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I’ll have the purple tomato please, Dr Frankenstein

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Richard Girling, ,  June 27, 2010

In their peculiar way, psoralens are brilliant. Pack a few extra ones into celery, for example, and you’ll get some interesting results. First, the modified plants will acquire an almost magical ability to repel pests — great news for growers, who can cut their pesticide bills, and great for the environment. But there is a problem. Like all toxins, psoralens mean what they say. They are toxic.

Mice fed on psoralen-enhanced celery die from cancer, and people handling it get skin rashes. What else would you expect? We are not gods. If we fiddle with nature, then we’ll get what we deserve. But there is a twist. The bug-resistant celery was not concocted in a petri dish by some mad manipulator shuffling genes. It was bred in the old-fashioned way by plant selection in the field. This is why it didn’t hit the headlines.

GM foods — derived by transferring genetic traits from one organism to another — mark the point at which scientific hubris tips over into nemesis

What you will have heard, over and again, is that GM foods — derived by transferring genetic traits from one organism to another — mark the point at which scientific hubris tips over into nemesis.

To eat from this sci-fi menu would be akin to declaring biological warfare on ourselves.

We would be volunteering for cancer.

Fields and hedgerows would be overrun by monstrous insects and gigantic, unstoppable weeds. A few amoral chancers would be made extremely rich while poor farmers would stare at barren earth.

The Lib-Con coalition’s decision to approve a field trial of GM potatoes earlier this month provoked outrage.

“The government,” said Friends of the Earth (FoE), “is wasting millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money by forging ahead with unnecessary and unpopular GM crops trials, which threaten local farmers with contamination… We can feed a growing global population without trashing the planet or resorting to factory farms and GM crops — the government must help farmers shift to planet-friendly farming.”

The formerly cautious Lib Dems seem happy to go along with the exercise (it’s a scientific, not a commercial, trial), even if some grass-roots activists will be less forgiving.

The new environment secretary, Caroline Spelman, has been much more explicit than her Labour predecessor in promoting biotechnology as a force for good and moving it towards the political mainstream. GM, she insists, “can bring benefits in food to the marketplace” and help developing countries feed themselves.

She welcomes the new trial of blight-resistant potatoes and applauds the reality that “developments in crop breeding and precision agriculture that might have been viewed as science fiction are now clearly science fact”.

Science fact they may be, but public acceptance is a different matter altogether. “Our big problem is to overcome fear,” says Professor Jonathan Jones at the Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich, which is running the potato trial. “We have to help supermarkets explain to their customers that this technology is environmentally beneficial and has no health risks. What people completely fail to do is consider the cost of not doing it.”

The size of the hurdle was demonstrated this year when the Indian government halted the commercial cultivation of genetically modified aubergines. FoE congratulated the country’s environment minister for having “listened to the concerns of scientists, farmers and the public”. Local “food security experts” welcomed India’s salvation from biological meltdown, and an organic proselytiser announced that “independent studies” in Europe had shown that a shopping list of human ills — fertility loss, organ failure and immune deficiency — could all be “correlated with GM food”. There may be a half-truth buried somewhere in all that, but you’d need a magnifying glass to find it.

In fact the Indian government’s own scientific advisers had said the pest-resistant aubergines were safe to eat and beneficial to the environment. It was not science that kept the crop out of the ground, it was politics. In the same way, it is politics that bars GM seed from the European Union, whose own scientific adviser, the European Food Safety Authority, is used to having its judgments thrown back in its face. It is politics that drives British supermarkets to promise a frightened populace that their products are “GM free”, and politics that leaves Europe trailing the rest of the world in a technology it once led.
There is still a long way to go. Despite the EC’s decision to admit the BASF potato, some member states — notably Italy and Austria — declared they would not grow it, and the French demanded more research. Surprising nobody, Friends of the Earth complained that the EC had “ignored public opinion and safety concerns to please the world’s biggest chemical company”. It remains difficult for the campaigners to allow that any decision favourable to GM could be innocent of corruption. In May, two members of a steering group set up by the FSA to lead public dialogue on GM resigned, accusing the FSA of a “dogmatically entrenched” pro-GM bias.

There is nothing new in distrust of difficult science. Think of the reaction to Edward Jenner when he said pus from a cowpox pustule would preserve humans from smallpox; or to the claim that boiling and cooling milk would eradicate tuberculosis. The ills to be eradicated now are climate change and hunger. GM is not a magic bullet that will cure them on its own, but it offers more than we can afford to ignore. In time, it must happen. Europe will catch up with the rest of the world and the future will have its say.