Monday, December 10, 2007

Dick Taverne on GM food

I tuned into Sunday's Westminster Hour on Radio 4 to hear Richard Grayson's head-to-head with James Graham about the Lib Dem leadership. But interesting though that was, it wasn't the best item on the programme about a Lib Dem politician.

In the first of a series of features called 'stop the world' which focus on people with maverick views that challenge the consensus, it included an interview with Dick Taverne about his support for genetic modification technology, especially GM food. You can listen to it again here (it's about 45 minutes into the programme).

Taverne has already set up a pressure group Sense about Science to campaign on this and other issues and published an excellent book last year, The March of Unreason, which deals not only with GM, but also subjects such as alternative medicine and organic food.

I have long puzzled over why hostility to GM shoud have become such a totemic cause for environmental groups. My political mentor, Robert Pritchard, who was for many years head of the internationally-renowned Genetics Department at Leicester University, always championed GM technology as having not only social and economic benefits, but also environmental benefits.

So I was surprised when environmental organisations, whose campaigns I usually agreed with, came out so strongly against GM. In many ways, because of its potential benefits in reducing use of artificial chemicals and also of feeding the third world, they should have been its foremost champions.

My hunch is that it was a question of marketing priorities trumping environmental policy. Scare stories about 'frankenstein foods', tampering with nature and playing God were just too good opportunities to miss in terms of gaining publicity and raising funds. It is also a message that plays well to different audiences - the conservative with a small 'c', countryside-loving middle classes as well as the usual supporters of 'green' causes.

Of course the Lib Dems have for some time been the most anti-GM party, although the subject has featured less on conference agendas since Donnachadh McCarthy left. For some years it was debated almost annually at autumn conference in some form or other, with a small but plucky band including Sharon Bowles MEP, Tim Farron MP and one or two others raising their head above the parapet in a losing cause to defend the benefits of GM technology.

For my own part, this issue has certainly changed the way I regard environmental groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. I am inclined to regard their pronouncements with rather more scepticism than before. In many ways their cynical treatment of this issue mirrors that of the multinationals they are so keen to criticise.

I am proud that in Dick Taverne, we have at least one Lib Dem who is taking a stand on this issue.

1 comment:

Tristan said...

I share your frustration.

The Organic lobby is of course anti-GM as its competition.
There's also the scare story element, but I think the biggest element is the anti-corporate message of many green organisations (which has its origin not in environmentalism but in politics).

I think its important to separate these two issues though. Corporations can do some very bad things, but to say that GM is bad because its pushed by multinational corporations misses the point entirely.

I don't see any real disadvantage to GM, especially compared with other forms of crop development which are happily accepted by anti-GM campaigners.