By Lee West
In a provocative move reported last month that the British Observer has labeled “a political stunt,” a Welsh farmer named Jonathan Harrington (how Welsh) has allegedly sabotaged Wales’ GM-free status by secretly planting and harvesting two varieties of genetically modified maize, and then feeding the banned crops to local sheep and cattle. He also claims to have given the illegal seeds to two other farmers, whom he will not identify but who he says have also planted the GM seeds.
The Welsh National assembly is infuriated because until now Wales had been able to market its milk, meat and vegetables as GM-free. However, Harrington probably cannot be prosecuted because the crops are on something called “the EU common variety list,” which means they are legal to grow anywhere in Europe. The Assembly has admitted as much, saying that “we cannot legally ban GM crops in Wales because we have to work within a European legal framework.” However, they’re still trying to get him for improper documentation.
This raises a few interesting points. First, it underscores the ease and relative secrecy with which GM crops can move across borders. We’ve known about this sort of thing for a while, and fear that we’ll be unable to control the spread of genetically modified crops is what pushes some anti-GM campaigners to argue that we shouldn’t be developing these crops at all.
But we’ve known about this for some time. A second more interesting facet of this case is the inability of small states
acting within a larger legal framework to control what is grown on their own land. A GM crop that works fine in Spain might be death for Wales, but Wales would have to petition the EU to get this oversight corrected – and by then, it might be too late. The same could happen in the United States or China, to name two places where one set of regulations binds a large and diverse geographic area.
Finally, it’s interesting to think about the long-term consequences of the proliferation of genetically modified crops. A situation like this one, in which the presence of GM crops only became known when the farmer chose to contact the press, underscores the difficulty nations will have policing the genetic purity of their crops. It seems to me that as GM crops are developed, we have to be willing to accept, thanks to renegade farmers like Harrington, their eventual presence anywhere they can survive. The choices of genetic engineers will irrevocably become part of a region’s ecological makeup as these plants take root and crossbreed with native species. This mixing could be disastrous, or it could be benign or beneficial, depending on the details – which is surely a concern, but not mine.
Like many people, my feelings about GM crops vacillate wildly between utopian optimism and apocalyptic terror. But thinking about Jon Harrington, I’m mostly just in awe at the potential of geneticists and farmers to permanently and irrevocably alter natural landscapes, for good or ill. I tell you, If I had that kind of power, I’d make them all pay.