Issue 215: October 2003


 Re-defining Conventional


How does an exception become the norm? How does an alternative become the conventional, the norm compared to which everything else is abnormal?

Conventional agriculture did not include GE crops until very recently. Conventional agriculture was, however, assumed to use agro-toxins. But 50 years ago conventional agriculture did not use agro-toxins in the contemporary sense of the term. So in something like 50 years the definition of conventional – the norm – has changed three times. Organic agriculture, or even sustainable or ecological agriculture, is generally considered as alternative. Yet the way people farmed until 50 years ago or so – the conventional agriculture – was essentially what we now class as ‘organic'.

Defining normal and abnormal – or conventional and alternative – has always been a power play. It is part of such concepts as ‘mental illness' and ‘enemy'. Consider how I can treat you if I define myself as normal and define you as abnormal particularly if you allow me to do so.

Organic/ecological agriculture is not abnormal. Nor is it ‘alternative' unless you accept industrial agriculture and GE crops as normal and conventional. It would be better to describe different practices – and different attitudes.

The advocates and apologists of biotechnology and GE crops like to think that they are the moral norm, that they define and represent conventional agriculture. From this standpoint they can then tout the issue as ‘consumer choice' – which they are happy to offer in their rather dishonest way: the public must have the option of purchasing GE food. If the vast majority (the norm) does not want GE food, then farmer's choice comes into play: you have no right to deny farmers the option of growing GE crops.

GE crops become ‘conventional', and organic and GE-free crops and food products become, by definition (theirs), a niche market – similar to the peculiar food preferences of minority religions. It is quite appropriate for them to be hard to find and to cost more, since they are the exception to the rule. If organic and GE-free have to be labelled so customers can exercise their choice, the purchasers will have to pay for the labelling to make that choice possible.

In other words, the freedom to choose is appropriated by the (abnormal) biotech industry (government-industry-university) that is insisting on its freedom to choose to produce GE crops and foods regardless of the will of the (normal) majority.

“We want the producer to have the option,” said Nelson Costa, superintendent of Brazil's Paraná state Organization of Cooperatives (Ocepar). “If the market wants a non-GM product, it should pay a premium for it.” – Reuters 7/10/03

“When consumers wish to make their own choices consistent with their philosophical beliefs – choosing halal, kosher, or GMO-free – they should be prepared to absorb the extra costs. Consumers who want ‘organic' foods pay a premium for the privilege. So should consumers who want GMO-free food.” – Peter Phillips and Robert Wolfe, letters, G&M, 2/9/03. Phillips holds the chair in managing knowledge-based agri-food development at the University of Saskatchewan and sits on the Canadian Biotechnology Advisory Committee. Wolfe is a professor of geography at Queen's University

One of my favourite and most instructive scientists is Richard Strohman, emeritus professor at the University of California at Berkeley, Department of Molecular and Cell Biology (see p.6) . In a commentary published in Nature a couple of years ago he wrote, “I prefer the identification GEO (genetically engineered organism) to GMO (genetically modified organism) to make clear that we are talking about an engineering project and not some modification that is substantially equivalent to what happens in nature.”

“Identity Preservation” is promoted by corporate buyers as a way to ‘add value' to farmers' crops for the benefit of farmers, buyers and end-users, such as bakeries or specialty oils users. But it is also a means of shifting the burden of proof regarding GE contamination of crops from the corporations responsible onto the farmers. Farmers are to become liable for segregation and ‘purity' of the crops they grow and market.