I am increasingly convinced that an epic struggle is underway between the forces of reason and those of ignorance, between progress and fear. That’s a pretty bold claim, and includes language usually reserved for Channel 4 adverts for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but the fact remains that science and progress are under threat from a vocal and sometimes criminal minority.
Yesterday a Derbyshire farmer withdrew from a trial of genetically modified potatoes due to take place next year on the grounds that he fears for his personal safety. He claims to have received threatening phone calls. This reminds me of the incident in 2001 when protesters (including environmentalist and journalist George Monbiot) destroyed GM crop-trial in Flintshire, only two of whom were tried and given what were cursory fines. It is also linked to other anti-scientific movements.
In fact, nobody has ever proved any risk to health as a result of consuming GM crops. America’s 280 million people have been chomping their way through GM products for a decade without one recorded ill effect – despite this being the country where a man can sue Michael Jordan because he looks like him! The leading scientific academies of Brazil, China, India, Mexico, the UK and the USA have all declared that GM foods are safe.
Furthermore, GM crops have clear beneficial effects. They are great for the six million poor Third World farmers who grow them: Chinese farmers have seen profits rise by $500 a hectare; South Africa’s small scale cotton farmers have seen profits rise by three quarters; the reduced reliance on pesticides and herbicides has also reduced the damage to these farmers’ health. It also has a positive knock-on effect on the environment for the same reason. The “Golden rice” that is being produced is an odd colour because it contains a higher than normal amount of beta-carotene. If cultivated and consumed widely around the world it could alleviate the half million cases annually of child blindness caused by Vitamin A deficiency. Plants are being modified to make vaccines to protect people against hepatitis and diarrhoeal diseases that cause millions of deaths.
The fear of GM crops is an irrational result of a number of factors. The fear of science is as old as science itself, championed by the Church and the subject of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In the case of food-fear, it began to gain real ground in Britain after the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) crisis. Though this was a tragic episode, the ramifications of which thousands are still having to live with, it had nothing to do with GM food. Rather, it triggered a wave of food paranoia that still clouds debate in the UK today.
Debate is, in fact, what we need. Food safety is an important issue, but so is poverty alleviation, environmental protection and (dare I say) the economics of food production. Rational debate about the balance between these is necessary, as is a serious examination of the risks and rewards of using GM crops. What cannot be tolerated is that a small minority of ignorant zealots can be allowed to disrupt scientific research and threaten people’s safety. As with the criminal activity of antivivisection extremists (plenty of examples of which are already well known), it is essential that the Government and the police take a firm stand. The use of “direct action” in the name of the public interest or the supposed rights of animals is not only illegal but a threat to democracy. If we are all free to damage property and intimidate people associated with things with which we disagree, we are living not in liberty but in anarchy. These actions undermine freedom in the name of irrational beliefs.
Today’s story is a defeat for reason and for freedom. I hope it proves to be a rare one.