Julian Sheather on genetically modified organisms

One evening last week I found myself alone in the restaurant of a large golfing hotel in a remote corner of Essex. Probably because it happens so infrequently, I quite like having dinner on my own, even in a large golfing hotel. It means I get to read while I eat, something I am not allowed to do at home as my wife, quite rightly, considers it ill-mannered. Anyway, having finished my book I started to read the menu. It was a fairly unremarkable menu – modern European – but at the bottom, in small print, was the apparently innocuous statement.We try wherever possible to use foods free from genetically modified organisms. Ordinarily I wouldn’t have thought about it. These modish nods to prevailing green deities are increasingly common, and given how dependent restaurateurs are on the whims of their customers, entirely understandable. But perhaps because I was on my own with an unusual amount of time on my hands, and I had finished my book, it started to irritate me.

Scratch the surface of the contemporary sniffiness towards GMOs and the chances are that you’ll soon be told that it’s unnatural. Switching genetic material between organisms is not man’s work but God’s, and if we carry on we will surely incur his wrath. A judgement of Biblical proportions will be called down upon us, probably in the form of an uncontrollable plague of genetically modified beasties. But the big problem here is that, used as the justification for opposing GMOs, the idea of the ‘natural’ has to do an awful lot of work, and it is not at all clear that it is up to it. What, precisely, do we mean when we say that a thing is unnatural? And if it is, is it a bad thing?

Let us start the other way round. Just because a thing is natural it doesn’t mean it’s good. The AIDS virus, malaria, cancer: all are naturally occurring and all are vile. Medicine can itself be seen as the ever more complex deployment of unnatural means in pursuit of human wellbeing. A cure, however ‘unnatural’ for any of these curses must be a good thing. Also, a great deal of what we take to be natural has been modified beyond recognition. The natural precursors of many of our crops are mere starveling things. Wheat has been developed from wayside grasses and the progenitors of our huge maize ears were a mere half inch long. Their cultivation may have been slow, but it was far from ‘natural’. When I hear people champion the idea of the natural I am also reminded of Darwin’s thoughts about the ichneumon wasp. This charming fly paralyses the bodies of certain larvae before laying its eggs inside them. When the young hatch they get to feed on the living but immobile host. “I own” he writes “that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars.”

And then there are the potential benefits of genetically modified crops. With so many in the developing world going hungry, and global populations rising stratospherically, the alternative to GM crops is likely to be mass starvation. As Thomas Malthus pointed out, famine is an entirely natural method of population control, albeit an unpleasant one, and we have used unnatural methods for thousands of years to try to mitigate it. If we reject GM crops in the west we will not starve, but in other parts of the world it is not clear that such a luxury is available.

That a cause is fashionable doesn’t make it unjust. I am as indignant as the next about our spoliation of the planet. Our short sighted selfishness raises hard questions about the sustainability of our current economic model and the justice of bequeathing a dying ecosystem to future generations. But these large concerns are supported by evidence, and the risks of failing to act are becoming more and more clear. When it comes to GM crops, the benefits are potentially enormous. Without clear evidence of significant risk, we are in danger of putting a sentimental idea of nature before the lives of millions of people. As a matter of urgency we need to make sure we get our thinking straight.