The world hangs on a butterfly

All that the Government's latest statements on GM crops do is further polarise an already hysterical debate
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The Independent Culture
CHAOS THEORY, the branch of mathematics that attempts to make sense of the unpredictable, may not be quite as fashionable as it once was, but it still retains its original wide-ranging appeal. The leading role that the dissemination of chaos theory played in the emergence of popular science can be put down to one striking, romantic yet sensible- sounding example of chaos at work that anyone can grasp.

This, of course, is the much-quoted suggestion that the flap of a butterfly's wings in Australia can be the cause of a thunderstorm in Bognor. The more recent spread of the knowledge that a change in the surface temperature of a patch of the Pacific is, year after year, having a devastating effect on the sale of Gore-Tex trousers in Aviemore - more commonly bandied around as the El Nino effect - simply adds to the allure of the butterfly equation.

Which is why it is such bad news for the Government that the latest mooted casualty of the march of genetically modified crops is the monarch butterfly, which, laboratory tests have suggested, dies when exposed to the pollen in maize that contains an insecticide gene to protect the crop from predators. For while it's now certain that the dying flutter of a butterfly in the Midwest of the United States is responsible for a media storm all over Britain, it's an unbelievable clanger for the Government to release a statement attempting to downplay the findings that state that "this type of maize will not be grown in the UK and the monarch butterfly is not native to the UK".

This indeed points to chaos, in so far as it suggests that the Government does not even begin to understand what really lies at the heart of the public's hostility to GM food. The more lurid headlines have centred on the possibility of severe implications for human health, with silly phrases such as "mutant" and "third ear" setting the pace. In response, the Government has attempted to allay the public's fears by treating us merely as consumers who, when all genetically modified ingredients have been prominently labelled, will be able to steer clear of anything we don't personally want to digest. But many of our fears are in fact much broader than this scaremongering, and instead are concerned with messing around with ecosystems when we can't possibly predict the consequences of doing so.

All the Government's latest statements do is further polarise a rather hysterical debate notable for the reluctance of all concerned to consider the sort of compromise out of which this Government has attempted to build an entire political ideology. For while sensible folks are chary of headlines whipping up "Frankenstein food" scare stories, they are also unconvinced by blanket denials of the possibility of ecosystems being adversely affected by GM crops. While extremists are asking for a complete ban on genetically modified crops, most people simply wish for more research to be carried out, a precaution which squanders nothing on the planet except the entirely human constructs that we call time and money.

So it follows that what the Government is worried about more than anything else is time and money, which are rather poor priorities when the already dangerously compromised future of the planet may be at stake. (Although it should not be forgotten that there's every possibility that GM crops could fix the planet, rather than hasten its destruction.)

The time element is all about keeping the initiative, and maintaining Britain's position as a world leader in genetic modification science. This all stems from Labour's admirable wish to reverse Britain's awful record of failing to invest in technological advances, then watching other countries reap the benefits. But it's one thing to learn from history, and another to decide that since caution has been a problem in the past, caution must be avoided in the future. For while it's true that recent British research and development history is littered with embarrassing missed opportunities, anyone can see that there's a difference between inventing the computer and then abandoning it to be exploited abroad, and inventing the destruction of the food chain and then jumping straight in to make sure that we get all the credit for such a literally world- beating breakthrough.

Anyway, it is not out of sheer caution that Britain has failed to capitalise on the creativity of its inventors. Instead, the problem has been an unwillingness to make speculative investments in the research and development of new products. In other words, if the primary lesson of the past has been anything, it has been that that research and development funding is too hard to come by. So it's particularly annoying that the Government seems so firmly against spending more money on research and development in this case, and so firmly in favour of steaming straight on to the humungous profit stage in the development of GM foods.

Again, this is a new mistake that has come about as a consequence of the over-reaction against old mistakes. While New Labour is right to seek a more proactive relationship with business, it is important that any government should, when necessary, offer an alternative value system to that which puts profit first. For while no one believes that multinationals are keen to get on the GM bandwagon so that they can eradicate world hunger, New Labour is behaving as though it really believes that all of this is to do with the good of mankind, rather than just shareholding mankind.

It's also annoying that the eco-warrior stance on all of this has been to harass those who might be willing to lend their land for research and development. This strategy is counterproductive, because it is crucial that we should know more about this technology. There are plenty of technologies that we might wish had never been discovered and developments we might wish had never happened, but the old genies and bottles rule applies here as much as anywhere. Any direct action that threatens to make the acquisition of knowledge about genetically modified food more difficult simply encourages the present climate of confusion, ignorance and fear.

The very fact that for months now Dr Arpad Pusztai's research into the damage to the health of laboratory rats fed on a diet of genetically modified potatoes has come round and round and round, to be refuted again and again and again, simply emphasises the astonishing paucity of research into this area. Even a complete lay-person can see that this new laboratory research into monarchs, conducted by Cornell University, is a step forward from Pusztai's.

For while rats don't universally chomp potatoes around the world, the monarch caterpillar does exist purely on milkweed, which does grow in or near cornfields, and therefore is likely to become dusted with the pollen from modified corn. But this is not necessarily an ecological disaster. For while the monarch is already an endangered species, it, like other creatures, may yet prove to be more at risk from the pesticides that it is hoped GM crops will reduce, and from the increase in meadowland that GM crops may precipitate because of the higher yields they offer. Again, the only way of finding this out is to carry on researching.

Cautious progress on genetically modified crops, and generous investment in research, can teach us an enormous amount about the subject and its implications, and, like any wide-ranging research programme, it is likely to involve all kinds of other useful discoveries along the way. Let's hope that this time the far-flung flutter of a butterfly's wing induces not chaos but calm.