The web is a valuable resource in providing information to a mass global audience, and as Drew Smith argues its role has been crucial in airing the real issues in the GM food debate.

Two respected but not widely known scientists from the US Environmental Protection Agency threw another spanner in the works of the great GM food debate in the days leading up to Christmas. Genetic engineering and selective breeding may not have the same long-term effects, they argued. Though published in an obscure but respected journal, normally read by thousands, the story subsequently found itself on the Net and has been picked up by millions. In the early days of the Net publishers were busying grabbing GM stories for their publications because they knew it would boost the hit rates of their web sites.

Without the Internet the GM war would in all probability be done and dusted by now. The Internet afforded small groups the chance to take on corporations and mobilise forces, and also to carry out research in areas they might not have researched before. Most importantly, the Internet facilitated communication. It was only after the event that US citizens discovered that 60% of their diet had been infiltrated by GM foods. The same applies to the Australian diet.

Writing in the journal Science, LL Wolfenbarger and PR Phifer said: "As more economically useful and health-related genes are identified and isolated, it appears that the variety of genetically engineered organisms will increase dramatically. This increase may collectively represent an environmental risk.

"The quality of modifications and modified products may also differ from those available through selective breeding. Traditional breeding is limited by the available genetic variability in the target organism or its relatives. The great potential, as well as risk, of genetic engineering is that it removes those limits."

Wolfenbarger and Phifer concluded that risk management needed to be re-assessed. And for any food manufacturer or retailer, risk management means business management. It is comic to read in newspapers of protesters running amok in a field of GM corn in Scotland, when more sophisticated protesters are using the Internet to launch Excocet missiles at company share prices and swapping outrageously scandalous attacks on corporate giants. The Internet is after all interactive in a way that television and the press are not.

Across the globe, stories crackle down the electronic wires. Opinions vary widely from country to country. In New Zealand there are increasing fears of up and coming trade embargoes being imposed on the back of perceived infiltration of GM crops. In Kenya the mood is bullish with meetings organised by the US trade delegation and speakers talking of poverty and starvation being more important than environmental concerns.

The GM sweet potato has just had its first harvest. It is said yields are up 60% because of pest resistance. In Iowa it is said that GM corn is responsible for wiping out the state population of butterflies. In the US it has become the ethical issue of the hour. In South America with the coffee plantations in disarray, the future of the rain forests is an environmental issue in which the GM tree is portrayed either as a miracle saviour or the death forest.

And all the while technological advances seep out. Toyota is allegedly investing in GM trees. In Israel it is claimed GM poplar trees can grow so fast they could counteract global warming. And the US$400bn wood pulping business is already concerned that it will not be able to meet demand in the next decade without GM help. GM grass that can be any colour you want is on its way to garden centres.

From the laboratory, meanwhile, come rumours of tomatoes that can fight cancer and beans that won't give you wind (although there is a non GM bean grown on the Isle of Wight that can do that anyway). Monsanto is trying to give away its so called Golden Rice, which is enriched with vitamin A, as a weapon against third world poverty or colonisation of the paddy fields depending on your perspective.

Not all of this information is necessarily true. Genetically modified foods will be the number one issue for ethical investors in North America next year, according to a new survey of 350 account managers at the First Affirmative Financial Network. I have no way of verifying whether that story is true or not or even who the First Affirmative Financial Network might be or where they live but the story is carried quite happily on a news feed from an organic web site to people who are unlikely to be too much in favour of genetic modification of anything. The myth grows.

Researchers looking at how Starlink corn got into taco chips leading to major withdrawals in the US in September are still unsure if people really were allergic or were just reacting emotionally to stories they had read that the Cry9C allergen it contained just might possibly not work its way through the human digestive tract as quickly as had been claimed.

On the same day came the news of a contrite press conference from GM pioneer Monsanto promising that in the future it would act honourably and listen to concerns. It had acted arrogantly it admitted in its enthusiasm for this scientific breakthrough. It could not help itself. More humble its new chief executive Heinrich Verfaillie, could not have been as he announced his new five point charter and to terminate the research in so called terminator gene stocks. Elsewhere Monsanto executives were happily announcing the arrival of the GM potato and the GM rice grain in India.

"Sweet, isn't it?," replied a spokesman from the environmental pressure group Friends of the Earth which seems to have a full time press office available for a quote against any story doing the electronic rounds. "Here's a company with its back to the wall and its technology going down the tube. We welcome its pledges but it must face up to the fact that people do not want its food."

If Monsanto executives wanted to listen all they would have to do is send out a spider on the net and the concerns are there from New Zealand to Nagasaki. I am quoting from a single hour's snapshots: bakers say no risks from GM foods; protesters halt GM shipment; Japanese develop GM crops tracking device; labelling would not have affected recalls of GM crops. A few hours later they will be replaced with another set of stories charting the exponential growth in debate and development around the globe.

This is a debate of speed and complexity. And of course, it being broadcast on the Internet means there is no clear line or decision, just a rampant wild argument in which neither side is really listening to the other. But if it were not for the Internet it would be impossible for any other medium to monitor the worldwide arrival of what is one of the greatest ethical issues of our time. Net heads for sure have a view on GM foods.

Any food manufacturer or retailer that embarks on a plan to use GM foods is going to find an organised and vociferous opposition ready in waiting and able to manipulate the Internet with vicious tools, particular in attacks on share prices and through board meetings. But on the other hand the forces at work are so ambitious for GM foods that transparently they are hoping we as consumers will all get bored with the subject and let these invisible substances into our diet. Politicians it must be said are conspicuously absent from the discussion, except that is of course for Bill Clinton who has been a major advocate in his presidency. Or perhaps the industry is just waiting for the one GM crop that might turn the tide of public opinion. For the moment GM crops need to carry another health warning: beware may contain substances that can damage your brand.

By Drew Smith

Drew is developing a restaurant and hotel portal eatsleepdrink.net