The grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat



2013-04-24 04.49.50 amNICK CATER

Published in The Australian, March 11, 2014


“HUMANITY is mostly stupid,” biochemist Arpad Pusztai told GeneWatch magazine in an extended interview. “They only take something seriously once a disaster occurs. This is history. We’ll just wait for some sort of disaster to happen.”

That is history all right: history stripped of confidence and progress.

All that remains is monotony, mediocrity and intermittent Armageddons: earthquakes, floods and the potato famine that turned the 19th-century Irish diet from sludge to inedible sludge. In fairness, that was before Ireland joined the EU. These days it would take a decade or more to convince the European Food Safety Authority that the Irish lumper is safe to plant and free of misleading packaging.

The European Commission applies the “precautionary principle”, according to a pamphlet in a series confusingly entitled Europe on the Move. The EC moves slowly, if at all, when determining what can be served on European ​tables.

“The commission acts to limit the risk,” the leaflet informs us. “It does not necessarily need to wait for proof that there really is a risk.”

Jumping back to the 1840s for a moment, when genetic diversity was not top of mind for the peasant farmers who planted the blight-prone lumper on every strip of land from Dublin to Cork, one imagines the EFSA would have come down on them like a tonne of peat.

Phytophthora infestans is not to be trifled with. The Germans and the Americans experimented with using it as a biological weapon in World War II.

Even today, credible security sources speculate it could be used as a biological weapon by agri- terrorists.

Outbreaks of blight are quickly checked in the developed world, but they create havoc in developing regions, such as Purba Midnapore in West Bengal where a recent infestation has turned potatoes into a luxury only the wealthy can afford.

Researchers at the Sainsbury Laboratory must have thought they were on to a winner, therefore, when they created an unblightable potato by adding a gene from a wild South African relative.

The 16 experimental GM tubers grown behind a 3m-high fence in England’s East Anglia weighed up to four times as much as their canker-cursed cousins. The disease-resistant spud is a disturbing development for the fungicide trade. Crop spraying may not be, after all, an arms race against nature we are destined to lose, as Rachel Carson suggested a half-century ago in Silent Spring.

Needless to say, however, our green, hobbitty, risk-averse friends are troubled by the news from Norfolk.

“Why waste money, take unnecessary risks, and end up with a product that no one wants to eat?” said GeneWatch UK director Helen Wallace.

The trouble with avoiding risk is that ultimately it gets us nowhere. It is a sure bet that if Homo erectus had discovered the EU’s precautionary principle before he discovered fire, you wouldn’t be reading this on your iPad today. “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure,” said Theodore Roosevelt, than to “live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat”.

Today the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat is known as Brussels. It is ironic that a city that found fame championing the sprout — a frost-resistant brassica bred from wild cabbages — became the capital of anthropomorphic cultigen scepticism, but it has and no one knows why.

“Many times people ask me: ‘What do you think is the main danger of GM?’ ” Pusztai told Gene​- Watch magazine. “And the danger is that we do not know what the main danger is.”

It was to Pusztai, naturally, that the German government turned in 2004 to evaluate MON 863 corn which had been genetically modified to make it resistant to corn rootworm.

Monsanto, needless to say, is still waiting for approval. Pusztai concluded that he did not know if MON 863 was safe for humans but it hadn’t gone down very well with rats.

In December 2002, Mons​anto Australia applied for clearance for MON 863 to Food Standards Australia New Zealand. Since the corn rootworm is absent in Australia, there would be no need to grow it here, but it could be imported.

The authority found that “on the basis of all the available evidence … food derived from MON 863 corn is as safe and wholesome as food derived from other corn varieties”.

Four years later the Austrian government responded to a spasmodic outbreak of GM panic by banning MON 863 altogether. Quick as a flash, Greenpeace Australia was on to the case.

“It is appalling that Australian consumers are eating products which have been banned in other countries because of health concerns,” Greenpeace genetic engineering campaigner Louise Sales said. “FSANZ should take urgent action to protect consumers and remove Monsanto’s MON 863 maize from the food supply.”

The blight of over-regulation leaps borders in this kind of press release: How appalling that (fill in product), banned in (fill in country), is being openly sold in Australia. The government must act since we cannot risk the ​futures of our children and our children’s children.

“I think this is an extremely dangerous experiment with our globe, with our Gaia, with our people,” says Pusztai, “and if you ask me what are the consequences, I can only say that I haven’t the faintest idea … I’m not saying that there is going to be a cataclysmic consequence of this. What I’m saying is that the cataclysmic thing about it is that we don’t know what is going to happen.”

Creating a sturdy potato is the easy part. Developing a strain of bureaucrats resistant to the precautionary principle may take a little longer.