Sunday, 28 March 2010

GMOs - whats not to like

While I tend to regard myself as generally pro-technology and pro-science I find I also have a long and deeply held anti-GMO 'position'. Glyn Moody's recent post on the subject reminded me of this and stirred me to ponder this view.

In essence you can take it as a given that I am as deeply suspicious of the corporatism so ably detailed in Glyn's (and Andrew Leonard's) post as they are. If you're not then pretty much any scientific/technical objections are going to fall a long way second.

A very good friend of mine worked for a while in a unit within the EC that amongst other things used to test for the presence of GMOs in various crops both in field trials and on the dockside. In a purely statistical sense a negative presence (even in parts per billion) does not disprove the null hypothesis regarding whether or not the sample is 'contaminated' by GMOs. This is depressing enough as we know that field trials of GMOs always leak into the surrounding environment - those field buffers are a joke.

Then consider that lab testing of the GMO prior to release focuses entirely - as is common in almost all such trails across big pharma, household products, cosmetics etc as well as agro-ind and foodstuffs - on the individual GMO molecule. Now, for sure, we can worry and lobby and campaign about the intellectual monopolies, the corporate power, the loss of power of the (mostly) poor farmers around the world but, in a world knocked sideways by the shock of the recession and riding unsuspecting into a future where the consequences of the tactics adopted in repsonding to this, in many ways that argument looks like being for the most part one of righteous indignation. The recent decision (February) by India's environment minister Jairam Ramesh to revoke a previous decision (October 2009) by India's Genetic Engineering Approvals Committee (GEAC) to allow GMOs into the country's aubergine industry does I would agree suggest that protest on the scale witnessed in India can acheive what I fear will ultimately be temporary and may already be fruitless closing of the legislative door to GMOs. As the 'anti' community put it - "I am no lab rat".

As Rachel Carson detailed half a century ago it is not necessarily the presence of a single 'toxin', the changing of a single part of the DNA of an organism, the release of a single aerosol that gives cause for concern. Rather it is the cocktail that it creates in the natural environment. And this is never tested, never. "It can't be", claim the corps. So, go ahead anyway? How sane does that sound? And in no time you're back to trying to disprove the null hypothesis.

In the meantime, incredibly complex issues get a bye-line which while useful for lazy journos, the gullible and others, hides that very complexity and allows much bad stuff to happen 'out of focus'. So, for example, diesel engines end up being seen as 'good' compared to petrol and taxed accordingly. It's as if no one thought to look at the chemical composition of the exhaust outputs of a normal diesel engine; the mix of SOx, NOx and other pollutants that have far greater impacts on the upper atmosphere than C02, not to mention the particulates.....

Then there's housing; the stuff that houses are made of bleed chemicals into your often hermetically sealed 'safe' environment - insulating materials, plaster, paint, varnish, PVC, concrete, man made fibres - while you add fitted carpets, double glazing, air fresheners and the full array of the supermarkets 'household' products aisle. Then personal grooming. Yuk. And we're surprised at the rise in non specific respiratory disease in children? Have a wild guess. No single element can be blamed, the cocktail most certainly can. We tested's how.

Child 2 shortly after birth was diagnosed as requiring a ventilator thingy. We were astonished. But then we lived in a late 1980s 'box' backing onto the M3 with a distinct shortage of greenery, fitted carpets, double glazing etc. Then we moved - surrounded by trees, cul de sac, wooden floors, draughty doors (yes yes the heating bills - simple - no heating, wear a jumper). And you know what, child 2 stopped the ventilin on the day we moved in. We are getting sick from and should be sick of this random atmospheric cocktail that is our everyday lung filler.

Which brings me back to GMOs. You can't put the genie back in the bottle once its out there (rather like option 2 of the OS consultation) and (again like the OS options) in the interests of a powerful lobby (CBI, big pharma et al) (or in the case of OS, GB's awe of TBL) the interests of the many are sacrificed on the back of some phony economic orthodoxy. We're all cycnical and informed enough to buy Andrew Leonard's line yet still they 'get away with it'.

Governments are and will be responding to the recession in quasi-Friedmanesque ways with regulation being slashed (red tape must be bad right!), public spending likewise (quangos are useless and expensive right!) and asset sales (OS anyone?). A throwback to the ways of that mad scientist 'Thatch'. No right thinking chemist would carry on randomly adding one complex substance to another and not be expected to observe and measure the consequences. Yet we blithely sit by and let big business do this in the 'interests', in the case of GMOs, of the worlds poor farmers. We know their first duty is to their shareholders so those of the farmers are bogus in the first place.

I like a good simple cocktail, a margharita or a caparinha perhaps, but any time spent following one of these with a variety of others is generally felt the next day. The trouble with GMOs is, its not the next day, the cocktail if felt forever. Ouch.

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