Genetically modified fears
spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London).
The latest row in the genetically modified food saga confirms that, post September 11, we have trouble distinguishing between the real world and Hollywood-style scenarios.
This week the BBC broadcasts the two-part drama Fields of Gold, which revolves around a genetically modified superbug ‘jumping’ from wheat into wildlife and humans. If the corporation is looking for publicity quotes, here are some snippets from previews by leading scientists: ‘ludicrous piece of alarmist science fiction’; ‘ridiculous’; ‘fatuous’; ‘hysterically inaccurate’; ‘error-strewn propaganda’; ‘a goad to violence’. This from a profession known for its cautious statements.
In response, the authors of Fields of Gold -Alan Rusbridger, Editor of The Guardian, and the novelist Ronan Bennett -have alleged an orchestrated smear campaign by establishment scientists backed by big biotech and pharmaceutical companies. Bennett claims the programme is the victim of ‘an ugly conspiracy by those with a vested interest in discrediting it and personal grudges to settle’.
Why are these defensive-sounding scientists and thin-skinned writers getting so overexcited? After all, it is only a little drama film. Nobody worried that horror epics like King Kong or Godzilla might raise serious issues about the threat of giant apes and lizards. As drama, we can judge Fields of Gold for ourselves next weekend; at least one person who has seen the preview says it is ‘a good laugh’. There is, however, something more going on here. The way that a TV film about GM crops can assume such importance and provoke such controversy is a sign of our fearful times. These days we find it harder to know where to draw the line between fantasy horrors and real-life risks.
The BBC now insists that Fields of Gold ‘is a fictional drama which does not purport to be a documentary’. Yet in the pre-publicity, the producer said the film’s aim was ‘to tap into a very real fear, to make people think about what they eat’, comparing GM food to ‘the way nuclear power terrified people’. One of the stars of Fields of Gold, Anna Friel, says it is ‘inspired by facts that need public attention drawn to them’.
Most tellingly, a BBC source defines the film as ‘a ‘what-if?’ drama’, raising risks that just might become fact in the future. That speculative question ‘what if?’ -captures the cultural mood.
Since September 11 speculation about ‘what if?’ scenarios has been rampant. What if a hijacked plane hit a nuclear power plant, what if bioterrorists infected burger bars, what if we were flooded with smallpox? In America, intelligence agencies have even asked Hollywood film-makers to help them imagine more creative ‘what-if?’ scenarios. And if people didn’t take Godzilla seriously in the past, they do now. The FBI recently put New York’s Statue of Liberty and Brooklyn Bridge on full alert, after being tipped off that the 1998 movie contained clues to a new terrorist attack.
The ‘what if?’ panics have spread so readily because our societies were already anxious about our ability to handle uncertainty, increasingly seeing risks as something to be hidden from rather than handled. It is not only radical writers and eco-activists who have stoked up fears of unknown risks. Nervous scientists and government agencies have often given succour to the scaremongers.
In his recent big pro-science speech, the Prime Minister declared that he could ‘find no serious evidence of health risks’ in GM crops. Barely a week later, it is reported that the Government has ‘buckled to pressure from the green movement’, and hedged its commitment to GM technologies once more. When it comes to discussing a ‘what if?’ scenario, however fantastic, it seems that the emotion of an actress such as Anna Friel declaring that she cares ‘passionately’ about food safety will always win out over the cold known facts offered by a scientist.
Environmentalists insist that they are not ‘anti-science’. This is fair enough; only a troglodyte could be in the 21st century. What makes them uncomfortable is not science in general, but experimentation and dealing with uncertainty. If we want to be certain of anything, however, we need less speculation about hypothetical future disasters, and more discussion about how to manage the real risks we face today.
One other area of interest is the genetic modification of The Guardian into a new kind of newspaper. Before the general election, it published its own manifesto for government. Last month it hosted its own version of Middle East peace talks. Now its Editor is writing drama scripts for public education -the heroes of which, coincidentally, are crusading journalists. Some might just detect signs of a worrying new strain -self-importance.
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