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Science, safety and prejudice

This week, the prestigious US National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine published a report Genetically Engineered Crops – Experience and Prospects. Unfortunately, at $64, the complete report will not be gracing many bookshelves, but the panel of scientists came to some pretty clear conclusions. As their announcement says, they found that

“…new technologies in genetic engineering and conventional breeding are blurring the once clear distinctions between these two crop-improvement approaches. In addition, while recognizing the inherent difficulty of detecting subtle or long-term effects on health or the environment, the study committee found no substantiated evidence of a difference in risks to human health between current commercially available genetically engineered (GE) crops and conventionally bred crops, nor did it find conclusive cause-and-effect evidence of environmental problems from the GE crops. However, evolved resistance to current GE characteristics in crops is a major agricultural problem.”

Given the inherent caution of scientists and the impossibility of declaring anything to be 100% safe, this is a pretty clear endorsement of what is now a well-proven technology, whose use in other sectors has proven uncontroversial. Evolved resistance is a problem not related to GM crops per se, but rather the traits – particularly glyphosate resistance – they express.

GM crops are no longer front page news (except in this case in the Times, with the headline GM food safe to eat, say world’s leading scientists). But they still come in for the same opposition from activists, and yet another heavyweight report from scientists will do nothing to change their minds. In this particular instance, the best the Soil Association could say was “The report highlights there have been no long studies which have directly addressed the human health impact of GM food consumption.” Apart, that is, from about 20 years of consumption of GM soy in America.

The Association’s Policy Director, Peter Melchett, followed up with a letter published the next day. To quote, “Despite huge investment, we have witnessed 20 years of no increased yields, new weeds resistant to multiple herbicides and resistant insects, all grudgingly acknowledged in the report….Far from a death knell for the anti-GM movement, this report reflects a growing consensus that GM crops have failed and are on the way out.”

But the real point is that spurious, apparently scientific, arguments are put forward against a whole technology rather than its specific applications. This is to some degree because of a real worry about its implications, but more because of a range of concerns about modern agriculture in general, the dominance of a handful of multinational seed and chemical suppliers in particular and a philosophical attachment to the slippery but seductive concept of naturalness.

Meanwhile, although reporting is now much more balanced and to some extent even pro-genetic modification than ever was the case a decade or so ago, the continual opposition from protestors, both overtly and via lobbying, has effectively kept agricultural biotechnology out of the EU while much of the rest of the world enjoys the benefits of what to date have been just a handful of simple but useful traits.

And still, when there is a story, it is normal for a spokesperson from Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth or the Soil Association to be asked for a comment. No matter that there is no credible science-based argument against genetic modification, the opposition is still given an airing. Behind the scenes, the green lobby is even more influential, having not only persuaded the Commission and member state governments that regulations needed to be tightened, but also creating an environment in which retailers see no competitive advantage in stocking products with GM labels and politicians see no votes in following scientific advice and approving them. It is now a fact of life that a majority of member states routinely vote against approving new GM events, whatever the evidence in their favour.

Contrast this, then, with the situation on climate change. The key difference here is that, far from being on opposite sides, environmentalists and the scientific establishment are closely aligned. And yet, despite the protestations that dangerous, anthropogenic global warming (DAGW) is a real and present danger, the evidence in support remains essentially circumstantial. On this flimsy basis, there is a concerted movement to eliminate even modest dissent, to the extent that the BBC – that would doubtless have no concerns about interviewing someone from Greenpeace about GM crops – no longer allows critical views of mainstream climate science to be aired.

Even in the print media, in an otherwise excellent article in support of science (Anti-science madness has got to be stopped), David Aaronovitch writes in favour of GM crops and e-cigarettes but is contemptuous of even well-argued criticism of the DAGW hypothesis: “Yet when it comes to fear, prejudice, poor science, confirmation bias and conspiracism, few lobbies can match the anti-man-made-climate-change brigade. The overwhelming scientific consensus, including from those most expert in the field, is that carbon dioxide emissions lead to global warming, that we are responsible for a significant proportion of this phenomenon, and that, within a range, the consequences will be severe. But there is a voluble and powerful lobby (step forward Lord Lawson of Blaby and most of the US Republican party) dedicated to the business of getting the rest of us to join them in jamming our fingers in our ears and singing Nymphs and Shepherds at the top of our voices.”

The sad thing is that, far from entrenched opposition to the deployment of a technology, those sceptical of climate science are arguing about the degree of change and its impact, rather than denying human activity has no influence. This is an important point, because accepting it gives an opportunity to develop effective and efficient non-fossil fuel energy technologies rather than blindly expand wind and solar energy generation because they are all we have for the moment.

In the case of GM crops, nothing is likely to make many of this generation of environmental activists have a change of heart, including hard evidence. Unfortunately, in the case of climate change, the same can be said for the scientific establishment. When it comes to some issues, world views and prejudices trump objectivity far too often. 

To see an email exchange on this with Peter Melchett, Policy Director of the Soil Association, click on this link.