Most scientists hate the term “Frankenfood” applied to genetically engineered (GE) crops. Activists certainly use it as an insult. But did those activists actually read Mary Shelley’s book?
Mary Shelley’s creature is not at first a monster of despicable evil; quite the contrary, he is agentile and sensitive creature condemned to solitude and neglect and chased everywhere he goes by bigoted mobs that dislike him only for aesthetic reasons, because he seems to them a monstrosity. Listen at the creature’s lament when, after secretly helping a family of poor farmers, he finally decides to reveal himself:
“The more I saw of them, the greater became my desire to claim their protection and kindness; my heart yearned to be known and loved by these amiable creatures; to see their sweet looks directed towards me with affection, was the utmost limit of my ambition. I dared not think that they would turn from me with disdain and horror.”
It is a rather sad story and you can’t help but feel sorry for the creature chased by prejudiced and ignorant villagers, forced to hide in dark places and to eat whatever comes at hand.
Why would anyone attack and vandalise fields of GE Golden Rice? It is not even ugly; it looks just like any rice, a bit more yellowy. It is more nutritional than conventional rice. It was created by a non-for-profit organisation to prevent children in the South East of Asia from going blind or dying because of vitamin A deficiency. The yellow colour comes from beta-carotene, the precursor of vitamin A, which scientists introduced in the rice. Like most GE crops Golden Rice is a perfectly safe and efficient crop.
Of course, it would be much better if poor children in the South East of Asia could feast on fresh vegetables and fruits, but that is not going to happen. Honest activists campaigning against Golden Rice can learn much about the diet of poor people if they read their fellow middleclasser George Orwell’s The The Road to Wigan Pier. For the dishonest, that doesn’t even matter; their opposition has nothing to do with helping poor people.
The biggest scientific associations in the world have concluded that human consumption of GE food is perfectly safe. This includes the US National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) -publishers of Science Magazine the world’s most prestigious peer-reviewed scientific – and the European Food and Safety Authority, among others.The attacks on Golden Rice fields exemplify the ethos of anti-GE activism. They oppose GE crops no matter what, no matter how safe and beneficial they are. GE crops offend their aesthetic inclinations; therefore GE crops ought to be destroyed. They are the torch-wielding ignorant mob chasing a creature that they dislike. Even if GE crops can prevent poor people suffering, even when they don’t hurt the planet or ecosystems more than any other crop, even when they are not sold by multinational corporations plotting to achieve “world domination”, activists oppose them.
Well, C P Snow left a message for those activists many years before biotechnology even existed:
If you want to turn your backs on the benefits of industrialisation, go hungry and see most of your children die in infancy; you are free to make that choice. I respect you for the strength of your aesthetic revulsion […] But I don’t respect you in the slightest if, even passively, you try to impose the same choice on others who are not free to choose.