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August 9, 2000


Why I'm happy to eat GM food


Why I'm happy to eat GM food
by Victor Sebestyen.
(London Evening Standard Online:
An opinion poll conducted last year for the International Food
Information Council asked the public in Europe and America a
deliberately idiotic question: "Would you eat food that contained any
genes?" They got a predictably stupid answer - two thirds said no.

It could be that respondents misunderstood and thought they were
being asked about denim. More likely, they were replying honestly -
and that is the big problem with the great row about GM food.

It is impossible to have a rational debate about the issue because of
the hysteria raised by the mere mention of the G-word - the meaning
of which few of us have the slightest inkling.
"Genetic manipulation" of this or that raises the spectre of human
cloning, a master race perfected through eugenics, dangerous
"Frankenstein foods", or environmental armageddon.

It is easy to see why the media - and particularly the Press - runs
so big with GM scare stories.
Fuelling fear is always good for "modifying" circulation figures. Nor
is it hard to see where the Luddite Tendency is coming from - in the
main they are the protesters at the WTO summit in Seattle last year
who object to globalisation.

They have a friend in Prince Charles - who has been known to talk to
plants but can't grasp that we have been "engineering" them for
millennia. Together they have turned healthy scepticism about the
boasts of science into worrying doubt about the great idea of Western
civilisation that progress can be made through inquiring into the
world and harnessing technology.

It is more difficult to see why science has done so little to fight
back. Scientists on the whole live in their own little world, find it
hard to speak or write in English and have been arrogant about
accepting their share of responsibility for past mistakes - the BSE
episode does not inspire blind faith that they are right all the time.

They have made overblown promises of Brave New Worlds that have
failed to materialise. We are still waiting for the cold-fusion
nuclear power that will give us endless energy with no risk to the

But it is amazing that at the beginning of the 21st century a case
has to be made for the fundamentals of the scientific method, which
have stood the test of time and created a world where, at least in
the West, we can doubt in comfort, freed from backbreaking peasant
labour by fantastic inventions, and use instant communications
(developed by whom?) to demand of scientists that they cease doing
their job of relentless inquiry.

Scientists have made mistakes; but throughout history have been far
less dangerous to humanity than demagogues who appeal to fear and
superstition. On GM crops, science has a powerful case that has gone
by default. The charge that genetically modifying organisms tampers
with nature is true. We have always done so. Nature is not a benign
force that is out to protect homo sapiens. Jenner defied nature -
and, many thought, common sense - when he began looking at cowpox.
Antibiotics defy "natural" bacteria which, left alone, kill us. If
the Prince of Wales had been around 100 years ago he would probably
have told the Wright brothers that if God had wanted man to fly he
would have given us wings.

Using new knowledge to do the same task, more precisely and more
skilfully, that farmers have done for hundreds of years through the
comparative guesswork of cross-breeding does not seem any more
"unnatural" than breeding new strains of wheat by traditional means -
or indeed new breeds of cattle.
Nobody has made an independently accepted case that any food produced
by GM methods is unsafe. The famous tomato with fish genes - the only
licensed product that crosses animal and plant life - apparently
tastes horrible, but is harmless. Personally, I would prefer to eat
food produced by

GM - about 80 per cent of the stuff on US supermarket shelves - than
most organic merchandise, none of which has gone through the rigorous
testing standards demanded of GM products. Also, I would hope some
polling organisation would ask the public, "Do you want to eat food
covered in horse dung?" and show the findings to health food shops.

There are serious environmental concerns and the jury is still out on
them. The sensible response is to hold more trials, not halt them. So
far there has been not a single respectable scientific body anywhere
in the world that has declared a GM crop now in cultivation to be a
danger to the ecosystem. These are early stages in GM technology and
there might be risks.

But life is about balancing risks: do road traffic accidents and
pollution mean it was a mistake to invent the motor car? The prime
purpose of GM technology in agriculture has so far been to create
crops that had in-built resistance to pests. Lowering the use of
toxic pesticides was a loud demand by the Green movement until their
eyes turned to GM technology. Pesticide use in the US has fallen
dramatically in the past few years - surely an environmental gain.

It is only scientists who offer the Third World genuine hopes of
relief from hunger. They see agriculture the way it really is - a
vast industrialised business in the West, hand-to-mouth scrabbling
around on poor land almost everywhere else.

Prince Charles's ilk see it as a Hovis ad, the way it has not been
for generations here and never in Africa. Developing countries want
access to a technology that can offer them vastly imp roved crop
yields, to feed exponentially growing populations, on less land.
Understandably they are less worried about the qualms of middle-class
opinion in Europe.

Yes, much-hated companies like Monsanto want profit. That does not
make biotechnology in itself wrong - all new inventions have always
been developed by business for profit. The challenge is to ensure
that poor countries which want to can have access to GM benefits at
affordable prices.
The worst mistake, though, would be to give in to the call to halt GM
testing, rigorously and independently controlled. Without open
research and inquiry we do not have science. And without science we
don't have civilisation.