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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent