The everyday blog of Richard Bartle.

1:36pm on Tuesday, 22nd March, 2005:

Bugs that eat Food


Let's suppose that you found a new strain of wheat growing near an isolated oasis in the Middle East. You propagate it, plant a field full of it, and find that it's resistant to insects. As a result, it has a very high yield. Should that wheat be allowed onto the open market?

Well, there are many obstacles, sure. The people who owned the oasis might feel it's theirs, and commercial wheat seed producers might dislike the effect it would have on their sales. On the whole, though, these objections would pale into insignificance when considered alongside the fact that it's going to stop millions of people from starving.

Ah, but what about the bugs? They normally eat wheat, but if they can't then there'll be fewer of them. If there are fewer bugs, then there will be fewer things that eat bugs, like birds and small mammals. Some of the bugs might be pretty — butterflies, say. Now does the story change? That wheat is damaging the ecology!

No, it doesn't change. All crops damage the ecology. The bugs that are living in an open field are going to drop in numbers when it's turned over to agriculture to produce the extra food that the new wheat could have produced. Why are we even talking about bugs?

We're talking about them because a recently-completed study of GM crops found that there were fewer bugs and things that ate bugs in GM fields than in non-GM fields. Well yes, they would fidn that. It shows the crops are working. The problem is..?

I'm no fan of GM foods, but I'm not against them in principle. I think that if genetically modified crops are to be grown commercially, they should be sterile (so they're not with us forever after just one season) and they should be tested in the same way that medicines are tested (because although it may be OK to eat wheat that has a tomato gene in it, that doesn't mean it's OK to eat wheat with a squid gene in it). If those two conditions are satisfied, I don't care whether food is GM or not.

The trials that showed potential "harm" arising from GM crop production are being used politically as an excuse not to continue with GM crop-planting in the UK. The government's attitude seems to be: it's science, science scares people, therefore we'll use some scientific evidence of what we knew would happen anyway to justify not having this stuff.

Whether GM food is dangerous or not depends on what it's been modified to do. GM maize can be made to have a bigger yield, or produce taller stalks, or to have a different colour, or to be a deadly poison. It's how it's modified that matters, not that it's modified. These crops weren't wheat that could save the world. They were for more mundane things, like spring planting and resistance to insecticide. They weren't sterile, so will probably have escaped into the environment at large, hopefully not to cause any worries in the future. Nevertheless, they shouldn't have been banned solely on the basis of the results of the trials. That's dishonest.

If the government wants to ban GM crops, it should just be up front about it and say why. People don't understand GM enough yet, and until they do we don't want it here, thanks.

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Copyright © 2005 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).