Leave it to the experts?
Henderson's vision of that expertise is revealed by the article's reference to this week's report from the Nuffield Council on Bio-ethics. It's the product Henderson tells us of "an independent group with genuine expertise". In reality, of course, the small Working Party of five behind the report is dominated by "experts" with a history of passionate advocacy of GM crops. One has even written a guide on how to "use pressure-group tactics to fight the opponents". ('This will be like no other debate', Derek Burke, Times Higher Education Supplement)
In between such impartial expertise and 'the people' stand the interpreters - science correspondents like Henderson.
Ponder these Henderson headlines:
GM grass to put club golfers on par with the best
GM crops could revive endangered wildlife
GM cotton boon for Indian farmers
Bananas 'will slip into extinction without GM'
Stupidity just another disease to cure, says DNA pioneer
Attack on safety of GM crops was unfounded
New GM rice could transform the fight against famine
BBC incited eco-terror on GM drama website
Protesters 'censor' GM crop benefits
Imported plants 'far worse than GM crops'
Modified crops help man and wildlife
Blair condemns protesters who thwart science
Indian farmers reap benefit of GM cotton crops
All over southern India GM cotton has been failing, precipitating severe losses for poor farmers, but Henderson gives us a fairytale in which smiling Indians bask in the the boon of GM crops.
According to Henderson's reports - gleaned from the experts, without GM we face thwarted science, no bananas, eco-terror and famine; with GM it's great golf, grateful natives, wildlife aplenty and an end to stupidity. This is not just one-sided journalism here but stories that evaporate on a closer inspection of the facts.
Of course, in the week in which we've been treated to another fairytale out of India courtesy of the BBC's science correspondent, Pallab Ghosh, it's clearly not just Henderson that makes UK science correspondents (with some honourable exceptions!) a breed apart.
Who cares what 'the people' think of GM foods?
by Mark Henderson
The Times, June 13, 2003
For a couple of hours this afternoon, a few dozen Greenpeace types, assorted yogic flyers from the Natural Law Party, a handful of pensioners, and perhaps the odd scientist or farmer are going to sit down and talk about GM food. The gathering, in Harrogate, is the last in a series that makes up GM Nation?, the Government's public debate about whether Britain should grow transgenic crops.
You may not have noticed, but the consultation has been running for a couple of weeks. According to ministers, it's an unprecedented chance for the man in the street to influence their decisions. Margaret Beckett, the Environment Secretary, says it's designed to "ensure all voices are heard".
The exercise has been farce from start to finish. And I'm not sure I want the man in the street to set Britain's science, technology and agriculture policy. One of the six meetings - held midweek at major population centres, such as Taunton and Harrogate - spent much of its time discussing whether the Sars virus might come from GM cotton in China. It's more likely to have come from outer space. I can think of more useful ways to waste time and money.
Then there's the fact that the meetings will tell us nothing we don't know already. The lack of advertising and helpful scheduling mean that every one has been stuffed with green campaigners and New Age zealots who think GM crops are the root of all evil. They were the only ones who were organised enough - or who cared enough - to attend.
The best-attended meeting, in Swansea, attracted a whopping 180 people, most of them already parti pris. The Government will be lucky if even a hundred lay people with a genuine curiosity, rather than crop-tramplers with a Luddite agenda, have joined in the fun. I could have told Mrs Beckett that Greenpeace activists don't care for GM food. You don't have to spend £500,000 and lay on tea and biscuits: five minutes on their website is more than enough.
Worst of all, the debate is seeking an answer to an asinine question. Asking people whether they're for or against GM crops is as ridiculous as asking whether they're for or against fire. As Prometheus found out, a mastery of flame can be a boon or a curse. It is the tool of the arsonist and Gordon Ramsay. The technology is morally neutral. It is how it is applied that counts.
So it is with GM crops. There is nothing good or bad about them per se: some applications promise great benefits, to consumers, to farmers and to the environment. Others will probably be damaging. Just because a herbicide-tolerant sugar beet might be good - or bad - for Britain does not mean that maize that makes its own pesticide will be the same.
The Government is making a nonsense of science and insulting the public's intelligence by polarising the argument, seeking simple and sweeping answers where none exists. As the Nuffield Council on Bioethics - an independent group with genuine expertise - put it this week: "The possible costs, benefits and risks associated with particular GM crops can only be assessed on a case-by-case basis."
There is one small mercy - even if it begs further questions about why this pointless consultation was ever started. Whatever the outcome of GM Nation?, the GM issue is going to be resolved elsewhere. European law, and World Trade Organisation rules mean that Britain will not be allowed to block GM crops without sound scientific evidence of potential harm to human health or the environment.
The real decision will be made in Brussels, not Westminster. Now there's a subject for public debate.
The author is Science Correspondent of The Times