I see that I have got an honourable mention – actually, I suppose it’s a dishonourable one – in Frank McDonald’s article in today’s Irish Times. The main drift of the article is his opposition to the decision by the European Commission to authorise the cultivation of genetically modified (GM) potatoes. He outlines various views and opinions around the European Union, and concludes that the Commission’s decision is wrong because ‘we still do not know enough to say for sure that such genetically engineered crops are safe.’ Along the way he cites an article I wrote for the same newspaper arguing that a country seeking to establish its credentials as a centre for innovation could not afford to rule out exploring the potential of GMOs. This is what he says about my arguments:
‘Writing in The Irish Times last month, Dublin City University president Ferdinand von Prondzynski complained that opposition to GMOs “has often been influenced by various campaigns using scaremongering labels such as ‘Frankenstein foods’ ” – before going on, in the next sentence, to indulge in scaremongering himself. “Indeed,” he wrote, “if we are to take the Government’s commitment to having Ireland as a GM-free zone seriously, one of the first steps we have to take would be to advise all diabetics to leave the country as we would have to ban insulin” – a patently ludicrous claim, given the way insulin is manufactured from GM bacteria in secure laboratories.’
I accept of course there is a difference between planting GM seeds in a field and manufacturing GM-derived products in a laboratory, but both come under the commitment to maintain Ireland as a GMO-free zone, so I would argue that there was nothing ludicrous about what I wrote.
But my argument in any case had a wider purpose. Saying we don’t know for sure whether something is safe is a silly argument against exploring it. Almost every product or process ever invented had aspects that could be unsafe if improperly handled. If Frank McDonald’s test is to be the bar we have set, it is a very high one, and GMOs would not be nearly the first thing to be removed. We might start with those we know to be unsafe but which are authorised, such as alcohol and cigarettes. We should consider banning cars, knives, petrol and goodness knows what long before we start bothering with GMOs.
If we are to be a centre of innovation we cannot go about it quite like that. I am not of course arguing that we should not take precautions to protect us from risks we can identify or reasonably suspect, but we should not allow ourselves to be driven by gut fears that we cannot really pin down. There may be GM foods that are unsafe, but there are organic ones also which, if misused, can be lethal. For example, eating a raw potato, whether GM or not, will inflict severe damage on you. What we need to do is to explore, and explore energetically, whether and how we can harness the potential of GMOs to address food failure and hunger across the world. I suspect that at least some of the angst about GMOs is a peculiarly western, middle class pre-occupation. We can afford our attitudes, and we may not be aware how they could damage others less wealthy than we are; not even particularly because we are depriving them of the potential of such innovation, but because we may push the less conscientious development of such innovation their way if we refuse to host a better regulated model.
Time to think again.