Why I'm quite happy to eat genetically modified food

Ignore your natural distrust of Government spin doctors' efforts to generate good publicity

"IT'S GOT beyond a joke," a biologist commented to me yesterday. "This really is frightening people. They have enough to be anxious about without worrying that they're going to mutate into lemmings by eating a piece of soya."

His reaction was typical of the scientists I have spoken to about the latest "row" over genetically modified crops and foods. Why the quotation marks? Because this latest twist in the debate is more artificial than a packet of prawn-cocktail-flavoured crisps. There is not a single new fact, and certainly no fresh scientific data, that could advance either side's argument, pro- or anti-genetic modification. You have only to witness the involvement of politicians such as John Redwood and Tony Blair - whose lives until now have been untouched by the need to discern between a gene, a ribosome and a protein - to know that once more the scientists are getting left out of a debate that is rooted in complex molecular biology.

We have seen this happen many times before, of course. Remember ecstasy? It periodically returns to the limelight as the Killer Chemical, despite apparently having a lower death rate per tablet consumed than many drugs available over the counter. But the calmer voices of scientists researching the effects of MDMA tend to get drowned out by the shouting of grieving parents and professionally indignant politicians. Or how about cannabis? When the researchers on a World Health Organisation committee drafted a report that pointed out that cannabis in fact had fewer harmful effects on people than either of those legal drugs alcohol and tobacco, the American government successfully pressed for that information to be left out of the final version. Politics intrudes, and it does so without regard for the science and the facts. What does infuriate scientists about this latest version of the debate is that amidst all the Cabinet ministers, green lobbyists and worried vox-popped shoppers, there never seems to be room to explain what is in fact done to the plants or foods. It's easy to understand why: it sounds better to have a harassed Jack Cunningham on The World At One than a scientist explaining what an antisense gene or Agrobacterium tumafaciens virus is.

However, in terms of spreading knowledge, the difference is like comparing The Vanessa Show with the Open University. I spent last week moving house, and so was a passive consumer, rather than generator, of the media's output. Amidst all the back-and-forth of increasingly accusatory finger-pointing, I never once heard a piece of explanation that left me more informed about the underlying science.

So what then are we to make of the "debate" about genetically modified soya? Simply this: the US government is very keen to develop an agribusiness that will allow one of its companies, Monsanto, to export a modern technology (for that is what the seeds are) to other parts of the world, especially Europe. When the first soya crop was grown in 1996, it nearly triggered a trade war, because European governments wanted the soya to be at least separated, and at best labelled as genetically modified. That was what its regulations said.

The US said that any attempt to prevent American exports of soya would be treated as a trade barrier, and it would retaliate. Because the US is a net importer of so many European goods, that would have harmed us. The US is waving the same big stick this year over the banana trade. So if you wonder what's so great about modified soya, the answer is: nothing. Or at least, nothing that you profit from. It benefits the US to sell it to us.

Next, is it unsafe? Almost certainly not. The American regulatory regime is strict; new foods have to undergo rigorous testing for toxicity and other effects. If the US Food and Drug Administration thinks something is safe, it very likely is. Ignore your natural distrust of the efforts of the Downing Street spin doctors to generate positive publicity for GM foods (with Tony Blair "doing a Gummer" in feeding them to his children).

Ignore, too. the experiments by Dr Arpad Pusztai on potatoes "modified" to contain poisons called lectins; the experiments were never completed, never examined by independent scientists ("peer-reviewed"), and never published. In that sense, they simply aren't science. "If scientists begin to view the Daily Mail as the place to publish their results, it's going to kill off science," said one disgruntled researcher, who was peripherally involved in Pusztai's experiments. Just concentrate on the science of it, if you can. Right now, the science suggests it is safe; the genes don't make any magical leaps into your cells. And do not try spraying yourself with herbicide to see whether you've become resistant. It'll hurt.

However, in commenting on this topic, one caveat is obligatory: BSE. Were I writing this article 15 years ago about that disease, it would be easy to round up scientists prepared to swear that science could suggest no way by which the BSE agent (for it is not a bacterium or virus) could be transmitted to humans. Even eminent scientists, and non-eminent journalists like myself, held that view almost until March 1996, when Stephen Dorrell told Parliament that a number of deaths had been ascribed to exposure to the BSE agent.

What had happened? Science had moved on, and the population of Britain became part of a huge food experiment - resulting in the deaths so far of nearly 40 people. Similarly, our understanding of how the cell produces proteins from genes is incomplete. Does the cell machinery treat some proteins differently from others, under some sets of circumstances? We don't know. Donald Bruce, a scientist who also specialises in ethical issues, said earlier this year: "Molecular biology is a teenage science. It's got to the stage where it has discovered techniques for a vast array of things with great excitement, but it hasn't yet hit the problems that other sciences have, that have made them humble in their approaches. Physicists are content to say what they don't know; biologists tend to say that everything is possible, because they haven't found out what isn't."

With that in mind, I personally don't mind eating food containing GM elements, but I also think there should be clear, unambiguous labelling. If I have to put my genes on the line for a minuscule, a theoretical risk in order to satisfy America's desire for the free trading of cashmere sweaters and bananas across the high seas, then at least I would like to know when I'm doing it.

Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tvReview: Bread-making skills of the Bake Off hopefuls put to the test
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
This year's Big Brother champion Helen Wood
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Full company in Ustinov's Studio's Bad Jews
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Harari Guido photographed Kate Bush over the course of 11 years
Music
Arts and Entertainment
Reviews have not been good for Jonathan Liebesman’s take on the much loved eighties cartoon
Film

A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend

Arts and Entertainment
Untwitterably yours: Singer Morrissey has said he doesn't have a twitter account
Music

A statement was published on his fansite, True To You, following release of new album

Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
    Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

    Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

    After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
    Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

    Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

    After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
    Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

    Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

    Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home