Education Comment: Monsanto may or may not be greedy, but its managers won't destroy its own business by poisoning its customers

TWO YEARS ago I was asked to chair a working party for the Nuffield Council on Bioethics to look at the regulations governing introducing genetically modified food plants into Britain: the subject is only mildly interesting ethically as most issues that medicine and animal husbandry raise are not at stake. Plants don't have rights, and it's not easy to be cruel to them. There are interesting ethical puzzles about our relationship with the natural world, but they are too metaphysically complex to build public policy on.

For practical purposes the last word on "nature" was uttered by John Stuart Mill in his essay of that name 140 years ago. Mill demolished the tendency to believe that what is natural is good by pointing out that few torturers inflict as much pain as nature unthinkingly does on millions of the sick and dying.

As to the view that we must - as Prince Charles has it - work with nature rather than against her, the answer is that we have no choice. Human action uses some of the forces of nature to control or thwart others of those forces. Rationality is a matter of doing so in ways that - within the limits of human foresight - don't come back to plague us.

So the ethics of policy-making are interesting in a quiet sort of way. Given the uncontroversial thought that governments should secure the general welfare on fair terms, while respecting the human rights of the citizenry, most policy issues are instrumental, and most difficult questions are factual.

But some ethical issues are certainly more than instrumental - transparency and openness not only make for good policy and bring the public along with that policy, they also embody the moral view that a grown-up public must be treated as such.

And there are concepts, such as "the precautionary principle", that badly need rethinking. If it means we may never do anything that might go wrong, we'd never get the car out of the garage. If it only means we ought to be careful, it has no bite - nobody ever advocates thoughtlessly blundering ahead. Somewhere in between lies good sense.

GM crops have replaced paedophilia as the focus for public panic. Thus far, neither Government, nor press, nor the consumer and environmental lobby has emerged with credit.

The incapacity of most discussants to stick to one issue at a time has been impressive, but gloom-inducing. Friends of the Earth's, the Consumers' Association's and Greenpeace's style has moved from "it might damage your health" via "it might kill ladybirds" through "Monsanto is a nasty monopoly" to "we need to know what we're eating" and then back again.

No anxiety can be laid to rest, as the stirrers-up change the question as soon as it shows signs of being answered - confusing every issue.

But there are four truths worth noting. First, the idea that we should only allow people to produce what there is a real need for, is dotty. If every inventor had to show a need for what they'd invented, we'd be using packhorses and walking, and our life expectancy would be about 35. GM crops so far are dispensable, though they have saved farmers money in the US and have probably been good for the land by reducing ploughing.

Second, the environmental damage done by industrialised farming should be tackled by rebuilding the subsidy regime - Europe's Common Agricultural Policy is the target, not GM crops.

Third, too much theology is about: the Soil Association was created by upper-class ladies in the 1900s as an affiliate of spiritualism, and its adherents behave like a religious sect today: calling a small amount of possible cross-breeding "pollution" is just as superstitious.

Fourth, consumers certainly ought to know what they are eating: when they were offered GM tomato paste that was less watery and cheaper, they bought it. Monsanto may or may not be greedy, but, if its managers are rational, they won't destroy the business by poisoning the customer - hundreds of millions of whom have been eating GM soya for several years - or by producing seeds that have no advantages over those from conventional breeders.

But it is unlikely commercial interest alone will drive research in the direction of what would do the environment most good - fixing nitrogen in the roots of cereals, for instance. It is an irony of Government policy that there are now almost no much-needed, public plant-breeding facilities.

And the public - the victim of Guardian mendaciousness as much as Daily Mail and Express silliness - has been let down by people who ought to know better.

The writer is Warden of New College, Oxford

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

Reach Volunteering: Would you like to volunteer your expertise as Chair of Governors for Livability?

Voluntary and unpaid, reasonable expenses are reimbursable: Reach Volunteering...

Ashdown Group: Payroll Administrator - Buckinghamshire - £25,000

£20000 - £25000 per annum + substantial benefits: Ashdown Group: Finance Admin...

Ashdown Group: Linux Systems Administrator - Windows, Linux - Central London

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Linux Systems Administrat...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?