[Marxism] Frankenpolitics: The Left defence of GMOs

Leigh Phillips leigh.phillips at gmail.com
Thu Jan 9 00:31:23 MST 2014

Louis – thanks for your input. I'm sorry you took umbrage at my article.

I've long been a firm admirer of yours. Your writings on Syria have been
particularly lucid compared to so much robotic enemy-of-my-enemy-ism on the
left at the moment, and your stream of analyses over the years about the
core problems of left groupuscules are full of genuinely novel insights and
really should be compiled and published at some point. They are tightly
argued and rich with common sense. I don't always agree with you on Cuba,
but you have certainly over the years convinced me to have a more nuanced
understanding of the situation on the island than I started off with.

I hope you will extend to me the same assumption of good faith that I,
privately, from far away, have always afforded you.

You've articulated, as far as I can distill, four main objections to my

1) I am taking pot-shots at Vandana Shiva over the alleged mass suicides in

2) GMOs must be bad because the Indian Supreme Court and the Ministry of
Agriculture side with the anti-GMO brigade

3) Rootworms have developed resistance to insecticidal toxins from
transgenic maize, so ner!

4) I do not address the 'metabolic rift' between town and country

5) I, like Amy Harmon in the NY Times, am regurgitating the same industry
'talking points'

If I can address each in turn:

1) It's not a pot-shot to call into question the fear-mongering over mass
suicides in India. I've taken the claim over GMOs being the cause of the
suicides very seriously, and investigated them to the best of my ability,
and, upon the finding that the claim was false, have said so. As I argue:

'A disingenuous 2005 PBS Frontline documentary suggested that the use of GM
seeds from Monsanto and Cargill have led to increased debt burdens, with
farmers forced into indentured labour to pay off loan sharks. But in 2008,
the International Food Policy Research Institute, an independent
agricultural research institute that has been sharply critical of
multinationals, mounted the most extensive investigation into the subject,
sifting through peer-reviewed journal articles, official and unofficial
reports, media reports and broadcasts, and found “there is no evidence in
available data of a ‘resurgence’ of farmer suicides” since 2002, and
sharply criticised “media hype … fuelled by civil society organisations”.

'The study found that the phenomenon of farmer suicides has been largely
constant since 1997, arguing that the reasons for the growth in suicides –
which is occurring across society – is complex, involving indebtedness,
poor agricultural income, a downturn in the economy that had caused the
re-ruralisation of urban-dwellers, the absence of counselling services,
inadequate irrigation and the difficulty of farming in semi-arid regions.
The decision by the government to reduce minimum support prices, World
Trade Organisation policies and continued western cotton subsidies that
make local cotton uncompetitive must also be taken into account.

'A parallel investigation from economist K Nagaraj of the Madras Institute
of Development Studies noted that “mono-causal explanation of this complex
phenomenon would be totally inadequate”. The author argues that suicides
are concentrated in regions with high and predatory commercialisation of
agriculture and very high levels of peasant debt. He notes that cash crop
farmers are more susceptible than food crop growers and argues that one
must look to a massive decline in investment in agriculture, the withdrawal
of bank credit at a time of climbing input prices, a crash in farm incomes,
growing water stress and efforts toward water privatisation. Remove Bt
cotton from the equation and all these other factors remain untouched.
Focussing on genetic modification and ignoring the real causes – as Nagaraj
puts it: an “acute agrarian crisis in the country – and the state policies
underlying this crisis” – is a dangerous distraction.'

2) It is far from uncommon for anti-GM, anti-vax and climate denial
activists to take their complaints to court, which are not in the business
of assessing scientific claims, using this arena as a proxy when they lose
the argument in the scientific realm.

Most of the time they lose, but every now and then, a court, even senior
judges, will side with them, and this then serves as a tremendous
propaganda triumph. In 2012, a court in Italy awarded a family €174,000
after the Italian Health Ministry conceded that the MMR vaccine caused
autism in their son.

(I do hope on this listserve that we are not at the level of alt-med
scientific illiteracy that I have to explain that MMR jab does *not* cause

In the absence of being a molecular biologist oneself and so to be quite
expertly able to assess the evidence, the next best thing is to consider
what the scientific consensus on a topic is (recognising at the same time
that this can be wrong, indeed, will *certainly* be wrong in parts – but
that is what science is: a steady correction of our existing, tentatively
held explanations of the world), and use that as a rough and ready rule of
thumb. This claim to be on the side of scientific consensus is of course
what the green left regularly (and correctly) say when confronted with
climate sceptics.

And what is the current consensus on the health and environmental effects
from GMOs? Well, I addressed that too:

'This 2013 statement from the AAAS on the subject really does give a sense
of how anti-GM is as fringe as climate denialism:

“The science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular
techniques of biotechnology is safe. The World Health Organization, the
American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the
British Royal Society, and every other respected organization that has
examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion: consuming foods
containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming
the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by
conventional plant improvement techniques.”'

I could give a longer list of scientific bodies that concur with this
consensus if you like.

3) Rootworms developing resistance to a Bt-derived toxin is just evolution.

This was always expected. The speed with this has happened is indeed
surprising, but this is almost certainly due to overemphasis on a single
anti-pest strategy, instead of a variegated (but more expensive and
labour-intensive) strategy.

Let me explain what's happening here. Bt maize is corn that expresses a
gene sequence derived from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. This
allows the maize to synthesise its own 'pesticide': a toxic protein
produced in its leaves and stems, which rapidly kills pests. This is
awesome, but only until pests develop resistance to this toxin.

Often when we intervene in nature to eliminate or prevent a problem,
whether it be an insect pest or a weed or, say, bacteria such as
Mycobacterium tuberculosis (TB), there will be organisms that are
susceptible to our new weapon and there will be a tiny number that due to
natural mutations, will not be. The ones that are susceptible to our new
weapon will die or otherwise be sent away, while the ones with the mutation
will not. Eventually over many generations, the organisms with the mutation
will outnumber those without, as they are fitter in this new environment.
This is just the everyday natural selection you learnt about in elementary
school. At this point, the weapon we developed becomes less useful, or even
useless, and so we have to develop a new weapon.

This is the same phenomenon we see with the development of antibiotic
resistance (although in this case, antibiotics are expensive to develop but
unprofitable [because they are more effective the less we use them], and so
pharmaceutical companies got out of the business of developing antibiotics
about 30 years ago, but that's another story [which I wrote about for
Jacobin last year, actually -
http://jacobinmag.com/2013/06/socialize-big-pharma/ ]). It is not an
argument against GM. It just means that we are in a never-ending arms race
with nature.

Sorry, but there's no way around it. As Tennyson wrote, Nature is red in
tooth and claw, comrades. (There are strategies such as the sterile insect
technique that take a slightly different approach, eradicating a species,
but here the possibility [as with eradication of anything] is that another
species may fill the particular ecological niche vacated by the eradicated
organism, which is essentially the same process. This is not to say that we
should not attempt such eradication – smallpox eradication is one of
humanity's noblest achievements – but just that we will always, always,
have to keep coming up with new techniques and strategies to combat Nature)

One solution in the short term to the problem of this resistance (and I
address a similar issue in my discussion of 'superweeds' in the original
article) is replacement of single-toxinBt maize with a stacked variety
producing instead two different toxins. It is possible that insects will
adapt to varieties expressing more than one toxin as well, but this is more
difficult and so will take longer (but will happen eventually). The best
solution is more complex pest management, using a wider variety of toxins
and possibly alongside perhaps pathogenic fungi or parasitic wasps – an
integrated strategy that, as I mentioned, will require greater input and
labour costs from farmers. So, again the problem is capitalism, not GM-ness.

4) As far as my not dealing with Bellamy Foster's 'metabolic rift' concept,
I absolutely concede that I did not. I also did not discuss the expanding
dialogue between indie music and the R&B scene over the last three years in
the guise of such genre-defying artists as Janelle Monae and Dirty
Projectors. But what does this have to do with the price of tea in China?

I happen to be very interested in this concept of the metabolic rift, and,
with a bit of unpacking of it, I think that we can hopefully begin to more
strongly make the ecological case for socialism due to the ability of
democratic planning to overcome this rift, and win over those in green left
circles who are unfortunately increasingly attracted to the hair-shirted
and economically illiterate concept of 'decroissance' or (the much uglier
term) degrowth. And soon I do intend to write an article about precisely

But that was not what my article was about. My article was about genetic
modification and its embattlement from green-left technophobic,
anti-science woo.

5) The allegation of repeating industry 'talking points', the same
accusation anti-GM and pro-localist food writer Michael Pollan made at Amy
Harmon on Twitter (“Important NYT story on GM oranges; 2 many industry
talking pts.”) really isn't very nice. I can't speak for Harmon, although I
think she has a real gift as a story-teller. But for my own part, over much
of the last decade beyond my science and technology writing, I've written
extensively about corporate regulatory capture, government-industry
revolving doors, lobbyist legislative interference, arms industry
criminality, northern climate-diplomacy bullying, Brussels' efforts at
containment of the Arab Spring and for the last few years, catalogued the
myriad injustices of European austerity and suffocation of democracy from
Athens to Dublin.

So I am rather the last candidate Monsanto would pick to be a shill to
repeat their talking points. But that said, I've also long since ceased to
be the shouty 17-year-old orthotrot I once was who would insist that it was
snowing if a Fox News weatherman said it was sunny. So what if Syngenta
says that we've been genetically modifying nature for 10,000 years? It
happens to be true.

We do not automatically put a plus where Monsanto puts a minus.

Finally, Louis, you never addressed the other issues I raised, notably
discussion of public-sector research, cherry-picking of studies,
technophobia vs political economy, medical applications, patents,
biodiversity, pesticide reduction, land-use change, the fallacy of the
appeal to nature, Shiva's appalling indifference to child suffering, and
the role of Big Organic.

And perhaps I am mistaken in some area here. So if you have good arguments
around these other points, I am absolutely willing to listen. I am, as in
all matters, open to altering my position if the evidence is robust and the
argument sound.

Apologies for paraphrasing Keynes here on Marxmail, but 'when I find new
information I change my mind; What do you do, Louis?'

In solidarity (and apologies for the utterly TL;DR reply),


Leigh Phillips
European Affairs Journalist & Science Writer
leigh.phillips at gmail.com

Skype ID: leighphillips
Twitter: Leigh_Phillips

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