The Co-option of Sustainable Agriculture

Rothamsted claims that its aphid-repellent GM wheat will maintain yields with less pesticide and no significant risk – and so will contribute to “sustainable” farming. But, says Adam Payne of Reclaim the Fields, history suggests that the reality is likely to be very different

The open air trials of Genetically Modified (GM) wheat have caused renewed public debate in the last few weeks. Scientists, celebrities and civil society groups alike are pitching their opinions into the arguments around the trials being run by the Rothamsted Research Institute.

One element of the resulting war of words that has as yet gone unchallenged is the somewhat bizarre claims made by the scientists at Rothamsted Research (or by the PR companies they employ) to be ‘environmentalists’ who have dedicated their lives to working for ‘sustainable agriculture’.

Many of us in the community food movement have spent years working for what we believe to be sustainable agriculture precisely because it places the health and resilience of people, communities and ecosystems before the profit of corporations. And now a small group of research scientists, intent on pursuing risky experiments that may have irreversible effects to our food systems are taking up the same slogan. What is this all about: can genetic modification really be the new front of sustainable agriculture, or are they trying to draw on the public popularity of the term for ulterior ends?

We must remember that attempts by power holders to co-opt the language of grassroots movements that challenge their interests are common. It is an issue that the movement against climate change has struggled with for years. Indeed the recent claim by pro-GM scientists that they are ‘environmentalists’ who strive ‘to work with nature, not against it’[i] are reminiscent in their absurdity to BP’s claims in the 1980’s that their ‘supergreen’ petrol ‘caused no pollution to the environment’.

The full argument made by the scientists is that by engineering a gene that will deter aphids from wheat they will be able to increase the amount of food that can be grown from the same amount of land, without the need for pesticides. They will therefore be able to increase crop yields whilst doing less damage to wildlife. They even go as far as to compare their work in the laboratory to that done by peasant seed savers who, since the first crops were cultivated, have ensured agricultural biodiversity by selecting and using seeds from plants most suited to local conditions.

The logic behind these arguments is not new, even if their attempt to co-opt the language of sustainable agriculture is. Claims by pro-GM companies to reduce pesticide use have been employed for decades and widely discredited[ii]. Findings in the US, Canada and India show that both weeds and pests rapidly develop immunity to GM technologies resulting in the use of ever increasing amounts of herbicides and pesticides[iii]. Independent research from the US shows that since 1996 the cultivation of GM Soy, Corn and Cotton has led to an increase in pesticide use amounting to 55 million Kilos[iv].

Closer to home, in the last few weeks we have seen the publication by Swiss scientists of data demonstrating that the chemical emitted as a pesticide by genetically modified Bt corn increases mortality in young ladybird larvae, an insect essential in organic pest management.[v] This is just another example of how ecosystems can be inadvertently harmed by unforeseen problems with GM technologies.

This is an experiment in which a very small number of powerful stakeholders are taking risks that could irreversibly affect the countries food and agriculture.  The public dressing up of reckless science as sustainable agriculture is a call for us all to stand up and voice our support for real sustainability in our food systems. This means sustainable agriculture that is sure of its safety for human health; that safeguards the insects vital to pollination; and that is based on equitable systems of food distribution and access to land.

Mohandas Gandhi, a hero on the Indian independence movement, is credited with the famous adage on how power-holders respond to grassroots social movements: ‘first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you win’. It remains to be seen how close the movement for sustainable agriculture is to victory over the threat posed by the GM industry, but their attempts to co-opt the language of the grassroots is a sure sign that they are feeling the pressure.

If you oppose the open air trials of GM wheat, and want to make a stand for real sustainability in our agriculture, join us for the public action against GM wheat trials on the 27th May. For information about the action see

[i] In an open letter  by scientists on behalf of Rothamsted Research to ‘take the flour back’ an anti-gm movement who plan to ‘decontaminate’, or pull up, the GM wheat experiment on the 27th may 2012.

[ii] accessed 16/05/12

[iii] accessed 16/05/12

[iv] accessed 16/05/12

[v] accessed 16/05/12

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