On Saturday I did something that by my recent standards is pretty radical. I didn’t stone a policeman. I didn’t burn down a mosque or a church or the Houses of Parliament. I – wait for it – I changed my Facebook profile photo. And my banner. Just for the day, mind, I didn’t want to get carried away. But still. I put up, instead, an image. The image you can see above. I lent my good name to a cause about which I don’t even know a great deal. I “marched” against Monsanto.
You don’t have to look far to find arguments against Monsanto. Impassioned arguments, stupid arguments, sensible arguments, bullshit arguments, arguments that are hard to find fault with. Going off the smell test, it’s difficult not to be a little worried by Monsanto. The Goldmans-esque power and reach, the politicians in the pocket, the stifling of the opposition, the battering down the little guy.
But there’s a load of companies like that, right? If that’s all it takes to mobilise me, why am I not marching against big pharma or big tobacco or Manchester United?
It’s because Monsanto, and Genetically Modified food products, remind me of something from the recent past.
Imagine it. A new product, a new concept. A major problem solved. Everybody wins.
I’m talking, of course, about the smorgasbord of financial products (securitisations, credit default swaps, interest rate and currency hedging) which meant that everyone from the guy in the department store with the maxed-out credit card to the Turkish dairy company whose local bank manager doesn’t have the funds to lend, everyone suddenly had access to a wonderful new source of credit. And if half the world was borrowing, the other half were lending, which was something (they were told) they’d always wanted to do anyway.
Until it all went wrong, and I don’t need to go into all that again.
Similarly, on the face of it, and the way Monsanto tell it, genetically modified food has to be a good thing. Cheap, less vulnerable to drought or blight, capable of growing at greater densities than anything before – who wouldn’t want that? Global food shortages eradicated – and fair enough, really, for the people who dreamed it all up to get rich off the back of it.
Only – just say that doesn’t happen. Just say everything Monsanto’s detractors are concerned about comes to pass. Just say even the least of it does. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the financial crisis it’s that when something new comes along and it looks like everyone’s going to win, it’s probably best to calm down and run a little experiment first. See what happens. See what the unintended consequences turn out to be. I mentioned at the top that I don’t know a great deal about all this; I certainly know a lot less than the geniuses at Monsanto who’ve come up with all this cleverness. But I’m also certain that even they don’t know as much as they should, that (like my old banking colleagues) the implications and possibilities haven’t been tested as far as they should be when you’re talking about something as important as feeding the entire world.
Instead, laws are getting passed or proposed protecting Monsanto and clamping down on traditional farmers growing traditional produce. We’re putting all our wheat in one basket and if that basket turns out to be empty when we get home, there won’t be anywhere else to turn.
For financial correlation you can read GM contamination. If you didn’t like or understand financial wizardry that was fine, you could stick your money somewhere safe. Get a job doing something entirely unrelated. Only – as I pointed out here, there wasn’t anything unrelated. There wasn’t anywhere safe. Everything was correlated, because everyone piled in, even if they didn’t realise it. In much the same way, if the trend continues and Monsanto aren’t reined in, everyone’s going to find themselves eating GM food whether they want to or not (and they won’t know about it anyway).
And much as I have no objection to sub-prime securitisation, properly executed, in a controlled manner, without spreading its tentacles so far and so wide that it infects the whole world, similarly I have nothing against GM food. In a controlled manner.
no chance of contamination
decades of independent research and publicly-available data
strong regulation and oversight
no impact – legal or commercial – on those who farm the crops we’ll all be turning back to if the GM experiment goes bad
full disclosure – such as proper labelling – so you know what you’re eating
The ability to choose something else if you want to.
Now if Monsanto stops being evil and does all that, I might be able to give them the benefit of the doubt.
But until then, I’ll keep on “marching”.
If you liked this, take a look at some extracts from my soon-to-be-published novel Without Due Care here.