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
Tate Modern chief Chris Dercon, who will be leaving to run a Berlin theatre company
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Tasos: 'I rarely refuse an offer to be photographed'
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Girls on the verge of a nervous breakdown: Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams star in 'The Falling'
Film
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence