I got into a lively debate with a chemistry graduate at a recent public talk given by a representative of Teagasc on 'Biodiversity Options' in Irish farming. Perhaps it was impolitic of me, but I couldn't resist asking the speaker on her views concerning Teagasc's aggressive pro-GM stance. She had no apparent views, but nonetheless a mini-debate was triggered, threatening to side-track a pretty anodyne discussion. Was it wrong of me to bring this up? I am yet to be convinced, given that this was talk on biodiversity where the term 'biodiversity' appeared to be viewed as a mere sales term.
In any case, this graduate was eager to educate me on the intricacies of genetic
engineering – thinking me ignorant on the topic. I countered by suggesting that
what biotech was trying to do was cheat natural selection. He responded by
stating, and here I am paraphrasing, 'Given the choice between change happening
in six generations and one, I will choose one'. But, I objected, we don't know
the medium- to long-term effects of GM food on the human body or the
environment. A woman, whom I took to be a classmate of his, dived in, ready to
inform me all about GM. She had, after all, recently completed her thesis on
the subject. So I challenged her to produce the raw data from human cellular
and genetic testing which shows that GM food has no negative impact on health.
She could not.
I wondered how someone could write an entire thesis on something without
having the raw data concerning its health effects on hand. I wondered further,
how someone could advocate something as being safe without having this data.
How can you place your implicit trust in a group of corporations, based solely
upon their word? Then I was reminded of a quote from Aaron Sorkin's paean to
the folkloric notion of nobility and honesty in politics - The American
President, when Michael Douglas's President Andy Shepherd finally lets
loose on hawkish Republican Bob Rumson, played by Richard Dreyfuss:
I've been operating under the assumption that the reason Bob devotes so
much time and energy to shouting at the rain was that he simply didn't get it.
Well, I was wrong. Bob's problem isn't that he doesn't get it. Bob's problem is
that he can't sell it!
True enough, scientists have grants to obtain and jobs to secure, and going
against the apparently unimpeachable probity of biotech companies would appear
to be career suicide. They see a problem: increasing famine and drought,
climate change and population growth, not to mention a vocal section of society
that seems happy to live with their heads in the sand regarding these matters.
They see scientific progress as major instigator of the forward momentum of
humankind. In a world with diminishing resources and finite space, why should
science not be the answer to our collective prayers?
Unfortunately, since the industrial revolution, scientific inquiry and
ethics have become increasingly estranged from each other. Science appears to
be inextricably linked with the relentless growth of the corporation in modern
times. Efficiency and the bottom line seem to be the guiding star of the
scientific world. This is the only way I can explain the amorality surrounding
the involvement of scientists in the ever-deadlier pursuit of war. The Nazis
were not the only monsters in the mid-20th century, as the people of Japan,
Vietnam, Cambodia and many other unfortunate battlefields can testify.
It may seem simplistic to state that science has replaced god in people’s
lives, but there is an unavoidable truth in this. Since Darwin unlocked the genius
of natural selection, scientists have seemed insatiable in their desire to go
one better than nature, and in doing so have shown their fundamental scientific
illiteracy. The pro-GM lobby likes to call opponents scientific luddites.
However, in attempting to surpass the excruciatingly gradual and seemingly
cruel nature of the evolutionary process, the biotech industry is itself guilty
of this cardinal sin. It is not us who are ignorant of science. We want the
evidence. All we want is to know if what you are eager to force down our
throats is safe. Is that too much to ask?
In the light of the Environmental Protection Agency's green light to a trial
modified potatoes in Ireland, we are seeing a chilling trend in recent times
which has heralded a more aggressive campaign than ever to force GM onto our
plates. A recent court ruling in France lifted a temporary ban on modified
maize developed by Monsanto, stating: "no
specific scientific evidence, in terms of risk to human and animal health or
the environment". Since when do those proposing something no longer
have to present evidence to support their contention? Why do those questioning
it suddenly have to shoulder the responsibility of producing evidence? It's
like a theist demanding that an atheist prove that God doesn't exist – a
Indeed, it seems that governments are placing an unwarranted amount of faith
in the statements of corporations. If GM food is safe, why does the biotech
industry not produce this evidence, but rather make it nigh-on impossible to access
it? What are they hiding and why? Could it be that the anecdotal evidence from
farmers and campaigners around the world is true - that GM crops contaminate non-GM
crops by cross-pollination, that the failure of GM crops to thrive in India
has caused hundreds of
farmers of commit suicide?
The EPA and the Irish Government are not interested in such evidence,
however compelling. They are only concerned about quick fixes and the
appearance of progress. The scientific research being done into polyculture
and small holdings as a solution to the growing food crisis is of little
matter to them. Like our friend Rob Rumson, their only concern is that they
might have trouble selling it.