Wednesday, 5 March 2014

GM: it's more complicated than just good or bad

Scientists working in a lab in Norwich have produced a potato that would have prevented the lethal famine that devastated Ireland in the 1840s.
More to the point, it could save modern farmers from having to spray their potato crop ten to 15 times a year with fungicide. Which would not only save time and money, but also significantly reduce chemical pollution.
As an added bonus, the new variety produces twice the yield of potatoes per plant.
Sounds like a win-win scenario. Except it isn’t.
And it isn’t for a reason that must have the researchers banging their heads against the wall.
It’s all down to two words: “genetically modified”. More specifically, it’s down to public perception of what those two words mean.
As usual when it comes to science, the public knows very little. And, as we do know, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
Late potato blight destroys an awful lot of potatoes every year – £3.5billion worth worldwide. So you’d think farmers would be falling over themselves to plant the resistant variety developed at the Sainsbury Laboratory.
They probably would be if European regulations didn’t ban genetically modified crops.
The new potato isn’t exactly Franken-food, though.
Over three years, Jonathan Jones and his team have isolated a gene from a South American potato that makes it resistant to blight, and introduced it to their British Desiree potato.
It isn’t, in principle, any different from the processes that brought potatoes to this side of the Atlantic in the first place. Or produced all the varieties we know now, including the Desiree.
It’s just that the technique is quicker, more targeted, more accurate at doing what’s needed and nothing else.
As Professor Jones says: “Breeding from wild relatives is laborious and slow and by the time a gene is successfully introduced into a cultivated variety, the late blight pathogen may already have evolved the ability to overcome it.
“With new insights into both the pathogen and its potato host, we can use GM technology to tip the evolutionary balance in favour of potatoes and against late blight.”
Europe’s antagonism to GM means British farmers will be denied the opportunity to save the £72m per year they spend on anti-blight pesticides. While the potato created in Norwich will be cashed in on by a company in Idaho.
It’s a crazy outcome of an essentially well-meaning set of regulations.
There are genuine reasons for distrusting some kinds of genetic modification.
It’s not, as some people seem to believe, that GM foods are somehow “bad for you”. They aren’t.
Fears that GM crops might contaminate nearby traditional crops by cross-pollination have more basis in reality, though they are wildly exaggerated.
The biggest genuine reason for concern is about who owns the technology and what they want to use it for.
When a multi-national corporation tells you its concern is for people’s welfare, you know what it really cares about is profit. When it produces a “super-crop” that is super only because it needs a constant supply of the same corporation’s chemicals, you know it’s on a winner – and the poor farmer’s on a loser.
The idea that a company like the American giant Monsanto could effectively control the world market in grain, for example, is terrifying.
These are the things that have made GM a bad word.
They have as little in common with the Sainsbury Lab’s blight-free potato as your pedal-bike has with MotoGP champion Marc Márquez’s 1,000cc, 214mph Honda.
The fact that opposition to one prevents use of the other is just one more reason to curse companies like Monsanto.
And the public (and official) ignorance that can’t tell one type of bike (or GM) from another.


Eve Muirhead, she of the intense blue-eyed stare, said winning Olympic curling bronze was “extra special” because it was for Team GB. She seems to have been expressing a view that’s widely held north of the border.
But I don’t think the outcome of the independence referendum is a foregone conclusion yet.
If anyone can persuade the Scots to vote to get out of the United Kingdom, it’s David Cameron.
Telling them their country (population 5.3million) is too small to profit from the oil off their shores was a shotgun blast through his own foot. Unless privately he really wants them to go their own way, leaving England as a Tory stronghold.
Would that be too small like Norway, whose 5.1m people have profited far more from their own North Sea oil bonanza than we have?
Like Qatar, whose 2m registered citizens are the richest in the world per capita, thanks to oil?
Or like Brunei (population less than twice that of Norwich), whose oil has made it the fifth richest country in the world?
If I lived in Scotland I reckon I’d vote to be freed from the oily moguls of Westminster.



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