Aug 14 2008

Charles, mouth, foot

Category: GeneralDave @ 18:22

I normally have a lot of time for Prince Charles. He often says what a lot of people are thinking but is not PC so they won’t actually come out & say it. Sometimes he opens his mouth and quite firmly implants at least one foot within. That’s what I think he’s just done:

Prince Charles first set out his opposition to GM crops in 1998 when he said that “genetic modification takes mankind into realms that belong to God, and to God alone”.

Bullshit. That may be his religion but he should keep that out of public view. He has no basis on which to make such a pronouncement and his beliefs are no better basis than anyone else who has no evidence whatsoever. He accuses unnamed “gigantic corporations” of “conducting a gigantic experiment with nature, and the whole of humanity, which has gone seriously wrong”. They were? Well maybe. It has? How? Where? I haven’t seen any reports of this so what’s he talking about?

As an example, he talked about environmental problems in countries which have used GM crops to increase food production. He said he had seen first hand the result of over-demand on irrigation systems and the water table in Punjab because of the hybrid seeds and grains used. Hang on a minute… Hybrid seeds are not GM: they’re conventionally bred using different sub-species. So he really needs to get his facts straight.

And he’s right: the big agro-business multinationals are in the game to produce plants that don’t produce seed which can be saved for next year’s crop so farmers have to buy seed every year. Also, many of these hybrids are for cash crops – not food for local people – who’s environmental requirements are inimical to the reqion they are being grown in. Unsustainable water requirements are a good example. Any GM crop which has the same type of requirements and is marketed the same way is just as bad.

But here’s the thing: It’s not that either GM or hybridisation are inherently bad; it’s the way they are marketed and the aims of the producers which are bad. They want to maximise return for their shareholders; that doesn’t normally equate with food security, helping poor people towards a reasonable living or with sustainable farming. For all their protestations to the contrary such things will always come second to RoI because that is the nature of the beast. Taming the beast is a possible answer but I have no magic bullet for that.

There is the possibility that a GM plant may do untold damage to the environment. There is a slightly lesser possibility that a conventionally bred plant may do the same. To make it clear, the tomatoes you eat almost certainly came from plants grown from patented hybrid seed, as do many other food crops in the West. These plants are just as unnatural as GM crops. The argument that “They could arise in nature and are therefore natural” holds not even a small drop of water as in many cases:

  • the component parts of the hybrid (i.e. the plant stock it was bred from) either don’t grow near enough for cross-fertilisation ever to occur
  • cross-fertilisation cannot occur naturally because of physical form
  • cross-fertilisation can only occur with human intervention

GM technology is no longer in its infancy – probably its teens by now but it certainly isn’t totally mature. Techniques a re constantly being refined and new methods developed to prevent the spread of GM traits into wild populations. Some developers have voiced the opinion that some GM-induced traits are OK to release into the wild, indeed they are benign. I have to admit to being with Charles on this one: no-one, but no-one can guarantee what undreamed-of side-effects such an event might engender. They might be benign, they might be fatal to all life on the planet unlikely though that is. But the effects are unknown.

There have already been one or two “escapes” which provided a small window into this realm and common sense seems to be taking hold: scientists working in this field are highly concerned with finding a foolproof method of ensuring no more escapees. This, of course, suits the agro-businesses as it prevents the traits that people will pay for from ending up in non-patented strains of the plant. The latter has already happened and the firm involved tried to sue farmers to stop them growing any seed which had their modified genes in it! Annoyingly I don;t remember the details but the last I saw I believe the case was still unresolved.

Charles could be a useful champion to the cause of ensuring food security (which includes sufficiency) for the world but not if he tries to do it by preaching religion.

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