For those of you who remember the evils of GM crops of old, go straight to the www.GMFreeze.org. for more details of the specific asks or just email email@example.com direct
For those who are young, or whose memories need refreshing, here's a very brief and far from exhaustive introduction-
The battle against Genetically Modified crops is one of the great modern campaign success stories. While American supermarkets are stuffed with unlabelled GM food, and many European fields are full of commercially grown GM crops, Britain has remained virtually GM free for five years. GM crops have never been grown commercially in this country, and there have been very few field trials of experimental varieties recently.
This was the result of a grassroots campaign that to an unprecedented degree integrated solid political lobbying with direct action. In the space of a few months in 1998 GM went from being the ingredient no one had heard of to everyone's favorite target. Ordinary people were setting up research groups, protested at supermarkets, and decontaminating GM fields. All of which raised a media storm and a public outrage that was dramatically at odds with the prevailing government and industry line.
At the time much of the mainstream hype was based around health concerns- in the wake of the BSE crisis there was a taste for distrusting food department experts, and there were genuine issues around consumer safety. For most activists however, their rage was fueled by the fact that biotechnology allows corporations to patent life, effectively handing transnationals complete control of the food supply. Patents on genes are valid for all future generations of seed that carry those traits, regardless of whether on not they have accidentally turned up in a neighbors plants through cross breeding. Farmers can be sued for 'theft of intellectual property rights' if their crop accidentally becomes contaminated with pollen pollution. Hundreds of growers in America have faced bankrupcy following legal action by biotech companies after accidental contamination with GM patented pollen.
Seed contamination through cross-pollination has demonstrated that the co-existence of GM and non-GM varieties is simply impossible. In Canada for example, organic oil seed rape can no longer be grown because of the pollen pollution from GM varieties.
GM is basically the final act of enclosure- it effectively privatizes fertility. It destroys the capacity to seed save- the backbone of the subsistence agriculture which still feeds the majority of the worlds population.
Today just one company- Monsanto- owns 95% of GM crop market, a remarkable monopoly. The majority of American crops are now GM.
Even by the most reductionist standards GM has been ineffective in advancing efficiency in agriculture and pretty good at maximising profit and control for chemical companies. The first GM crops to be developed for commercial use were by Monsanto, who had previously dominated the American pesticide and herbicide market. The new technology allowed them to engineer plants which could be sprayed with the company's own herbicide and survive, while all the weeds in the field were killed. Within 4 years this technology had generated a new problem - "Superweeds", where weeds had crossed with the herbicide-resistant crops.
Next came GM crops with in-built pesticide - every single cell produces toxins which kill insects. In the short term, these were very effective at decimating wildlife. In the medium term they massively sped up resistance by natural selection in the pest-insects. The long term health implications for anyone eating these crop is still unknown. There have been no medium term studies on the implications of a GM diet in humans. The handful of short term studies which have been conducted raised concerns.
Genetic modification creates dozens of ecological problems, on top of the obvious political ones. The science of GM is crude, and based on the idea that the genetic code is a list of separate instructions where a new gene from a totally alien species can simply add a trait, without their being any knock on effects. This has been consistently disproved- plants which had been modified often suffer weakened systems, produced unexpected chemicals, reacted differently to environmental conditions, changed colour or size, and are generally unpredictable. They are then released into open fields where it seems the process of modification itself makes GM traits more easily absorbed by soil ecology and wild relatives.
Where is GM now? Well aside from America and Canada, Argentina, China and some parts of Brazil and Europe also grow GM crops commercially. India and many African nations have resisted years of pressure, including the use of the classic dealers tactic- 'your first tastes free' , where seeds were given away. Where this failed there were several instances that looked like deliberate attempts to contaminate existing seed stocks. When American GM maize surpluses were offered as food aid to Africa during a famine- the States refused to grid the seeds so they could only be eaten. The aid was refused.
Unsurprisingly farmers from the global south have been at the forefront of resistance to GM. Indonesian and Filipino communities trashed and occupying rice research stations in their hundreds, and India farmers launching the Cremate Monsanto campaign- which did what it said on the tin. Several members of Movement Sem Terra were shot just two years ago as they occupied of a former GM field.
In the new British government, pro-GM National Farmers Union members dominate the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). Heading up this group of intensive agriculture fans is Caroline Spelman, who believes there is no conflict of interests between her current job as the minister in charge of GM crop policy and her former role as a lobbyist for biotechnology.
While in opposition the Tories were anti GM. Yet behind closed doors they have twice been given the opportunity to vote on GM issues, and twice they've voted in favour. Their manifesto maintains that they want to institute "full commercial liability" - a polluter pays in principle for any contamination, but there is no detail on how this would work, or how it would safeguard ecosystems and seed stocks.
Changes in EU legislation are being discussed tomorrow which would allow GM crops to be fast tracked through the approvals process. This would see a flood of new GM varieties appear- up to 16 varieties are waiting to be rushed through, many which carry serious safety concerns. While growing them would become legal, commercial uptake is unlikely without UK trials to demonstrate their viability in this climate. Commercialisation could be as little as two years away.
Without groups removing plants before they flower, our landscape would have been irreparably contaminated many years ago. Public and covert crop trashings were central to the moments sucess in the UK. A recent EU court ruling made it clear that the government will be legally compelled to keep publishing the grid references locating all trials of GM crops in the UK- so it seems that this will continue to be a way for communities to protect themselves.
Unfortunately this alone won't be enough. The campaign worked last time because it exercised economic and public leverage in the fields, and political understanding among the supermarkets and political hierarchy. If you have a mum that likes writing letters, or a nephew that won't trash stuff yet but is up for the occassional street stall, please point them in the direction of the GM Freeze.
For those who prefer a more direct approach please keep your eye out for indy GM postings, more to follow soon.