Even Mother Nature hates GM crops

The second generation of GM products is as unpalatable as the first, says
robert matthews

With the tenacity of triffids on steroids, the cheerleaders for genetically
modified (GM) crops are back. And this time it's personal. They want you and
me to give them a second chance to prove GM is A Good Thing.

Their media campaign got off to a flying start last week, with a primetime
piece on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, in which scientists talked up
revolutionary new GM crops.

If that sounds familiar, it shouldn't - because they really have changed
their tune.

Back in the late 1990s, agrochemical companies focused on convincing farmers
of the benefits of GM, while ignoring consumers. That worked fine in the US,
where consumers seem happy to eat anything as long as there's lots of it.

But over in Europe it proved disastrous.

PR initiatives worked in America, where consumers seem to eat anything as
long as there's lots of it - but not in Europe

Environmentalists seized on the idea of faceless multinationals foisting
'Frankenfoods' on us, while supermarkets paraded their green credentials by
refusing to stock GM products. The market collapsed, leaving GM scientists
to howl about the public's 'ignorance'.

Not any more. Now even Lord May, former president of the Royal Society and a
staunch advocate of GM techology, admits he got it wrong. The public, he
concedes, acted entirely rationally. They may have been mistaken about the
potential health risks, but they were dead right about one thing: GM crops
offered them no tangible benefits. So why should they accept them?

Hence the new tune being sung by the GM industry, which is keen to show off
'second generation' products with supposed consumer benefits.

The Agricultural Biotechology Council, a GM lobby group, told the BBC that
its member companies are now hard at work developing crops with better
nutritional qualities. Some are already available in the US, such as cereals
with zero 'trans' fats, implicated in heart disease.

So will this new hearts-and-minds campaign work? Don't bank on it. Even if
the new products do offer genuine consumer benefits, the public still has to
be convinced that nasty side-effects won't turn up years from now.

The case of irradiated food is salutary. First suggested a century ago as a
way of boosting shelf-life, exposing food to intense bursts of radiation has
been repeatedly given a clean bill of health. Even the notoriously twitchy
World Health Organisation has declared it safe and effective. Yet you won't
find irradiated food for sale in your local supermarket, because none of
this matters. Shoppers just won't touch it.

Getting them to rethink their attitude to GM food is clearly going to be
tough. But now an even more awkward customer is becoming a problem for the
GM lobby: Mother Nature.

In 1992 Chinese farmers became the first to plant GM crops, in the form of
cotton modified to produce a protein lethal to the notorious bollworm pest.
At first the crop seemed to live up to its billing, allowing farmers to cut
pesticide use by 70 per cent. But earlier this year, reports revealed that
the demise of the bollworm has simply encouraged the rise of other pests,
which require regular treatment with whole new pesticides. And the extra
expense has all but wiped out the economic advantage of the GM crop.

The speed with which this pioneering GM crop has been undermined has shocked
scientists. Far more shocking is their belief that Mother Nature was going
to just sit there and do nothing while GM crops were planted across the

Evolution is all about adaptation and survival of the fittest. Weaklings
don't get a second chance. And it's far from clear why the GM industry
should be an exception.