It is easy to make a mistake when you have to choose between the lesser of two evils. Tony Blair made such a mistake as did George Bush when they decided to fight a war against Iraq. They chose the wrong course of action because they underestimated the bad consequences of the war and over estimated the dangers that would happen if they did not fight a war.Deciding upon the least bad course of action is so hard because people have prejudices which colour their judgement. I have never been able to come to a definitive view about genetically modified food. My prejudice leads me towards regarding the genetic manipulation of food plants as being unwholesome and having bad environmental consequences which can be impossible to foresee, given the complexity of the natural environment.
However, my knowledge tells me that farmers for years have been breeding the best blood lines in their animals and choosing the best crops and growing everything from apples to rice by selecting those strains which produce the greatest yields for the less work.
The genetic modifiers argue that it really not so bad if the genetic modification to our food is done in a laboratory rather than on the farm. They are partly right; modification by breeding is an extension of the process of natural selection, when over a period of time, foreshorten by the deliberate introduction of one strain or breed to another rather than the accidental meeting of them. The time scale is still natural in that generations come naturally and slowly enough to enable us to anticipate the consequences, even if we do not always do so,
Genetic modification on the scientific and industrial scale enables us, by a moment’s tinkering with the DNA of a life form in a laboratory to create at an instant a new plant or animal with known attributes. That new food form can be launched, grown, fattened and cropped to feed the mouths of an ever increasing human population. The instant nature of the process means that we cannot discover the significant consequences until it is too late. Those consequences may be the loss of a different species, the extinction of a life form, or the irretrievable change of a natural environment. Monster food will not create monster people but may perhaps kill off a species of rodent, insect or plant, or turn a swamp into a meadow or a meadow into a swamp.
The positives that genetically modified food can bring are much clearer than their disadvantages. They can feed the hungry in a world that is getting worrying full of people and in which more people are going hungry every year. The numbers of people on this planet – now approaching seven billions – are by their behaviour and practises changing the climate by releasing greenhouse gas emissions into he air. Those climate changes are creating droughts, particularly around the equator and irregular rainfall patterns around the tropics. As a result people who live in these regions are going hungry as they can no longer farm the land because the land can no long grow crops to support them.
Genetically modified food may save these lives, or some of them. It is therefore interesting that India has stopped its genetically modified vegetable food program. In 2009 Indian studies showed GM aubergines (egg plants) would be safe for those who eat them and for the environment. The Indian Environment Minsister Mr Jairam Ramesh has thought again and decided to halt the program to grow GM aubergines for the time being. He thinks it is better to be safe than sorry and needs more studies before he can be sure.
This decision was of course a difficult decision, trying to steer the least bad course through a complex sea where all the dangers have not been marked on the only chart available. A consequence may be that people will go hungry but perhaps, that may not be the worst consequence.