Guilty as charged on science of GM food


I have to confess to intellectual lethargy in siding with opponents of genetically modified (GM) crops as the answer to global food security. In the New York Times last week, Mark Lynas was right to invoke hypocrisy in those who lambast the ignorance of climate change denial whilst deploying comparable disdain for scientific opinion that GM food is safe for the environment and for consumption.

That’s not to say that I’m convinced by Lynas’ assertion that “there is an equivalent level of scientific consensus on both issues.” GM science has nothing to match the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, independent peer-reviewed analysis of scientific papers, whose verdicts presented to global decision-makers betray barely a whisper of doubt on the underlying premise.

Understanding the technology of splicing genetic material from one species into another is fiendishly difficult. The healthy flow of excellent books about genetics tend to explain how evolution works in nature rather than how to intervene.

I therefore flounder about in the relative vacuum of GM science, influenced more by individuals who I admire, such as Anne Glover. Her position as Scientific Adviser to the European Commission was allegedly terminated on account of her support for GM crops.

When in doubt on climate science, I seek reassurance by superimposing informed common sense on expert opinion. I have a reasonable grasp of how elements such as carbon and nitrogen move in slowly changing cycles through land, ocean and atmosphere, in different chemical combinations.  Tampering with the carbon cycle within a couple of hundred years to the extent of increasing atmospheric concentration by 40%, with ocean acidity in close pursuit, strikes me as the height of folly for intelligent civilisation. This sort of precautionary principle science has no need for 1,000 page reports.

However, I’m uncomfortable with the common sense approach on GM crops because it’s too damning. Tinkering with millions of years of evolutionary struggle seems indefensible, reflected in inflammatory anti-GM headlines and public opprobrium.

The weakness of this populist stance is that it focuses on the principle of genetic modification, rather than its impact. Our food is already dosed with chemical additives, our bloodstream a cocktail of toxic pollutants, our environment in a spiral of decline. A little genetic deviation seems unlikely to be material, subject to the normal standards of food testing. I concede that I’d have no problem with eating the stuff.

However, this is a policy of despair, a resigned tolerance of unsustainable agriculture, riddled with unanswered questions about allergies, collapsing ecosystems and water scarcity. These problems cannot necessarily be laid at the door of GM crops, but the world’s poorer countries are entitled to question the wisdom of importing a US model of food production.

This direction of travel in the search for global food security has a solid foundation, backed by important US donors and the powerful agribusiness lobby. They argue that Africa cannot feed itself without radical transformation of its current low yields.

The debate therefore moves beyond GM science into concerns about inappropriate exercise of corporate power within weak national economies. Key GM food technologies are locked up in a tiny number of large companies, led by Monsanto. The worst case scenario would see a monopoly of so-called “climate-smart” seed varieties, protected by a smothering matrix of patents and locked into proprietorial chemical products – the agricultural equivalent of Microsoft’s Windows operating system recognising only the Internet Explorer browser.

Understanding the potential role of private finance in agriculture in the world’s poorest countries is almost as difficult as the technologies deployed. But we must bracket the topics together – it’s not enough to brandish scientific endorsement of GM crop technology.

Meanwhile, here in the UK I fully expect that, if returned to power in Thursday’s election, a Conservative administration will facilitate the introduction of GM crop planting over the course of the next parliament. Public resistance will fail unless better informed by science.

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How I got converted to GMO Food – Mark Lynas in New York Times

Biodiversity Access and Benefit-Sharing – Tread Softly Briefing

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One Response to Guilty as charged on science of GM food

  1. Mark Lynas says:

    Hi Bill –

    Thanks for the mention! Just a couple of thoughts in response:

    – I’ve never heard anyone say that GM crops are “the answer” to food security or anything else. Genetic modification is simply a way of improving crop genetics for whatever intended outcome. We’ve of course been doing GM since the dawn of agriculture via slow selective breeding – and more recently through more rapid mutagenesis (blast the genome with radiation/carcinogenic chemicals, select for beneficial mutations spotted in the resulting crop phenotype). Modern GM tends to be gene-specific, so you can argue is inherently more precise and probably safer. Even newer technologies such as Crispr-cas can target unique DNA sequences and do not necessarily introduce any ‘foreign’ DNA. This is a very wide field now (excuse the pun) and the possibilities are enormous. Even so, as I said in the NYT piece, no silver bullet is in the offing.

    – “superimposing informed common sense on expert opinion… precautionary principle” – be careful! In very acrimonious debates such as this it is too easy for people to use ‘common sense’ as a reason to maintain confirmation bias. Often science is the opposite of intuition in these areas, and the intuitions of GMO have been very negative. See http://loonylabs.org/2015/04/26/gmo-opposition/

    best
    Mark

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