I originally wrote this piece in response to a debate on genetically modified agriculture in The Socialist several weeks ago. Given my resignation from the Socialist Party, it is now unlikely to appear, so I publish it below:
The debate on GM foods in last week’s The Socialist was very interesting, and reflects the skilful approach socialists need when approaching questions of science and technology. On the one hand, we want to defend science and scientists from reactionary forces. On the other, we need to expose the extent to which capitalism dominates the priorities and the direction of research, and the communication of it. Both Ben and Jenny acknowledged this in different ways, but I would like to pick up on a few points that were raised.
Jenny speaks about the “imprecise transfer of genes between very diverse species” and the potentially harmful effects of that spread. It is possible that transfer of genes might cause some harm. However, there is little we can do about that. Whatever humans might do in this respect, viruses have been doing for billions of years before us. No matter how advanced our technology gets, they will always be doing it on a much vaster scale than us. Viruses not only put their own genes into the DNA of other organisms, but they pick up genes, which can then be put in the DNA of organisms of different species. Humans were probably not the first to put genes originally in a fish into a tomato; we just probably did it more directly!
Biologically, GM has a more fundamental problem. GM is a product of a time in biology when a certain view of genes and genetics predominated – that just one or a few genes were responsible for particular characteristics. This view of genes and genetics is still prevalent in education and in the media. This is probably because it reinforces a genetic determinism, which in turn can be used to justify massive class, gender and racial inequalities. But in the last decade, this view has been completely undermined in biology.
On their own genes do not actually do anything. They require the machinery of the cell in order to be useful. Moreover, individual genes can have different effects depending on all sorts of different contexts. These include the conditions in the cell (which is also context-dependent), the experiences of the organism and its immediate ancestors, the presence or absence of other genes, and the presence or absence of certain stretches of DNA next to the gene. Even when the gene is activated, or expressed, the eventual RNA and protein produced can differ according to certain contexts in the cell. It also matters where, and when, a gene is activated.
In other words, genes do not individually determine the characteristics of organisms, but they exist as things that the cell, and the organism as a whole, can use in different ways for different purposes, at different times. If we wanted to ‘re-engineer’ plants to increase resistance to pests, or to grow better in certain conditions, genetic modification is actually therefore a fairly crude and poor strategy. Despite the hype and massive investment in GM crops, the extremely modest results demonstrate that, so I cannot agree with Ben about their possible role as “a potential transitional solution to alleviating global hunger”.
I believe we should make such points about GM foods, in large part because it helps to challenge genetic determinism, which feeds into ruling class ideology about human nature and the inevitability of inequality. But as Ben and Jenny rightly pointed out, this is not just about whether this particular technology works, but about the nature of the capitalist system. Jenny rightly points out that hunger doesn’t exist because of the deficiencies of non-GM crops, but because the capitalist system doesn’t grow enough of them, or distribute them according to need. She also points out that GM crops are bad for poor farmers, and therefore worsen problems of poverty and hunger. This is right, but we shouldn’t lay these problems entirely at the door of GM crops.
It is the capitalist system, which has driven the industrialisation of agriculture purely in the interests of profit, which is to blame. The industrialisation of agriculture in the twentieth century took place not because of any concern to provide cheap food, but to increase the productivity of agriculture, allowing big agribusiness to reduce the number of workers they employ while also increasing output. This not only put millions of agricultural workers out of a job, but put the non-industrialised farmers, mainly in the Third World, at a disadvantage. This disadvantage has proved even more disastrous since neo-liberalism forced them to compete with big agribusiness.
Jenny also raised the problem of herbicide-resistant weeds that GM crops might cause. This is a possibility. But again, this is not a type of problem restricted to GM-agriculture. One of the major public health problems we face in the twenty-first century is the increasing resistance by bacteria to more and more antibiotics. Over-prescribing of antibiotics by doctors contributes to this. A far more potentially dangerous incubator of antibiotic-resistant bacteria is the industrialised production of meat. Our attention has been drawn in recent weeks to how dubious meat products end up on supermarket shelves. However unfortunate the fate of the horses which ended up in burgers and ready meals, it doesn’t compare to the vile conditions chickens, pigs, and increasingly cows are kept in by big agribusiness.
Whether you are a vegetarian or not, it is an absolute disgrace how these animals are treated, cramped in tiny cages, sitting (that’s all they can do) in their own filth. Given these appalling conditions, and the terrible health of these animals, there is a huge risk of infection. Purely to defend their profits, and not out of concern for animal or human health, these agribusinesses dose their captives with antibiotics. This incubator of fast-evolving bacteria is exposed to a powerful selective pressure, driving the evolution and rapid growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which can then go on to infect humans.
As if that wasn’t enough, the next global influenza pandemic will likely arise from large-scale agribusiness and the over-concentration of unhealthy animals, just as the swine flu did in 2009. Pigs in particular help viruses to evolve from other animals to forms better equipped to infect, perhaps fatally, millions of humans.
Returning to the question of GM, I believe that some form of technical modification to crops will probably be necessary in a socialist world, in addition to the more fundamental transformation of the system of world food production. This is simply because of the challenges that we will face in dealing with the serious damage capitalism has done, such as damaging soils, managing land poorly resulting in its exhaustion and turning into desert, and most seriously changing the climate radically. These problems will take many decades, if not centuries, to sort out. Additionally, for a time at least, the world population will continue to rise. This is not a problem as some environmentalists wrongly claim, but everyone will need to be fed, and not just with the minimum for survival.
Given the limited land available for agriculture, and the need to stop encroaching upon (and indeed, expand) natural habitats for seriously endangered plants and animals, means will need to be found to modify plant crops to ensure that the world is fed, and fed well. GM is not up to the task, but another approach might be, another approach that many of those opposed to GM on certain grounds today may still object to.