YESTERDAY I took refuge from Celera Genomics in the cool of the English Heritage shop at Kenwood on Hampstead Heath. All those future cures for all those right-now diseases, and all of them almost certainly too late for my generation. And there were no genomes on sale at Kenwood (not even garden genomes), nor were there any DNA-testing starter kits. Just jam, fudge, books about kings and queens, wooden clothes pegs of the sort that gypsies probably never used to sell, tapestry samplers and traditional cookbooks. Everything was wholesome, authentic, on a human scale, testifying to a world of continuities and certainties.
In recent days I've begun to feel as though some people are demanding that I choose between the genome on the one hand and fudge on the other. Because at no time in my life can I remember such an assault on scientific rationalism as there is now, nor can I recall such an alliance of conservatives, reactionaries, greens and anti- capitalists as seems to have seized the political agenda on all subjects from genetic modification to immigration. And it all sort of snuck on me.
At first I thought the fuss over genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which really exploded in the spring of 1999, was mostly a media hype, born out of a union between the back-wash from BSE and the intense competition between news sources. No one has ever died from genetically modified food, or even been made ill by it, nor is there any evidence that they ever will be. The impact of GMOs on biodiversity (an entirely separate matter) depends mostly on how farmers use pesticides, not upon weird contaminants that kill ickle birdies.
It wasn't until the Reith lectures this year that I first began to wonder whether something more profound and worrying wasn't going on. I just happened to be in the bath with the dial at Radio 4, when a woman called Vananda Shiva spoke in the series.
The theme of the lectures was Sustainable Development (which, of course, I am in favour of; unsustainable development being, well, unsustainable), so I sat back in the suds prepared for some vigorous nodding.
Within five minutes I was frowning; within 10, bemused; after 30 I was incredulous. Dr Shiva, the head of something called the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology in India, delivered an address which blamed the forces of globalisation for most of the ills of Indian society. "A global monoculture is being forced on people," she claimed, "by defining everything that is fresh, local and handmade as a health hazard. Human hands are being defined as the worst contaminants... to be replaced by machines and chemicals bought from global corporations... People are being perceived as parasites, to be exterminated for the `health' of the global economy."
This is strong language, especially since cooking oils in particular are actually being packaged before sale partly to prevent the regular outbreaks of fatal poisoning that result from contaminated produce. Shiva advocates import barriers to protect Indian agriculture - not just in terms of its money value, but almost in terms of its spiritual value. She conjures up an image of a more natural, traditional state of things, where happy village women, wise in the lores of healing, grow organic pulses, are rarely ill and live till they're 120. "Nature," she claims, "has given us abundance, women's indigenous knowledge of biodiversity, agriculture and nutrition has built on that abundance to create more from less."
Nature, of course, has done no such thing. Nature grows little wheat, rears few pigs or sheep, digs no irrigation channels, dams nor rivers. Nature does not give a 4X for man: that is …