Magazine article The Spectator

What's Good for GM Is Good for the World

Magazine article The Spectator

What's Good for GM Is Good for the World

Article excerpt

After years of trampling crops, the anti-GM food lobby believes that it has finally drawn sap. Its bete noire, Monsanto, the world's biggest producer of GM crops, is withdrawing from the UK cereals business. No wonder, say the lobbyists, when only 8 per cent of the public, according to the government's debate on GM food, would be happy to take their cornflakes genetically modified.

To add to the antis' case, the government's long-awaited report into the environmental effects of genetically modified foods has revealed that GM crops have fewer birds, bees and butterflies living among them. 'Ministers have no choice now but to ban GM beet and GM spring oil-seed rape,' asserts Dr Mark Avery of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. A delightfully named eco-warrior, Kathryn Tulip, adds menacingly, 'If Tony Blair ignores public opinion on GM as blatantly as he did on Iraq, he can expect widespread direct action in the fields.'

Before rushing off to join Ms Tulip at the furrows, the eco-brigade might just care to study what the government scientists actually said. They have found nothing in GM food that directly harms any kind of wildlife. The reason there are fewer beasts found in GM fields is that fewer weeds grow there. By the same token, any form of farming can be said to be bad for wildlife in that were it not for crops, the land could be given over entirely to weeds. The preservation of nature is a noble aim, but not to the extent that the survival of particular butterflies in particular fields should be allowed to cast a veto over all agricultural improvement. Wouldn't it be better if butterflies were provided with alternative habitats on field margins and nature reserves where they wouldn't risk having their wings mangled by combine harvesters? One advantage of higher-yielding GM crops is that they would free up land for nature conservation.

Not that this argument is likely to impress the anti-GM brigade, which has elevated Monsanto to a metaphor for everything it hates about global capitalism. Besides slaughtering English butterflies, the company stands accused of ruining our diets, condemning Third World farmers to starvation, extorting money from First World farmers and manufacturing the ecological equivalent of the neutron bomb: 'terminator genes', which, if released to the wild, could wipe out all plant life on earth.

Given that GM foods are novel, it makes sense that they are by law obliged to undergo tests for possible effects on human health. Yet only one trial has so far suggested that a GM food might provoke a health problem: Dr Arpad Pusztai's famous experiment, which claimed that the immune systems of laboratory rats are harmed by eating a particular brand of genetically modified potato. As it happens, attempts to reproduce Dr Pusztai's results have failed. There was also a fundamental problem with his research in that all the animals in the experiment - including the control group fed conventional potato were found to be starving halfway through the experiment because rats simply do not like eating raw potatoes. But even if Dr Pusztai's work produced incontrovertible evidence that the potatoes were harmful to human health, it would not be an argument for outlawing all GM food - just this particular brand of potato.

Novel foods are entering our diet all the time through conventional breeding techniques and through the introduction of existing foods in novel markets; and sometimes, as in the case of kiwi fruit - discovered to cause a potentially fatal allergy in some people - they can cause health problems. The difference is that GM foods are routinely tested for allergies and other possible ill-effects, whereas no statutory testing procedure exists for conventional foods. …

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