Homeric Cheese v. Technophiliac Relish

David Cooper writes about GM food

‘Wonder bacteria will manufacture drugs and food supplements, while contributing to the production of cheese and other foods. They will be used to prevent frost damage to strawberries. Crops will be created to resist pests and diseases ... Food products from wonder fish, cattle and poultry will also find their way onto the grocer’s shelves.’ These might have been predictions from a utopian tract by some 1930s technophile – H.G. Wells, perhaps, or J.B.S. Haldane. However, change the tense and replace ‘wonder’ by ‘genetically engineered’ and ‘grocer’ by ‘supermarket’, and you have an actual passage from a recent book, Eat Your Genes.

Tense and names are not all that have changed. The developments envisaged as leading to an agricultural utopia in the 1930s are currently regarded by the great majority of people in this country as being on course for dystopia. People won’t knowingly eat ‘Frankenstein’ foods; masked eco-warriors, dressed like Woody Allen’s storm-trooping spermatazoa, are busy wrecking GM field trials; banks are advising investors to get out of GM shares; and having found their way onto supermarket shelves, GM foods are quickly finding their way off them again. Producers of these foods have been taken by surprise, doubtless lulled into a false sense of security by the docile absorption of their products into the American diet. ‘What’s GM food?’ was for years the response of US shoppers, whose trolleys bulged with the stuff.

This change in perceptions is puzzling, the more so given that my 1930s futurologist had not experienced the problems of petrochemical agriculture (DDT, fertilisers and all) during the postwar ‘green revolution’ – problems which GM techniques, as much as organic farming, are supposed to consign to history. (In 1962, the first lady of environmentalism, Rachel Carson, was enthusiastic, for just this reason, about the potential of the bio-insecticide B.t., now reviled for its alleged effect on certain butterflies.) Nor would my futurologist have witnessed the Third World famines of recent decades to which, once more, genetic engineering of crops is promised to provide a permanent solution.

Hardest to explain is the sheer passion of the hostility, which contrasts strangely with a relatively sanguine attitude towards genetic engineering in other areas. One sympathises with the geneticist Steve Jones, who has described his bewilderment when, after he has explained to his students the serious moral issues surrounding research in human genetics, their only response is, ‘That’s all well and good, but what about GM food?’ His bewilderment, Jones points out, is like that felt at the enthusiasm of the Nazis for both eugenics and the ‘purity of nature’. Similarly striking is the contrast between responses to hi-tech developments in medicine and those in agriculture. People who want their pills to be state-of-the-art, and smile condescendingly at their grandparents’ panaceas, are determined, it seems, to eat nothing that granny might not have baked. This is odd given, first, the hardly questionable health benefits of some GM products (fatless chips, calorie-free sugars and so on) and, second, the tendency in recent years to soften the distinction between medical issues and wider concerns for the well-being of ‘the whole person’.

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