Issue 240 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review



An unpalatable option

Chris Harman is right to criticise those who argue that 'traditional' farming methods offer an alternative to modern, large scale farming (March SR). However, Chris glosses over a crucial question: do we agree with the call to ban GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms)? I think we do.

The concern here is not with such examples as the production of insulin from modified bacteria, or genetic therapies for inherited disorders. Such examples are of obvious human benefit, and we should demand greater investment in them. The concern is with the release of novel genomes into the environment. It is too complacent simply to say that human beings have always modified nature. We need to grasp the scale of the risks being taken with the application of this new technology.

Genetic modification bears no comparison to selective breeding, even in its most modern and highly scientific form. When animals and crops are selectively bred it is within the same family group of organisms. This means that the genes being selected are crossed in combination with entire clusters of genes associated with them. These are background genes, which ensure the organism's viability in its environment, and genes which control and regulate the selected genes. This is not the case with GMOs, where a single gene can be transferred from its original source into a radically different type of organism--from a rat into maize, for example.

The problem is that such novel combinations of genes are inherently unpredictable. In nature, genes do not stay obediently within one organism. There are all sorts of ways in which genes can hop around between species. Indeed, this is one way in which species have evolved over millions of years. But even in nature there are limits on this process. For example. a plant virus which might carry a gene between different species would tend to do so only within a group of related plant types. The new technology breaks through these barriers completely. This is where the ecological argument must be taken seriously.

Modern farming still takes place in an ecological context and does have to interact with nature. Pollination, pest control, soil ecology and so on are all essential concerns for modern agriculture. Indeed, with the development of large scale, technology intensive monoculture--where only one crop is grown--the potential for agricultural collapse as a result of a breakdown in the relationship with nature has become greater. There have already been disasters, such as the wiping out of the Indonesian rice crop by the rice-hopper insect in the late 1970s. Today scientists who engineer a crop to be resistant to an insect parasite are introducing a gene into the environment which may kill the insect which pollinates that same crop. Equally, a gene which makes a crop able to withstand a pesticide may be picked up by a fungus which attacks that very crop, or perhaps some other crop, with disastrous results. These 'boomerang' effects do not have to be immediate. They may become manifest only after 20 or 30 years. As more and more genetically modified crops are used, the possible ramifications become more and more complicated and irreversible. The dangers of long term ecological destabilisation caused by rogue genomes are real. Far from holding out the prospect of feeding an increasing population, they may well cause the wiping out of crop production in some parts of the world.

Clearly before such technology is ever used it should be researched with extreme rigour. GMOs--unlike nuclear power--represent a technology which could be of enormous benefit under socialism. But under capitalism, who would carry out the necessary research? Monsanto? Zeneca? British government scientists? Do we trust these people? Of course not. There is already an area of genetic modification which is rightly illegal in this country. This is 'germ-line' gene therapy, where the sex cells are modified as opposed to merely the tissues affected by a disorder. This is because once a person's sex cells have been altered the new genetic combination will be passed on from generation to generation, with consequences that we cannot possibly foresee. We should demand the same kind of thinking with regard to the question of the release of novel genomes into the environment. Uniquely in history, science has put the fate of future generations of human beings in our hands. Capitalism should not be allowed to determine that fate.
Mark O'Brien

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Alex Callinicos's obituary of the Marxist historian Geoffrey de Ste Croix (March SR) is an excellent risposte to the commentaries that appeared about him in the Independent and the Guardian. Depending on which one you read, Ste Croix's Marxism was either entirely incidental to his history or it was quite important, but he was never really interested in more than academic Marxism.
That was not the impression I got when I was one of those responsible for getting him to speak at a London Socialist Historians conference in the mid-1990s. Ste Croix sent me two possible papers, both of which focused on Marxist interpretations of ancient history, and both of which had been extensively reworked and annotated. It was clear from this that Ste Croix took his Marxism very seriously indeed. Then there was the fact of him agreeing to speak at the conference in itself. We had, and have, no well known academic reputations to defend or boast of. Rather, we told him, accurately, that the conference would consist of socialist historians and activists who were enthusiastic about socialist history and about changing the world as well. Then well into his eighties, he clearly relished the idea of engaging with such an audience. It was about as far from being an armchair Marxist as you could get.
Keith Flett


I enjoyed Alex Callinicos's generous obituary for Geoffrey de Ste Croix (March SR). Ste Croix was an important figure in the British Marxist tradition and his writing does deserve to be more widely known. I was glad to see Alex acknowledge the existence of the London Socialist Historians Group. It's good to see some recognition that the party historians exist.
However, I thought the obituary was marred by Alex's remark that Ste Croix was 'a much better Marxist' than E P Thompson. How on earth could he evaluate this claim? Perhaps in his lectures the schoolteacher Ste Croix did more for the workers than Thompson, the founder of mass movements, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the New Left? Alternatively, you might argue that Ste Croix's Marxist book, read by hundreds, made more socialists than Thompson's Making of the English Working Class, read as it has been only by millions?
Ultimately, the only argument for Ste Croix's superiority is that he described the economics of class while Thompson concentrated on its experience. This seems to me to be an unhappy distinction--it should be obvious that class is both fact and experience. Given a choice between the activist's view of class and the professor's, I suspect most readers of this magazine would choose Thompson every time.
Dave Renton


I would like to congratulate Pat Stack on an excellent column (February SR). His conclusion that 'a war on political cowardice and opportunism is the vital prerequisite to an effective drugs policy' is, in my opinion, absolutely spot on.
Many people, socialists and others, are getting fed up with the attitude of this government and will make use of the forthcoming local elections by voting for a candidate of a party with a sensible drugs policy.
The Legalise Cannabis Alliance are one such party, and will have a number of candidates across the country in May. I hope that all readers of your publication will support us whenever and wherever there are no socialist candidates.
Both front benches need a good kick up the behind to bring them out of the Commons bars, where they quite happily imbibe their favourite drugs of choice, and back to reality.
Prohibition is a monstrous waste of time and money, and is at the root of many problems. You know it. We know it. Now let's do something about it.
Hugh Robertson
The Legalise Cannabis Alliance


According to information and a press release from Sira, the Information Centre for a Referendum in Aceh, five student activists who were travelling to East Aceh were taken into custody by the security forces in Idi Cut on 6 March. The driver of the car in which they were travelling was also arrested. They were returning from Lhokseumawe where they had held a meeting with PT Arun Lhokseumawe, one of the major companies operating in Aceh.
According to the latest information available to Sira, they were being held at the Idi Cut police headquarters. One of the activists, Ridwan M, who is also a member of Sira's presidium council, has been severely maltreated. Sira is now trying to check up on the whereabouts of the six men.
The five students are all members of Farmidia, the Reform Action Forum of Muslim Students in Aceh. They are:

Humanitarian and pro-democracy activists are being continuously subjected to arrests, torture and terror in Aceh. The security forces continue to conduct sweepings and deliberately target suspected student activists. This is an attempt to silence the student movement, which is trying to uphold the basic rights of the people of Aceh, and to intimidate the people in general.
Sira therefore calls on local, national and international groups to closely monitor the situation in Aceh. Sira strongly condemns these inhumane actions by the security forces because they are also disrupting the peace in the region, abusing human rights and destroying the process of democracy which the people are striving so hard to pursue. The release is signed by Muhammad Nazar, chair of the presidium board, and Aliman Selian of the public relations board of Sira.
The Indonesian Human Rights Campaign
Thornton Heath


Last month Roger Anthony Smith, a consultant working for the American Centre for International Labour Solidarity (ACILS) was in trouble, and is now likely to be deported soon. The Indonesian police department see Roger as a provocateur in the trade unions' actions. His 'crime' was invented by the security forces, who do not want to see justice and democracy among Indonesian workers.
Roger is an Australian, who supports the National Front for Indonesian Workers' Struggle (FNPBI), formerly the Committee of Workers for Reform Action (Kobar) set up in May 1998. Since August 1998 Roger has been in contact with us and collecting data regarding our work in Indonesia. He also once introduced us to other unions which later on were willing to get to know Kobar and FNPBI. Together with ACILS he has been spreading monthly reports as a helpful tool for building international solidarity and supporting the growing union movement in Indonesia.
There is no way that Roger was a threat to political stability as accused by the security forces. What happened to Roger was part of the undemocratic system in Indonesia. His attending a demonstration or speaking with trade unionists in support of Indonesian workers has been misunderstood to be creating problems in Indonesia. There is no way that supporting workers' rights is a 'crime'. Instead the actions taken by intelligence are a 'crime'.
We are passing this message on to help him and support him. By doing so, we believe you will do all you can so he can remain in Indonesia, and for us in building international solidarity. The work of international solidarity must not only be work for workers and trade unionists, but also of those who support that kind of work.
Romawaty Sinaga
International Officer of FNPBI

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