Four Technologies in Search of a Job

The real reason for GM, cloning, nanotechnology – and  all that industrial chemistry

by Colin Tudge

Wouldn’t it be good if the powers-that-be seriously discussed a strategy for agriculture that would provide good food for everyone forever without wrecking the rest of the world? Wouldn’t it be good if there were people in positions of power who were able to formulate such a strategy? Wouldn’t it be good if the many people around the world who would be able to formulate such a plan – people who include professors of science and economists and rich farmers and poor farmers and a great many of the kind known as “activists” – were to have some opportunity to do so? For the food problems of the world seem eminently soluble, and if they were solved then a great many other problems would be solved as well or least mightily alleviated – including chronic unemployment and the misery that goes with it, and the mass extinction of our fellow creatures, and of course malnutrition (which, when defined to include overnutrition and contamination, probably underpins about half of all human disease).

As things are, though, the powers that be at best are flapping, or at worst (and more generally) simply assume that “market forces” are bound to solve the world’s food problems just as they are apparently bound to solve everything else, so that the only real problem is to ensure that the market is not interrupted. Or else perhaps they have it in mind that various kinds of boffin have various kinds of high tech up their sleeves which could solve all our problems tomorrow if only “the public”, held back by “ignorance” and “superstition” and beset by fears “got up by the media”, didn’t keep getting in the way.

We do of course have a whole phalanx of fancy technologies. But when you look at them coolly you see that very few of them were designed expressly to solve the specific problems of agriculture and that most of them, when you boil them down, are just potential money spinners in search of a quick mega-buck; and food and farming have traditionally been perceived as fair game, virgin territory apparently, for high-tech speculation.

First on the scene was industrial agrochemistry. This has become so deeply established over the past 200 years that the kind of industrial farming that makes use of it is conventionally known as “conventional” even though, compared to the 10,000 years or so of agriculture that preceded it, it is anything but. Indeed, “conventional” agriculture can now be seen as al fresco industrial chemistry. To be fair, agrochemistry did begin – in the early 19th century with Justus von Liebig in Germany and John Bennet Lawes in England — as a true attempt to solve the problems of soil fertility; and it would be a brave person who tried to argue that the efforts of Liebig and Lawes and all that has followed have not been of use. Fan of organic farming that I am I cannot bring myself fully to believe that industrial chemistry serves no purpose at all.

There is no doubt, though, that the initial boost to industrial farming between the World Wars and the all-out enthusiasm for it after World War II were largely driven by the chemical industries that formerly had supplied explosives – for the chemistry of explosives and of nitrogen fertilizer is very similar. The factories were huge, well-endowed, and with no war to fight were in need of a job; and governments were keen to look as if they were doing something; and (to be fair) early successes were most impressive. NPK applied in vast quantities with a pass of a tractor, created with oil which before the OPEC revolt of the early 1970s was dirt cheap, really did produce miraculous yields; and DDT, which came on line in the 1930s, and its organochlorine and organophosphorus successors, really did make short work of pests in the short term.

But it is at least very difficult to distinguish what was really necessary and desirable from what was just commercial opportunism, a chance to invest in high-tech products that the world was already equipped to turn out in vast and indeed in virtually limitless quantities. I don’t believe that anyone (and certainly no-one in a position of power) has ever stopped to ask how much was really necessary or desirable, or taken seriously the idea that in principle, it must be better to use less than more.

As for GM  — there simply isn’t a case for it. We have been told repeatedly from on high that GM is vital if we are to survive but this simply isn’t true. Whether those who perpetrate the untruth know that it’s untrue and are prepared to lie because they know a good scam when they see one, or are simply ill-informed (albeit willfully ill-informed), we need not stop to ponder. Beyond doubt, too, many scientists work on GM simply because they want to do science and biotech companies are the only people in town offering a job (supported as they are by governments like Britain’s). The science behind GM technology is of course of use in a hundred different ways and intellectually it is wonderful. It is not only showing us how genes work but also showing us that the realities of life and the universe are far more wondrous than we could have envisaged without science – as all good science has always shown us. But this realization should induce a sense of humility: the realization that in the end, life and the universe are beyond our ken and we must tread with care. In the context of GM, however, molecular biology has produced extreme arrogance – the apparent belief that we not only can but already do understand the way the genome works, and can control it at will. What a joke.

On the practical front, over the past 30 years and despite enormous investment, not least by taxpayers, GM technology has contributed nothing of unequivocal value to the world’s food supply that could not have been provided more cheaply, reliably, and safely by standard breeding techniques. All it has done is to transfer wealth and power into the hands of a few giant companies. Presumably there are people in high places who realize this, and some of those perhaps are happy with it. They apparently believe that the transfer of power and wealth to a few giant companies, working in concert with a few powerful governments, is a good thing. The plight of the world as a whole suggests that it is not. The point is, though, as with agrochemistry as a whole, that the star of GM has been rising not because it has truly been shown to be necessary and good, but in the cause of short-term commerce. It is astonishing that people in power, some of whom are scientists and Fellows of the Royal Society, don’t apparently realize this, or don’t apparently think it matters.

Then there is cloning. Again, it’s a brilliant set of technologies which again could be applied for truly beneficial purposes (and indeed already are). I wrote a book about all this in the mid 1990s (called The Second Creation – which I recently had cause to re-discover isn’t bad at all). But the cloning of animals which again is hyped up and is already big business in the US and is mentioned as a possible way forward in the government’s Foresight report on The Future of Food and Farming not only has no purpose (apart from taking money from the very gullible or the very lucky) but is obviously destructive. Hope for the future above all lies in genetic diversity. Cloning is intended expressly to reduce that diversity. The animal welfare issues are horrendous – not least because the animals that are deemed worthy of cloning are the poor benighted creatures that are genetically predisposed to be as productive as possible, which means they are always on the brink of physiological collapse and hence of pathology. On grounds of common sense, track record, and animal welfare cloning should be put a stop to (and so much for “evidence based policy”).

Now nanotechnology is coming on line (see under The Colllege: “Nanoparticles are being widely used in agriculture — but are they properly tested for safety?”). Why? Perhaps there is some government research document somewhere to explain why agricultural nanotechnology is vital, and what specific problems it will solve that cannot be solved more easily already. But I doubt it. To judge from the past few decades, the prime if not the only reason for any large-scale technological innovation in agriculture has been that some significant section of industry can see a market opportunity, a means to make money where none was made before; and that is all that the past five British governments have taken any real interest in.

We keep coming back to the same old point.  If we, people at large, want a secure and convivial world, which must include a secure food supply, then we have to do what needs doing ourselves, despite the powers-that-be. Since some of the powers-that-be are elected, and in general they are growing more powerful, and are apparently convinced both that they are right and that they have a right to do what they do, that that isn’t going to be easy. It will be particularly hard for people at large to gain control of science, which by its nature is so specialized and expensive, which means that the bulk of the well-paid scientists are bound to be working for the kind of industries that the world does not need. Ideally in Britain we would restore the network of publically owned, dedicated agricultural research stations that we had until about 1980, and were the envy of the world, and the advisory and educational services that went with them. Those research stations have systematically been destroyed or sold off this past 30 years in pursuit of economic dogma (the one that says that all our problems should be left to the free market). Only people of 50 or over can remember what they were like, and how good they were.

But if we don’t start trying to take our own affairs in hand, and in particular our food supply including the farming, then the future is bleak indeed. The pity is, it needn’t be.

Colin Tudge, September 7 2012

2 thoughts on “Four Technologies in Search of a Job

  1. After many years of working for the rights of same-sex people here in the US, what Colin said about us doing things ourselves is the one hundred percent truth. No matter what your cause or effort, if you wait around for others or the powers-that-be to do something, it won’t happen. Very well said, and this must be our mantra, to go out there and start working, put in the effort yourself. That is the only way to start change.

  2. Colin says: “Ideally in Britain we would restore the network of publically owned, dedicated agricultural research stations that we had until about 1980”

    As a researcher who still works on the site of one of those research stations, I would say its a nice thought but sadly the tide is firmly against us. The last nail in our coffin I fear is embodied in the ‘Feeding the Future’ consultation (comments elsewhere on this site).

    The first recommendation (‘A. Levy bodies and other producer groups should consider ways in which they could facilitate the establishment of joint programmes based on the recommendations above and to lever additional investment from RCs, Government Departments and TSB etc’) is the main problem. 

    I predict that what will happen here is that the research councils who are desperate to show that their research has applicability (but give lip service to practical agriculture) will come up with a new funding structure of jointly-funded research with AHDB. 

    Superficially this sounds nice as the levy bodies will be seen to be ‘leveraging’ their research with government money, and government can say it is funding innovative research which will benefit food security. It’s all spin.  In reality the researchers will carry on doing exactly what they have done for the past 25 years, which is pushing at the forefront of science and publishing in scientific journals as their measure of output, but with a thin veneer of relevance to agriculture.

    More importantly, and what most observers won’t realise, is that those of us who still strive to do research which will help farmers, will be excluded from such research structures. The reason – we are now working in private organisations, and hence are excluded from bidding for research council money – which only goes to ‘not for profit’ organisations. 

    So it doesn’t matter that the independent organisations still doing applied research (much of it for the levy bodies) are now lean and efficiently run, and can deliver research more cheaply than large, bloated institutes; we are simply excluded by our status. I wonder how many of the independent farmers reading this blog would feel aggrieved if they were told for example that they could not supply produce to a hospital because they are working for ‘for profit’ companies ?

    A fundamental change in the balance of funding from basic to applied could be achieved with no overall increase in the budget, therefore should not worry politicians. It will only worry the administrators in the BBSRC. But it could have a big impact on farmers and the type of research you wish to see. 

    Because Defra and other government departments have devolved research administration to organisations like the RCs and the TSB, they have absolved themselves of all responsibilities of deciding what research should be funded. Time is running out now to row back from this position.

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