Europe’s status as one of the most rigidly regulated and GM-controlled agricultural zones in the world (1) is being severely tested in a number of ways: regulations allowing member states to choose whether or not to support genetic modification (2) (3), corporations suing the European Parliament for banning dangerous pesticides (4), and the mysterious TTIP (see for example 5, 6) lurking shadily in the background.
Last week, however, a decisive victory was achieved by those who prefer their food with less poison, as chemical company Syngenta withdrew an application to the British government which, if it had gone through, would have enabled the use of a pesticide whose danger level has been decided as “unacceptable” (20) – for three years, at least. The “emergency” exemption being sought by Syngenta was for the lifting of the Europe-wide ban on the use on flowering crops of one particular neonicotinoid chemical, thiamethoxam (7).
Their application was supported by the National Farmers Union (NFU) (4), who opposed the ban in the first place, apparently basing their decision (4) mainly on a document (8) released by UK government Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA)’s Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA) (4); in spite of said document being criticised for not using scientific method correctly and for not being peer-reviewed (4), and which says in its opening pages that it “…should therefore not be considered as a definitive field study” (4).
Indeed, one of the main scientists involved in the study has since left the FERA to work instead for Syngenta (9), the very company who wish to re-introduce the banned neonicotinoid.
It seems that there are many who disagree with the NFU’s opinions, however they may have been formed. When Syngenta withdrew their application last week their stated reason was that the government had taken too long to make a decision about it (10).
Yet, perhaps coincidentally, the application was criticised by a number of diverse organisations, including 38 Degrees, a grassroots campaign group who planned a bee-themed demonstration outside the Prime Minister’s home in Downing Street on Tuesday to show concerns over bee health in time for the decision on the pesticide (11). Though Syngenta may not want to admit it, the buzz (it had to be said!) of awareness created around the issue could have been one reason why they decided to withdraw the application. Indeed, the vice-president of the NFU has been quoted as complaining that the application was “heavily politicised [by campaign groups with their] own agenda against pesticide use” (10) ; surely an encouraging demonstration of the power we can show even to large corporations such as Syngenta.
Freedom to act
The controversy comes in the wake of the EU’s decision earlier this month to allow each member state individually the ability to decide to become a pro-GM or GM-free country (2) (3). The decision, a hailed as a “compromise” (12) between opposed pro- and anti-GM opinion, gained a mixed reception; some groups arguing that it could pave the way for large companies such as Syngenta and Monsanto to push GM crops and chemicals in Europe regardless of consumer choice (2); with others optimistically pointing out it could be a spark of responsibility to member states to take the initiative and declare whole countries as GM free (3). So far, no EU member state has yet taken the latter path, although at the moment most are very strict on GM production, sale and cultivation (see for example 13, 14) and arguably it would not be too much of a change to make the step and commit to GM-free status. For example, France, Poland and Austria have already banned all cultivation of GM crops (14).
This idea is not a novel one; around the world governments are being prompted by their people to decide that even if genetic modification is not totally provably detrimental, they are not willing to take the risk with their land and citizens, and so are committing to other ways of producing enough food. An extreme example is Bhutan, which is planning to officially become a “wholly organic nation” (15), while last month Kyrgyzstan took the more flexible stance of banning all sale, importation and cultivation of GM crops in the entire country (16).
There does seem to be a lot of public support for a push in Europe towards sustainable agriculture and away from GM crops; between 2005 and 2012, for example, the number of hectares of designated organic agricultural land in the continent grew from 6.76 to 11.17 million hectares (17). The organic market in Europe is one of the most popular in the world (18); yet if EU member states decide to allow more use of chemicals and GM crops, this could be the beginning of the end of commercially viable organic agriculture on the continent.
Even if GM crops and chemicals are being used in different places from organic growing, the risk of cross-pollination and contamination is such that many organic farmers would no longer be able to guarantee the status of their crops (2).
The NFU’s reliance on a document written by someone who now works for Syngenta is no proof that they or the study are biased but does highlight the clear links between government and big business, which must be taken into account when judging decisions made by potentially easily influenced organisations such as the NFU. This phenomenon seems to be also apparent with pro-GM arguments; as the editor of GM Watch claims, “CST [the British Council for Science and Technology] apparently cannot find any scientists independent of the industry to support its case for GM crops. This is not surprising, since GM crops have failed to live up to the hype and are mainly delivering herbicide resistant superweeds, insecticide resistant superpests, and worrying findings in animal toxicology studies”. (Claire Robinson, 2014) (2)
The potentially harmful effects of the banned chemicals in question in Europe have been well explored by the European Food Safety Authority (19), which found a dramatic decrease in bee population in fields where the chemicals were in use (20). The ban, which is supposed to last three years from 2013, is being disputed by not only Syngenta, but another chemical company, Bayer, who are seeking to sue the European Commission over the use of all three neonicotinoids in question (2). Both companies argue that the harmful effects are not that bad (19) (2) and that there needs to be more studies to show whether or not they are really affecting bee health (19).
Support for biodiversity
There are a number of petitions online in favour of keeping companies such as Bayer and Syngenta from using GM crops and banned chemicals (see for example 21, 22, 23).
While protests such as these are important, when the businesses in question have such clear arguments for their cases, perhaps it is not enough to simply oppose them. The UK Minister for the Environment Owen Paterson, who has come under public scrutiny for his reluctance to listen to scientific advice (24), his close links to the agribusiness lobby (25) and his cheerful assertions that climate change is not that bad because, after all, “the biggest cause of death is cold in winter”, (24) last year stated that GM crops are “even safer than conventional plants and food”; (Owen Paterson, 2013) (2) a statement which may be tempting for some to simply debate against, using perhaps some scientific material showing the potential hazards of GM crops (see for example 24, 26).
However, getting into scientific debate may only exacerbate the feeling of division on this issue; especially when, as we have seen, scientific studies do occasionally have a tendency to be potentially manipulated, or at least to offer somewhat skewed perspectives, depending on who is involved.
A different approach could be to take the Environment Minister’s comments at face value and even agree with them. What does he mean by “conventional plants and food” anyway? Probably food and crops grown using conventional agriculture, which has many problems and issues, from destruction of biodiversity to creating a dependence on import-export systems rather than food autonomy (see for example 27). So what he is actually saying is that the way that most of our food is grown is unsafe; something which many advocates of permaculture and holistic agriculture have been arguing for years.
This is a big statement and one which needs to be addressed; since everyone in the UK eats food and they probably do not want it to be unsafe. What we really need to be focussing on, then, is that if the actual Environment Minister is admitting that farming methods are not safe for consumers then those farming methods need to change, now.
Transition: something we can all agree on?
Coming from this angle we reach a point where the case for sustainable and holistic agriculture is one with which the UK government already agrees; it is simply that at the moment they are focussing more on the short-term goals being highlighted to them by the large companies. However, when looking at some of the companies’ rhetoric we can see that they are also actually in favour of making farming and agriculture truly sustainable. For example, back when the ban on neonicotinoids first came into place a Syngenta spokesperson complained, “The EC should [instead] address the real reasons for bee health decline: disease, viruses and loss of habitat." (Syngenta, 2013) (28)
This statement, though conveniently ignoring the fact that loss of habitat may well be caused by the addition of neonicotinoids to the bee’s foraging grounds (20), seems to show that Syngenta are in fact in favour of the switch from conventional farming, which contributes in a big way to all of the things mentioned (see for example 27), to a more sustainable means of agriculture.
Perhaps, then, the only reason why, for example, DEFRA or Syngenta have not already begun advocating holistic and sustainable agriculture is that it simply has not occurred to them. By presenting options such as permaculture designed systems to people who offer arguments such as these, we can show that there is no need to be on opposing sides because ultimately, sustainable food production is what everyone does want.
Proceed with care
It is clear that companies such as Syngenta, Bayer and Monsanto have some influential power. Usually they come under a lot of scrutiny for their methods and criticism should definitely not cease if it is well-founded. However, there seems to be a window of opportunity being somewhat ignored to show companies that what they want is the same as what the environment wants. This may not happen instantly; but if Syngenta are supporting the switch from conventional farming methods to sustainable, non-monoculture based, bio-diverse and ecological means of growing, we can use their influence to persuade governments across Europe and indeed the world to take this up.
There only remains the question of whether or not a truly bio-diverse and multi-crop farming system can work in tandem with use of chemicals and GM crops. If Syngenta, Bayer and Monsanto really want to see their business growing, however, they will opt for the support of sustainable agriculture. As the agriculture and chemical industries are currently heavily intertwined (see for example 29, 30) they will presumably want to continue using chemicals within the changed system.
However, chances are they will find that keeping a field rich in biodiversity and with enough of a mix of species to create a balanced, thriving ecosystem is actually more difficult when you add such powerful poisons as neonicotinoids into the mix. These companies have a lot of money for marketing; for example, when the US state of California proposed introducing compulsory labelling of GMOs in food, the pro-GM lobby was reported as spending $46m campaigning against it, with Monsanto contributing $8m, “more than the entire pro-labelling campaign” (25). When their market begins to disappear because chemicals and genetically modified crops are no longer seen as profitable, it will probably be very easy for them to find customers for whatever they decide to sell instead which fits into less destructive and more holistic business model.
The method of joining with large companies in the switch from conventional to sustainable agriculture, if it is indeed possible at all, would be sure to be a challenging one, and one which it would be highly important to be wary with. In particular, it is still necessary to criticise actions which we see as detrimental; but judging the entire company on one action is ignoring the huge potential for growth and change held in organisations such as Syngenta, Monsanto, Bayer, and the governments of all our countries.
So who has the power?
Ultimately, our informed judgement seems needed to help create lasting positive change. If we can use this to show that as a global community we have more in common than it may appear, then perhaps we can reach solutions more effectively than if we simply argue with each other about what is right. Some shining examples of whole states going in this direction are GM-free Kyrgyzstan (16) and Organic Bhutan (15). Another is Ecuador, who as a state have recently implemented a research program into transitioning the entire country to one of “Free Libre Open Knowledge”, or commons-based sharing of resources (31). The Ecuadorean government are creating a model for a fair and sustainable future society; but they would not be doing it without the Ecuadorean people. The same is true of your government, and all the organisations on which you have an effect. Your voice may be small, but it is powerful; as are your ideas.
Creating a new model
This article is in no way intended as an encouragement to agree with whatever governments and big businesses are doing; but if we can offer them a viable alternative which is clearly a solution, not just in our eyes, but according to their very own words, then we are much more likely to be able to synergise our goals. As Bill Mollison says, “A people with a common ethic is a nation wherever they live. Thus, the place of habitation is secondary to a shared belief in the establishment of an harmonious world community. Just as we can select a global range of plants for a garden, we can select from all extant ethics and beliefs those elements that we see to be sustainable, useful, and beneficial to life and to our community.” (Bill Mollison, 1988) (32)
We have to be the ones to select it; and we can choose from every single person who makes up every government and corporation in the world. When even the UK government and big chemical companies can be seen to be agreeing with transition to sustainable agriculture, divides and exclusions become less important.
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