08 February, 2002
John Sheard spent four years covering the so-called Mad Cow scandal. Now, he sees worrying signs that GM foods might be following the same dangerous path.
ALTHOUGH I have never seen the figures, I assume that food production is the world's biggest industry. Food and water are, after all, the products that all of us need every day (and pity the Third World unfortunates who don't get them).
But until comparatively recently, farming and the sale of foods were small-scale businesses, with locally grown produce being sold to local people in local shops and markets.
Then Big Business got involved and, say some, that when things began to go wrong.
||I don't intend to go into detail about the series of scandals that have rocked British food production in recent years - they are too well known - but I experienced a serious chill down the spine this week when English Nature, one of the Government's advisers on this subject, issued a worrying report about genetically modified (GM) crops in Canada.
There, they said, GM plants were crossbreeding to produce species so far unknown to mankind - something that some biochemists said could never happen. And this reminded me of the chilling, but overlooked, crux of the BSE crisis.
When the big agricultural feed companies persuaded farmers that it was good business to turn herbivores into carnivores, they were unaware of the existence of a tiny organism called the prion.
Smaller than a microbe or a virus, it was virtually indestructible to heat treatment and other ways used for sterilising food, including cooking. It had been noticed by some scientists but in small, largely overlooked cases involving cannibalism, both in humans in the South Seas and in mink kept on American fur farms.
It had a very unpleasant habit: it fed on the brains of living creatures. Despite this, British farm animals were turned into unwitting cannibals by being fed the rendered remains of other animals or, sometimes, of their own species.
The Government was well aware that something was going disastrously wrong in the British countryside years before they officially admitted it. As a result, thousands of cattle were slaughtered and now some 100 people, mainly youngsters, have died of the human variant of BSE.
In those early days, politicians, scientists and MAFF vets said there was no proof that this strange disease had come from animal feed. So as there was no proof, they allowed the practice to go for several years.
Pleas by other scientists that this was the wrong way round - that the feed should be proved NOT to be harmful before it was used - were ignored. And in a classic case of putting the cart before the horse, thousands more cattle, and an as yet unknown numbers of people, were to die before the existence of the prion was proved to be potentially fatal.
That is why English Nature's warning on GM foods is so alarming. No, we do not know if they are harmful and the scientists representing the massive, multi-national bio-chemical companies insist that they are not.
But if new species of plants are being created by crossbreeding, how do we know if they are harmful or not? Might there be some other prion-like organism waiting to pounce, either on wild creatures that feed on these plants or even on human beings?
This time, hopefully, the proof of the pudding will not be in the eating. By that time, it would be too late. No, the Government - indeed, all the governments of the world - should insist that no GM foods are marketed until they have been proved beyond all doubt to be safe
And that will take years. Will the global agri-industrial companies, with their wealth and huge lobbying power, be prepared to wait?