business current affairs environment food politics science technology

What do GM crops and the NASA space pen have in common?

They’re at it again. The government is seeking a re-opening of the case for GM crops to be planted in the UK. It’s not a surprise. They’ve obviously long regretted the decision not to press ahead with genetically modified crops made in the 90s, and with good reason in some ways. It was a decision made in the middle of a nation-wide scare about them, with tabloid talk of ‘frankenstein foods’, so to have allowed them would have been political suicide.

Years later, nobody talks about ‘frankenstein foods’ any more, and it would be much easier to sneak through relaxed legislation that would allow the planting of GM crops. What bothers me about GM is not the science however, but the economics and the politics, and the way they are justified by claiming they are to benefit the developing world. Here’s environment minister Phil Woolas, :

“There is a growing question of whether GM crops can help the developing world out of the current food-price crisis. It is a question that we as a nation need to ask ourselves”

Granted, it is a question we need to ask ourselves, and the answer is yes, they might, but there are 101 things that would help solve the current food crisis faster, more fairly, and more safely, than GM crops. The first thing we should look at is subsidies, and the fact that our over-production in the EU and the US harms agriculture elsewhere by destroying local markets with cheaper produce.

Beyond that, we can look at irrigation, using water more fairly and more efficiently. The GM industry talks about special seed that needs less water, so that dry areas can be pressed into use that wouldn’t have been productive before. Sounds great, but you could achieve the same thing by spreading methods like Mediterranean-style underground water silos, or the drip-feed irrigation techniques widely adopted in India, using hosepipes with strategically placed pinholes.

Besides irrigation, there are higher yield normal seeds that are being well used to improve harvests all round the world. These urgently need to be made available in Africa. Then there is the most basic knowledge of things like crop rotation, leaving fields fallow to replenish nutrients, nitrogen fixing plants. Teach these before you bring in corporately controlled GM seed.

Then there are fertilizers and pesticides, which are heavily used in most places in the world, but aren’t yet affordable to farmers in the poorest parts of the world. These aren’t strictly necessary on small farms, provided people understand the nitrogen fixing and rotation mentioned above, and organic agriculture could feed the world. But again, we have much simpler solutions than GM.

The whole GM solution reminds me of the urban legend of NASA’s ‘space pen’, a hugely sophisticated pen that could write in zero gravity, while the Russians used a pencil.

Some Republicans like to claim that fighting climate change will damage the developing world, because measures to reduce emissions would harm emerging economies. It makes a handy excuse to dismiss climate change. Claiming that GM crops would solve the world food crisis is exactly the same. It uses the poor as a moral argument for expanding the reach of globalized agricultural corporations. That’s what GM crops are ultimately about. Despite the propaganda, they are not being developed with the poor in mind. They’re there to protect Monsanto patented seeds, to respond better to Monsanto pesticides (and only to Monsanto pesticides). They are to make more money for rich American companies. I don’t deny that there could be some interesting developments in GM technology in pharmaceuticals or in nutrition, their primary purpose at present is control. And the last thing the world should do in the face of a food crisis, is hand more control to big corporations. On the contrary, it’s time to encourage self-sufficiency, local solutions, seasonal produce.

Simpler solutions are available to us. We don’t need GM crops any more than we need a zero gravity pen.


  1. I agree, why fix whats not broken(and the zero gravity pen really does make me laugh every time). When you actually think about it, its a completely ludicrous idea. We are so rubbish and handling food and water in a sustainable way, so we seek “super” foods to live up to our wasteful lifestyle. We need to use our resources better, not make them bigger. Distribute them evenly.
    Its also stupid because the whole world and economics is built, and relies on nature and the environment (at some stage). Now we seem to think that its not good enough anymore, despite managing fine up till now. . . i think that says a lot not only about our attitude to the environment, but how wasteful we are.

  2. The reason for the zero g pen was that tiny fragments of the lead break off a pencil when used. In zero g these float around forever. Conductive particles floating around – just the think to cause short circuits.

    So Nasa put out a tender. The chap who invented the space pen did it with his own money. Nasa bought them at the off the shelf price – a few dollars. He made his money by selling the Space Pen “Used by NASA” to the general public.

    The Russians now use the pens, by the way.

  3. i need NASA seeds for me for my customers and they require immeidate delivery sir. as under:

    N.S.A. Natural Solanum Aculeastum Seeds

    Packing : 5 gms per sachet

    Total : 1000 – 5000 sachets per month.

    Please provide with details for the above.

    awaiting your r eply


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