It doesn't look dangerous, does it?Even to the expert's eye, this cress looks pretty much the same as any other cress. Yet within those mild green leaves, stems and roots, lurks a secret that has provoked fury, horror and even civil disobedience. This cress has been genetically modified.
For some, the merest mention of GM triggers images of an invisible menace that threatens to poison humanity, destroy our countryside and smother fields beneath a sea of unbeatable super-weeds. It is technology for technology's sake, and a prime example of mankind's childish need to meddle with nature, regardless of the consequences. To others it is a step towards a brighter and better future. They talk of crops carefully designed in a laboratory to be stronger and more environmentally friendly. GM crops might be a way to grow enough high-yield food to end starvation in the Third World. For them, GM is not a dread abbreviation but a beacon of hope.
The principle behind the technology is simple enough. If the growth rate, form and function of a living thing is greatly determined by genes buried deep in the heart of its cells, then all you need to create the perfect crop is to get hold of the right genes. In fact, you don't even have to be a genetic engineer; farmers have been doing this for millennia through selective breeding.
So what is all the fuss about? The breakthrough at the centre of the furore is the ability to directly switch genes from one organism into another, which means you could engineer plants and even animals with an unprecedented degree of precision and freedom. You could also put genes from wildly different species together. You want a strawberry plant that can withstand a late frost and still taste great? Well, take a gene that creats a natural, non-toxic anti-freeze for a type of Arctic fish and insert it into the DNA of your plant. What about bananas that are filled with tropical disease vaccines that could be grown in impoverished countries where syringes are too expensive? There are countless other examples being worked on by enthusiastic scientists.
But there are fatal flaws that make this wild optimism dangerous, say opponents. What if a new mix of genes turns out to have a toxic effect that no one had foreseen? Are we sowing the seeds of a health catastrophe? After all, most of us have already eaten genetically modified soya contained in many processed foods. What if pollen from a GM crop spreads to wild plants and passes on a newly introduced gene? We could be creating chemically resistant super-weeds and threatening our native flora.
There have been no serious problems so far, but some claim this is because safety research on GM foods has been inadequate and that the act of carrying out more thorough investigations - such as full-scale farm trials or long-term health studies - would involve releasing the genie from the bottle. The argument boils down to what is an acceptable level of risk. The scientists argue that nothing is completely safe but the benefits are so great that it is worth pressing ahead with the project. The protesters say there is no need to take that risk when the consequences might be dire.
Weblinks: How the scientists view GM: www.bbsrc.ac.ukopennetgmingenepage1.html What the protesters have to say: www.foe.co.ukcampsfoodbioindex.htm Controversial Equinox investigation: www.channel4.comequinoxgmosummary.html Consumer Association's opposition: www.which.netcampaignsgmfoodgmcontents.html Steve Farrar is science correspondent for the Times Higher Education Supplement.