The GMO emperor has no clothes

December 2011
Illustration from The Emperor's New Clothes
From Wikimedia Commons
Remember the fable of the emperor who was so vain he happily allowed himself to be swindled? He eagerly believed two fraudsters when they told him they could weave a 'truly miraculous' cloth: a cloth which people who were not fit for their office or who were unpardonably stupid couldn't see. The emperor sent his most honoured minister to view the cloth as it was being prepared. Since the minister couldn't see it (not because he wasn't fit for his office, but because there was nothing to see), he cunningly asked the fraudsters to describe it to him so that he could go back to the emperor and not sound stupid. The emperor finally paraded in front of his people in clothes made from non-existent cloth. None of his ministers, nor his subjects, nor himself dared admit they couldn't actually see the miracle, except for one lone, innocent voice.

How many miraculous GM crops has the biotech industry cooked up which unpardonably stupid, irrational, emotional, Luddites can't seem to see? How often have we heard scientists or farmers reciting the words of the biotech industry to tell the ignorant masses (who can't seem to see them) of the wonders of GM? How often do politicians or scientists dare not speak out lest they invite the scorn of their colleagues?

Like that lone voice, who spoke out about what his eyes were seeing, a new 'Global Citizens Report on the State of GMOs' has been published. The Report has compiled the experiences of major food and conservation groups (representing millions of people) from all over the world, and has laid bare the illusion of the miraculous GM cloth.

Aptly entitled 'The GMO Emperor Has No Clothes', the Report could also be called 'How to Create a Fable'.

The first stage seems to be to feed speculation dressed up as fact to the media to create news. Then, when the proof of failure threatens to emerge, keep it quiet. For example:
  • A virus-resistant GM sweet potato to be grown in Kenya became a GM success story even before it was field tested. One respected American magazine declared that “While the (unpardonably stupid) West debates the ethics of genetically modified food, (the Kenyan scientist who directed the project) is using it to feed her country.” When the disastrous results of the field trial were published, the news never made it into the mainstream press, and the lore of the virus-resistant GM sweet potato saving Africans from starvation continues to be quoted.
  • Any miracle GM seed the industry cares to weave can be kept in existence by a lot of fine talk plus the simple ploy of making sure no one gets a sample of it for testing. Or, by making sure there's nothing else for farmers to buy.
  • The myth that organic agriculture can't feed the world is still repeated as if it were a self-evident truth, despite the fact that it has not been upheld by the largest and most thorough scientific study of the subject ever carried out, and at least five other reports since (See below on the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD)).
  • UK former chief scientist, Sir David King, famously created a myth that “insecurity in developing regions such as Africa is partially a result of the (unpardonably stupid) anti-GM campaign” in rich countries. The myth lingers despite the findings of the IAASTD and others, especially NGOs on the ground.

On a deeper level, the fable of GM is being created by bad science. Reducing a highly complex biological subject to a simple technological tweak has made it available to the “same sort of aggressive mass marketing that sells breakfast cereal” (Wendell Berry). GM science has been skewed by commercial interests and political lobbying, and kept that way by a new breed of scientists disdainful of criticism. Add to this, GM is the latest fad, oversold as the answer-to-everything by, what one US Professor called, “snake-oil salesmen”. GM 'science' is also long past its sell-by date, but no one dares say it.


The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development was a major review of agriculture, economics, trade and science published in 2008. The study took four years and involved a cross-discipline group of 400 experts. It was sponsored by the United Nations, the World Bank and a number of governments (including the UK).

It issued 22 key findings, including a very clear recommendation that the current large-scale, high-input, variety-impoverished approach to agriculture should be replaced by an agroecological one based on ecological concepts.

Keep in mind the chorus being sung by the contributors to 'The GMO Emperor Has No Clothes”. They would very much like you to join in:
  • Don't invest in financial institutions which put your money into the biotech industry
  • Eat organic
  • Demand labelling, including animal products from GM-fed livestock, additives and processing aids
  • Support local food projects
  • Campaign to make your community, area or country GM-free

  • The GMO Emperor Has No Clothes, October 2011
  • John Vidal, GM crops promote superweeds, food insecurity and pesticides, say NGOs, Guardian 19.10.11
  • The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Biotechnology and Intensive Farming, GM Freeze, October 2011
  • Wendell Berry, Twelve Paragraphs on Biotechnology, The GMO Emperor Has No Clothes, October 2011

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