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Science, Belief and Policy

Policy, as the Scientific Alliance has always argued, should be based on sound evidence. What is agreed upon is not necessarily the only possible course of action, but should at least be properly defensible and also subject to review if the evidence base changes. But sometimes, in the world of realpolitik, a decision to take temporary action becomes by default a mandate for permanent change.

For example, the use of neonicotinoid insecticides in the EU has been temporarily banned as a precautionary measure because of possible (but unproven) links to steep declines in bee populations. Because it will probably be no clearer in two years’ time which are the important factors affecting bee health, it is quite likely this ban will be extended, even if bee populations have failed to increase. No real attention is likely to be given to the overall balance of costs and benefits to farming, the food supply, the countryside or consumers, simply the hypothetical possibility of harm to bees. Ratcheting up of restrictions on pesticides is a sign of a highly risk-averse society.

Another bête noire of many campaigners – genetic modification – has also attracted some headlines in recent weeks. Owen Paterson, UK Secretary of State for the Environment, gave an interview to the Independent in which his clear message was in the title: Opponents of third world GM crops are ‘wicked’, says Environment Secretary Paterson. He is quoted as saying “It’s just disgusting that little children are allowed to go blind and die because of a hang-up by a small number of people about this technology,” he said. “I feel really strongly about it. I think what they do is absolutely wicked.”

This position, however, did not impress his fellow Tory MP Zac Goldsmith, who wrote a critical article in the Guardian (Zac Goldsmith attacks Owen Paterson for calling anti-GM campaigners wicked). That Goldsmith has attacked Paterson is hardly a surprise; he was, after all, editor and, until recently, owner of The Ecologist magazine. That loss-making publication, kept alive by the family fortune of its owner, was bought for a nominal £1 and incorporated into the existing Resurgence title, with which it shares a common agenda.

The editor of Resurgence and Ecologist, Satish Kumar, has published his own take on the issue (To GM or not to GM?). Given the source, the answer is, inevitably, no. He argues that the spread of GM crops would further reduce the diversity of fruit and vegetable varieties, that farmers would ‘lose their liberty’ and that a few multinationals would dominate our food supply in the blind pursuit of profit.

Goldsmith’s arguments are essentially the same, but his key point with regard to golden rice (about which the Environment Secretary made his remarks) is that it is not yet available and anyway it is better to ensure access to a balanced diet containing sufficient Vitamin A. What he does not mention is that a balanced diet has itself always been available to those who can afford it, but many millions of poor people in Asia rely largely on (vitamin-deficient) rice for calories. Golden rice may not be the only answer, but it has the potential to correct a major problem through the same staple food.

For the great majority of scientists with some knowledge of plant breeding and food safety, the suggestion that there is something intrinsically risky in developing varieties through gene transfer rather than ‘conventional’ breeding or mutagenesis is simply irrational. Of course, individual transgenic events need to be thoroughly evaluated, but there is no basic reason why the decision on acceptability should not be made on the basis of the properties of the crop variety rather than the way it was arrived at.

For the hard core of anti-GM activists – including a number of scientists – there is a need to find evidence which proves their belief in the wrongness of the technology. This is a mixture of hypothesised safety and environmental problems and anti-capitalist, anti-globalisation arguments about personal liberty and corporate control. These activists are heavily outweighed by those who see genetic modification as a valuable tool, but they have nevertheless had a disproportionate impact on the political class (most of whom have not been burdened with too much scientific knowledge, of course).

Contrast this, then, with the situation on climate change. In this case, the prevailing mainstream view is that there is sufficient evidence that current human activities are causing unprecedentedly rapid warming, which in turn is likely to cause enormous economic and social harm. This is espoused by both the scientific establishment and the environmental lobby, with mainstream politicians having also apparently enthusiastically joined up to the cause (although there is good reason to suppose that this enthusiasm is waning for a good number).

The number of people who understand the issues and who are, to varying degrees, sceptical of what they see as an unnecessarily alarmist view based on incomplete evidence is not really known, but it is substantial; probably much smaller than the mainstream, but then science is about assessing evidence rather than taking a democratic vote. It is difficult to be objective, of course, but I see a large number of sceptics who are really what Matt Ridley has termed ‘lukewarmists’. They know that higher levels of carbon dioxide will have some effect on temperature but see no evidence either that this is the dominant effect or that current costly political prescriptions are likely to have any worthwhile impact. For this, they are criticised by many and vilified as ‘deniers’ by their more zealous opponents.

I find myself in the position where, on one hand, I see nothing intrinsically dangerous about genetic modification, properly conducted and regulated (nor, for that matter, do I see anything wrong with the profit motive). On the other hand, I find myself squarely in the ‘lukewarmist’ camp but with, I firmly believe, sound evidence and arguments to support my position (unlike anti-GM activists). Conversely, I see plenty of signs that some mainstream scientists are quite happy to cherry-pick evidence to support their view that fossil fuel burning is sending us all to hell in a handcart.

On one hand, I am arguing that people should listen to the mainstream scientists, while on the other I think that the scientific establishment has made a collective error of judgement. It’s not necessarily a comfortable position to be in for someone who believes in the power of the scientific method, but I don’t think I’m alone. We should all be free to look at the evidence as objectively as possible and come to our own conclusions rather than simply taking the currently received wisdom as gospel.