Aug 232008

It’s sad to see The Guardian giving space to a tantrum by a GM fanatic, even in the interest of balance of coverage to this subject, but it’s also not without its funny side.

A standard GM industry tactic is to pretend that genetic modification of organisms is both brand new and yet at the same time nothing new at all. In his Guardian polemic, one Henry Miller claims that “genetic modification is not new” because “Plants and microorganisms have long been genetically improved by mutation and selection”. Putting aside the issue of what “genetically improved” actually means to anyone who doesn’t think that The Market is all that counts, we are left with a claim that “gene splicing, tissue cultures and the rest” are exactly the same thing as selective breeding. Which makes one wonder why he refers to the “new biotechnology” (Woo! Go team! Go team!) at all, or whether he is at all familiar with the basics of evolutionary science.

As Charles Darwin patiently explained in the very first chapter of On the Origin of the Species, by way of setting out the facts known by breeders to some of the more blinkered scientists (yes, they had them back then too), selective breeding is really just natural selection under human guidance. This is not to say that selective breeding itself is an issue that is free from contention – but Miller’s equating of this harnessing of natural selection to “gene splicing, tissue cultures and the rest” suggests that he is either ignorant of the basic facts or hopes that the rest of us are and is trying to put one over on us.

Either way, he is very, very cross with the Prince of Wales for blowing the whistle so loudly (if not, it has to be said, virtuosically) and opposing the imposition of GM crops. He whines that Prince Charles is feebleminded, inbred, not-so-bonnie (when ad hominem attacks get that bitchy, you know the writer is on unsure ground), misguided and – gasp! – anti-technology.

The writer finishes off by limply tossing off some apologias about “the ability of consumers to cast their votes in the marketplace” (the only place we “consumers” can now “cast our votes” if such people get their way – but then have you tried reasoning with your New Labour MP lately?) and “a real-life struggle for the availability of products that will prolong and enrich lives” (a pale shadow of the discredited claim that GM crops were of any benefit to humanity at all).

The final source of grim merriment appears on another site. The essential resource Lobbywatch quotes an interview with the New York Times by the same writer: “Food biotech is dead. The potential now is an infinitesimal fraction of what most observers had hoped it would be”.

So there we see the defeated mindset that those truly ill-bred remarks sprang from. And it gives us all just a little more hope that maybe we can win this one after all.

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