A rich crop of cynicism, greed and mistrust

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Genetics is the most exciting of today’s new technologies and has the potential to revolutionise nutrition and medicine. Yet, when it comes to GM food, we are patronised by a discredited government department, misled by campaign groups yearning for publicity, and let down by companies whose self-interest is ridiculously obvious.

Last week, the British government announced that it would approve a strain of genetically modified maize, but would not allow the planting of similarly modified oilseed rape or sugar beet. The decision was said to be based on environmental considerations. The maize promoted biodiversity, the rape and beet reduced it.

For biodiversity, read weeds. The environmental damage at issue is exactly the same as the damage you do with a hoe in a flower bed. Weeds were well controlled in the trials of GM rape and beet. But the field with GM maize displayed more “biodiversity” than its non-GM counterpart – there were species in it the farmer had not intended to be there. This was because a more powerful, and soon to be restricted, herbicide was used on the non-GM maize.

I am not kidding. I wish I were. These experiments could not conceivably have produced data to support or allay public worries about GM crops. There is no reason for anyone to have changed their mind about GM after hearing these results, and no evidence that anyone did.

The background is a loss of public confidence in the commitment and competence of government to promote food safety. This problem is most acute in Britain, where official statements about “mad cow” disease and foot- and-mouth disease were subsequently found to be unjustified and untrue. Rebuilding trust will be a slow process. It will not be achieved through specious experiments. At best, the GM trials were a comprehensive waste of time and money; at worst, a sham to allow ministers to claim scientific support for political expediency.

Humans rightly feel uneasy about playing God in the creation of new species. But the juicy steak, the nourishing wheat grain, the loyal dog and the affectionate cat never existed in a state of nature. They are the product of generations of selective breeding and hybridisation. The development of new strains of hybrid corn – the green revolution – has been the single most important factor reducing world poverty in the past 50 years. We have engaged in genetic manipulation since agriculture was invented.

Through selection, hybridisation and GM you can create new varieties that are dangerous and life-threatening, or you can create varieties that are better and safer to eat. The search for generalisations about the consequences of GM for health and the environment is as foolish as asking whether scientific research is good for health and the environment.

If government policy is cynical and foolish, the same is true of the groups that campaign against GM. They have largely abandoned attempts to present specific arguments about adverse consequences of GM crops – wisely so, since there is no evidence of such adverse consequences. It is easier, or at least less intellectually demanding, to chant slogans and trample fields planted with GM crops and to profess concern about pollution – the contamination of natural products through the spread of GM. But the analogy is false: GM is a technique, not an additive that scientists mix into our food. Opponents of GM exploit public ignorance to stimulate vague unease that has no substantive basis.

And yet the actions of the companies that promote GM are, if possible, even more cynical and foolish. Throughout history, people have embraced new technology when it has offered better products or lower prices. But the GM seeds for which approval is sought are not nicer to eat, safer to use or cheaper to buy. They have been modified to encourage farmers to use other products made by the same companies. Why should a sceptical public support GM when the businesses promoting it are not only the principal beneficiaries but also probably the only ones?

Genetics is the most exciting of today’s new technologies and has the potential to revolutionise nutrition and medicine. As with all scientific developments, there is potential for both good and harm. Maximising the benefit requires thoughtful regulation, informed debate and visionary businesses. Instead, we are patronised by a discredited government department, misled by campaign groups that are more interested in publicity than in the truth and let down by companies whose self-interest is so obvious and so short-term that it has proved self-defeating. May biodiversity choke them all.

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