You may or may not know there are to be some delicious Genetically modified (GM) Potatoes to be planted soon just outside of Cambridge (between Girton and Histon) and that some people are not at all happy about it. I'm one of them.
To fill you in slightly, there haven't been any tests of GM crops in the UK for three years now so this new crop (and its sister crop in Yorkshire) are significant not simply because of what they are but the fact that they are signals that the government is again willing to start sanctioning these projects.
Last time round GM trials had been scuppered by public opposition including letter writing, meetings, demos and even a bit of informal, late night gardening. But money talks and democracy walks where New Labour are concerned and the might of BASF, who are investing 52 billion euros into biotechnology research over the next ten years, is a clearly more attractive proposition than bowing to public concerns.
These tests have been scuppered by the Irish and Dutch governments who were concerned about testing and food safety, but this is the UK - anything goes! Defra encouraged the tests to come here and were willing to ensure lower standards than our European cousins. Even the Freedom of Information Act will not apply because of "Commercial Confidentiality" making any information they do release of little value.
At the moment the vast majority (84%) of GM crops come from the US, Canada and Argentina and are mainly maize, cotton, oil seed rape and soya. In fact it will be hard to get non-GM soya soon unless the Brazilian government are able to hold out against the pressures and incentives of the US government. These crops on the whole produce animal feed and their yields, despite the pro-Gm propaganda have been entirely comparable to non-GM varieties.
These potato tests are aimed at producing blight resistance - something that actually already exists in some non-GM varieties. However, as the supermarkets like regular sizes and shapes of their potatoes it has led them to prefer varieties that are particularly prone to blight. Rather than go for knobbly potatoes the thinking is let's use GM technology to create a happier shopping experience.
In fact the best safeguard against blight is to grow a variety of different species of potato (which may also be true of varieties and organisations on the left too) - but that would never do - you have to take the choice they offer you I'm afraid.
As it happens I would not be opposed to GM experiments in a factory / laboratory setting although I think the value of such tests would be very limited. However, these tests are to be conducted in the open alongside other non-GM potatoes (and near allotments) increasing the risk of cross contamination - something that BASF and their partners NIAB have firmly stated that they will *not* be testing for.
The thing with GM technology is that the process is crude and, essentially, splices a sequence of genes (that do the thing you want it to do) into other sequences of genes at random. This disrupts the genetic sequence and can lead to unintended consequences. These potatoes wont be growing arms or legs but there is evidence to suggest that they might be quite bad for you and could well have problems, as have other GM crops, in terms of yields.
Whilst genetic mutation takes place in the natural world what we are talking about here is humanly induced mutation on a global industrial scale. If these potatoes are a long term health risk, as some research appears to be suggesting, creating a situation where we cannot choose to have non-GM varieties is very unsatisfactory in my view.Some GM animal feeds have been seen to produce negative nutritional effects (like the oil seed rape that was modified for enhanced vitamin A but ended up being rubbish on every other front) create disproportionate allergic reactions, kill rats and mice and have a number of toxic effects - particularly when eaten by humans (which they are not meant to be, but it has happened).
It would be worth addressing some of these concerns *before* open air trials I think.
There's no evidence that these crops will feed the world and the health and environmental impacts are certainly in question. Genetic technology itself could be useful but gene splicing has, so far, produced no benefits in the food industry - apart from those the large corporations who own, patent and produce this stuff.
It seems to me these tests are driven by a profit motive rather than driven by need. We can feed the world but as much of the world don't have the money to buy food we let them starve. The fact that we, in the UK, live in under a government who adores big business and has been willing to tolerate the problems they bring that other countries will not is something that only we can sort out.
That means showing, publicly, that we oppose the new GM potato trials. We have concerns about their safety - and if BASF want to feed the world let them hand that 52 billion over to someone who could actually do some good with it rather than pour it into research that they will refuse to share with anyone else, lest it damage their profit margins.
Note: We'll be meeting up at the Histon Baptist Church, that's the large red brick church on station road in Histon, at 11:00am on Saturday 14th April to take a little walk to the trial site - you're welcome to join us.