GMOs. Three letters on everyone’s lips. What are they? Frankenstein food? Giant killer tomatoes? Cucumbers that hunt in packs? Er … no. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are organisms (animals and plants) with genes from other organisms inserted into their genetic material. The gene is the fundamental blueprint contained in the cells of all living things; genetic material (DNA: deoxyribonucleic acid) carries all the information about the way things grow, look and function as an organism. The advance of biotechnology has enabled scientists to isolate certain genes and transfer them from organism to organism.
There is a qualitative difference: for the first time it is possible to genetically alter a species by a transfer of genetic material between totally unrelated organisms, e.g. fish genes inserted into tomatoes to prevent bruising. But this does not mean that GMO technology is against nature or “wrong”.
Admittedly, there are many problems associated with the development of this new technology. The method used to insert genetic material is not completely reliable; there is a margin of uncertainty where the gene is going to land which may damage the DNA of the host. In the development of the technology, each gene is taken in isolation to the others, without regard to the “synergetic” effect of genes (i.e. changing one gene could have a dramatic effect on another gene).
The modification may involve transfer of hidden allergens that can trigger life threatening reactions. For instance, a soybean can be modified with a brazil nut gene and someone allergic to nuts could unknowingly eat the soya and get an allergic attack. The modified organism may also produce new toxins: genetically engineered bacteria produced toxic tryptophan.
The effect of GMOs on the surrounding environment also poses many questions.
- Cross-pollination: this occurs naturally and is common, but what effect will it have when a fish gene in a tomato pollen fertilises a nearby plant, like a wild oat? The resultant plant (or fish-plant) could then go on to pollinate another and so on: once the genie is out of the lamp, it is out of control. And pollen can be carried by insects or wind for miles (a pine tree’s pollen has been shown to spread 400 miles away!)
- Terminator gene: this gene has been inserted cynically by Monsanto to program the GMO to die out without reproducing. But what happens if the terminator gene is passed on through cross-fertilisation? Could we be creating barren wastelands?
- Superweeds: Monsanto also insert genes that are resistant to their own marketed weedkillers, encouraging landworkers to buy Monsanto chemicals and spray them all over the crop in the knowledge that the crop will remain alive while all competitors for the soil’s minerals will be killed off. But the opposite danger to the terminator gene exists: cross-pollination could produce superweeds that are resistant to herbicides.
- Superpests: in the field, bacteria, insects and other small animals will obviously eat some of the GM crops. Because of the foreign gene in this food, which is not a normal part of its diet, some of these animals will die (like the famous rats who were fed GM potatoes). But others could adapt and go on to destroy everything in their paths.
Problems under capitalism
Billions of $$$s have been pumped into an industry that is still in its technological infancy stage by both government and big business. Over $1 million was spent by Monsanto alone on a massive PR campaign to convince the public how great GM foods are!
“Getting in at ground level” is considered good business sense, but there is a limit on how long companies can last unless they reap the benefits.
There is massive competition between the leaders in biotechnology (Monsanto, AgraEvo, Zeneca, Dow) to be the first to patent the technology and maintain a monopoly. Patents have a shelf life of 20 years, so there is extra pressure to market the product before competitors can manufacture similar products and erode the hefty profit margin that a monopoly brings – hence the skipping of tests and dodging safety precautions.
For example, Monsanto has been accused of aggressive marketing tactics in relation to recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) where they:
1) compensated farmers whose veterinarian bills escalated due to the adverse side effects associated with use;
2) covered up negative trial results;
3) refused to disclose their research grants to US universities;
4) threatened to transfer scientists in Canada to jobs where “they’d never be heard from again” if they didn’t speed up approval of rBGH.
Monsanto has also been involved in secret trials in India where they didn’t tell the farmers that they were growing genetically modified cotton. There were no biosafety measures, no buffer zones around the fields, no fencing of any type. As Monsanto knew, it is much less hassle to do field trials in India: much cheaper to bribe the government to turn a blind eye and much easier to play on subsistence farmers’ need for cheap seed.
Nasty piece of work, but it gets worse. Monsanto is in the process of developing the “terminator” (technology protection system) seed. The terminator genetic engineering technique renders farm-saved seed sterile, forcing farmers to return to commercial seed market every year creating a cycle of dependency.
It’s not just the individual companies that cloak the issues, but governments too. The US Department of Agriculture has ruled the terminator technology unacceptable for release in the US, yet OK for export. How could it be bad for the USA yet good for the rest of the world?
Tony Blair has put the multimillionaire Labour Party donor, Lord Sainsbury, on the government’s GMO regulatory committee, despite the fact that he stands to make a mint out of the commercial development of GMO technology. Labour’s legislation covering GMO trials is so lax and its fines for breaking the rules so minuscule that there is no incentive for industry to conduct proper trials. Governments and big business, whether in Britain or in India, work hand in hand.
People are getting angry. There has been a wave of protests against GMOs: burning fields of GM cotton in India, preventing the unloading of GM soybeans in Liverpool, trampling of GM crops at testing sites this summer, etc. There is a radicalised movement fighting back against the attempt to manipulate the global food market.
Revolution actively supports the attacks on unsafe testing sites and demands a moratorium on the commercial cultivation and licensing of new GM crops. We demand that all future tests be carried out under the control of working class organisations and scientific workers themselves.
Possibilities under socialism
It is important to remember that technology is not inherently good or evil. As Marxists, we support the development of the world’s productive forces. Most importantly, we want to end starvation and malnutrition, which affects billions of people. If GMO technology can be harnessed to achieve this safely, good.
Obviously we cannot trust the capitalists – blinded by profit – to develop GMOs. But it is also reactionary to reject technological advances when the only context in which these advances have been seen is under the capitalist system and the push for profit.
Biotechnology has tremendous potential. For decades human insulin has been grown in GM yeast, transforming the lives of diabetics. More recently we have seen the development of transgenically grown biodegradable plastics (polyhydroxyalknoates PHAs), possibilities regarding xenotransplantation (part human organs grown in pigs) and the development of crops that are hardier, more nutritious and require fewer applications of pesticides.
Under socialism, all the giant food companies would be run and owned by the people and production planned to meet human need. there would be full disclosure from all field testing – everyone would have access to information. The trials would be completely safe, in controlled conditions to prevent any impact on the surrounding environment.
With all the information available, people can make an informed decision on whether the advantages outweigh the disadvantages of pursuing this technology – and the peoples’ decision, not Monsanto’s or Lord Sainsbury’s – will be final.
REVOLUTION fights for:
- Government-funded independent crop trials, under workers’ control, with full access to all necessary scientific expertise. No to secret trials.
- A workers’ and consumers’ enquiry into the safety of GM foods. Open all the labs and files of Monsanto and co. to the public.
- Clear labelling of all products containing GM organisms.
- The nationalisation, under workers’ control and without compensation, of all the agrochemical companies such as Monsanto.
- A world plan for food production to meet human need not private greed.