Wednesday, 1 August 2012

The Ignorance surrounding GM is not just on the part of its opponents, but also its advocates

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 of genetically 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 logical fallacy.

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.


  1. You don't seem to understand how GM works, as otherwise you would see it makes no sense to ask for proof that GM is of no health risk. How would one prove that an alteration of a gene in a carrot to increase its growth hormones is safe? If it was not safe it would be much easier to prove it through basic trials. These basic trials are what count as the proof of safety of specific GM foods. One can't state ALL GM is safe or unsafe, each would have to be judged on a case by case basis before going to market. Having a banner view that all GM is bad is the equivalent of saying all food is bad since some is poisonous.

    I generally refuse to by organic due to the grassroots style of 'Everything manmade is bad', I agree with having food free from pesticides for the consumer to buy, but organic is also always non GM. there's a key difference between spraying crops with chemicals and GM which people seem to not see, and there are obvious differences in level of risk. These same people who constantly want to push the organic movement further and ban everything else, are normally also the people who want to feed the world. During a global food crisis, which is gradually becoming a reality, these 2 philosophies are at odds.

    One key example of where GM is brilliant is that a form of wheat was produced via GM that naturally repels certain insects by giving off a certain pharamone (prooving not to be bad for human consumption i might add). This means now we have a strain of wheat which doesn't need the pesticides, via GM we have made a form of Wheat which will yield the same amount of crop as one sprayed with pesticides harmful to the environment.

  2. I understand that a very effective way of demonstrating the safety or otherwise of genetically modified food would be human testing. It is food intended for human consumption, after all. However, Monsanto refuses to perform human testing because 'There is no need for, or value in testing the safety of GM foods in humans.' Not surprisingly, because the few tests that have been done have shown that GM food survives the digestive tract and trigger immune responses in the volunteers. There was also evidence of horizontal gene transfer to gut bacteria.

    The evocation of a global food crisis in support of GM food is misleading. The world is currently producing enough food to support 12 billion people, but those who need it the most do not have access to it. The reason for the Irish Famine was not that there weren't enough potatoes in the country. It was that people were forced into unsustainable monoculture due to poverty and forced dispossession. Raj Patel states that the reason for hunger is not a lack of food, it is poverty. GM will further control and curtail people's access to food, rather than feed the world.

    The IAASTD report 'Agriculture at a Crossroads' found that the use of GM results in variable yields, negatively affects biodiversity, and has no impact on hunger poverty in developing countries. Conversely, the cost of GM technology often grossly outweighs the results for small farmers, who are also hampered by seed patenting and poor outcomes.

    The report also shows that: 'Studies on GMOs have also shown
    the potential for decreased insecticide use, while others
    show increasing herbicide use.' Conventional breeding techniques have shown themselves to be hugely superior to GM in their ability to withstand disease and pests.

    The most compelling argument against GM is that there is simply no need for it. We have all the tools we need to feed the world's growing population, but different interests are invested in making sure that only a certain few control these mechanisms.