August 2, 2023 by Ayms Mason
Preliminary findings from a new project by A Bigger Conversation have found that UK agroecological farmers and growers are wary of genetic technologies in agriculture.
Their concerns range from unforeseen consequences of genetic manipulation to adverse effects on diversity in the food and farming system. These views were expressed as part of a wider project – Agroecological Intelligence – which is putting farmer voices at the centre of an investigation into which technologies are and, crucially, are not appropriate for an agroecological farming system.
Discussions with approximately 50 farmers and growers from across the UK as part of the project included a range of technologies, from hydroponics to precision agriculture. Participants represented a wide spectrum of approaches which all sit within agroecology – including organic, biodynamic, CSA (community supported agriculture), pasture fed and ‘nature friendly’. In general, participants were interested in new technologies and the benefits they could bring. But it was striking how cautious they were about genetic engineering compared to other technologies discussed.
“Genetic engineering is a very powerful tool in the right hands. But who has the right hands?”
Concern about the long-term consequences of interfering with organisms at the level of the genome were raised by nearly every workshop group. Based on their experience working the land, there was an overwhelming sense from participants that nature is complex and interconnected and we are not even close to fully understanding those connections. In the words of one Biodynamic farmer: “If you edit some of the programme of life, it will affect all of it”.
These effects might be unseen at first but could start a cascade of consequences which could cause problems further down the line. One organic dairy farmer said that they were “still seeing things changing on the farm 25 years after [they] stopped putting on fertilisers and pesticides”.
This kind of long-term thinking does not come naturally to policymakers, who often work on 5-year timescales, but these farmer voices have outlined the importance of taking the longer view.
Despite repeated strong claims from the government and industry that gene editing produces changes that “could have occurred naturally”, or through traditional breeding, these agroecological farmers expressed the view that gene editing is not, in fact, the same as natural breeding. Technologies such as CRISPR/Cas-9 have the potential to make changes far greater and far more quickly than nature ever would, without the checks and balances embedded into a natural process.
“This is achieving something which wouldn’t necessarily be possible with a natural breeding programme and the consequences? Risky at best – and it’s arguable whether it fits with the basic concepts of a whole system”
“Look at the chaos that has ensued, with the so called ‘Roundup Ready’ crops. Farmers are now finding themselves swamped with resistant weeds and they actually haven’t got a chemical solution for it.”
“You know, just because we can do these things doesn’t mean we should do them.”
This is believed to be the first time UK agroecological farmers have been asked directly about their views on genetic technologies, despite the Genetic Technologies Bill promoting much debate as it made its way through Parliament over the last couple of years. During that debate, some of the farming media and farmers groups publicly expressed support for gene editing. The British Society of Plant Breeders “strongly welcomed” the deregulatory regime the bill was ushering in.
The NFU, for example, claimed that it “offers huge opportunities for farmers”, although it was unclear how many of their 46,000 farmer members were consulted during the development of this view and what information and/or questions about gene editing they might have been presented with. When the Bill was signed into law in March 20203, NFU celebrated it as a victory and a significant step forward after “many years of NFU campaigning”.
In that time, one of the consistently strongest supporters of gene editing has been the sugar beet sector, represented by NFU Sugar and British Sugar, (British beet growers also pay a levy per tonne of beets to the NFU as well as to the British Beef Research Organisation). This highly industrial sector, where monocrops and agrichemicals abound, contrasts starkly with calls for a transition to agroecological farming, which aims to work in harmony with nature in a fairer, more equitable food system.
“It is another step towards farmer disempowerment because you’re still dependent on somebody else doing something for you.”
The latest findings from the Agroecological Intelligence project show the importance of a wider discussion about the kind of food and farming future we as a society want. If – as increasing amounts of scientific evidence shows – we decide we must move away from conventional, industrial methods and towards more environmentally friendly approaches, the voices of agroecological farmers are of fundamental importance to ensuring policy development in line with this vision.
“I have to assess each technology as a tool. Does it help me do what I need to do and what I want to do? What are the risks? What if it goes wrong? What are the benefits? How does it compare with the other tools we have to achieve a similar outcome? I think that a lot of development is perhaps answering the wrong question. So, if we think about proposed genetic modification of livestock, that might be a solution to ‘how do we industrialise livestock more?’ But I think that’s the wrong question to ask.”
“It may have limited applications in terms of hydroponics or vertical production in urban areas. But in terms of actually wanting to produce a lot of food, if it does really doesn’t have any application in a natural environment.”
One important principle of agroecology is that for healthy ecological, economic and social systems we need diversity. A view frequently expressed in the workshops was that gene editing works against this diversity at every level.
At the environmental level, gene editing creates, in the words of one of the participants, “massive, massive uniformity” by creating a genetically uniform crop with the intention of it being planted on a wide scale.
On the social level, proponents of food sovereignty – another central component of agroecology – emphasised the importance of diversity in producers and throughout the supply chain. Gene editing, said one community grower, “by default can only be done in a laboratory by high tech solutions with huge amounts of investment”. This not only introduces a bottleneck, and therefore a vulnerability, into the food system, but also takes sovereignty away from communities to save their own seed and choose their own crops.
“If we want to improve the productivity of livestock breeds in particular, we already have traditional heritage breeds that demonstrate much greater productivity if they’re used in the locality where they’ve evolved to make the most of the grazing types and the weather conditions. If we reverted to a much stronger tradition of using heritage breeds in the places where they should be used, I believe we could achieve the productivity that’s been promised by genetic technology.”
Many of the agroecological farmers who participated in these discussions questioned whether genetic technologies are actually solving a legitimate problem. This was a common theme across all the technologies discussed in these workshops. There was a strong belief that agroecology already has many of the tools needed to address the problems faced by agriculture – but with a much lower level of risk – and that money currently being invested in biotechnologies could be better spent further researching and developing those.
The majority of participants agreed that genetic technologies are not benefiting farmers or consumers, but rather biotech companies, researchers and scientists. In the words of one grower “It’s not really about food. It’s about profit”.
“The thing that’s most worrying is the extent to which they’re prepared to go to make sure we don’t have any choice about it. The lack of regulation, the lack of labelling, it goes against all the basic principles that we thought we were living under, in terms of a democratic, liberal society, and it’s extremely worrying.”
“A fundamental point here is that all of these agritech solutions are premised with the idea that we need to produce more food for a growing population, which completely ignores the elephant in the room which is the fact we waste about a third of the food we produce with conventional agriculture…and that’s due to inefficient supply chains, inefficient farming systems and the consumer model of using the supermarket’s and best before dates and sell by dates…those are symptoms are broken food system, or broken global food system. Rather than promoting agritech solutions that can make money off of a broken food system, I think we probably just need to review the causes of why we’re wasting so much food.”
The voices of agroecological farmers are being ignored in the mainstream debates on genetic and other technologies. The preliminary findings from this project demonstrate an extremely high level of understanding by agroecological farmers of the problems facing agriculture and the potential solutions offered by agroecology. The interim report of the project sets out these findings in more detail.
The project is continuing, with more workshops to discuss technology choices in more detail planned for the autumn. One of the main aims of the project is to establish a criteria by which technologies can be judged as to their appropriateness for agroecological food and farming systems. It is hoped that these criteria will help agroecological practitioners have their voices heard at this pivotal time for agriculture in the UK. If you are a farmer or grower and would like to join the project, please email: email@example.com.