Tag Archives: genetically modified

Guy’s newsletter: unruly cabbages; the last stand

I hope you are enjoying the spring greens that have started to appear in the veg boxes. They may look a little pale and unruly, with the occasional weatherbeaten leaf, but please don’t let them linger in the back of your fridge; they are a delight simply cooked for two mins in plenty of salted, vigorously boiling water. A small knob of butter might help, but I’d implore you to do nothing more.

You may notice that the individual spring green plants vary from 50-200g; this is partly from fighting off weeds and pests, but also a result of genetic variation as they are among the few remaining open pollinated crops which are not grown from ‘F1’ hybrid seeds. For thousands of years, farmers have saved seeds from the best of their crops, thus exerting a selective pressure which led to incremental genetic improvement. In the 1930s, American maize researchers found that if you created two intensively inbred, and therefore relatively uniform strains, and then crossed them, the first (‘F1’) generation could combine the best of both strains while maintaining uniformity and adding hybrid vigour. Hybrid plant breeding helped boost yields and reduce production costs through the late 20th century, and has contributed to the low food prices we have today.

When I started growing vegetables in the ‘80s, my crops were perhaps 20% hybrids; now it’s 90% plus. Mostly it’s a change for the best as we have benefited from better disease resistance, more vigour and increased yield. On the downside I suspect that we have lost some flavour in a few crops. Bigger issues are that hybrids often need near-perfect growing conditions to thrive (hence our open-pollinated spring greens still win out in the tough depths of winter) and most significantly, hybrids do not breed true; this means that farmers cannot harvest their own seed but must buy new seed in every year. Over the last 20 years the GM companies Monsanto, Syngenta and DuPont have bought up seed companies so they now control almost half the global seed trade; I would argue that this monopoly is a bigger issue than GM. Everything around food starts with the seed, so do we really want its future controlled by companies that have risen on the backs of manufacturing PCBs, Agent Orange, bovine growth hormone and glyphosate tolerant GM crops? Long live the unruly greens I say.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: TTIP my personal tipping point

Since retiring 25 years ago, my father has reinvented himself as a living example of low carbon existence with attempts at anaerobic digesters, solar panels, composting loos and a permaculture garden. In his spare time he audits the moral and ethical performance of his progeny and their businesses. It was he who dumped a mountain of genetic modification papers on my desk in 1998, and encouraged me to mount a challenge on the legality of a local GM trial that went all the way to the High Court.

Now he is hassling me about his latest bugbear; the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). After an evening of researching it myself my blood is up too so, at the risk of causing irritation by straying from vegetables into politics, here goes. The TTIP is being negotiated in secret between the EU and USA with the aim of removing barriers to trade, and thus promoting growth. Sounds positive in theory, but in reality any government action deemed restricting to trade in goods or services (and thus impacting on corporate profits) will be open to challenge. Disputes will be settled in secret by three ‘trade experts’ whose guiding rationale will be that anything interfering with free trade is illegal, whatever the views of a country’s electorate or government.

The TTIP would restrict our or any EU member government’s ability to set a minimum wage, legislate on human rights or even operate nationalised industries like the NHS. Under the TTIP we would be unable to fight the introduction of GM crops (or even insist on them being labelled), prevent hormone use in beef and milk production, or restrict the use of neonicotinoid insecticides to protect our bees, or indeed to enforce many laws protecting our health, the environment or animal welfare. To accept the TTIP would be to sacrifice democracy and any semblance of personal or national autonomy at the altar of growth and corporate profit. There must come a point where the human and environmental cost of marginal increases in GDP is too high; for me this is it. If you feel similarly concerned, please visit 38 Degrees to find out more and sign the petition, or write to your MP.

Guy Watson