Learning about GMs should be child’s play

My nine-year-old grandson rushed into my office excitedly, telling me he’d just been watching aeroplanes taking off and landing at Norwich airport.

“So, did you go up in one?” I enquired. “No, but I’d like to,” he replied. “Well, that can be arranged,” I said. “Yes, I know,” he said, “but I’m not sure I would enjoy it because, like my dad, I’m not good with heights.”

“I’m sure you’d be fine in an aeroplane,” I reassured him, “and incidentally, you don’t catch vertigo from other people like you do a cold.”

“You’re wrong there Grandpa,” he replied, “my dad’s problems may well have been passed on to me. It’s in my DNA”.

I didn’t argue. It sounded like he knew more than I did. But I was reminded of that conversation last weekend in Norwich Library. The ground floor was covered with stalls set up by the agricultural college at Easton, the Royal Norfolk Show and the John Innes Institute on the outskirts of the city. It was an educational initiative aimed at children aged about seven to nine and the place was buzzing with scientific activity.

The John Innes stall, manned (and/or womanned) by scientists, featured an interactive demonstration showing the kids how to extract DNA from blueberries. First, juice was squeezed from the fruit inside a plastic bag until there were no lumps in the liquid. Next a pinch of salt and a little soapy water was added to the solution, which was then poured into a test tube through a coffee filter in a funnel.

A little ice-cold ethanol was then carefully poured into the test tube so that it did not mix with the blueberry juice but stayed on top in a separate layer. Thirty seconds later bubbles formed into a fluffy cloud between the two layers. It stuck to a wooden stick poked into the test tube. And that stuff sticking to the stick, announced the scientists, is blueberry DNA.

About 16 years ago, when I was a member of a small committee set up to launch genetically-modified tomato paste suitable for pizza topping into Sainsbury’s and Safeway (now Morrisons) supermarkets we needed to find a way to explain biotechnology to the food press. We found a teacher based in Reading whose day-job was to teach the subject to sixth formers in the south-east of England.

His speciality, apart from explaining the similarities of yeast in bread and beer and the use of synthetic rennet for making cheese for vegetarians rather than scraping a calf’s stomach, was extracting the DNA from an onion. The process was very similar to that used by the kids in Norwich Library involving a pinch of salt and a teaspoonful of fairy liquid. The main difference was that at the end of the experiment you could see swirls of onion DNA floating in the test-tube.

Back in 1975 we invited dozens of press reporters to experience that experiment and take part in discussions about it. They went away realising messing around with DNA was nothing like as frightening as they had thought and gave the tomato paste a good send-off. It was only when it was erroneously associated with CJD and the Daily Mail invented the phrase “Frankenstein food” that GM went pear-shaped.

Sixteen years later, let’s hope the next generation of children will have a more mature outlook on the matter when they grow up. Teachers and scientists are clearly doing their best to make it so.

David Richardson farms about 400ha (1,000 acres) of arable land near Norwich in Norfolk in partnership with his wife, Lorna. His son, Rob, is farm manager.

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