Humans love horror stories, which is why R.L. Stine is a best-selling author. So I am not surprised by the popularity of horror stories being invented about genetically modified (GM) foods and cotton.
A recent news item says, in apocalyptic tones, that unknowing Indians may already have consumed some GM foods. Surprise surprise, no Indians have suddenly sprouted horns or 11 toes. Nor have Americans who have eaten GM foods for a decade. But horror stories attract large audiences, and R.L. Stine today has rivals in Greenpeace, various Indian organisations, and green fundamentalists in general. They have succeeded in blocking the release of bio-engineered cotton in India.
Many Indian scientists and farmers have pointed out that biotechnology holds the key to greater agricultural prosperity, freedom from hunger, and reduced pollution from pesticides and fertilisers. Yet green horror books say that genetically modified (GM) foods and cotton are potential monsters. Don’t be impressed by the long list of technical arguments they put forward. These are based on fundamentalist notions of genetic correctness which are almost fascist.
Nothing is commoner in agriculture than cross breeding. The green revolution was created by genetic engineering. Ah, say the fundamentalists, but that is cross-breeding within certain racial limits, which is okay. But GM foods represent the mixing of genes across different genomes akin to different races–and we must oppose that since it could create monsters.
The argument is eerily Hitlerian. Green fundamentalists are whipping up public hysteria against a particular set of plants just as Hitler whipped up hysteria against Jews. Hitler approved of the crossing of genes between white races, but was absolutely horrified at the prospect of Aryan genes being polluted by Jewish or negroid genes.
Similarly, the green fascists approve of conventional cross-breeding within a genome, but are horrified by crosses across genomes. Hitler demonised breeding across races as a genetic threat to pure Aryans, whom he regarded as obviously superior and so ordained by god. Green fundamentalists demonise GM foods as genetic threats to what they claim to be superior, God-given varieties.
Prince Charles of England, a prominent green fundamentalist, says genetic engineering amounts to disturbing Gods rules. I am not aware that Prince Charles has special access to God, any more than Hitler did. Scientists who are atheists must find hilarious the accusation that they want to play God. Price Charles does not inform us whether he is in touch with a Christian, Muslim, Hindu or some other God. As a scion of an empire on which, in colonial times, the sun never set, he possibly believes that he can claim sovereignty over all Gods.
Fundamentalists protest that crosses across genomes are very different from crosses between human races. Some liken GM foods to crossing a human being with a pig to produce a monster. Really? Does genetically engineered corn or cotton look like a donkey-human cross?
Hitler looked on a cross with Jews as no better than a cross with pigs. Hindu fundamentalists regard miscegenation with Muslims with the same horror. Green genetic prejudice is simply a new form of such age-old prejudices.
The fundamentalist argument, that plants created by God are distinct from plants created by man, is bogus. If God did not want humans to make crosses across genomes, he would have arranged accordingly. The very fact that he made it possible surely proves that it part of his Great Plan. If indeed there is a God, and if indeed there is a Great Plan.
As for those who swear by nature rather than God, the fact is that man is part and parcel of nature, not an alien from outer space. Anything animals, bacteria or birds do is part of nature. So is anything done by man.
In any case, crosses across genomes are part and parcel of nature. The whole history of evolution is full of crosses across genomes. The horror of fundamentalists that genetic engineering will create unprecedented crosses is rather like the horror some dinosaurs might have felt a million years ago if told that they would evolve into human beings.
Beware of notions of genetic correctness. All are fundamentalist. Bal Thackerays gut horror of Muslims is not dissimilar. During the Babri Masjid agitation, Hindu fundamentalists sneered that Muslims were Babar ke aulad (children of Babar). For green fundamentalists, GM foods and cotton are the aulad of another Babar. Its genetic communalism in another guise.
What then should we call the struggle of green fundamentalists against bio-engineering? Mein Kampf? Towards a Green Ram mandir?
It is with some reluctance that I find myself using the expression green fascism. Greenpeace and various Indian organisations have done lots of good work in improving environmental awareness. But their attitude to biotechnology is too Hitlerian for comfort. They will protest that they are not asking for gas chambers, they are merely asking for extensive testing of GM varieties to ensure that there are no dangers. This is mendacity. Most of them simply do not want GM foods, and so have hit on the ploy of demanding ever-new tests about ever-new dangers. They will be happy to keep enunciating new possible dangers and keep demanding additional tests forever. One of the tests they have demanded for bio-engineered cotton could take 20 years. This amounts to ensuring genetic purity through never-ending tests rather than gas chambers. An improvement in procedure, no doubt, but not in philosophy.
I once read a piece by David Melchett of Greenpeace protesting about even field tests of GM varieties. Do you realise, he said, that winds could carry pollen from the GM test sites to others, polluting ordinary plants? It did not bother him that the winds could equally well carry pollen from ordinary plants to GM ones, polluting them.
He implicitly believed his preferred varieties to be genetically superior, and so worried only about the pollution of what he considered superior by what he considered inferior.
This reminded me of the British Raj, when whites were horrified at the prospect of any white woman bearing a black child, but had no qualms about fathering children by fornicating with Indian women. Some actually believed that they were infusing Indian women with superior genes. The Raj is dead but Greenpeace lives on.