Monday, 8 November 2010

What the Green Movement Gets Right

It is of course no surprise to anyone in the environmental movement when Channel 4 gets things wrong about us – after previous inflammatory documentaries like Against Nature and The Great Global Warming Swindle, very few can have expected much from What the Green Movement Got Wrong (shown last Thursday, and available online here). We weren't disappointed, and while it sometimes feels a bit like beating your head against a brick wall, it's worth discussing some of the problems with the positions taken in the film.

The main target of my ire was the section on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which seemed to be based on two questionable assumptions – firstly, that we need genetically modified food to feed the world; and secondly, that the environmentalist argument against GMOs is simply the 'precautionary principle' – that if there's even a slight amount of unknowability about the consequences of GMOs, we shouldn't go ahead with them. The programme's conclusion was that 'the greens' should simply grow up and accept the risks involved in using new technology to provide food for the world's population.

In reality, much of the opposition to GMOs today comes not from a fear of what might go wrong, so much as a knowledge of what does go wrong when GM crops are introduced, taken from the experience of those countries that have invested heavily in GMOs – most notably the US and South American states like Brazil and Argentina. The US is by far the world's biggest producer of GM crops by volume, while almost half the crops grown in Argentina are genetically modified, and a similar amount is grown in Brazil (all of these details can be found in the 2009 version of Friends of the Earth's excellent annual report Who Benefits From GM Crops?). These countries, which have already plunged into the GM experiment, provide numerous examples of why environmentalists are really so anti-GM.

From a climate justice perspective the problem is not just one of uncertain science, but of corporate power and the rights of the poor, the powerless, and the indigenous. A full list of the social and environmental problems caused by GMOs would take up far more space than a single blog post, but a quick run-down would have to include:

  • Genetically modified food technologies are concentrated almost entirely in the hands of five multinational corporations, and of those, Monsanto is responsible for 80% of the total area of farmland planted with GM crops worldwide. Giving this much power over the control of our food supply to just a few companies would be misguided even if the likes of Monsanto were model corporate citizens. But they're not. Like other corporations, Monsanto and their biotech colleagues care exclusively about profit, which is why they have been accused of developing 'terminator' GM technology to ensure the seeds they sell are sterile – this means that farmers are unable to save seeds from the crops they grow, and have to go back to Monsanto on a yearly basis to buy more.

  • GM crops encourage intensive pesticide use, as they are often genetically modified to be highly resistant to herbicides and pesticides. They can then be machine sprayed (taking away pest and weed control jobs that would otherwise have been performed by local farmers) indiscriminately with these chemicals, which are often produced by the same biotech companies, further strengthening their oligopoly on the market. As well as the health issues for people living near to large GM plantations, this is encouraging resistance to herbicides amongst the very plants it is supposed to kill (Who Benefits From GM Crops 2009, pp. 25-27).

  • They also lead to deforestation and land grabbing in South America, where 200,000 hectares of native forest are disappearing in Argentina each year, and social movements like La Via Campesina have documented the struggles of peasant and indigenous communities who have been displaced from their land and persecuted for resisting the encroachment of GM crops (Who Benefits From GM Crops 2010, p. 23).

  • GM crops are not even being used primarily for the noble purpose of feeding the starving, because it remains much more profitable to sell them as biofuels or animal feed for the benefit of the wealthy and well-fed. Significant amounts of existing GM crops are being grown as animal feed or biofuels – up to 90% in the case of GM soya beans – while there are no commercially available GM varieties of crops like rice, wheat, potatoes and fruit and veg that could feed people rather than animals and engines. Research into these strains of GMOs is simply not profitable enough for the companies in control. (Who Benefits From GM Crops 2010, p. 6)

Perhaps the most important thing though, is that the film's supposedly 'eco-pragmatist' thesis – that regardless of all the other problems they cause, we need to support GMOs if we are to feed the world – is faulty in itself. We are already capable of growing and distributing enough food to feed all the people on this planet, without the need for technological 'miracles' like GMOs – the EU itself is famous for the huge amounts of surplus food its agricultural subsidies have created. What we need is the political will to grow food rather than feed, and to put people before profit. It's this that environmentalists and other social movements around the world are calling for under the banner of social and climate justice, whatever Channel 4 thinks.

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