Be careful what you ask for. So 2000 years of fables tell us. I am convinced that we often have little idea what we want, and even less idea what is good for us – often craving the opposite.
We have only survived this long (a blink compared to the dinosaurs’ rule) because of our constraints. But through the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and now the Digital Revolution, we have pushed back the limits, and entered a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene. Humans are now the primary shapers of our planet. Unless we can manage our newfound powers wisely, the era will be short.
This week, I joined a debate hosted by Beyond GM/A Bigger Conversation and Natural Products Global on genome editing: a technology with the potential to be as life and planet-altering as the Digital Revolution, without being possible to unplug if it goes awry. It differs from traditional genetic modification as it edits existing genes, rather than inserting new ones, and proponents hope that this distinction will enable less rigid regulation.
Back in 1998, I challenged our government in a high court judicial review of the legality of a genetically modified (GM) maize trial bordering our farm. I lost, but it helped to bring attention to the issue, alongside Prince Charles’s warning that we were entering “realms that belong to God and God alone”. 22 years later, the health risks of GM have mostly not materialised – but neither have the benefits. There has been no great increase in crop yields, and adoption has been accompanied by an increase in chemical use as a primary trait of the most widespread GM crops is resistance to Monsanto-owned herbicide, glyphosate.
The debate has largely moved from the safety of GM itself, to its application and control. To date, GM varieties have mostly been used by large-scale, pesticide-intensive monocultures: soya in the deforested Amazon, and maize, cotton and soya in North America and Australia.
To paraphrase a fellow panellist, genetic engineer Jack Heinemann: GM, genome editing, and varietal patenting look set to concentrate even more wealth and power in the hands of an ever-smaller global elite. They deliver nothing for the subsistence farmers who produce 80 per cent of the world’s food.
Genome editing is a powerful research tool, with huge potential to aid our environmental challenges – but instead, all the signs are that it will be used to take us further in the wrong direction. Some would argue that it is a solution looking for a problem; a seductive distraction, appealing to the prevalent tech-driven, neoliberal global model.
Our environmental and health issues would be better addressed through agro-ecology, the reduction of waste and conflict, fairer access to land, and the consumption of less meat, sugar and processed food: the things we crave.