There have been some worrying noises coming from the government about GM crops recently, and the pro-GM case is being made more loudly every day. One might think that we don't have to worry about this since public opinion is so strongly against GM, but such opinion is easily swayed by only hearing one side of the argument, or worse, invalid argument. This has been demonstrated recently by the shift of opinion towards nuclear power that has taken place in a relatively short timescale, thanks mainly to piggy-backing a genuine concern (CO2 emissions). The government presented a false dichotomy - it's either nuclear power or more fossil fuels - rather than anything valid. Will the same thing happen with GM?
The news has recently been full of reports of food riots in developing countries due to the increasing costs of grain. The 'obvious' solution to this, as trotted-out by sections of the press, ministers, and those with vested interests, is the use of GM crops. However, what would these crops actually achieve, and are they in fact our only choice?
The main selling-point of GM crops is their resilience to herbicides. Companies such as Monsanto don't try to hide this fact, and yet it's a commonly held belief that using GM crops would allow us to use less chemicals on the fields. This is a myth. Many GM crops make the plants more tolerant of them, allowing the farmers to use far more. This does its job and kills the weeds, but also causes far more pollution. Funnily enough some crops, such as Monsanto's ''Roundup Ready' varieties, are specifically engineered to be resistant to their 'Roundup' herbicides. It's not unusual for GM crop producers to modify plants to further their other products.
Monsanto is a particularly shady company, of course. They have a history of suing farmers who happen to have had their crops wind-pollinated by GM crops in neighbouring farmers fields. It's actually amazing that Monsanto win in such cases - what are farmers meant to do? Pollen can travel for several miles and can remain active for up to ten years, and if it happens to fall onto non-GM fields it can pollenate plants there, making it very difficult to prevent contamination. If your crop is contaminated with GM pollen like this then you lose the ability to say GM-free, through no fault of your own. However, it gets worse - if you decide to keep some grain to replant next year, and unknown to you it has been contaminated, you can be sued by Monsanto, as this farmer in Canada can testify. Of course, some countries wouldn't want to allow this sort of thing, but it's useful for Monsanto when the US mandates GM crops as part of an aid package. GM crops or starvation? It's not a tough choice, but once GM is there it's there for good.
The pro-GM groups usually trot-out the line that GM crops will save poor countries. Let's assume that an African farmer decides to make use of GM - what should he grow? He'd probably want to grow crops suited to the climate, such as yams. However, he's unlikely to find that the GM companies are willing to help him here. The biotech companies are like the drugs companies in that they invest in the areas most likely to make them money, hence lots of research into cancer (which hits the rich, western world) and little into malaria (which doesn't). So we end-up with plenty of GM wheat that will make lots of money from western farmers, but little that will grow in Africa and actually help the poor.
The power of GM food producers and the rest of the biotech food industry is immense. For instance, a bill currently being considered in the US prohibits organic milk producers from being able to label their product as free from Bovine Growth Hormone, but it fails to force any milk produced from hormone-treated cows from being labelled as such. This bill is being pushed-through by Monsanto and other GM lobbyists and is almost certain to succeed, and it shows immense contempt for the consumer. Whether consumers want GM food or not, they should be given the choice.
In the end, it is wrong that a corporation can 'own' any species, whether they created it or not. Now that the possibility of doing so is legal, where will it end. As scientists develop more complex 'artificial' animals, as will happen with the human-hybrid work recently in the news, what is the point at which a life should no longer be owned? How can a corporation decide what forms of life can breed, and which must die without doing so? Isn't a fundamental purpose of any living thing to reproduce?
If you have time, be sure to watch The World According To Monsanto", which was shown on French TV. It's excellent and contains many important facts to help you make up your own mind on the issue.