11 OCTOBER 2003, Page 22

Ninety-eight per cent of the British population, according to the

results of the government's 'national debate', say that they do not wish to eat genetically modified food. Eighty-four per cent say that GM food is 'an unacceptable interference with nature', and 93 per cent say that not enough is known about the long-term health effects of GM foods.

So much for the views of the average Briton, chomping his way through a burger of mechanically recovered meat and slurping some lurid concoction from a can plastered top to bottom with E numbers. No unacceptable interference with nature, the standard, non-genetically modified diet of modern Britain — a diet consumed, to judge by the proliferation of fast-food outlets, by the majority of people who filled in the 37,000 questionnaires or attended the 700 public meetings that constituted the debate.

How many of those who offered their views are bothered about the selective breeding that has created farm animals so fat they are unable to support their weight, or are terribly concerned about battery chickens? To judge by the continued sale of non-free-range eggs, not many. Yet when GM food is mentioned the population rises up in horror at the very idea of meddling with nature.

The government's national debate has revealed less about arguments for and against battery farming than it has about the spread of fear in an advanced industrial society. There are genuine issues surrounding GM foods, such as the competition issues raised by crops that remain the intellectual property of ag,richemical companies and are engineered to be sterile, so that they cannot be regrown from the seed produced from a crop. But these are not the issues that emerge from the national debate on GM foods; rather it is the fear of unleashing on the world some uncontrollable forest of mutant superweeds which will strike us down with the plague and snatch our children from their beds. The attitude against GM crops is little more than mediaeval superstition with a broadband connection.

Ross Clark