Save The World: Plant GM Crops

By Minette Marrin
May 19, 2000
London Telegraph

It seems to me both sad and shocking that the Prince of Wales has used his considerable influence, in his Reith Lecture on sustainable development this week, to cast grave doubt upon science. He suggested that science is somehow at odds with nature; that "scientific rationalists" are at odds with proper feeling and a sense of wonder at the world; in his call for a sense of the sacred, he even suggested that a purely secular approach is more or less bound to be environmentally irresponsible; in other words, the godless are unlikely to be green, and so are "scientific rationalists".

He spoke of balance, but in effect he has set up a series of false dichotomies. It is bad enough that this kind of thinking represents a serious misunderstanding of what science truly is; worse still, it will support the Luddite tendencies of this country's highly professional environmental pressure groups, in their irrational and unscrupulous determination to prevent scientific developments that could do wonderful things - that already have done wonderful things - to feed the hungry, enrich the poor and protect our environment.

That is precisely the opposite of what they say they want to achieve, of course, but they are opposed to reason and to scientific investigation; Prince Charles's Reith Lecture will only encourage them. They will also have been very encouraged by the news story of the day after Prince Charles's speech, that, as one headline put it, "Rogue GM seeds taint UK crops".

The Ministry of Agriculture had to admit, after a highly questionable delay of about a month, that large quantities of genetically modified oilseed rape had been sown by mistake, both last year and this, in British farmland; unknowing farmers had been sold, by mistake, Canadian seed of which about one per cent was genetically modified. Of course, this added to the deep opposition in this country to anything to do with biotechnology, and a general New Age feeling that we must stick to what is "natural" and "organic".

It's a wholly understandable feeling, and very powerful. It is sometimes right, too, as with feeding carrion to cows, in the case of BSE. But it is very usually wrong - feelings are of no use in judging empirical evidence, or indeed without it. The public was disgusted by Jenner's experiments in the 18th century with cowpox, and his invention of vaccination seemed horribly unnatural. There were cartoons at the time of humans with lots of little cow's udders growing from their arms. Had public sentiment prevailed, smallpox would probably be still with us.

Tinkering with nature, flying in the face of common sense, as science seems to do, can be very scary. But the truth is that tinkering with nature, and flying in the face of common sense, to put it in those emotive and misleading terms, are what has made the West rich, powerful and in a position to be compassionate to less developed countries. Tinkering with nature has freed the West from back-breaking peasant labour, famine, malnutrition and disease - all those evils from which mankind has begged the gods for deliverance.

But deliverance came from science; scientists have been the great heroes and heroines of the modern era, and not least among them many great British scientists.

Prince Charles's opposition to genetically modified crops is well known; he expressed it again very firmly in his Reith Lecture, arguing instead for traditional systems of agriculture; "genetic manipulation [sic]" he said, "seeks to transform a process of biological evolution into something altogether different". What a pity it is that someone of his stature has not taken the opposite position. For the truth is that traditional or organic farming, however desirable it might be in some ways, cannot feed the world.

What's more, genetic modification is, in fact, very much the same as evolution, but simply speeded up. Its risks are largely misunderstood, and usually wildly exaggerated. Its benefits could be dazzling. Many minds in this country and in the European Union generally are no longer open. In the United States, by contrast - home of extreme consumer caution and massive class-action lawsuits - a House Committee on Science sub-committee has very recently issued a report on the risks and benefits of GM plants, named Seeds of Opportunity.

It concluded that there is no significant difference between GM plants and similar plants created using traditional cross-breeding. Biotechnology can reduce farmers' reliance on chemicals. The report dealt with many of the common fears about biotechnology, including the scares about the monarch butterfly, antibiotic resistance, allergens, cross-breeding with nearby plants and so on, and concluded that GM plants and foods pose no greater risks than those developed through traditional methods.

It also found that there is no evidence that transferring genes from unrelated organisms to plants - stories of fish genes in tomatoes and so on - poses unique risks. (Incidentally, humans share 50 per cent of their genes with bananas.) In fact, according to this report, biotech procedures allow for much more careful control and monitoring of risk than classical breeding techniques. According to Nick Smith, the chairman of the committee, "in the case of agricultural biotechnology, the scientific community is as united as I have ever seen it on any major issue".

This won't be enough for anti-science, anti-any-unknown-risk zealots, but isn't it enough for the rational man or woman? One of the most exciting things about biotechnology is that it is actually very green.

GM plants can produce higher yields, in less favourable climates, with less ploughing, less fertiliser and less insecticide, or less toxic insecticide. That means less pollution, less soil erosion, less soil exhaustion, fewer chemicals in the food chain and less back-breaking work for humans and animals.

It means using less or no new land, leaving more land uncultivated and wild; organic farming would certainly mean cultivating more land than now. It means that more wild life could survive; scares about butterflies have proved insubstantial. Of course there are all kinds of problems. The worst is the problem of trust. Hardly anyone really trusts big business or governments any more; perhaps we should have an international Citizens' Advice Bureau of disinterested, world-class scientists. But biotechnology for farming is an opportunity not to be missed. As Darwin said: "It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change."

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