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Why all the fuss about GM food?

Why all the fuss about GM food? Other innovations are available

Andy Stirling

The Guardian, 28 June 2013

*To get beyond hackneyed pro/anti tropes, we need to reflect more upon the importance of power

GM is only one of many options for improving the sustainability of world agriculture.

Amid the apocalyptic scare-stories, animated name-calling and heavy-handed orchestration surrounding last week's GM debate, the real issues seem ever more deeply buried. Why all this sudden high-profile fuss about GM?
In particular, why are so many British politicians getting so simultaneously publicly excited about such a specific technology? GM is, after all, only one among many different options for innovation towards more sustainable world agriculture. There are plenty of other ways - technological and organisational - for addressing the many serious problems of world food systems. Under some views, GM might help. Under other views, it presents significant problems. But, whatever view is taken, there is no shortage of alternatives.

One-sided optimistic presumptions about GM and its implications seem only a part of the problem. More worrying than this, is that scope for debate is so often reduced to being simply "for or against" this single very particular innovation. Even without the extreme doom-laden threats, this hackneyed pro/anti trope polarises what could be a much more balanced and informed debate. What is it that is driving this?

Still more curious, is that even among the most "gee-whizz" of high-tech "solutions", some of the more striking are not GM at all. Remarkable claims are made on behalf of "scuba rice" (pdf), for example. It is reported to show promise both as a means to resist drought and tolerate flood. But this is not GM, but "marker assist" technology. Rather than inserting particular standardised DNA sequences (with all this entails), scuba rice uses advanced genetic techniques significantly to enhance conventional breeding. And this is a success story in which DFID support might be expected to lead the British government to be falling over itself to proclaim this rather different technology? Not a bit of it. Instead, we get the same single-minded obsession with GM.

And marker assist is just one alternative. Conventional plant breeding methods are accelerating all the time. This includes techniques not restricted to high-profit hybrids, which can compromise on farmers' flexibility to provide copy-protection to producers. Other innovations abound worldwide in participatory and open-source breeding, and different kinds of institutions and practices that allow farmers to select their own seed, experiment together and develop strains that match the all-important diversity of their environments. Single off-the-shelf, one-size-fits-all solutions of the kind favoured by big organisations are often a pretty poor match for the disparate and dynamic 'real worlds' of developing country farming. And that's before we even think of potentially transformative innovations in food production and consumption themselves. Why is it that some politicians and prominent scientists and "communications" agencies are so exclusively preoccupied with GM?

The curiosity of all this is amplified when we remember that many of the politicians making such a fuss are normally very happy to leave technology choice to the market. Typically, if a product encounters a lack of public demand, the mantra is that it is the product - not the public! - that needs to be improved. Again, what is it about GM that makes this such an exception?

And the questions are even further compounded by the stark irony that 'rational science' is so often invoked in such strikingly emotive ways. What is rational about reducing such wide ranges of choice to such narrow all-or-nothing terms? Despite the caricatures, the problem is not so much the measured, well-reasoned concerns over GM uncertainties and economic effects. Increasingly more shrill and manipulative are the overblown claims, the exclusion of alternatives and the blinkered apocalyptic threats on behalf of GM. How is it, that so many intelligent commentators apparently cannot see the contradiction?

Last but not least, what has happened to the press? The other day I got called by a national television programme, asking if I would be interested in following a "normal couple" for a day, and revealing spectacularly at the end how many of the food products they treat so routinely, are "actually GM". The idea was very explicitly and deliberately to startle viewers into forgetting their concerns and being more quiescent. This is disturbing both in its misunderstanding of the issues and its heavy-handed choreography. It displays worrying laziness about seeing through current highly politicised pro innovation rhetorics and asking instead about which kinds of innovation.

So how might we explain the GM obsession? Personally, I suspect this has more to do with the economic and institutional power associated with this technology than with its performance. Some pretty entrenched and resourceful interests stand to gain quite a lot from a technology that offers such favourable access to - and rents from - intellectual property. Might the resulting fuss be something to do with the degree to which this offers greater prospects than other innovations, for exercising greater control over lucrative global commodity markets and supply chains?
Seeing such power relations as a contributory factor, does not amount to some kind of "anti-business conspiracy theory" - as expediently implied by the Science Media Centre. This is another trope trotted out to suppress reasoned debate. Power is simply an important fact of life. It is typically less potent as a plot, than as a kind of gravitational field. Without us even noticing, it can affect even the language we use, what it is we think we know - and the technologies which can all-too-easily "lock in". And the effects of power are arguably at their most assertive, when they are invisible, indirect and even unintended by those involved.

I could be wrong on this. My point is not to assert that this is how others should see the issue. But I wonder why this is not a more prominent area for debate? The importance of power is hardly a new idea. In areas of public life beyond science and innovation, power tends to be acknowledged much more openly. And it is not necessarily a bad thing. For better or worse, it is how pretty much anything gets done. What is surprising is that power gets so little discussed in debates over new technologies. That even to mention it, is so often reacted to as if impolite or intrinsically "critical", is itself a confirmatory sign.

Whatever the views or the issues, then, I think we'd all have a much more healthy and reasonable debate if more attention was given to the ways in which power can shape and constrain the way we think and talk about new technologies (see the recent Nuffield report on emerging biotechnologies for more). Whatever the pros and cons, it might help explain the GM obsession. It might pose some much more interesting and pertinent questions in the media. And it might help us understand why policy in such an important and diverse area as food has reached such narrow and sterile deadlock.

Andy Stirling is professor of science and technology policy at the University of Sussex


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