images (2)Predictably, as soon as the Scottish GM opt-out was announced a crowd of overnight experts appeared. Some people just have an unswerving devotion to scientists and, in a fragile and confidence-sapped democratic culture this emerges as a quaint belief in a sort of ‘Expertocracy’. With a slightly useless political class, we defer, endlessly.

Men in White Suits are ALWAYS right, just because they always have been. The central message is: Obey. Added to this social thought experiment is the potent belief that everything’s pretty much fine. This is UK:OK Agriculture. Some of the chief complainers are averse to any Scottish policy innovation. What would we know? Alex Massie, after at least 24 hours googling ‘GM’ emerged as one such mighty expert positively dripping with disdain in The Times about ‘cranks’. Others are just a bit confused.

Most of this is a form of inferioirism. It starts from the premise that we probably don’t know what we are talking about so, best do nothing. It then doffs its cap to established forces, so Big Farma agribusiness and the Barbour jacket-wearing lobby have credibility, small farmers, shoppers, ordinary folk don’t. Eat your GM Cereal.  But under the softest of examination, the case dissolves.

What Problem Does GM Solve?

The first question to put to GM enthusiasts is What Problem does it Solve? Most don’t really know but quickly latch on to the idea that GM will ‘feed the world’ by increasing yield and stopping world hunger.

This has a wonderful logic as it shifts the GM industry from it’s stereotype as being driven by Monsanto and a handful of avaricious proprietorial power-hungry multinationals to a benign force driven by kindness. But the logic is fatally flawed.

If you are in a bar with 34p and the beer costs £4.50, it doesn’t make any difference if up from the cellar comes another 20 cases of beer. It’s still something you can’t afford. Producing more of something doesn’t make it more accessible.

As food historians know well during famines in Ethiopia, Ireland and India at different times, food was being exported even as people starved. So the entire edifice of the GM ‘yield’ argument and the compulsion to produce more food is wrong. It’s social justice that is absent, not lack of food or failing crops.

GM is a technical solution to a social problem. As it stands our food system is a horrendously wasteful one:

“Each year 1.3bn tonnes of food, about a third of all that is produced, is wasted, including about 45% of all fruit and vegetables, 35% of fish and seafood, 30% of cereals, 20% of dairy products and 20% of meat. Meanwhile, 795 million people suffer from severe hunger and malnutrition.”

In this context you have to have areal cheek to put forward the idea that the answer is to produce more. Nor is this just a matter of the ethics of waste: ‘The environmental impact of food loss and waste is high. The carbon footprint of food produced and not eaten is estimated at 3.3 gigatonnes of CO2, meaning that if food waste were a country it would rank as the third highest national emitter of greenhouse gases after the US and China.’

Global Resistance

Far from Scotland being some kind of parochial outlier, we have in fact joined a global resistance. India has not approved a single genetically modified food crop for human consumption. Only four African nations—South Africa, Burkina Faso, Egypt, and Sudan permit the commercial use of products that contain G.M.O.s. Other countries involved in bans and restrictions throughout the world include: Italy, Austria, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Portugal, Greece, Spain, Switzerland, Norway, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria, Brazil and Paraguay.

We’re not isolated, we’ve joined a global movement. That’s what happens when you start thinking for yourself.

As Peter Melchett from the Soil Association explained: “England’s ideological support for GM started under Tony Blair – he publicly stated his belief  in GM food whatever the public opposition, because he believed it was right. England became a strongly pro-GM country and successive governments maintained that reputation. This is bizarre. There is a huge and growing global market for guaranteed non GM agricultural products.”

Melchett then goes on to detail how English farmers have just won a contract for the single largest export (25,000) tonnes of oilseed rape in more than 20 years. The company involved placed it because of assurances about lack of GM contamination. That’s the sort of business that would and will come to a European country with a GM-free stamp of approval.

Despite Massie and his ilk oozing a patronising certainty, we stand on the brink of a bolder more forward-focused food policy that should include local food as the centre-piece of public procurement, a plan that connects food, health and education, an understanding of the potential of the circular economy, and a commitment to taking charge of our appalling public health record.

That’s a game-changing opportunity that manifests the idea of innovation and self-determination and is proof positive of the idea that we can do things better, now and more so after independence. This is what scares people. This isn’t anti-science – this is anti-corporate control of every aspect of our food system.

Civil Society

We can’t do better than endorse and support the statement from Nourish Scotland which states:

  • As citizens in Scotland, and organisations of citizens, we believe that GM technology and the way that it has been used in the last twenty years:
  • concentrates power and control in the global food system, with a handful of companies dominating the market for seeds and pesticides
  • makes small farmers run faster to stand still, increasing input costs for seed and herbicides while global commodity prices are falling
  • reduces diversity of food, seeds and plants and the resilience of local food economies
  • has stolen the limelight from other more viable, less risky scientific solutions for more sustainable modes of production and distribution of food

We underline the precautionary principle that the Scottish Government upholds – that the potential risks from GMOs to public health and our environment outweigh any potential benefits of the technology.

As stakeholders in Scotland’s food system, we recognise the importance of protecting and enhancing Scotland’s reputation for good, clean food.

We are aware that many of our major export customers have concerns about GM, while many EU member states including Germany and France are likely to join Scotland in opting out of GM food growing.

We note that Scotland’s world-class seed potato industry cannot afford any risk to its reputation for high quality seed – which includes many blight resistant varieties developed through conventional breeding techniques.

We encourage the Scottish Government to build on this decision by supporting closer co-operation between Scotland’s farmers, growers, fisherfolk, and Scotland’s people to tackle the central challenge of ensuring that everyone can feed themselves and their family well, without degrading the environment.

We want to see food for people – rather than food as a commodity – at the heart of Scotland’s vision for agriculture. Diversity of crops and food, farming with nature, not against nature, and short food chains between producers and citizens are the keys to Scotland becoming a good food nation – and a global contributor to fair and sustainable food for all.”

The Commercial Case

GM is an old failed technology that has been over-promising for 30 years. One of the central myths propagated by its supporters is that ‘there was a lot of fuss a few years ago but its everywhere now and no-one really minds.’

In the National, Professor Nigel Brown, President of the Society for General Microbiology wrote: ‘Slowly but surely there is an increasing acceptance of GM crops.’ This just isn’t true. The Food Standard Agency issues results from regular polling earlier in the year. Opposition to GM foods was at its highest since these polls began. It’s a technology that nobody wants and nobody needs. There is no country in the world where GM food is labelled in response to public demand and sold in the retail market.

The reality is that the science is hotly contested. What the Scottish Government has done is highly significant – it’s a bold move that needs supported and understood by progressive Scotland, but also needs to be extended and made part of a rounded joined-up food policy.

That’s where the real debate lies.

The people that argue that the complete divorce of food from place, season and nature has been a wholesome success need to make that case in the court of human experience. They will fail because however much money is plied in to the process, realty and lived experience intervenes.