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MARCH 2009




- Andrew Billen,The Times, Nov. 26, 2008 http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk

As you may recall, I have over the past two years been fretting over Horizon. Since 1964 it has been the staple crop of the BBC science department but in recent years it has been injected with a huge dose of populism to make it resistant to ratings decline. The intellectually modified Horizon has met with many protests, especially from me and, I am afraid, a two-part opener to this season that turned "madness" into a reality game show was more misjudged television. How pleasing, then, to report that last night it came up with a model documentary discussing the merits and demerits of genetically modified food (there: now you know where that extended agricultural metaphor was going).

The director Michael Lachmann had the inspired idea of getting Jimmy Doherty to present. Doherty was once a scientist. He is now an organic farmer, rearing the sorts of pigs you last read about in Thomas Hardy. He is also, as viewers who saw his excellent series Farming Heroes, an enthusiast for extensive farming if it is done responsibly. What is more, he slightly resembles Jamie Oliver, but without the messiah complex or the f word.

His trip from the pampas of Argentina, where from a standing start 20 years ago, half the arable land is now planted with GM soya beans, to the plantations of Uganda where the bananas are not resistant to black sigatoka but the politicians are to the technology that could save them, produced many pointed contrasts. In Uganda, subsistence farmers break in to the lab to steal the new-fangled plants and grow them. In Bavaria farmers invade the scientists' fields to destroy them. And it is not always a battle between Luddites and progressives. The Amish of Pennsylvania still tend the land in horse and cart but happily use GM seeds.

Doherty made the point that so far GM has not been used to feed the world but to make farmers rich. In Europe, where, thanks to the hysteria of the late 1990s it is close to impossible to eat GM produce, the luxury of not buying GM for a generation may be worth indulging. But the sight of sack after sack of GM maize, as ate in the US, rotting in the docks during the southern African famine of 2002 was, surely, obscene. In conclusion, Doherty, said that we should proceed carefully but proceed, and that meant letting experimental crops grow, not digging them up. It was the right conclusion for a serious science programme to reach and allows me room skittishly to observe that the only GM that concerns me is GMTV: look at what all those years on it did to Eamonn Holmes.