Leading Article: The merits of letting us know what we are eating

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THERE ARE two quite separate dangers from genetic modification of food, which so far have been widely confused. One is the question of whether genetically-modified food is safe to eat. The other is whether it is damaging to the environment to grow it.

There are no modified crops grown commercially in this country at present, although there are a number of research trials. English Nature, the statutory body set up to advise the Government on the environment, argues that it is too early to say from these trials what the effects will be of cross- pollinating unmodified crops, or what impact modified crops will have on existing animals and plants.

Meanwhile, another statutory body advising the Government, the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, last week recommended that modified oilseed rape should be let loose on the British countryside - as if the ordinary kind were not "unnatural" enough. The modified variety has had its genes altered in order to make it "herbicide tolerant" - which means it can be sprayed with more and stronger weedkiller. Regardless of any of the emotive fears about meddling with the DNA of natural organisms, this would be a step in entirely the wrong direction. The whole weight of science and logic is moving against intensive agriculture and back towards balanced, sustainable, low-risk methods of production. And it is backed by rising public demand for organic produce.

The Government should prefer the advice of English Nature to that of the committee which, as we report today, is about to be reconstituted in a way which will reduce its identification with the interests of agri- business.

More than this, however, neither the Government nor the food industry can afford to ignore the irrational element of public fears. There is a deep-seated taboo about "playing God". The widespread horror of cloning animals and people, for example, is out of all proportion to the risks involved. But when it comes to genetically-modified food, the disproportion is not so great. Modified food may well be "safe" to eat, but it is foolish of Jack Cunningham to use the word because no one can be sure. The proteins in modified foods all occur naturally, and there is no known means by which the modified DNA in soya, tomatoes or maize can affect human genes. But this is a field of science in which, as the BSE crisis revealed, the speed of discovery is matched only by the speed with which the widening vistas of human ignorance are opened up. Mad cow disease turned out to be transmissible by means previously thought impossible, and still not fully understood.

Tony Blair shows all the signs of making the same mistake as the previous government. His instinctive reaction when ambushed on the food issue was to say: "We must proceed on the best scientific evidence." But science is not a religion; it is a messy contest between rival theories and ambiguous proofs. Mr Cunningham's insistence that all food has passed "rigorous testing procedures" is beside the point: those procedures cannot test for the long-term effects of doing things to genes which have never been done before.

This seeming complacency has fed the hysteria over "mutant foods" and encouraged calls for an outright ban. As ever, information rather than proscription is the public's best protection. The Government is already tightening up the labelling of food and animal feed which may contain modified material. This will be difficult, because modified and non-modified soya from the United States cannot be separated; it will mean disentangling the ingredients of all sorts of unexpected foods; and restaurant menus could require academic-style footnotes. But at least consumers can then make up their own minds. If the Government had acted earlier, it would not be facing such damaging accusations of post-mad-cow hypocrisy now.