The Point
Last updated: 05 March 2020. sky thinking for an open and diverse left

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Socialists and GMO's: a plea for fresh thinking

Fife Solidarity activist, Craig 'Monk' Duncan, argues that corporate malfeasance on GMO's shouldn't mean socialists throw the baby out with the bathwater - and adopt a Luddite attitude to the technology itself.

Genetic modification is a fun topic – and a controversial one. Very rarely, do you find someone who is apathetic on the issue. Most people who have heard of GMOs will either despise the thought of them or be in full support. Personally, I've been both of those people. 

When I first learned of what the term "GMO" stood for, I had a gut reaction - "NO!" I didn't want that. Chemicals are bad, Monsanto is bad, nothing good can come from it. A few years later, my viewpoint had changed on lots of things. I had become a man of science and a bit more economically liberal. I was in favour of some parts of capitalism, so Monsanto was fine, GMOs were great. Everything was rosy. Fast forward to today and you could say I'm a bit of a centrist. GM technology is great, the business side needs to die. 

So, let's start at the beginning. What are GMOs?

A GMO is a genetically modified organism. Literally speaking, anything that has had its genes altered is a GMO. No matter how that modification happened, whether it's through selective breeding or whether it's done with a gene gun. However, in common usage, the term GMO tends to refer to lab modification. 

There aren't many differences between selective breeding and genetic engineering in a lab. In a
talk I did, I said there were two differences. I was wrong, there are three:

1. Selective engineering, on average, takes a much longer time. Generations in some cases. 

2. Selective engineering is less accurate than the lab method. (Source for point 1 and 2 - here )

3. Selective engineering doesn't allow for foreign genetic material, meaning the traits are limited to what's already there. 



That's not to say lab methods don't have their problems, they absolutely do. In some cases, the genes can be problematic and it can take up to 100 tries to modify it correctly. But this is a relatively quick process, the crops are isolated, so it won't cause a problem with crops that haven't been touched, so there's no wider issue when using the lab method. 

There is one consistent GMO fear that comes up often. Probably the most common anti-GM argument – the safety factor. There have been 2 studies that have caused this issue widespread attention. First was a
study by Árpád Pusztai, which claimed that GM potatoes caused gut problems and stunted the growth of rats. Skipping over the fact that the study was debunked, the paper would have only shown a problem with one version of GM potatoes that were never commercially available. Also, this study hasn't been taken seriously for 18+ years, so I'd rather not focus too much on this one. 

The second study, which is more recent and more widespread, was a study by Gilles-Éric Séralini, published in Food and Chemical Toxicology (FCT). In his paper, the claim made was that GM crops caused cancer in rats. This study was retracted, due to concerns that, while there were no lies, there also wasn't enough evidence to support the conclusion. This was mostly caused by the sample size. That didn't stop Seralini and the same study, with no changes, was republished in Environmental Sciences Europe (ESEU). The editor-in-chief, Henner Hollert said they republished this to make sure there was long-term access to the data.

Much like the study by Pusztai, Seralini's study was debunked. I'll go through some of the ways:

Seralini wanted to do a 2-year study to prove that other scientists only use the rats for 6 months because negative effects showed up after that 6-month period. In reality, scientists only use the rats for 6 months because Sprague-Dawley rats (the rat strain used) are known to have a high incidence of tumours.  After a certain amount of time, it's argued that you're committing animal cruelty.

In the experiment, the control group only had 20 rats in it. The exposure group had 80. As well as that being uneven, 20 is just an unfair amount, overall.  The Law of Large Numbers states that an expected ratio of outcomes starts to be maintained after higher numbers of instances are produced. To simplify that, the higher number of rats, the more accurate the study is.  20 rats aren’t enough to make any claims. A single outlier throws off the whole experiment. 


There was no control for the amounts of food the rats ate. This specific rat strain is sensitive to tumours when they overeat, so to not control that was simply a mess. 

To see a full, in-depth debunking of the study, you can go here & here.

So why should socialists support GMOs? Right now, GMOs are, scientifically, one of the most watched things on the planet. Possibly even justifiably so in some ways. But in regards to economics, no one is watching. We have large corporations running riot, doing what they please because instead of people calling for the information regarding the technology involved in GM crops and the patents to be publicly owned, a large percentage of leftists dismiss the entire discussion. Won't even entertain talks. I feel this is wrong. 

I have a number of arguments for why socialists should show support for the technology of GM. An economic argument, an argument regarding climate change and an argument based on ethics.

First of all, the climatological reason:

We obviously live in a troubling time. On average, the heat of the planet is rising year by year. Gradually, more natural disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis. Also, due to icebergs melting, sea levels are rising. This can have negative effects on land where crops can grow. Especially in Africa. GMOs, however, are a possible weapon against that problem. Because genetic engineering allows crop traits to be transferred, it would be possible to increase resilience to heat or lack of water. 

You could argue that if we make enough food, we can give it to countries who struggle due to climate change, but I don't think that's a long-term solution. That argument would be based on us always being nice enough to provide those crops. With genetic engineering, people in those countries have a chance to be truly independent and self-sufficient. Not relying on us gives them the chance to do their own thing, if they choose to do so. 

Secondly, the economic reason:

There are very legitimate socialist arguments against the GM business model. As socialists, we should agree that something as important as GM food shouldn't be made for profit. The food should be made as cheap as possible. That means:

· No profiting from the scientific research. Make any and all information freely available.

· No patents that allow one company to sue another company for, possibly, improving on a crop that can help feed more people.

· No economic incentive to making hybridised seeds so farmers need to buy seeds each year, putting control back in the hands of farmers

These 3 things are suggestions that I think most socialists would agree with. And some of this is even supported by the scientists, themselves. Especially allowing public, free-viewing of the information. There are also scientists who aren't against re-usable seeds.

I believe these things are possible. But in order to achieve these things, we need to show that we care. The technology itself can, and has, been used for good. I believe that to be an objective fact. We have multiple examples from insulin, to rice in higher yields, to rice that helped combat Vitamin A deficiency. All the while allowing these people to be as self-sufficient as they already were.

I've had people say to me "If GM Crops are so safe, why has the SNP banned them in Scotland?", which is a great question. Let me quote the reason they themselves gave:

"The SNP Scottish Government took the decision to opt out of the use of GM crops to protect Scotland’s environment and support Scottish agriculture. Scotland is world renowned for its natural, high quality food and drink, and this is greatly promoted both at home and abroad by our reputation for being clean and green. This is a key strength of Scottish agriculture and it is important that we take steps to protect this. The use of GM crops could threaten the integrity of this brand, and therefore banning their cultivation is central to its protection and promotion.

As there is no clear evidence of a demand for GM products in Scotland – indeed, consumers remain sceptical of GM produce – there is no sense in going down this potentially damaging route. We will protect the sector’s international reputation by continuing our opt-out of the cultivation of genetically modified crops for the lifetime of this Scottish Parliament." (my emphasis)

There's nothing about safety or science in this. The only "damage" they mention is to the industry. Which is only a problem because governments haven't tried to explain how safe GMO's are. They just crumble as soon as some economic issues come up. And if the government used the sources I'm using throughout this article, I don't think there would be any issues for the economy in Scotland. In fact, I'd argue that our economy would benefit largely if we went all in with moral GM practices that make food available for the needy, instead of profiteering from helpful technology.

This brings me onto my final point - ethics. This also ties to our economic view of socialism. What's the main point of socialism? Social ownership of the means of production. No different here. If socialists were to dive head first into this, we could help push for social ownership of these businesses and what's produced.

A big problem people have with the studies on GM safety is funding from the companies selling the seeds. While this can be easily evened out with the abundance of articles from independent researchers, if we were to have a worker-owned seed company selling GM seeds, that would cut the corruption in company-funded scientific research on the safety of the products sold.

In my view, this would kill two birds with one stone. You'd have the profit issue under control, at least in theory. And you could also get the scientific studies on the safety of GM crops that you can trust.

But right now, none of these things can be achieved. And none of these things will ever be achieved if we keep refusing to give the technology a chance. GM technology has the potential to improve the planet, if we allow it.

Let's give it a chance. 

External links:

Bella Caledonia

Bright Green

George Monbiot

Green Left


The Jimmy Reid Foundation

Laurie Penny

New Left Project

Newsnet Scotland

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

Socialist Unity

UK Uncut

Viridis Lumen

Wings Over Scotland

Word Power Books