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GM foods: an open invitation to the Grim Reaper

Friday 29 June 2007

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, who over the years has tried to filter the facts from the gloom and doom predictions of environmental hysterics, ponders a television documentary with an absolutely chilling scenario about GM foods and the future of life on this planet

LIKE millions of others, I am a keen fan of science fiction. I can still remember the terror when BBC radio broadcast John Wyndham's Day of the Triffids back in the 1950s, a gripping tale of man eating plants and the end of civilisation as we know it.

But, as a journalist who has spent almost as long writing about the countryside and the environment, I have always tried to separate the wheat from the chaff. I have, for instance, angered many readers of this column by my scepticism on global warming.

frankenstein fish?
GM Salmon alongside smaller "traditional" cousins

I do not deny that it is happening but I am yet to be convinced that its being caused by human activity rather than a purely natural cycle based, most likely, on the sun's movement through space rather than the amount of carbon gases we create.

Last weekend, however, I watched an absolutely terrifying television documentary on Sky's somewhat obscure Business Channel - something I had been driven to by foul weather and the fact that all the other serious channels were dominated by the crushing boredom of someone becoming Prime Minister of the world's oldest democracy without a vote being cast.

A few more years of Gordon Brown is a pretty tiresome prospect. Global warming is a major problem and so is the worldwide spread of terrorism. But nothing for some years has scared me so much as the predictions of some of the world's finest scientific brains on the looming disaster caused by the growing spread of what the tabloids call Frankenstein Foods. After watching this, I am in rare agreement with the tabloids.

For the documentary, Life Running Out of Control, claimed that the futures of the world's plants, animals and - potentially - human beings are being put at risk in the interests of more profit for huge, mainly American, bio-technology companies which have already let loose into the environment unstoppable forms of mutated plant life.

Much worse, they are now preparing to do the same with food animals and fish which could lead to those species being wiped out - and the human race being rendered infertile. In other words, the end of life (or rather, life-forms) as we know them.

Now that is as big a cloud of doom and gloom that has ever been cast in my long experience and I would normally have stored it in my memory channels alongside the Day of the Triffids: i.e., gripping science fiction. But then the producers brought on their witnesses for the prosecution, scientists and farmers from America, Canada, India and Norway - and my hair bristled.

Most people know that GM cereal crops were pioneered largely by Monsanto, the American agri-chemical giant, which produced genetically modified - "transgenic" - wheat which could withstand its best-selling weed-killer Round-up.

Its advertising boasted that this would allow farmers to spray their fields with this poison and only the GM wheat would survive, this increasing production and cutting labour costs. What they did not shout so loudly from the rooftops was that this corn was infertile, so parts of it could not be saved as next year's seed-crop. So the poor old farmer would have to buy new seed every year - from Monsanto!

as time passes, the programme alleged, the GM would take over and the natural plant would cease to exist

This did not go down too well in other countries - particular in Europe and the Third World, although for different reasons - but at no time has America insisted that GM food in the shops be labelled. As a result, virtually all American soya, maize and oil-seed rape is now at least partly infected with some GM genes, often blown accidentally from nearby GM fields. And as time passes, the programme alleged, the GM would take over and the natural plant would cease to exist.

Odd, this, from the world's most food conscious nation. But there is worse to come. Having produced a GM mouse which grew almost as big as a rat, the scientists tried it on pigs - and produced horribly deformed animals that could not walk, were cross-eyed and impotent.

But the scale of alarm peaks when such techniques are tried on salmon. Because farmed salmon escape all the time - they are already threatening the survival of wild salmon in Scotland - the scientists have built into them a "suicide" gene which means they die at a year old, before they are mature enough to breed (if they have not been sterilised already)

Similar studies are being carried out on carp and other food-fish in the Third World. Good idea where millions of people are starved of protein: let's feed them fish programmed to die.

And this is when the full implications sank in. In 1960, I covered my first big doom and gloom story when English birds of prey were either dying in large numbers or producing infertile eggs. The cause was finally discovered to be insecticide seed dressings that were being ingested by song birds which suffered no obvious side-effects.

These survived by storing the poisons in their livers. But the hawks which preyed on them suffered such a toxic build-up that they were on the point of extinction. Now, we have scientists producing fish for human consumption which will contain a Frankenstein suicide gene. Will we store that in our livers too? In the words of the song, "When will they ever learn ..?"

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