The phrase ‘Frankenstein foods’ has been one of the most successful coinages of modern journalism. The theme of a Daily Mail campaign, it sums up the public’s instinctive fear of developments it doesn’t understand, and which at one point seemed about to be foisted on them by uncaring multi-national companies. The biotec food giant Monsanto was cast as the mad scientist, and, it has to be said, didn’t make matters easier for itself by the arrogance with which it treated the consumer. Greenpeace ought to have been more roundly condemned for destroying test sites. The Blair Government, having appeared to champion genetically modified (GM) technology at the outset, quickly recognised the tide of opinion was against it, and sat on its hands. The NFU tells us that only one GM product is being trialled at the moment: a blight-resistant potato in Cambridge.
Does anyone now believe this state of affairs can continue? The sudden rise in the price of food must surely focus minds on how the world?s population can be fed in the future. Previously fertile areas will become desert, or disappear under the sea. At the same time, the remaining farmland will be expected to grow a greater range of crops. In just two centuries, mankind has managed to deplete the planet of reserves that took Nature hundreds of millions of years to lay down. We shall look to plants to produce not only fuel, but replacements for the plastics, fibres and pharmaceuticals that are at present also derived from oil. Meanwhile, the population of the world is expected to grow from the present 6.7 billion to nine billion. We shall need different kinds of plants – more productive, multi-tasking – and need them quickly.
Genetic modification is a means of speeding up the process of selective breeding that’s been practised for millennia. In a hungry world, the refusal of a rich and well-fed country such as Britain to exploit its agriculture to the full could soon be regarded as immoral. Elsewhere on the planet, pressure to adopt GM technology will become irresistible. Places where deeper and deeper boreholes have sucked the land dry will need drought-resistant crops, if they?re to grow any crops at all. Where too much water has been abstracted from aquifers, allowing seawater to seep in, there will be a demand for saline-tolerant plants. As GM crops are more widely adopted around the globe, British farmers will not be able to compete without them.
Once, the public might have turned a deaf ear to agriculture, while continuing to gobble up its products. Attitudes will change quickly when food becomes not merely dearer, but scarcer. Unfortunately, the appetite for GM in other countries is so great that agribusinesses aren’t putting money into researching products suitable for Britain, when the regulatory climate and threat of direct action are against them.
Opposition to GMOs is led by the Green lobby – the self-same people who are most exercised by the need to curb greenhouse-gas emissions. Paradoxically, an argument for GM crops is precisely that they will help farming reduce its carbon footprint. Roots that fix a greater proportion of nitrogen from the soil will require less fertiliser made using fossil fuels. We want to discourage farmers from ploughing the land because that releases carbon; it’s possible to imagine the development of a perennial wheat that makes ploughing unnecessary.
This Easter weekend, we shall celebrate the rebirth and resurrection that is symbolised by spring. It provides a moment, perhaps, to contemplate the long-term future of the world, which looks far from bright. Wars could break out over water. Flooding and desertification could cause huge movements of people, on a par with those experienced during the Dark Ages. We’re running short of oil; before long, we may find ourselves running short of metals, too. Our children and grandchildren will be hard pressed to meet the enormous challenges that face them. But GM technology has the potential to alleviate some of the dangers. Future generations will think us crazy, or criminal, not to embrace it.