More than 15 years after genetically modified crops were introduced commercially in the United States and a dozen years on from the Daily Mail’s inspired, for all the wrong reasons, headline about Frankenstein technology, there is still opposition to GM in Britain and Europe.
That is in spite of about 160 million hectares of GM crops now being grown in almost 30 countries round the world. There can be no doubt that crops or foods containing GM are being sold and used in Britain, even if detectable GM levels are low.
GM crops are grown because farmers, and governments, think they produce better results than non-GM crops, that they are more resistant to particular insects and diseases, and give better returns.
As supporters of GM must be weary of pointing out, there is no known example of any animal or human being affected by eating a GM product. Plant breeders supporting GM argue that it is simply another step in the never-ending effort to increase yields and reduce the effect of pests and diseases.
And yet the opposition continues, based not on science, but on emotion, the feeling among environmentalists that there’s something “not right” about inserting genes from one type of plant into another.
The opposition is not quite as bitter as it was in the late 1990s when protesters dressed in – unnecessary – protective suits destroyed GM trial crops. But it is still strong enough to frighten politicians to the extent that hardly any GM crops are grown in Europe and in Britain only tiny areas of trial crops can be grown.
Jonathan Swift said, in Gulliver’s Travels, that any man who could make two blades of corn grow where one grew before deserved more gratitude from his fellow men than the whole race of politicians put together.
He was right, and increasing production and yields is precisely what plant breeders and other crop scientists have tried to do for centuries. They still are, and their efforts include GM crops.
If the world faces potential food shortages, with some countries in Africa suffering severe shortages now, surely anything that can increase food supplies should be encouraged?
I realise, by the way, that food shortage or famine in any given African country often has more to do with politics and corruption than failed crops or drought. But the basic principle holds that crops such as maize – the main GM crops being grown in the US, Brazil, Argentina and Canada are maize and soya – that can resist diseases and pests more effectively because of GM could and should be grown more widely.
Instead, we’ve had instances of African countries refusing food aid because it came from GM crops. Like so much else on that puzzling continent where millions die annually from disease and violence, governments have decided that GM foods could affect human health.
Incredible in a way, but not much more so than the science-free, gut-instinct, opposition to GM in well-fed Europe. That is in spite of work continuing on GM crops more resistant to drought, with genes to help counter human diseases and to give higher yields at lower cost.
One of the reasons for early opposition to GM crops was the gung-ho attitude of Monsanto, the giant American company when it trumpeted plans to take Europe by storm with its technology. It wasn’t the first time that pushy Americans had annoyed the British with an “overpaid and over here” attitude, but in the 1990s that attitude backfired.
Monsanto not only upset greens and environmentalists, it upset the Daily Mail and a series of “Frankenfoods” headlines and stories panicked millions. Protests fed on publicity and plant scientists who thought they were carrying out worthwhile research found themselves pilloried as environmental vandals.
What would be amusing if it wasn’t sad is that a tomato paste made from GM varieties had been sold in British supermarkets without fuss or fear for some time before the anti-Monsanto, anti-GM, campaigns erupted.
What would be equally amusing if it wasn’t even sadder is fear of what GM foods might do to the great majority of the developed world’s population who are already obese and suffering health problems because they eat far too much processed, fat-saturated, food, drink too many sugary drinks and eat too many sweets and too much chocolate.
But the opposition continues. Scientists argue, rightly, that Britain and Europe are falling further and further behind in GM technology, but politicians with an eye on votes don’t accept that as an argument. Most of the time I believe the public don’t care much one way or the other, but can be panicked by anti-GM publicity as they have been in the past.
There might be 160 million hectares of GM crops growing in the world this year, but only a few square metres of trials in one or two places in Britain. To the bafflement of many of us, there is no sign of that changing.