At the end of last year I set up a discussion forum on my website on the question of GMOs. I wanted to encourage wider public debate about what I see as a fundamental issue and one which affects each and every one of us, and future generations.
There was a huge response - some 10,000 replies have indicated that public concern about the use of GM technology has been growing. Many food producers and retailers have clearly felt the same overwhelming anxiety from their consumers who are demanding a choice in what they eat. A number of them have now banned GM ingredients from their own-brand products.
But the debate continues to rage. Not a day goes by without some new piece of research claiming to demonstrate either the safety or the risks of GM technology. It is very hard for people to know just who is right. Few of us are able to interpret all the scientific information which is available - and even the experts don't always agree. But what I believe the public's reaction shows is that instinctively we are nervous about tampering with Nature when we can't be sure that we know enough about all the consequences.
Having followed this debate very closely for some while now, I believe that there are still a number of unanswered questions which need to be asked.
1. Do we need GM food in this country?
On the basis of what we have seen so far, we don't appear to need it at all. The benefits, such as there are, seem to be limited to the people who own the technology and the people who farm on an industrialised scale. We are constantly told that this technology may have huge benefits for the future. Well, perhaps. But we have all heard claims like that before and they don't always come true in the long run - look at the case of antibiotic growth promoters in animal feedstuff...
2. Is GM food safe for us to eat?
There is certainly no evidence to the contrary. But how much evidence do we have? And are we looking at the right things? The major decisions about what can be grown and what can be sold are taken on the basis of studying what is known about the original plant, comparing it to the genetically modified variety, and then deciding whether the two are 'substantially equivalent'. But is it enough to look only at what is already known? Isn't there at least a possibility that the new crops (particularly those that have been made resistant to antibiotics) will behave in unexpected ways, producing toxic or allergic reactions? Only independent scientific research, over a long period, can provide the final answer.
3. Why are the rules for approving GM foods so much less stringent than those for new medicines produced using the same technology?
Before drugs are released into the marketplace they have to undergo the most rigorous testing - and quite right too. But GM food is also designed in a laboratory for human consumption, albeit in different circumstances. Surely it is equally important that we are confident that they will do us no harm?
4. How much do we really know about the environmental consequences of GM crops?
Laboratory tests showing that pollen from GM maize in the United States caused damage to the caterpillars of Monarch butterflies provide the latest cause for concern. If GM plants can do this to butterflies, what damage might they cause to other species? But more alarmingly perhaps, this GM maize is not under test. It is already being grown commercially throughout large areas of the United States of America. Surely this effect should have been discovered by the company producing the seeds, or the regulatory authorities who approved them for sale, at a much earlier stage? Indeed, how much more are we going to learn the hard way about the impact of GM crops on the environment?
5. Is it sensible to plant test crops without strict regulations in place?
Such crops are being planted in this country now - under a voluntary code of practice. But English Nature, the Government's official adviser on nature conservation, has argued that we ought to put strict, enforceable regulations in place first. Even then, will it really be possible to prevent contamination of nearby wildlife or crops, whether organic or not? Since bees and the wind don't obey any sort of rules - voluntary or statutory - we shall soon have an unprecedented and unethical situation in which one farmer's crops will contaminate another's against his will.
6. How will consumers be able to exercise genuine choice?
Labelling schemes clearly have a role to play. But if conventional and organic crops can become contaminated by GM crops grown nearby, those people who wish to be sure they are eating or growing absolutely natural, non-industrialised, real food, will be denied that choice. This seems to me to be wrong.
7. If something goes wrong with a GM crop, who will be held responsible?
It is important that we know precisely who is going to be legally liable to pay for any damage - whether it be to human health, the environment, or both. Will it be the company who sells the seed or the farmer who grows it? Or will it, as was the case with BSE, be all of us?
8. Are GM crops really the only way to feed the world's growing population?
This argument sounds suspiciously like emotional blackmail to me. Is there any serious academic research to substantiate such a sweeping statement? The countries which might be expected to benefit certainly take a different view. Representatives of 20 African states, including Ethiopia, have published a statement denying that gene technologies will 'help farmers to produce the food that is needed in the 21st Century'. On the contrary, they 'think it will destroy the diversity, the local knowledge and the sustainable agricultural systems ? and undermine our capacity to feed ourselves'. How much more could we achieve if all the research funds currently devoted to fashionable GM techniques - which run into billions of dollars a year - were applied to improving methods of agriculture which have stood the test of time? We already know that yields from many traditional farming systems can be doubled, at least, by making better use of existing natural resources.
9. What effect will GM crops have on the people of the world's poorest countries?
Christian Aid has just published a devastating report, entitled Selling Suicide, explaining why GM crops are unlikely to provide solutions to the problems of famine and poverty. Where people are starving, lack of food is rarely the underlying cause. It is more likely to be lack of money to buy food, distribution problems or political difficulties. The need is to create sustainable livelihoods for everyone. Will GM crops really do anything to help? Or will they make the problems worse, leading to increasingly industrialised forms of agriculture, with larger farms, crops grown for export while indigenous populations starve, and more displaced farm workers heading for a miserable, degraded existence in yet more shanty towns?
10. What sort of world do we want to live in?
This is the biggest question of all. I raise it because the capacity of GM technology to change our world has brought us to a crossroads of fundamental importance. Are we going to allow the industrialisation of Life itself, redesigning the natural world for the sake of convenience and embarking on an Orwellian future? And, if we do, will there eventually be a price to pay? Or should we be adopting a gentler, more considered approach, seeking always to work with the grain of Nature in making better, more sustainable use of what we have, for the long-term benefit of mankind as a whole? The answer is important. It will affect far more than the food we eat; it will determine the sort of world we, and our children, inhabit.