Why not all technologies are good for you … such as the genetically modified.
by Najma Sadeque
Every few years, rumblings are heard about Monsanto representatives lurking in the capital over genetically modified (GM) seed prospects. Recently, grumblings preceded the resignation of a government agricultural institution head, following revelations of his promoting private multinational interests. Recently, again, it was over Monsanto’s latest endeavour towards controlling major Pakistani crops.
However, Monsanto did not get comfortable because General Pervez Musharraf sanctioned corporate farming by foreign investors; the earlier Benazir government had already decided on it, rather than land reforms; and the general’s men simply formalised it. In his very first statement as Prime Minister, Mr Yousuf Raza Gilani announced his government’s decision on Monsanto, an inexplicable statement having nothing to do with the rest of his speech. Most listeners ignorant of agricultural issues missed the point. Only television captured it. Governments may change, but agricultural policy clearly hasn’t.
The road to GM agriculture goes back to the sixties Green Revolution in India and Pakistan, indeed, further back several hundred years. A major problem with GM crops is that it is monocultural – meaning a single species planted exclusively on a farm field, whether of a few acres or hundreds or thousands of acres. The monocultural trend, probably, took root when colonials forced natives to plant only selected crops for export, such as cotton. The same reasons prevailed for the cotton-growing slave states of southern USA.
Previously, locals practiced polyculture – mixed crops on the same plot because it was ecologically healthier and sustainable, and simultaneously produced cash crops and food crops in the same season. The Mayans and other Amazonians, the Africans and Asians, everywhere farmers did the same.
A problem in itself, it is compounded because GM monoculture enables a specific crop to spread like wildfire and completely take over, making it impossible for other species to survive in the same space.
What is wrong with monoculture if it is getting the grower the maximum yield possible? It goes against nature.
Monoculture does not – cannot – exist naturally. Nature has been so designed for species to be highly diverse in the hundreds or thousands, with groups of plants and other life forms being interdependent. Diversity is intrinsic, inseparable from nature’s character, and plant health, strength, evolution and perpetuity depends on it.
It is the same principle with humans and animals for which reason marrying within the immediate family, or inbreeding, is forbidden and leads to weakening and degeneration of species. While agricultural institutions at home and abroad focus on “improving” single crops, most ignore this vital characteristic, and little or no research is done on organic polyculture.
In the hoopla over GM, its negative effects are glossed over – absolute uniformity attracting growing armies of predators to feast on; rapid depletion of nutrients from the soil requiring huge replenishments. — because plants have varying needs requiring anywhere between 34 and a hundred different nutrients in different ratios, most in trace amounts — unlike one-size-fits-all GM crops.
Previously, benign natural formulations and techniques prevented nutrient depletion or destruction of soil microbial life on which both soil quality and plants are dependent. This has been replaced by heavy applications of chemical fertiliser and pesticides, which trapped farming into a vicious, suicidal circle.
Instead of removing the obvious causes of problems and returning to polyculture, corporate scientists modified the plant instead! So that it could withstand unnaturally high doses of chemicals. After all, Monsanto has primarily been a chemical company for over a century, bringing in billions in global profits. Nothing like revamping its image as a seed company and ‘designer’ plants that blossom with heavy chemical fertilisers and pesticides. It was clever, if perverse, earning the title “Frankencrops”.
Which brings us to GM crops. Since they were not developed out of need or demand, they required heavy advertising, promotion, and co-option of well-rewarded scientists, academics and the media. GM deceived just as the so-called Green Revolution seeds did – after a short-lived spurt of doubled output, they settled down within a few years to the same output or less than traditional crops; expensively too, with purchased inputs. But Green Revolution seeds were at least restricted to the same specie. GM does not even increase output.
In the US, monocultural GM crops work only because of the huge agricultural subsidies doled out – some $20 billion annually – most of it going to the top 10 percent of investors comprising corporate and business megafarms. America’s inefficient corporate agriculture would collapse overnight if this life-support system were withdrawn – but it is all part of the larger scheme of things in which USA keeps a grip on global staples supplies as part of its unwanted, dependency-creating aid, as rescuing hero in disasters and food shortages (some of which it is itself responsible), and speculation undercutting developing country prices.
So why is GM important? It isn’t. For politicians and government appointees lacking bachelor’s degrees or otherwise ignorant of biology and nature’s processes, it fascinates because it is science (or because it may bring under-the-table financial reward). They forget that science is based on human understanding of the universe, which is incomplete and its application through technologies is unpredictable. If a technology is harmful to humans and other life forms or the environment, it is just bad and undesirable. Period.
Like monoculture, GM goes against nature. Genetic engineering (GE) or GM modification (GM) is the forced introduction of a gene from one species into another totally unrelated species – which simply does not occur in nature. Evolved over billions of years, nature has built-in barriers between species that the genes of unlike species cannot cross. Birds don’t cross with other bird species let alone four-leggeds, and so on. Certainly not plants with humans or animals! Thereby, the uniqueness, integrity, health and continuity of each species are maintained.
Yet, scientists have forcibly introduced fish genes into tomatoes, scorpion poison into cabbages, human genes into maize, rice, sugarcane, mice and cows; and much, much more. It smacks of cannibalism. Where does it stop? It may be a matter of time Muslims are forced to give up beef or Hindus some vegetables because of contamination by forbidden animal genes.
So what if a corporation claims their latest GM crop is ‘stacked’ with multiple alien genes to eliminate problems? If it crosses the species barrier risking far-reaching unacceptable consequences, it demands rejection. Many claimed benefits from GM can be achieved more safely through traditional breeding. Many are unnecessary. India has already come to grief with 200,000 farmer suicides over a decade, mostly after Bt cotton introduction; America is currently facing mass crop failure, while cancers keep rising from drenching the earth with chemicals. Consider the countries banning GM seeds. Surely, we don’t want the same.
This article was published in The Nation on August 7, 2013