‘Marmite’ debate gets us nowhere on GMs

If the GM debate had a flavour, it would have to be Marmite.

If you have an opinion on it, it’s love or hate. In the media it’s a right old game of Punch and Judy.

The news reports usually go something like this. Earnest young BBC science reporter (still fresh from graduating with a degree in drama) thrusts microphone at white-coated bearded man in large greenhouse holding odd-looking plant while explaining it has been genetically modified by nuns to repel red monkey spiders and thus has the potential to double food production in the Third World. Then it’s back to the studio where the anchorman interviews denim-shirted bearded man from an organisation called something like VANK (Volunteer Alliance for Nature’s Kingdom) who explains that the patent for the monkey spider terminator gene is rumoured to be owned by a global corporation who also invented Agent Orange and have been “linked” to the spread of AIDS. And so it goes on to no great conclusion.

The curious thing is that the farming industry tends to get caught up in this hysterical polarity. To the organic brethren, GM is the spawn of the devil, while for the progressives it is a panacea for humanity’s ills. This is quite a contrast to the way we evaluate other emerging technologies such as robotics, where the pros and cons, along with the costs and the benefits, are analysed in a sober manner. But with GM, the ability to think clearly and logically tends to get lost amongst the political rhubarb.

A few years back I agreed to a GM trial on the farm. Then Greenpeace turned up in town. As I sat on the stage of the village hall I was scarcely able to believe my ears as mothers literally cried into microphones worried about their children breathing “genetically-contaminated air” – at least that’s what the letter from Greenpeace had said would happen. The seed company withdrew the trial.

This lack of sober thought tends to infect both sides. Take the latest Rothamsted work looking at GM insect-resistant wheat. It’s costing more than £1m, partly because it’s run by a security company rather than by scientists.

For me as a practical farmer, I spend less than £5/acre on insecticide sprays when growing wheat, so the economic benefits are not exactly exciting. But the main question I have is why are we spending a large chunk of our finite R&D budget on a crop no one wants to buy? Even in the USA, GM wheat has stalled because of consumer resistance. Can anyone think of another example of money being spent on the development of a crop that has no market prospects? What’s next, research on apples that taste of herring?

But, let’s be clear, before I get pigeon-holed in a debate where pigeon-holing is the kneejerk reaction, I’m not against Rothamsted researching GM crops, but surely it would be best to start with a crop like silage maize. Weed control in maize is becoming more problematic. We feed GM crops to dairy cows by the boatload in the UK. And yet, for some reason that escapes me, we are looking at GM wheat. It is as if the R&D committee got drunk before the meeting.

Personally, I try not to get polarised by the GM debate. Come to think of it, I’m actually a bit like that with Marmite. As savoury spreads go it’s alright – but I don’t get all emotional over it.

Guy Smith comes from a mixed family farm on the north-east Essex coast. The farm is officially recognised as the driest spot in the British Isles. Situated on the coast close to Clacton-on-sea, the business is well diversified with a golf course, shop, fishing lakes and airstrip.

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