Now, Britain may view itself as a progressive country. With universal healthcare, a permissive attitude to stem cell research and a (usually) accepting attitude to foreign cultures, this view on the whole looks fairly correct. However, there is one area where our views are in danger of becoming prehistoric, GM food.
All over the world GM crops are being used. The US plant 42.8 million hectares of the stuff, with Canada and Argentina also producing millions of hectares of GMO crops. And whilst the “but all the other kids in school are doing it” argument isn’t a particularly strong one, the use of GM crops by one particular culture makes our absentia most shameful, the Amish.
When a country that views itself as being modern and forward thinking is being technologically overtaken by the Amish something is definitely wrong! The Amish fled religious persecution in Europe in the 1690’s to the US and have shunned technology and effectively remain living in the 1690’s. They follow a literal interpretation of the Bible and live by a set of unwritten rules of the church, the Ordnung. As each Amish district is a separate church the rules vary. The list is quite extensive but, here are a few that give good idea of the rigidity of their society:
- Full-length mirrors are forbidden, because they are thought to promote vanity and self-admiration
- Motorized vehicles are not to be owned or driven. The Amish may request a neighbour to drive them, or may hire a driver and rent a car
- Women are never to shave any part of their body nor to cut their hair
- Electricity is not allowed in the home. Electrical energy is allowed in community dairy barns, but only generator power (not grid power)
So, why do they use GM crops?
It seems that despite not having electricity, phones in their homes or cars, GM agriculture is not against their religion. In fact, it helps them stick to it. Ironically the loss of productivity they have due to farming entirely by hand is compensated for by the increased yield of the crop. The use of GM also allows them to not use pesticides, which they see advantageous. “I myself like biotechnology,” said Amish farmer Daniel Dienner, “I feel it’s what the farmers will be using in the future.” Dienner is not alone in this view either, as of 2005, 550 Amish farmers in Pennsylvania were growing a genetically enhanced, nicotine-free tobacco plant. They sold this $3,500 per acre compared with $300 to $400 for a regular corn crop.
Nicotine-free tobacco is not the only crop grown. There are also Amish farms growing BT-Corn. This strain of corn contains a gene from Bacillus thuringiensis (a gram positive soil bacteria), Bt Delta Endotoxin. This protein is highly effective at controlling caterpillar larvae. The European Corn Borer larvae (Ostrinia nubilalis) is a big problem for farmers as it eats its way up the stem of the plant damaging it and causing the plant to wilt and the corn to die. It is a particular problem for Amish farmers given their traditional harvesting techniques.
In a very odd interview, Amish farmer Gideon ( for religious reasons he could not have his face on camera) was asked what he thinks about people who say the use of GMO crops is dangerous. He responded, “I would say they are misinformed, they don’t know what they are talking about”. This to the point view shows just how behind we are. Who is to blame is to blame for the country’s hesitance about GMOs is another matter. But, whilst the Daily Mail continues to peddle it’s pseudo-science “Frankenfood” scaremongering and scientists bemoan the public for their lack of understanding, I think it is unlikely the UK’s stance will change.
So, as it sums up the farcical nature of the situation, here is Amish Paradise by Weird Al Yankovic:
BBC 2 – Jimmy’s GM Food Fight – November 2008