Genetic Food: The Case For GM Food, Doing what comes naturally

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THE WORD on everyone's lips when it comes to genetically modified food is that it is "unnatural". Why should we be forced to eat something that is the product of a scientist's sterile laboratory rather than Mother Nature? After all, our experience with BSE has shown us what can go wrong when the "experts" start messing around with the human food chain.

In fact we have been messing around with the human food chain for thousands of years. It began when the first farmers started to select strains of plants and animals that could be selectively bred under unnatural conditions to produce, eventually, the crops and livestock we are familiar with today.

By selecting the physical traits of a plant or animal - and discarding others - humans hijacked the forces of natural selection to produce what are in effect artificial lifeforms that would not exist in nature. An organically grown corn on the cob or free-range hen is no more natural than an English garden. Each is the product of human innovation.

GM is about taking this a stage further by tinkering directly with the genes of a plant or animal. This can involve the transfer of DNA from one species to another, a rare but not impossible event in nature. It means the genetic selection can be targeted, unlike the trial and error of the past. But, like any innovation, it poses new risks.

The potential benefits include crops that are inherently resistant to pests, which might mean fewer agrochemicals being sprayed on farmland. It could bring crops resistant to drought for the developing world, or more nutritious staples for an ever-expanding global population. It could also mean the countryside continues to become a monocultural desert for wildlife - including the insects and microbes that now eat 40 per cent of what we grow - which began long before the application of genetics to farming. GM technology could be a force for bad as well as good.

Which way it goes depends on what we decide to do with it and the safeguards we impose. A ban would mean we have thrown out the potential good with the possible bad.