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Ultimate answer to pests

Boz magazine, 61: 8, June, 1999.

Brian J Ford

There was a time when GM used to mean 'General Motors'. When the news media started talking about 'GM crops', many people fondly imagined that a major American company were suddenly going into catering. It's not as silly as it sounds: we already have the electricity board selling us gas, so stranger things have happened. Listen to the businessmen, and you will hear that genetically modified crops are going to take over agriculture within a year or two. Turn to the environmentalists, and you will hear of super-weeds taking over the countryside and heralding the end of wild-life.

They are both wrong. Genetically modified crops are being rushed through a sketchy approval scheme when the world does not need them; the super-weed, meanwhile, is no threat at all. In my view, the greatest threat is to big business, and not to the environment. Genetically modified crops are nothing new. Every crop we grow is genetically modified. Wheat and oats, barley and rye, potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers and celery are all human products. Nothing like them exists in nature, for specialist breeders have produced them all. Many of them (like wheat) are completely new species of crops, something genetic engineers have never attained.

Yet they were all produced by our ancestors, many of them in prehistoric times. Their magnificent achievements are feeding the world today, and yet few people realise the extent of their achievements. In those far-off times people used cross-breeding to produce new crops. they still do, of course; giant raspberries and rosy apples, African violets and decorative brassicas, are all produced in time-honoured ways. Now we can actually introduce genes directly, rather than using pollen to make the transfer for us. This may be a powerful new technique, but you should remember that what it allows us to achieve is as old as the hills.

Where does the GM crop come into the picture? The target of attention is the kind of crop produced by Monsanto. The idea — it's an obvious one, it must be said — is this: you add some genes to a crop which make it resistant to herbicide sprays. Then you grow the crop in a field, and spray it with the herbicide as it grows. The other plants die off, eliminating the need for weeding. Your crop (because it resists the herbicide) is the only plant in the field that can survive, so you end up with a monoculture of the crop, and nothing else. This is a foolish way to farm, and I do not say so out of some idealised position of protest. Part of the problem is that the weeds in fields sustain wildlife, and maintain the rich diversity of nature.

The microbe communities which make soil into a healthy community suffer, too. There is only one species of plant left alive; microbes like a range of plants in a mixed community. Without healthy soil, your crops are growing in a hydroponic system. All the soil does is hold the plant upright, while you feed it with artificial fertilizers. In the real world the huge communities of microbes in the ground process nutriments and offer them to the roots. All this is threatened when you grow plants in a monoculture. You might as well stick the seeds into gravel and feed them fertilizer from a factory. This approach to farming damages wildlife, locks in the hapless farmer to a multinational monopoly to supply his livelihood, kills off huge numbers of important plants and threatens the microbes on which life depends. Not good.

In fact, I think the consequences for the companies could be even worse. Firstly, not all the weeds are killed. Ninety-five per cent of them are killed, but five per cent survive. This means to me that, in a short while, resistant weeds will take over the fields, so the farmers will be back where they started. Not only that, but the newly implanted genes will soon escape. There is a quaint view that, if you keep a cordon of plants around a test-field of GM crops, the pollen cannot spread. Who told them that? You can find pollen grains in the stratosphere, and in the middle of the Atlantic.

No matter how much these technologists know about genes, they have never grasped how an entire organism functions. Pollen spreads; it's like a germ (hence 'germination'). It takes more than a strip at the edge of a field to stop pollen grains from spreading round the countryside. I predict that the resistance to herbicides will soon spread. The resulting weeds — superweeds, as they are known — will not spread any more than normal plants, but their resistance will mean that the chemical herbicides won't work. We will be back at square one, as though the herbicides had never been discovered.

When that occurs, there will be nothing to sell. The commercial benefits will be gone, and nature will have taught big business yet another lesson. Nothing would induce me to invest in one of these short-sighted companies. They are heading for disaster, and the effects on them will be far more serious than anything that commerce can inflict on nature.

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