GM food U-turn?
The British press have seized on Tony Blair's latest comments on genetic modification to justify their concerted and misleading coverage of the issue for the past year. The Express describes his apparent change of heart as "Blair eats his GM words" while the Independent talks of a "dramatic U-turn" and the "greening of Downing Street." Other papers say much the same. Only the BBC comes closest to rational discussion of Blair's fudging, describing GM food as a 'political hot potato'.
In truth, however, Mr Blair has only done what he normally does whenever he faces a controversial issue, he hedges his bets. His focus groups will have told him that his stance on GM food and its potential benefits is unpopular, and so it must change, whatever science and rational thinking might otherwise dictate. He speaks of the 'potential for harm' from GM crops, and says that the government should 'proceed very cautiously'. But that has always been the case. Even the staunchest defender of genetic modification would agree. Nobody has ever suggested that novel food products of any kind should be grown willy-nilly all over the country without concern for their potential for harm to health or the environment. That is what the carefully controlled trials have been all about – until Greenpeace activists dug them up, presumably unwilling to entertain scientific findings which might show that their fears were misplaced.
The power of pressure groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth to alter public perceptions and, as a result, the policy of a government which will believe in anything that its focus groups tell it, is disturbing for two reasons. Firstly, it relegates science and rational enquiry to a side-show – dogmas, however unfounded, become the main attraction. Secondly, it threatens to erode the fabric of a true democratic process. Unelected groups, largely middle-class and led by members of the English aristocracy, achieve their aims without a mandate from the British people and without a genuine constitutency.
If the Prime Minister's alleged change of heart is real then the people who will suffer will not be the right-thinking-organic-food-eating residents of Surrey and Berkshire. The perceived benefits of GM to such people are clearly very small – who needs it? No, the victims of the irrational rejection of genetic modification will be the subsistence farmers in the Southern hemisphere – the people for whom the development of drought or salt-resistant crops might actually mean the difference between life and death. It is for that very reason that Oxfam has held out against the self-serving activists to insist that "Donor governments and agencies should commit resources for investment in research into the potential opportunities of GM technology to deliver economic, environmental and health benefits to poor farmers in adverse agro-ecological zones." See Oxfam Berated.
Let us hope that the frenzy of self-justification which has characterised the headlines about Blair and GM food will not interfere with the far more important exercise currently being undertaken at the OECD conference in Edinburgh this week. This conference, GM Food Safety: Facts, Uncertainties and Assessment, chaired by Sir John Krebs, has the potential to inject a real sense of balance into a debate which currently lacks such qualities. We will be reporting its outcomes shortly.