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Forbidden fruit is tempting

I just read a wonderful book Hybrid: the history and science of plant
by Noel Kingsbury.

It contains a charming story, of a Moravian priest called Father
Schreiber, who was more interested in horticulture than holiness,
and whose parish included Gregor Mendel’s birthplace, Hyncice. As
Kingsbury tells the tale:

Schreiber also had to face opposition,
or at least suspicion, from a conservative peasantry. So in order
to distribute new fruit varieties, he and the countess [Maria
Walpurga Truchsess-Zeil, no less] developed a technique that has
been used more than once down the ages in order to bring new genes
to the countryside: subterfuge. A nursery for trees was established
and word put out that these valuable seedlings were under guard,
the guards being instructed to make a lot of noise if they heard
anybody but not to actually arrest anyone. In a matter of days, all
the seedlings had been stolen.

Towards the end of his book Kingsbury then gives a much more
recent example of the same phenomenon:

In March 2002, following its approval
by the Indian government, Mahyco-Monsanto released a number of
cotton hybrids containing a gene for the production of a compound
lethal to caterpillars, which had been derived from a bacterium.
‘Bt cotton’ as it was known, was already in cultivation in India –
effectively illegally. Since 1998, however, anti-GM activists
had been campaigning against the cottton, with Vandana Shiva
denouncing them as “seeds of suicide, seeds of slavery, seeds of
despair”. Farmers, however were desperate to obtain cotton which
would not fall victim to bollworm, and to avoid the costs and the
dangers of using pesticides. In a situation familiar to producers
of software and fashion goods, whereby Asian markets are flooded
with fake goods, seeds of the Bt cotton had ‘escaped’ from
Mahyco-Monsanto’s test plots, and had been used to breed new
‘unofficial’ Bt cotton varieties. ‘Disappearence’ of seeds from
test plots is the bane of plant breeders the world over – farmers
know that among them are potentially much better plants than
the ones they grow. So much for rural conservatism, or indeed the
love of traditional landraces.

By 2005, it was estimated that
2.5million hectares were under ‘unofficial’ Bt cotton, twice the
acreage as under the ones which had been sown from Monsanto’s
packets. The unofficial Bt cotton varieties had been bred, either
by companies operating in an ambiguous legal position, or by
farmers themselves. A veritable cottage industry had sprung up, a
state described as ‘anarcho-capitalism’, whereby small-scale
breeders were crossing reliable local varieties with the
caterpillar proof Bt plant. Hundreds of Bt cotton varieties were
the result. In other words the worlds first GM landraces had
arrived, a blend of tradition and science – something best
described as thoroughly post-modern in its eclecticism – and a
powerful illustration that old and new technologies can not only
co-exist but should both be valued.

Shiva’s ‘Operation Cremate Monsanto’
had spectacularly failed, its anti-GM stance borrowed from western
intellectuals having failed to make headway with Indian farmers,
who were showing that they were not passive recipients of either
technology or propaganda, but taking an active role in shaping
their lives. What they did is also perhaps more genuinely
subversive of multinational capitalism than anything GM’s opponents
have ever managed.


In Uganda, GM bananas resistant to black sigatoka disease
are grown behind chain-link fences, not to keep eco-toff saboteurs
out but to keep eager growers from borrowing the plants.

It’s going to happen In Europe too. Fed up with being forbidden
by the green zealotry to choose GM crops, a Welsh farmer named
Jonathon Harrington last year says that he smuggled
insect-resistant maize seeds on to his farm and grew an illegal GM

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist