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Science or starvation
At the end of the month, a group of protestors plan to descend upon a field in Hertfordshire and ‘decontaminate’ (i.e. destroy) a field of genetically modified wheat.The activists, from an organisation called Take the Flour Back, claim to be saving Britain from a deadly menace. In reality, they are threatening not only to undo decades of publicly funded research but destroy one of the best hopes we have of avoiding catastrophic famines.
Those opposing transgenic technology have been given an easy ride by the media for the past 20 years. But there is growing anger among scientists and even some formerly anti-GM green activists that a technology that may be the only real hope of feeding the growing world population is being stymied in the name of ‘purity’ — a nonsensical idea in a world which already depends on intensive, industrialised agriculture to feed itself.
This planned protest is against a strain of wheat that has been genetically modified to create its own aphid repellent, a chemical that smells like mint. The scientists behind it, who work at the Rothamsted Research institute, hope the new wheat will require far less pesticide than other varieties. If the technology works, they will not patent it, instead letting the world’s poorest farmers have access to it at minimal cost. This is precisely the type of ‘responsible capitalism’ that our ministers speak about.
In Norwich, another group of scientists, at the John Innes Centre, is developing a strain of wheat that is resistant to a stem-rust fungus which is sweeping the Horn of Africa and into southwest Asia, and which could cause 200 million deaths if it reaches Punjab. The scientists would love to be able to test this wheat in the field — but, thanks to campaigns by the likes of Greenpeace, nearly all African governments have forbidden transgenic plants to cross their borders.
In Switzerland, a deeply humane and now extremely angry scientist called Ingo Potrykus, who in a sane world would be clutching a Nobel Prize, has devoted his life to the creation of a new variety of ‘golden rice’ that, unlike the natural variety, is rich in vitamin A. Deficiency in this vitamin is thought to cause 400 million cases of malnutrition, two million deaths and 500,000 cases of child blindness every year. Thanks to the success of anti-GM campaigns, the introduction of golden rice has been delayed by more than a decade.
In three decades of trials and then farming, transgenic technology has not made a single human ill, nor caused any environmental damage. Opposition to GMOs has nothing to do with science and everything to do with a strain of elitist green fundamentalism more akin to religion than rationality. Myths abound that GM crops will cause allergies and sickness, that the genes will leap across to other species and create mutant monsters and superweeds. All have been proven false.
In 1798, Thomas Malthus argued that humanity’s expansion would be halted by the planet’s finite resources, and the world population would be ‘kept equal to the means of subsistence, by misery and vice’. Since then, the world population has since grown sevenfold. Malthus did not foresee mankind’s ingenuity in inventing ways to combat starvation. But we may have reached the limits of existing farming technology to feed a growing, hungry species. The United Nations projects that Africa’s population will treble this century. The continent can barely feed itself now. Transgenic farming is not a panacea, nor is it a hazardous luxury. If we are to avoid a humanitarian crisis, there is no alternative but to take the next step.
Passports to Strasbourg Passengers forced to wait for an hour and a half to clear passport control at Heathrow might be a little less angry if they could be convinced that the exercise was helping to keep illegal immigrants out of the country.The strong presence of officialdom at our ports and airports is, however, a symptom of impotence. The role of passport control is to give us the visual impression that the UK Border Agency is succeeding in repelling unwanted immigrants, when in fact its powers to do so have been steadily undermined by the Human Rights Act.
History does not record how long, if at all, Abu Qatada waited in a queue to present his false passport to officials when he entered Britain in 1993. But he is still here even now, in spite of being wanted on terror charges in Jordan. The sclerotic legal system which has allowed him to spin out his case for years makes even the queues at Heathrow look a minor impediment to progress.
Until the abuse of asylum and human rights laws is stopped, there is little point in having passport control posts. Even if the Border Agency finds a way of doing its job, the most undesirable immigrants will find ways of entering the country. The first queue that needs tackling is the one that leads to the European Court of Human Rights.
the spectator | 5 may 2012 | www.spectator.co.uk