As revealed in this week's leaked minutes, the government's commitment to GM crops is unswerving. Revealed once more, too, is its arrogance; for it acknowledges public resistance but hopes that "opposition might eventually be worn down by solid, authoritative scientific argument". Most worrying of all, though, is the truly astonishing ignorance of people in high places.
The arguments for genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that have been dinned into us for 15 years are based on an almost sublime misreading of the world's food problems. Indeed, GMOs are part of a political and economic trend that is threatening all humanity.
The crucial claim for GM crops is that they are necessary. They can out-yield traditional varieties, and can be made especially rich in protein and vitamins. The world's population is rising fast and without GM, the story has it, famine and increasing deficiency are inevitable. To oppose their development is to be effete to the point of wickedness.
But this is not the whole picture. The world population stands at 6 billion, and the UN says it will reach 10 billion by 2050 - but then should level out. Present productivity could be doubled by improving traditional breeding and husbandry, so whatever the virtues of GMOs, necessity is not among them.
Present-day deficiencies are almost never caused by an inability to produce enough. Angola is a good example: it is always bordering on disaster, yet it has two-and-a-half times the area of France and every kind of climate, and only 12.5 million people. Its farmers are highly accomplished. Famines result not from inability but from the civil war that raged for 30 years.
Behind the claim that GMOs are necessary lies a deep - and racist - failure to appreciate traditional farming. It's assumed that farmers of the developing world, with their small farms, cannot cope. But all who have looked closely know that traditional farmers are remarkably adept. Their greatest need is for financial security: especially small loans with regulated rates of interest. Technological innovation becomes pertinent only when the traditional ways have been given half a chance, and shown to be lacking.
But, say the enthusiasts, GMOs are part of the transition from peasant-based, low-output subsistence to industrialized production based on biotech, modern chemistry and machines. This is "progress". It "liberates" the peasants, enabling them to migrate to the cities, to work for proper wages. We see the transition in India, home (with China) to the world's fastest-growing IT industry. Even more to the point, modern farming is profitable, as traditional farming is not. The profits contribute to GDP, and everyone benefits.
But extra productivity can be harmful, while profit is achieved primarily by cutting labor, which is the most expensive input. In Britain and the US, only about 1% of the labor force works on the land. In India, as in the third world as a whole, it's 60%. If India farmed as the British do, 594 million people would be out of work. India's IT industry, flaunted as the hope for the future, employs 60,000 - which falls short of what would be required by 10,000 to one. To replace the status quo with hi-tech, low-labour, industrialized agriculture would create social problems on a scale that mercifully has not yet been seen. For the foreseeable future the world's economy has to be primarily agrarian.
Ironically, one victim of the GM madness is science itself, for in principle GMOs could be of real use. I saw an example in Brazil: GM papaya, designed to resist local diseases. This is hi-tech as it should be: designed by the people for the people. Contrast this with GM "golden rice", widely presented as an unequivocal triumph. It is is fitted with a gene that produces carotene, which in effect is vitamin A - lack of which causes blindness in tens of millions of children.
But carotene is one of the commonest organic compounds in nature. People who practice horticulture have no fear of vitamin A deficiency; and traditionally, horticulture was universal. Modern, corporate farming - monocultural rice, or maize grown for export as cattle feed - is a prime cause of the deficiency that leads to blindness. It's all good for the GDP but not for people.
The prime task for people seriously interested in humanity's food problems is to help the world's small farmers. Technical up-grading is desirable, and could include GM. But wholesale transition of the kind now in process, in which GM has become a key player, is a disaster. GMOs have drawn attention to the disaster, and for this perhaps we should be grateful. They are also drawing attention to the shortcomings of government and of experts in general. That needs urgent attention, too.
· Colin Tudge is the author of 'The Impact of the Gene' and 'So Shall We Reap', an analysis of world food production.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004