The public is right on GM crops

Why do we need GM crops? Nobody suggests that food will taste better as a result. They will not provide Nigella or Jamie with opportunities to dazzle us with exciting new recipes ("try my GM soya souffle"). GM is not supposed to make us fitter and younger. Though Golden Rice may (according to some scientists) help prevent Vitamin A deficiency in Asia, and though farmers in China and South Africa benefit from cotton that is resistant to the bollworm, there is no firm evidence that GM crops can "feed the world", as advocates claim. In any case, as the New Statesman contributor Colin Tudge often points out, there are other ways of feeding the world, if only we had the political will.

Despite the qualified approval on 13 January from its advisory committee, therefore, the government has no reason to rush into allowing commercially grown GM crops, particularly given the extent of public opposition. That opposition may be based largely on superstition and a traditional British aversion to mucked-about food, but it also contains a streak of common sense. The effects of DDT on wildlife, of fridges on the ozone layer, of carnivorous cows on health, of carbon dioxide emissions on the atmosphere (or, to go further back, of rabbits on Australia) all took many years, even decades, to emerge.

Now scientists speculate on the causes of dramatic rises in breast and testicular cancer, of the fall in sperm counts, of the apparent growth in allergic reactions, and so on. Are chemicals in the home, including those in anti-perspirants, toothpaste, pyjamas and furniture, to blame? Or food additives? Or pesticides? People wonder why, when there is so much uncertainty about the effects of the new technologies of the past 50 years, we should now take further unnecessary risks.

Genetic manipulation may, to most scientists and agriculturalists, be nothing more than an extension of what nature and farmers have always done, and the ecological effects of a new GM crop potentially no greater than, say, the import of the potato to Europe in the 16th century. It is in the nature of professionals and experts that they quickly become blase about what, to other people, seems extraordinary. The public view is more sensible. The capacity to manipulate the genome itself - and to combine genes from one species with genes from a completely unrelated species - takes us into uncharted territory, just as splitting the atom did. We should proceed only with extreme caution.

The difficulty is that we have become accustomed to the idea that science can proceed only with the aid of commerce - and commerce demands risk and speed. Indeed, it is precisely the speed at which novel crop varieties can be introduced - thus bypassing the trial and error inherent in traditional plant-breeding techniques - that makes GM technology so attractive to agribusiness. This is the real pressure for the approval of GM crops: the intense lobbying of US corporations, and the government's fear that Britain will lose out on developing a new technology with lucrative export markets. With the exception of cotton, most GM crops grown commercially are used for animal feed or for processed foods, not for food that might be used by poor farmers in poor countries to sustain their families and sell to their neighbours. Only 1 per cent of GM research, it has been estimated, concerns such crops. GM crops for the poor are simply not a commercial priority. No doubt they will help the poor in time; but fairer trade agreements, better access to credit, more secure water supplies and a more equitable distribution of land, to take just a few examples, would help them more. Without these reforms, the poor are likely to stay poor even with GM crops, while western corporations pocket the profits. Only the American genius for dressing up self-interest as a service to humanity could persuade us otherwise.

In Britain, particularly, more and more scientific research and development is now under the control of the commercial sector, which itself has become (as David Marquand notes in this week's essay on page 25) more narrowly profit-driven and less conscious of the public interest. The role of science, even inside the public sector, is not to benefit humanity, but to support industry, which now means, in turn, to support profits. Thus, for example, life-saving drugs cannot be developed without enormous investment from the pharmaceutical companies - which, having developed them, need to restrict their availability and price them too highly for the poor in order to get a return on their money. This is one of the effects of neoliberal belief that the market can decide all.

The victim may eventually be science itself. As people become more conscious of how science serves profit, they become more suspicious of radically new technologies, more wary of the possible health effects, less inclined to accept the assurances of experts. And because science is now structured in the way it is, their scepticism is right, even when they don't know or understand the full facts.