GM: where the science doesn’t count

Today’s climate change activists pose as ‘defenders of science’. Yet not so long ago, they irrationally rejected the scientific truth about GM crops.

Hold the front page: ‘There is no change in the government’s policy towards GM crops’, says Hilary Benn of Britain’s Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Benn’s statement was a reaction to yesterday’s scaremongering frontpage story in the UK Guardian. The Guardian headline said ‘The return of GM’, and the report claimed that ‘ministers back moves to grow crops in UK’ (1).

It is hard to remember now, but in 2000 environmental campaigners were protesting all over the country, organising meetings and debates and breaking into premises, all to draw the public’s attention to the dangers represented by… genetically modified organisms - crops, mainly. Lord Melchett, himself a former Labour cabinet minister turned Greenpeace activist, tore up GM crops. (My grandfather slaved away for his father at Imperial Chemicals Industries, dying young, as many did, because of the way the chemical fumes tended to accelerate your heart rate, leading to the ‘Tuesday death’. GM crops would help alleviate the need to use these kinds of chemicals.)

The GM debate was remarkable. In quite a short time, environmental campaigners brought to the surface intense public anxieties about the industrialisation of the food chain. Just before the debate about the introduction of GM foods, there had been another public health scare when one government scientist, Dr Robert Lacey, warned that by 1997 one third of Britain could be infected with the debilitating brain illness Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease (CJD), from eating beef contaminated with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE)-inducing prions. As it turned out, you were about as likely to die of CJD as you were to be struck by lightning, and there is still no proven link with it and BSE – but public distrust of authority was at an all-time high.

There was no real argument against GM food. But people felt very disconnected from the authorities, having little faith in the public pronouncements that there was no risk. That alone was enough to make most people alarmed. Opportunistically, environmental campaigners realised that they could gain influence by stoking public fears.

Activists like journalist Andy Rowell, language-school head Jonathan Matthews of the Norfolk Genetic Interest Network, the Open University academic Mae-Wan Ho, and the Guardian’s George Monbiot stirred up a fantastic picture of rogue genes causing all kinds of extraordinary mutations as they passed through the food chain, or as they were carried on the wind from test-beds into ‘healthy’ British meadows.

Of course, there was no scientific evidence whatsoever. The absence of even one example of a negative health impact from the introduction of GM crops in the US put some pressure on the greens. They latched on to examples that really did not demonstrate any danger. Some oil was contaminated, leading to deaths – but it turned out it was nothing to do with GM. And then the Rowett Research Institute’s Dr Arpad Pusztai did some experiments on GM lectins in potatoes that seemed to show negative consequences in rats. The press and the environmentalists latched on to the case – except that it only showed that the introduction of poisonous lectins into potatoes was bad for rats. When Pusztai was sacked for overstating the implications of his tests, GM campaigners adopted his case as a cause célèbre, only slowly coming to the conclusion that they had indeed overstated the dangers highlighted in Dr Pusztai’s tests.

Meanwhile, another hero of the anti-GM lobby, Mae-Wan Ho, who had been involved in biotechnology in the Seventies, was largely preoccupied with the philosophical meaning of genetics rather than hands-on bio-science, and was interested in resurrecting the ideas of the disgraced Soviet biologist Lysenko, and also Bergson’s vitalist cult.

GM activists came under pressure from scientists. In a public debate between George Monbiot and biologist Steve Jones, Jones denounced Monbiot as a charlatan (they have since made up). Andy Rowell attacked the scientists for being the mouthpieces of big business. The peer review of Arpad Pusztai’s work was denounced as a cover for a hidden agenda to force GM food on an unsuspecting public. Scientific verification was not to be trusted, said the activists, who invoked a higher bar, the ‘precautionary principle’, which puts the onus of proof on those introducing technology that it could do no harm in the future.

Provoking the public’s deepest uncertainties about the food chain proved a great success. Supermarkets withdrew GM food from their shelves and made it effectively unmarketable. In 2004, the New Labour government conceded that even the scientific experiments – the rapeseed fields that Melchett had torn down – should be stopped.

The activists, though, were not entirely happy that they had painted themselves into a corner of outright hostility to scientific method. They knew that if their irrational rejection of science and the modern world was made too explicit, people would find it difficult to go along with. On the other hand, the scientists were pretty bruised, too. They were desperate to win back some of the authority they had lost by being portrayed as tools of big business and proto-Frankensteins out to poison the public. Their subsequent pursuit of ‘public understanding’ turned out to mean lots of committees, often full of green activists, seeking to influence the scientists’ agenda.

On the issue of climate change, scientists and environmentalists found more to agree on. As the international diplomatic manoeuvres engendered a new science of climate change, there was more influence for those scientists who lent their research to heavy-duty warnings of global catastrophe. The environmentalists were thrilled to find that the one community that had been most resistant to their ideas were now providing the ammunition.

Once environmentalists had routinely attacked science, drawing on the caricatures of the scientific method found in the Frankfurt school of sociology. Now they were defenders of science against the supposedly ‘irrational’ climate change deniers. The radical academic Bruno Latour, who had made a career arguing that science was nothing more than an ideological construct that reflected the interests of the powers-that-be, suddenly changed his mind over the issue of climate change. Protesters against the new runway at Heathrow summed up the activists’ changed attitude to science. They marched with a banner that read: ‘We are armed only with peer-reviewed science.’

The new, more positive attitude to science on the part of the environmentalists, though, is the reason why the previous issue of GM is still unresolved. The pressure for a return to GM testing in Britain comes from the National Farmers Union, which is lobbying to be allowed to introduce the latest biotechnology. Whether a minister did or did not talk to the Guardian over the weekend about reintroducing GM, the government’s explicit position is that there will be no return to GM testing.

Still the activists are alarmed. They have an intuitive understanding that they got away with a lot when they committed the UK to outright opposition to GM testing. The decision was an outrage against scientific experimentation. The activists’ arguments back then were a lot more hostile to science than they are today. The Guardian suggests that the pro-GM lobbyists, too, think that the debate has moved on, and that GM crops can be defended on grounds that they might be a solution to the problems raised by global warming. But whatever the reason, Britain should be engaged in GM testing – not because it can help with the problems of global warming, but because it is the right thing to do.

James Heartfield is a writer based in London. Visit his website here.

Previously on spiked

CS Prakash explained the history and modern science of genetic modification. Tony Gilland asked why the Royal Society felt GM food was safe yet put out a press release saying more evidence was necessary. Scott Campbell showed that the GM Nation? consultation exercise was deeply flawed. Or read more at spiked issue GM food.

(1) Return of GM: ministers back moves to grow crops in UK, Guardian, 17 September 2007

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