The GM crop gamble could mean famine, not feast
Sunday Times, UK, 1 July 2001
In the 19th century only most adventurous made trek across the Wild West to southern California. You might end up as rich as Croesus or you might end up with your scalp dangling from the belt of an unfriendly native. It was the right place for the Biotechnology Association to hold its annual conference this past week. This is the ultimate high-risk industry - for the companies involved and for every man, woman and child on this earth.
If they get it right they become richer than the most successful pioneer and we get the benefits of a brave new world that even Aldous Huxley never dared to imagine. If they get it wrong, then God help all of us.
They are already getting some things right. Real progress is being made with some of the nastiest inherited diseases. Boys born with Duchenne muscular dystrophy inherit a defective gene that does not make the protein that enables muscle to be built. The child has a short life and a hellish one.
By testing susceptible pregnant women for the gene that carries the disease it should soon be possible for them to make a choice. If it is a boy, the mother can abort the foe-tus and try for a girl. Girls cannot inherit the disease. Better still, scientists are working on replacing the defective gene with one that does what it is meant to do.
Something similar is being done with another inherited disease: cystic fibrosis. The latest research is on an inhaler that can deliver a modified gene direct to the lungs.
The technology has its critics. Talk of abortion raises many questions of the "playing God" variety. Try telling that to a mother who has to watch her child fighting for every breath or suffering the crippling pain and early death of muscular dystrophy. If it were your child, would you tell the scientists to stop playing God? No, nor would I. Ultimately we may all benefit from this kind of work. The Sanger Institute tells me that scientists are trying to find the genetic component that makes us susceptible to common diseases such as serious heart conditions and diabetes. Once we know we are at risk we can try to do something about it.
Perhaps they will be able to replace even those defective genes one day, and then what will we die of? But that is a long way down the road and we may never get there. In the meantime there is another area of biotechnology that raises immediate questions: the genetic modification of plants.
This is the big prize sought by many of the biotech bigwigs who have been meeting in San Diego: the rollover lottery jackpot, the Oscar. The victor ends up controlling the world's food supply: the seeds that are planted; the fertiliser to make them grow; the pesticides to kill the bugs and the weeds. Forget Bill Gates. His success will seem modest compared with the riches on offer to the companies that win the GM race. We don't all need computers in our living rooms, but we all need food. The biggest American multinationals have already spent mind-boggling sums of money on GM research and marketing. They simply cannot afford to have it fail. When they brought their wares to Europe a few years ago to persuade us to buy, they were so desperate to impress that they got it horribly wrong. A massive advertising campaign here peddled claims that were downright misleading. They treated us like simpletons.
GM, we were told, was a risk-free solution to the world's food problems. If we embraced the technology, no child need ever again go to bed hungry. If we rejected it we would be condemning half the world to starvation.
But a country still reeling from BSE was sceptical. We looked at what some of the excesses of factory farming had done to this country since the war - to the environment, to the quality and safety of our food - and we recoiled. The British Medical Association called for a moratorium on planting GM crops. The supermarkets whisked GM food off their shelves so fast that the biotech companies were left blinking. As they watched the value of their shares crashing, the saboteurs went into action. Trial plots of GM crops were ripped out of the ground by Greenpeace protesters in white boiler suits. They filmed themselves doing it, were arrested and taken to court.
The jury listened to their arguments and found them not guilty. The protesters are still at it and they are still getting away with it. The whole trial scheme is in a mess. Without convincing trial results the government will find it very difficult indeed to sanction the commercial planting of GM crops, however great the pressure from the multinationals and their friends in the American administration. Britain is not alone in Europe. There are no GM crops being grown commercially in any of the other member states of the European Union. Now the EU is in the process of amending a directive that will come into force in October of next year and which, it says, will make it even more difficult for the biotech companies to put the squeeze on EU governments.
Nor are we alone in the world. There are GM crops growing on about lOOm acres of land. But two thirds of that land is in the United States and almost all the rest is in either Canada or Argentina. The question is whether the world is right to be cautious.
Every independent scientist recognises that there are risks involved. You might say the same for all new technologies and it is fiendishly difficult to assess risk. But let me recommend one approach: multiply the probability of a particular event occurring by the consequences of that event.
The probability of stubbing your toe on the bed at some time or another is great but the consequences are small, so you don't get rid of the bed. The probability of getting cancer from smoking 40 cigarettes a day is also great but the consequences are horrendous, so you'd be a fool to keep smoking.
With GM food we do not know what the probability is of something going wrong, but we do know what could happen if it does. Some of the world's most distinguished scientists say it is possible that swapping genes between different species could eventually create new diseases for which there is no cure. So the probability may be small but the consequences might be catastrophic.
There is another factor that influences the risk equation: benefit. If the benefit is overwhelming, it changes the picture. Who would not be prepared to take a sizeable risk if the benefit were, say, a cure for every known cancer?
The greatest potential benefit for GM crops is that they will help to feed the world. Note that the biotech companies have toned down their claims since their initial sales assault on Europe. It is now no longer the answer; it is part of the answer. But is it even that? The reason why there are so many hungry people in the world is not that there is a shortage of food. It is because there are too many desperately poor people. There is more than enough food to feed every man, woman and child. They simply can't afford either to get to where it is or to buy it.
Some respected Third World charities believe the GM revolution might make matters worse. Christian Aid has produced a report that says GM crops would create "classic preconditions for hunger and famine". That is because the multinationals have spent a fortune buying up many of the biggest seed companies and patenting the different seed varieties. Christian Aid says a food supply based on too few varieties of patented crops is the worst option for food security. The poorest countries themselves are deeply suspicious of the whole project. So if the consequences are potentially catastrophic and the benefits are, at best, debatable, the risk begins to look pretty big even if we cannot assess the probability. Perhaps the biotech conference should have moved from California across the state border to Nevada. That's where everyone goes to gamble.