Can We Get The Gene Genie Back Into The Bottle?

At the beginning of June, 5000 people crammed into the Albert Hall to call for a freeze on growing genetically modified crops. Who do you think they were? A motley get-together of radical eco-warriors? No, they weren’t. A well-known environmental group like Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth? No, not them either. They were Women’s Institute members. And their vote to join the Consumers’ Association, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and 70 other consumer and environment groups voicing their opposition to GM foods should give the government pause for thought.

What is going on? Why have the food producers and the government misread public opinion so badly?

On the face of it, the improvements to basic crops offered by genetic engineering should surely persuade us that this is the sensible route to follow. Won’t these crops give us more food, of better quality? How can we disregard the billions of people who are starving? Surely the only way to feed the ever-increasing population of the world is to keep increasing the amount of food we produce?

Well, it’s not quite as simple as that.

For a start, GM crops are largely being developed for food products in richer countries. If they are used in poorer countries, they will be under patent, which guarantees the patenting company a monopoly over their supply. Each year, peasant farmers will have to pay royalties to use the patented seeds, and buy additional products like fertilisers to support them. This will move poor farmers away from self-sufficiency and towards dependency upon large companies and their artificial products.

There is also widespread concern about the risk of genetically engineered crops cross-pollinating with wild species to create uncontrollable ‘super weeds’.

It seems to me that there is something fundamentally evil about companies from wealthy countries taking plants from poorer ones, identifying specific genes (using their advanced technology), and then claiming they have ‘invented’ them. This is an appalling mixture of bare-faced cheek and massive global theft.

For thousands of years, peasant farmers all over the world have saved seeds from each harvest to be planted the following year in a continuous cycle. One of the tricks used by the international food companies is the introduction of the so-called ‘terminator gene’. Sounds scary? Well, it is. Terminator technology involves inserting a special gene into seeds so that they become sterile, which stops farmers re-using seeds and forces them to buy new ones every year.

It’s beginning to look as if the whole purpose of genetic modification of food is to create huge profits for the multi-nationals, at the expense of millions of people whose traditional farming methods are threatened.

Labour’s election manifesto had nothing about promoting GM crops or products. Tony Blair has no mandate to insist that we accept GM foods. New Labour seem to be quite contemptuous of public opposition to GM products, dismissing pressure groups like Friends of the Earth as “tyrants” and the media as “hysterical” for pointing out the fundamental flaws in the government’s case.

There are several converging themes here.

We have had two decades of deregulation in the UK, and the power of the huge international companies over consumers has increased enormously.

At the same time, we have seen the public trust in science wobble quite dramatically, as one public health scare follows another – thalidomide, asbestos, BSE …

There have been just too many cases of science, the government, the big food producers getting it wrong. The technology seems to be moving ahead without debate or consultation.

Like the recent proposal to build giant incinerators in Essex to deal with our waste, there has been an over-eager willingness to go for the last resort first – on the assumption that all our problems can be solved by science. But there are less dangerous ways of disposing of waste. There are less dangerous ways of ensuring that the poorest people on earth are fed. Let’s stick with the precautionary principle, and try to solve our problems with well-tried tools which are already at our disposal.

This is the Liberal Democrat approach. As Paddy Ashdown said in his last campaign speech, “We are still the Party which puts concern for the environment at the very heart of our vision – that’s why we were the first to warn of the dangers of genetically modified food.”

People have had enough. And when the massed ranks of the W.I. say “Enough is enough”, even a Prime Minister with a majority the size of Tony Blair’s would do well to listen