You are more likely to get hit by an asteroid than to get hurt by GM food. More to the point, people have died from choosing organic, but no-one has died from eating GM.
So I did some reading. And I discovered that one by one my cherished beliefs about GM turned out to be little more than green urban myths. I’d assumed that it would increase the use of chemicals. It turned out that pest-resistant cotton and maize needed less insecticide. I’d assumed that GM benefited only the big companies. It turned out that billions of dollars of benefits were accruing to... farmers needing fewer inputs. I’d assumed that Terminator Technology was robbing farmers of the right to save seed. It turned out that hybrids did that long ago, and that Terminator never happened. I’d assumed that no-one wanted GM. Actually what happened was that Bt cotton was pirated into India and roundup ready soya into Brazil because farmers were so eager to use them. I’d assumed that GM was dangerous. It turned out that it was safer and more precise than conventional breeding using mutagenesis for example; GM just moves a couple of genes, whereas conventional breeding mucks about with the entire genome in a trial and error way. But what about mixing genes between unrelated species? The fish and the tomato? Turns out viruses do that all the time, as do plants and insects and even us – it’s called gene flow. But this was still only the beginning. So in my third book The God Species I junked all the environmentalist orthodoxy at the outset and tried to look at the bigger picture on a planetary scale. And this is the challenge that faces us today: we are going to have to feed 9.5 billion hopefully much less poor people by 2050 on about the same land area as we use today, using limited fertiliser, water and pesticides and in the context of a rapidly-changing climate.
What really threw me were some of the comments underneath my final anti-GM Guardian article. In particular one critic said to me: so you’re opposed to GM on the basis that it is marketed by big corporations. Are you also opposed to the wheel because because it is marketed by the big auto companies?
Okay, so this is just one test in one country. But this matters, because in destroying it Greenpeace is asserting its right to prevent the development of a whole technology. Given that it speaks for no-one but itself (and, at a push, its supporters who stump up the cash) this is potentially profoundly anti-democratic. What gives a single fringe group the right to foreclose an entire societal... development path using criminal methods? And why is the reaction so muted? As I have already written in my book and elsewhere, I have plenty of personal experience of this, having taken similar actions in the past against GM crops. But that was over 10 years ago, and a huge amount of information has been produced in the interim demonstrating the massive potential of biotechnology to increase productivity, reduce water and toxic environmental burdens, and to better the nutritional content of vital foodstuffs. Moreover, no-one has produced any convincing evidence anywhere showing that GM is somehow more dangerous than any other method for altering the genome of crop plants.
I have resisted posting anything on Greenpeace’s destruction of a genetically-modified wheat test site in Australia last week because – following from the spat over the IPCC renewables report – I didn’t want to wade straight into another controversy by alleging that Greenpeace in particular abuses science. However, the more I read about the Greenpeace Australia action, the more egregious it seems... – and I’m afraid I can no longer keep quiet. First, none of the standard eco-talking points on GM apply: this was public-sector biotechnology, being developed by the research agency CSIRO not to enhance the profits of a sinister multinational but to enhance the nutritional prospects for one of humanity’s most important food crops. Second, there seems to have been little if any condemnation coming from the more mainstream parts of the green movement, many of whose members must realise that in taking this action Greenpeace has moved well beyond the pale scientifically. And third, I believe this action offers an opportunity – which should not be missed – for science to begin to fight back against the green Luddism which threatens to dangerously discredit serious and important environmental causes.