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Clones, clowns and countryside consequences

Friday 13 August 2010

Our long suffering countryside commentator John Sheard, who for 20 years has been asking the public to differentiate so called “food scare” facts from uninformed near hysteria, laments the latest row over cloned beef and its non-existent links with GM foods

IT IS now almost a quarter of a century since I quit the big city and settled in the Yorkshire Dales to write about the subject I loved best – the English countryside, its people and its wildlife – and I am still amazed at the huge gap in understanding between country folk and thousands of their townie cousins.

One of the main sources of misunderstanding is food, how its is produced and, indeed, in those 25 years I have had to cover far too many lamentable, even fatal, episodes in the journey from farm to table: salmonella in poultry; listeria in soft cheeses; avian flu; BSE, the so called Mad Cow disease; and, seared in the memory of every farmer in the Yorkshire Dales, foot and mouth.

Mink: massive mistake

Now these really were serious diseases, although sometimes made worse by media hype, but despite that the public alarm they created was justified. Now, sadly, a certain section of the population – mainly, it seems to me, the chattering classes in our big cities - have reached a point of near hysteria when it comes to the very food we eat.

This was exemplified this week by the continued rumbling on about cloned beef in the food chain, one of those rather complex stories which have been put together by bits of information gleaned here and there, rather like your original Frankenstein’s Monster.

As far as I can work it out –and I have read several different versions – it was not actually a cloned animal that has been butchered but the offspring of a cloned American created bull. Or was it the offspring of the offsprings of that bull?

That will no doubt be sorted out in time but much of the public outcry has been caused because the cloning of this animal (these animals?) have been linked together with GM foods, the genetically modified stuff which some papers call Frankenstein Foods.

And this is where the misinformation gap becomes a chasm. The two actions – cloned and genetically modified – are total opposites. One means a creation absolutely the same as the original. The second means something that has been changed by human intervention.

This fairly simple distinction was made during the controversy by Professor Grahame Bulfield, creator Dolly the Sheep, the world’s first cloned animal, who said: “The Food Standards Agency cannot prove that meat from clones is any different. There is none because they are exactly the same.”

And that could mean that if the original animal was in fine fettle, so will be its progeny. That – at a time when the world in general and Britain in particular is facing a growing challenge in what the politicians call “food security” (i.e. food shortages) – cloning could play a vital part of our future diet.

After all, man has been improving farm yields for centuries, both in livestock and arable crops, by selective interbreeding. This, however, takes us to the much darker subject of GM crops which had a very dodgy introduction to Europe thanks to American big business and, as a result, faces massive opposition throughout the continent.

the misinformation gap between the chattering classes and many farming professionals is vast...

The Americans started GM experiments out of simple commercial greed. They produced crops that were resistant to Round-up weed killer so that a farmer could spray his fields with this lethal herbicide and only the corn would survive.

Problem was that the corn it produced was infertile, like many of the F1 vegetable seeds that I plant in my allotment. It meant that whilst the corn was fine for human consumption, a portion of it could not be saved for next year’s planting. In other words, the seed corn was dead before its parent was even sown.

This, of course, would have left the farmer tied to the chemical company for ever, having to buy next year’s planting from here ‘til Doomsday, a cynical piece of commercial blackmail which, quite rightly, was rejected with contempt here in Europe and especially in poor parts of the world where farmers depend of their seed corn for their very future.

But, here again, the misinformation gap between the chattering classes and many farming professionals is vast. The most vociferous opponents to GM are the vegetarians but, irony of ironies, they are probably the biggest consumes of the stuff in the land.

Soybeans are the staple ingredient of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of vegetarian dishes because, like all pulses, they are rich in protein and can therefore replace meat and fish. Yet the vast majority of soy is imported from the USA where it has been GM produced for at least the past ten years and probably longer.

It seems to me the people who protest loudest are often the worst informed. I cannot help but think of the animal rights zealots who raided mink farms in the 1960s and 1970s, releasing into our countryside an alien predator which quickly wiped out kingfishers, water voles, sand martins, water hens and coots, plus millions of ground nesting birds like partridges, skylarks and many more.

Those are the clowns mentioned in my headline, the so-called “committed” people who had no idea what they were doing. The clone clowns might take pause for breath too. And although I am still uneasy about some GM crops, there has never been a reported case of human illness caused by the millions of tonnes of consumed soya beans. Food for thought!

Feedback received on this subject:

So if GM have caused no illnesses and any talk of so-called "environmental" damage is highly dubious and much dependent on interpretation, why are you still uneasy? Are you also uneasy about organic since people die from eating it (spinach in California) whilst birds apparently prefer conventional fields. What is your criterion for feeling uneasy?

Valentine Dyall

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