16 October 2002
STOTTY VS WARWICK - HAVEN AND HELL
for why Philip Stott graces NGIN's home page in a pair of burning undergarments:
Haven and hell
As the EU prepares to lift its moratorium on GM crops, two experts offer
a vision of Britain 15 years on
Hugh Warwick and Philip Stott
Wednesday October 16, 2002
It's October 2017, and Scotland, Wales and the west country - now known as the "autonomous organic regions" - are offering to invest heavily in the depressed eastern counties of England.
The 2002 decision to grow GM crops on a large scalewas taken despite widespread concern for the consequences. It is now regarded as scandalous that an analysis of the North American experience - published that year and showing that yields were declining, agrochemical use was increasing and profits were tumbling - was completely ignored.
It is accepted today that heavy pressure from now shamed biotech companies and a succession of corrupt US governments convinced a small cabal of British politicians to press forward with what has become known as the "giant GM experiment". Even the acknowledgement that just three years of growing GM crops had cost the US economy at least $12bn failed to dampen the then prime minister, Tony Blair's enthusiasm.
Over a period of five years, East Anglia became the epicentre of the great GM experiment. Planting GM oil-seed rape was the first step, even though Canadian farmers had warned against it.
Engineered to be tolerant to specific herbicides, this crop began to infiltrate the landscape. Soon it and a new generation of GM crops spread herbicide tolerance to other related plants turning common weeds into superweeds that required older, even more toxic chemicals to clear.
The contamination of farming land in East Anglia began to spread and, amid growing calls for sustainable agriculture, people in the western regions demanded their areas become "safe havens". By 2006, most western counties had declared themselves GM-free and were growing mostly organic food.
Government contempt for counties that wanted to control their own agriculture helped forge unlikely alliances. The Countryside Alliance, a major political force by 2006, had introduced its members to direct action. As their obsession with blood sports waned, so industrial agriculture, and GM foods in particular, became their target. Sanitary points, as for foot and mouth disease, were set up on all roads entering the western regions and the autonomous organic regions were established.
Back in the east of England, farming and the wider economy went from bad to worse. By 2011, there were no farms left under 5,000 acres and many villages had become deserted as people refused to live in them for fear of their health.
Each newly-engineered crop and associated chemical tie-in generated new problems at an alarming rate. As yields and profits decreased, so farmers became more indebted to the only people providing finance - the biotech companies themselves.
Soon this hi-tech feudalism reached a point where almost all the agricultural land east of the M1 was in the hands of the biotech multinationals.
Last year's financial crash led to the biotech landlords and those who had supported them politically fleeing to offshore sanctuaries, and the start of the most expensive clean-up in British history. No one knows how long it will take, but the first farmers are beginning to return to the land - along with the once banished wildlife.
Hugh Warwick is a freelance journalist and author of the Soil Association's Seeds of Doubt report, published last month.
Borsetshire, October 2017: Tom Archer, 36-year-old Ambridge farmer, was once a protester against genetically modified (GM) crops. "I even helped to trash some of my uncle's trial fields," he recalls. "But I'm happy to use GMs now, even on my organic farm. They have really helped with improving shelf life."
Martin Lamb, who farms across the River Perch at St John's Parva, agrees. He is at the forefront of scientific research growing oil-seed rape that is now genetically modified to produce the raw materials for biodegradable plastic, seen as a crucial breakthrough in greener packaging.
"I see this as industrial agriculture in the best sense," says Lamb. "The need for quality has made it hard to reduce packaging, and so we have to find safer and more friendly materials."
Lucy Hepplewhite, Lamb's partner, is, however, worried that they won't be able to compete with the heavily subsidised production of improved GM crops in the eastern part of the EU. "Look what's happened to potato growers," she argues. "We have a real problem with potato diseases now that we can no longer spray sulphuric acid and other chemicals. But while, in Hungary, new GM spuds deal with the problem perfectly. What we want is a level playing field, and the government just doesn't seem to listen."
James King, professor of novel plant breeding at nearby Felpersham College, thinks that the problem goes much deeper. "All the opposition to GM crops in the UK at the turn of the century meant that our agricultural biotechnology industry became completely run down," he says. "We lost the competitive advantage we used to have in the late 1980s and 1990s. Most of the research companies moved abroad, and we were left with only a small rump of specialists."
A recent report from the OmniAg thinktank argued that Britain is lagging behind in other areas of GM production, from biopharming for vaccines and medicines to the increasingly lucrative market for crops producing designer oils, with high lauric acid or with less saturated and more heat-stable oils for cooking.
Tom Archer doesn't regret his idealistic youth, but is rueful that he may have played an unwitting part in pushing British agriculture further into the mire. "It's a great pity that the biotech companies behaved so stupidly in the first place," he says. "They just asked for trouble, coming crashing in like they did. Still, I hope we can turn things round."
Philip Stott is professor emeritus of biogeography at the University of London.
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