if the GM seed arise from gene pollution, and GM patents can be used by the biotech industry to control what scientific investigations are carried out on the material it owns.

Without access to the normal independent scientific evaluation, farmers were easily be lured into the biotech industry contracts with promises of easier farming and bigger yields backed up by government subsidies and, more recently, reduced insurance payments for GM growers. And, any farmer who changes his mind about continuing to grow biotech crops won't find this such an easy option. Volunteer (but still patented) plants from GM seed in the soil may pollute his land for decades, and the biotech industry has steadily bought up all the competition in the seed industry: non-GM seeds are in limited supply.

While the biotech industry was handed GM technology on a plate with the ground prepared and the legal machinery in place to make sure there were no obstacles to success, what about the US consumers who paid for it all in the first place?

The feelings of the US consumer towards GM foods were well-known even before it hit their plates. In 1994, Norman Braksick, the president of Asgrow Seed Company (now owned by Monsanto), predicted in the Kansas City Star that:
“If you put a label on genetically engineered food, you might as well put a skull and crossbones on it.”
To this day, polls in the US overwhelmingly demand labelling of GM foods. So far, the US government has managed to bypass that hitch by denying its citizens the right to labelling which would tell people what they are actually eating.

In Europe, the biotech industry has been allowed the same extraordinary patents on life, but hasn't had the benefits of avoiding labelling, bypassing all safety testing, nor government incentive schemes. Public distrust of GM has created a layer of armour which has so far protected Europe. The chink in this armour is that the problem is now presented as one of consumer choice, lack of acceptance and (often) ignorance rather than one of a dodgy, over-sold and unnecessary technology which is diverting resources which could be much more profitably be used to develop modern techniques based on sounder science.

The current generation of adults may be incurably hostile to GM, but the UK government seems determined to make sure the next generation sees the world through GM-tinted spectacles.

As early as the 1990s, UK Schools were receiving glossy magazines prepared by the biotech industry and promoted by the government. At the end of the edition devoted to GM, the kids were told: “People have a responsibility to keep informed about these rapid advances so they can guide the outcome of scientific research. You probably now understand more about these complex issues than most adults. Go and educate your elders!”

The incursion of biotech propaganda into our schools continues to this day. Children are encouraged to 'invent' their own GM plant using interactive computer games. School programmes which encourage children to “imagine how vegetables might be genetically modified to bring both nutritional and medical benefits” are coupled to the study of science fiction. In 2009, the British Biochemical Society was pleased to announce its acceptance of £113,000 from the Monsanto Foundation – the philanthropic arm of the giant American GM company – to 'provide new resources in support of secondary school science'. The cash will go a website from which teachers can download genetics master classes for their budding boffins. The Society is quite confident that the information will be balanced and that it will tackle “some of the key ethical issues in the UK science curriculum”. Not to be outdone, Bayer holds seminars for 12-18-year-olds in “Baylabs” to open young minds to the complexities of the GM debate. In 2010 we will see the opening of “Innovation Farm” in Cambridgeshire, as part of a National Institute of Agricultural Botany drive to boost public understanding about the latest developments in plant breeding which “could” include GM so that people could see the benefits.

All this school initiatives hardly seem to provide a good scientific background for the next generation, but they may make sure our future adults believe they are knowledgeable about GM, can't distinguish between science fact and fiction, learn what the biotech company want them to learn, and fail to notice the screw which will not doubt continue to turn.