Anti-GMO but Pro-science?

Many observers will be surprised to read today’s Observer editorial on GMO crops.

Citing the recent NAS report on GMO crops– which found no concern for health risks, no concern for loss of diversity on farms (and even some beneficial effects) and counseled against any mandatory labeling, with only resistance being flagged as a major issue- the Observer noted:

Europe is already becoming a backwater for new breeding technologies and needs to move swiftly to prevent this situation worsening, UK scientists warned last week.

The restrictive regulations that are blocking the growing of GM crops need to be stripped away as soon as possible.

and slated the anti-science stance of the Big Green lobby on this issue:

Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and other NGOs are happy to accept scientific consensus when it suits their purposes. They triumphantly quote academic research that backs their claim that climate change, brought about by increasing use of fossil fuels, now threatens major changes to sea levels, coral reefs, shorelines and global temperatures. Yet they are equally willing to say that scientists – who they are pleased to endorse as a profession elsewhere – are utterly wrong about GM crops. This is a dishonest act of cherry picking that makes a nonsense of the green movement’s claim to hold a superior moral position about the health of the planet..

Not everyone was pleased – Guardian writer and campaigner Alice Bell tweeted:

The second tweet is absolutely correct ofcourse- but the science on GMOs is far clearer than that on climate change- not the question of whether climate change is happening per se, or on whether CO2 is a warming gas, but on what policy this should imply. Policy is after all what Big Green are most concerned about, and on GMOs they are winning comfortably in Europe, where there are very tight restrictions and hardly any actually being grown. This is not what the science would suggest- proceed with caution, by all means, with proper regulations, absolutely, but Greenpeace et al are completely opposed to use of GMOs under any circumstances:

GMOs should not be released into the environment since there is not an adequate scientific understanding of their impact on the environment and human health.

That right there is your anti-science statement- because as the NAS report clearly shows- and this is just the latest in a long line of similar authoritative studies- the science really is in on the safety and efficacy of GMOs. Crop varieties should be regulated case-by-case on each trait, no differently from other varieties, and not on the breeding method.

I have been following this debate since then and  I have still not seen a serious case against GMOs being made that clearly distances itself from the fear-mongering, and is not essentially anti-science, usually laced with conspiracy theories and assumptions that all biotech scientists are shills for Monsanto. The “economic and political” debates always ride on the back of a caustic undermining of the scientific process and the deliberate spreading of FUD: Fear, Misunderstanding and Doubt.

Warren Pearce argues that there are valid concerns about the regulatory process:

This is rather ironic considering the Oberserver piece itself clearly points out that

The green movement also complains that GM crop technology is the prerogative of big industry and should therefore be treated with suspicion. But it is the very actions of NGOs – who have demanded strict regulations to block GM crop cultivation – that have achieved this state of affairs. Only major corporations, with large legal departments, can afford to get their products into the field while small outfits – often those with novel technologies that could help starving countries – are thwarted by cumbersome regulations.

While this may be true- there may be concerns about how these inquiries are handled- it is not clear that this is substantially different from how public consultation takes place on any other topic; nor is it clear that there would be anything like this level of interest were it not for the well-funded, constant fear-mongering and anti-science propaganda from the likes of Greenpeace and many Organic outlets and marketing organizations. Why the fuss about genetic engineering, and not other breeding techniques? Why such concern about consultation over moths and mosquitoes, but none over the well-established use of biotech in medicine?

I am all in favor of greater public engagement in both science and regulatory processes, but the two cannot be separated on the subject such as GMOs, where public debate, probably more than any other scientific topic, takes place in a toxic atmosphere where public science is assumed to be in the pay of Big Business.

In the meantime, the Observer editorial is a welcome change of tone for a paper which regularly takes a strongly opposing stance on this issue. We can imagine there may have been a few feathers ruffled:

 

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2 thoughts on “Anti-GMO but Pro-science?

  1. I keep coming back just to read the re-definition of “cherry-picking” because it makes me laugh every time.

    But I never got an answer from Warren on an example of how the regulation he wants ran before, with pesticides.

    • yes certainly bizarre! I think Alice doesnt see it as cherry-picking if it’s her guys doing it 😉
      and thanks for the tweets, and yes Warren is strangely silent- I would like to see comparative data looking at the level of public interest for mutagenesis, pesticides, or anything else really- these things dont happen in a vacuum. Public interest in GMOs is drummed up mainly through scare stories, whatever the legitimate concerns on regulation are.

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