Politics Technology

Return Of The Gene Genie

You take two days off and they try to pull a fast one on you. On Thursday the green light was given by the Environmental Protection Agency for an experimental GM crop to be grown outdoors in Ireland. This is a Bad Thing.

Why? Not because genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are necessarily dangerous. You cannot absolutely guarantee that engineered genes will be risk free, genomes are extremely complex things, but the likelihood of unforeseen harm must be very low. They may introduce us to a world where corporate lawyers sue gardeners for patent infringement, but that’s a matter of law and politics not technology and science.

I freely admit that they may, possibly, reap huge benefits. The trial is well-intentioned I believe. It is being done by Teagasc, a respected national research agency, without any direct involvement by agribusiness interests. It has been designed to test the long-term effects on the environment of a specific and potentially very useful engineered organism, a more blight-resistant potato. We have to carry out the experiment, promoters say, in order to know if the crop will do any harm.

No we don’t. Because we know that carrying out the experiment will in itself cause harm. Reputational harm. If those genes escape into the wild, harm from which our reputation will never recover. And they will escape.

There may be a lot of money in GM organisms, but they can and will be grown anywhere in the world. Indeed, in places you never could grow crops before. There will also however be a lot of money in GM-free organisms. Very many people will never trust food that has been tampered with on such a fundamental level. They may be right or they may be wrong, we can suspend judgement on that. What is beyond question is that they will be willing to pay more for food that they consider better, greener, more natural. And to grow that you need… an island.

We are never going to be a leading nation in GMO research. Of course we can do it, of course we can be good at it, but we’re simply not big enough to be world leaders at it. It will only ever be a relatively minor contributor to the national bottom line. Non-GM however is something we could really excel at. Being surrounded by a barrier that pollen-carrying insects cannot easily cross, the island of Ireland is better placed than most to be a specialist producer of GM-free food. Further, it fits with the image we enjoy (rightly or wrongly) of more natural agriculture, and with other key industries like tourism. It’s not a matter of projecting ourselves as bucolic or atavistic, merely as less adulterated. Keep GMOs off the island and we have a brand that could be of immense value. Let them escape into the wild from where they can cross into food crops, and that opportunity is gone. Unlike with an oil spill or industrial accident, there will be no feasible way to clean up the genetic environment.

And if one day it turns out that nobody cares anymore if their food is GM-free or not, we can always join that party. We will have the choice. If we embrace GM incautiously now though, all choice is gone for good. We will have squandered one of the greatest opportunities ever presented to this country’s food industry, irretrievably.

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