Monday, 21 June 2010

Eating the future

Last Tuesday, with a spot of time on my hands, I popped down to the Dana Centre  to listen to a debate on GM food. I am in no way a scientist, but I do think that clever people mucking about on the boundaries of knowledge is rather amazing, and I do get awfully excited when someone declares that they've created artificial life, have built a massive machine that whangs tiny things together exceedingly fast, or have done anything at all with lasers. I am also a firm believer that 'I wanted to see what would happen' is a perfectly reasonable justification for almost anything involving a lab coat and a research grant. If humanity had been no good at piddling about experimentally we'd never have got beyond fire and wheels.

So I'm fairly partial to the idea of GM foods, and as someone who's never understood the organic food bandwagon (let's return to less efficient farming techniques, only sell the shiniest bits of what we grow, chuck in a massive price hike and some pretty packaging, and somehow convince the Waitrosians that they're saving the planet!), I thought this might be an interesting debate.

It was.

A string of speakers
Sadly, the term 'debate' wasn't quite apt: it was more of a series of roughly speeches with miniature question and answer sessions. Sue Nelson chaired, and the speakers, in order, were Nigel Halford (of the plant science group at Rothamsted Research), Colin Tudge (biologist and writer) and Vivian Moses (ex-academic type and current chair of CropGen). Basically, the respectably large audience assembled, watched a short and fairly rubbish video (made some vague points, simplified some complex issues and irritated all the speakers - it was like one of those primary-coloured BBC education videos from the '70s that they wheeled out every so often at GCSE when the teacher was getting too close to a nervous breakdown), listened to each of the speakers in turn, asking a few questions along the way, split up into some smaller groups for a bit of a chat, pressed some buttons on our electronic voting pads, filled in some questionnaires (in return for a free drink - this is the kind of science I can get used to) and then meandered off into the night, feeling smug and clever for going to a debate at a subsection of the Science Museum instead of watching foot-the-ball.

Another problem with describing this as a debate is that there wasn't really anyone on the other side. Colin Tudge, who can legitimately be described as a curmudgeon, disagreed with the other speakers, yes, but he didn't actually seem to be against GM foods: his main problem seemed to be with the disturbing effects of GM research being commanded by evil global mega corporations. He actually used the term 'neo-liberal economy', and he wasn't talking about Vince Cable - he meant it as in 'neo-Nazi' and 'neocon' - 'neo' is not a jolly prefix.

Actually, I'll talk about Colin Tudge a bit more, since he was the most interesting speaker, in the sense that he was the one who most made me want to shout at him. His chief point, aside from the international capitalist conspiracy (which he's probably right about, but turning up dressed like a member of the Wurzels and telling us that drought-resistance is the enemy rather ruined his message), was that agriculture should be run by craft rather than technology. His argument seemed to be that the history of farming, which has fairly obviously gone through some major developments since cave-dwelling, was all fine right up to the point where we started mucking about with genes, at which point it became 'technology' (a word which does not apply to, say, ploughs, hybrid breeding or tractors), and thus mad, bad and dangerous to sow.

There's something to be said for the complaint that modern agriculture has become about good profits rather than good food, but Mr Tudge never seemed to explain the link from this to the concept of genetic modification. Nor did he explain why the long tradition and use of hybrid crops is okay, but modern GM isn't, even though the former is just an uncontrolled, unanalysed version of the latter.

Progress reform
As Nigel Halford, the first speaker, pointed out, there is no black and white distinction between GM and non-GM. Genetics change - that's how it works. Vivian Moses also ran with this point, arguing convincingly that agriculture is technology, and thus that GM is just another step in the constant evolution of humanity's attempts to feed itself. In principle, GM is no different from cross-pollination - it simply skips the sluggish trial and error process of the past.

Basically, these two were a bit more convincing, although they skirted the issue of corporate nastiness (Monsanto: 'we just didn't think anyone would be interested in what we were doing'). I suppose they had the advantage of more or less preaching to the converted: I'm guessing the kind of people who look out for events at the science museum are, on the whole, going to be fairly pro-science.

As for why we should be in favour of GM, this is basically just a list of shiny hopes for the future: resistance to salt, drought, insects and viruses; vitamin supplements; a way to respond to unpredictable climate changes; and generally a way to deal with the increasing demands of population and prosperity in the world. Admittedly, a lot of this is isn't actually happening yet, but it does seem that rejecting a whole avenue of reasearch because of some sentimentality about the olden ways is a bit daft. Don't get me wrong: I love the countryside, I love pretty rolling fields, hedgerows bustling with life, public footpaths and air you can breath without coughing, but I also love the idea of people not dying, and I think it's parochial and selfish to say that because organic farming can feed the M&S brigade it can feed the whole world just as well.

Other intriguing arguments
Intriguingly, Vivian Moses suggested that GM is actually safer than other plant breeding, because it's the only kind of growing that is regulated for allergens, toxins and what-have-you. I think this situation is reasonable (I suppose that GM has the theoretical potential to do less predictable and more dangerous things to crops, so checking what's going on is probably a good idea), but this seems like a fair point: why should people instinctively be afraid of something solely because it has been examined and altered by scientists? We trust science when it tells us that vegetables rock, so why shouldn't we trust it when it reckons it can have a go at making some better ones?

One excellent point came up in the group discussions afterwards, and at some point I'd like to hear the anti-GM lobby (if they exist) comment on it. Many medicines and useful chemicals, including specifically insulin, are produced by modifying the genetics of bacteria. I don't think many of the neo-hippies would argue against the manufacture of insulin, but really this isn't that different to GM food.

The media (boo, hiss)
Amusingly, both sides were convinced that they had been nobbled by media propaganda, which for all the (often-justified) newspaper-bashing that went on, was actually encouraging - the closest thing we can get to media fairness is making everyone feel equally hard-done-by.

Oh, and while I'm on the subject of media-bashing, a remarkon 'Frankenstein foods'. This being a reasonably scientific debate, the phrase only came up as a joke, but I just wanted to throw it in here to add another voice to the choir of complaints about it. Not because it's an idiotic Daily Mail scare story standard, but because it's yet another example of half-wits throwing about the murky name of Frankenstein without having even gone into the same room as a copy of the book. For in fact, with only a tiny spot of wrangling, Frankenstein can be used in favour of GM foods.

'Cos good old Doctor F is a brilliant scientist with the potential to do tremendous things for humanity. The problem isn't the science, but the parenting - the book makes it pretty clear that the monster could have been decent, virtuous and productive, if it hadn't been driven to violence and hatred by its absentee father and the unpleasant, distrusting nature of humanity, who lash out violently against anything they don't instantly understand, no matter how marvellous. A bit like they do with GM foods, then...


  1. Alec, LOVE this. Please can we link to it?

  2. Definitely - it would be an honour! I am glad it wasn't deemed a load of old cobblers.

    It was an interesting evening, although I must note that the free pen they gave me is already getting a bit iffy.