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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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Forbidden fruit is tempting

I just read a wonderful book Hybrid: the history and science of plant breeding 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 crop.