15. 11. 2007

Just how 'anti-science' is it to worry about GM crops?

In the November issue of Prospect, Dick Taverne has published a bitter critique ('The Real GM Food Scandal') of all those organisations and individuals still out there campaigning against the introduction of GM foods.

It's a splendid and largely ludicrous rant, to which I was invited to make an equally polemical response:

Article for Prospect Magazine Website

The pro-GM lobby has always had an almost unique capacity to shoot itself in the foot. From Monsanto's original bully-boy tactics trying to force its GM products on reluctant EU countries back in the 1990s, through to today's inept combination of legal threats and would-be seduction, it knows how to alienate people more effectively than any other industry sector. And Dick Taverne operates very comfortably in that tradition, with a show of arrogance that beggars belief.

His starting point in the Prospect article is a simple one: that anyone who has reservations about the use of genetic modification in agriculture is either mentally defective or simply "anti-science". Having positioned them in that particular corner, he then attributes to them an almost superhuman capacity to whip up fear and hostility amongst ordinary citizens, whom he portrays in turn as ignorant, gullible folk who should just sit back quietly and put their faith in the men in white coats and proselytising GM evangelists such as himself.

I resent this on both counts. I am not an anti-GM fundamentalist. I have always been open to the possibility that GM might have a role to play in securing a more sustainable food production system in the future, and have always said so in public. I am therefore very interested in what is happening in the world of GM science, was fascinated to catch up on various cutting-edge projects on a recent visit to the John Innes Centre outside Norwich, and have just finished a radio documentary on agricultural biodiversity, which I like to think was reasonably balanced. But the fact that I still have concerns (on health, environmental, agronomic and governance grounds) marks me down in Taverne's fundamentalist world as an emotionally-flawed dipstick.

I also despise his patronising contempt for the general public. He adheres rigorously to the "empty vessel" school of science education: most people are stupid and ill-informed on most issues most of the time, so it's the task of scientists to fill them up with impeccably objective "facts". Then they will be alright.

But Taverne's own abuse of science makes him a very dodgy vessel-filler. He states categorically, for instance, that there is no evidence on risks to human health. "The fact is that there is not a shred of evidence of risk to human health from GM crops". Yet he must know that this is a seriously misleading statement, in that proper animal feeding trials into the potential health effects of new GM crops were not originally required, and even now are still not routinely required. He must also know that there is a body of evidence emerging from governments, universities and companies themselves demonstrating a range of unexplained (and potentially health-threatening) effects from the consumption of genetically-modified organisms.

Taverne is therefore right in saying that there is no evidence of people keeling over and dying as a direct consequence of ingesting GM products; he is totally wrong in seeking to persuade people that there is no evidence regarding potential health risks. Hence the continuing need for strict regulation (whereas Taverne would leave it all up to Monsanto and other multinationals to regulate themselves) based on the proper application of the Precautionary Principle, which Taverne dismisses out of hand as further evidence of anti-scientific obstructionism.

Elsewhere in his article, Taverne states categorically that there is little evidence of environmental damage from GM crops, and that "worldwide experience of GM crops to date provides strong evidence that they actually benefit the environment". To demonstrate this evidence, he quotes from one recent (assertively pro-GM) study without even alluding in passing to the fact that there is a substantial body of "strong evidence" (as published in peer-reviewed science journals) detailing substantial damage to the environment.

Beyond categorical (and highly misleading) assertions, he also does a fine line in exaggeration and over-claiming. For instance, his account of the interesting case study of Golden Rice (modified in such a way as to address the problem of vitamin A deficiency in poor countries) is so one-sided as to be laughable. He pins the blame for delays in bringing Golden Rice to market entirely on over-zealous regulators and environmental campaigners, implying that they are therefore directly responsible for the deaths of between one and two million people a year and 500,000 children a year going blind.

Reality tells us how far from the truth this really is. The problems with Golden Rice have much more to do with underperformance (early strains would have necessitated the consumption of at least 12 bowls of rice to achieve the required dosage of vitamin A!), continuing controversy amongst nutritionists (many of whom believe the answer lies more in a proper diet including green vegetables than in Golden Rice), and aesthetics - Dick Taverne may not like this, but a lot of people in those countries still prefer their rice white not yellow!

A lot of the over-claiming is done by allusion. Taverne makes many references to the contribution that GM crops are (apparently) already making to reducing hunger and disease, and to combatting drought and high levels of salinity in the soil. To anyone in the business, that's a bit of a mystery. True enough, there's a lot more in today's innovation pipeline which specifically addresses those critical issues. But right now, there is very little going on out there that fits any of those categories of need.

This is hardly surprising given that almost all GM crops today are grown either for non-food purposes (primarily cotton), or to produce the protein that is needed to feed the livestock for our ever more meat-intensive diets. On balance, given the latest evidence about the impact of meat-eating on the incidence of cancer, let alone a host of other health impacts, GM feedstuffs are probably responsible for killing far more people than they have rescued from drought, disease or famine.

That's precisely the kind of cheap shot that will enrage Dick Taverne. But I use it deliberately. Because what enrages most people about Taverne's GM fantasies is his refusal to confront some harsh truths about the inherent unsustainability of modern agriculture - a physical reality which current GM strategies and products reinforce at every turn. Today's resource-intensive monocultures are depleting and polluting ground water, degrading soil quality, damaging biodiversity, consuming vast amounts of energy, and contributing significantly to accelerating climate change. GM or non-GM, this is simply unsustainable, and dangling in front of people the chimera of genetically-modified monocultural techno-fixes is classic escapism of the worst kind.

In his Editorial introducing Dick Taverne's article in Prospect, David Goodhart talked of the challenge of avoiding "a Malthusian crunch", and the potential contribution that GM might make to that. In truth, there is no avoiding that Malthusian crunch until we understand that people are not short of food today because of a lack of food but because of poverty, that current levels of wastage throughout the food chain border on the criminal, and that our current meat-intensive diets are not sustainable for the two billion or so people who enjoy them today let alone for the nine billion with whom we'll be sharing this planet by 2050.

Get your head around those facts, and then let's have a serious, balanced discussion, looking at the evidence on both sides, about the potential of GM to bring forward solutions in what is going to be a very different world.

Jonathon Porritt
14 November 2007

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Comments

24. 11. 2007
spamlet

The sad thing about all this is that the scientists - leaving aside the companies who sponsor them for now - seem to keep the blinkers firmly on, while they pursue a particular fad of research. They ignore a long history of 'scientific breakthroughs' that were going to save us all, but which all went by the wayside in the pursuit of profit, and have been forgotten as ‘progress’ moves on.

I was reminded of this when I found myself in front of a late night showing of the BBC classic “Quatermass 2”. Still a little nervous of this as it scared the daylights out of me as a kid, I was taken by a distinct familiarity with today’s GM debate. Large domes had appeared in the countryside that were actually being used to acclimatise alien invaders, but the locals were kept at bay with assurances that this was an important ‘artificial food’ project, and interfering might harm plans to ‘feed the world’.

Looming food shortages due to population growth, were a great concern in the 1950’s and 60’s, before we were all indoctrinated with the sure knowledge that ‘the market’ will solve everything, and ‘artificial food’ was all the rage, much as GM is now.

I wondered what had happened to the dreams of those 1950’s scientists, struggling to save the world via their research… The result of course, has been Quorn, and other TVP products. Food for the finicky rich in the developed world… as the starving carry on much as before – but in greater numbers.

I put a question on agricultural researchers’, thus, making the same mistakes over and again, at a discussion on biofuels, recently held at Rothamsted research station, Herts. This is a particularly interesting location as it was one of the first such scientific establishments, and its founder John Lawes, was one of the first to hint at possible dangers from burning fossil fuels (more than a century ago). Earlier ‘successes’ have included the ‘green revolution’ – in part facilitated by Lawes’ own research and manufacture of fertilisers: result – population rises to take up the slack, and starvation continues as before, plus the environment suffers as more ‘wild space’ becomes ‘suitable’ for cultivation and is commandeered for the exclusive use of expanding humanity.

The early days of GM were replete with tales of how wonderful it would be if we could introduce nitrogen fixation genes into cereals, and thus end our dependence on artificial fertilisers. Can’t see any sign of this research angle now though: mostly we have research designed to help us put on more weed-killers, and, the likes of ‘Golden Rice’ designed to get people hooked on a profitable monoculture in place of a naturally balanced diet… Scientists just don’t seem to follow through and think about who will really be using the technology they create; how; and why. And what will really be the overall effects of either their success or failure.

In decades gone by Rothamsted researchers, worked hard to give us shorter and shorter varieties of cereal crops, in order to minimise the ‘waste’ part – the straw. Now they are busily researching very tall varieties of introduced ‘grass’ (Miscanthus) to maximise this waste part. This will be grown as a separate crop to be burned for energy, on land that could be used for feeding the ‘starving’: which, in the not too distant future, is likely to be us - as our population is several times in excess of what our country can naturally feed, and getting worse by the day. We blindly trust in ‘economists’ who are simply gambling that the rest of the world will always owe us a living…

The Rothamsted biofuels debate, kicked off with an assessment of how much land was available for agriculture in England, and how much of this might be required if we were to try to hit targets for ‘renewable energy’. It was made clear that what was really needed were replacements for liquid fuels. Then the discussion went on exclusively about planting up crops for incineration. When I asked where they were going to plant the crops for the liquid fuels, after they had set up a nationwide network of incinerators dependent on direct combustion crops, the answer was a vague inference, that, ‘once they had sorted out the technical difficulties of making liquid fuels’, then ‘the market’ would sort it out. Of course, until it was profitable that research on the liquid fuels was not, apparently, going to be done…

So, the ‘scientific’ approach, is not to work on what is actually needed, but to work on something which is both relatively easy, and acceptable to the profit motive. What that will glaringly obviously mean in the future, is slightly guiltily, put to the back of the scientific mind, till more disaster means there is some money in it.

Technical fix failures are commonplace around the world as scientists try to come up with schemes to stave of the inevitable day when humanity will have to learn to live within its natural physical limitations. The only way I can see that GM might have any part in this, is perhaps if they – accidentally or otherwise - come up with a jumping gene that will render most of us sterile. Frankly, I don’t fancy it, but, on the other hand, I don’t fancy starving or freezing to death either.

13. 12. 2007
Spamlet

Shame that nobody seems to be reading this stuff, but anyone that is might note that Radio4 has done one of the BBC's regular plug the contrarian point of view just to annoy everyone series, starting with Taverne having another go at all things organic and anti-GM.

In last night's (12 Dec) piece, it was most amusing to hear these so well read and superior beings positing that it would obviously be a step too far if GM scientists were to decide to produce anything so awful and outlandish, as a red banana...

The point that organic red bananas are already available - if you are lucky enough to find some before they are sold out - and they are wonderfully flavoursome and streets ahead of the bland Cavendish mono-culture beloved of the big producers, seems to have completely escaped their extensive researches before cobbling this programme together!

Lord preserve us fom bigots posing as our scientific superiors!

Merry Christmas,

S

31. 12. 2007
Neil Craig

"Taverne is therefore right in saying that there is no evidence of people keeling over and dying as a direct consequence of ingesting GM products; he is totally wrong in seeking to persuade people that there is no evidence regarding potential health risks"

The first part is obviously true. The 2nd part isn't. There is no EVIDENCE. There are a lot of eco-fascists going round saying some evidence might turn up but that is not in itself evidence.

A comparison would be saying there is no evidence that "green" propaganda induces people to keel over & die but that it should be banned because insufficient studies have been done to prove it doesn't.

However that is not quite a fair comparison as 70 million African children could tell if they hadn't been made to "keel over & die" by "envirnomentlaist" DDT banning.

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