“let’s celebrate the inherently political nature of science”

We started this discussion last Monday by asking our experts what the main issue is for feeding the world in 2050. Each expert gave a detailed answer and it is clear that no-one thinks genetically modified food is THE “silver bullet” answer.

There seemed to be consensus that a range of changes in agriculture are required. Intercropping, better access to inorganic fertiliser, reduction of food waste and infrastructure were all mentioned. Commenters suggested a change in diet, contested the assertion that GM crops gave higher yields, discussed permaculture and even population control.

A question about GM vs organic in terms of taste and healthiness sparked a lot of debate, with over 30 comments. Taste was regarded as very subjective and not particularly relevant. Dividing lines emerged on healthiness. People cited studies to back up their positions, but there was disagreement about their validity. It was pointed out that non-GM varieties of anthocyanin-rich tomatoes had been produced. What are the differences between GM crops and selectively bred plants?

The healthiness debate naturally led to questions about how safe it is to eat GM Foods. Questions about side effects, about long term effects and about research being done into them.

The first issue raised is that genetic modification is a technique not a product and therefore each time the technique was used testing would be required. GM proponents point out that the testing for GM food is more rigorous than for new plants being registered for food. Some argue that there’s no evidence of ill effects from eating GM food. Others allege it’s not really being looked for, and claim existing research is mostly funded or associated with the GM crop industry.

But the safety aspects of eating the crops weren’t the only concerns. Contamination of other crops featured highly. Is it safe to plant GM crops outdoors or will we end up with more and more crops inadvertently containing some GM plants. Will people retain a choice to buy completely GM free food? The GM proponents’ answer revolves around separation distances and threshold levels of GM seeds and food.

And this is where the two sides of the argument meet.

Proponents of GM argue that 0.9% of a foodstuff containing GM elements is acceptable. [UPDATE: the 0.9% threshold only applies in EU law if it is accidental or technically unavoidable otherwise any GM content should be labeled]. Those against either dispute that level or ask whether it is possible to practically maintain such a level.

So on the one hand we have people who think that their choice to eat GM-free food will be gradually eroded, and that there are other ways to achieve the benefits that GM is said to bring. On the other hand are people who think the thresholds can be maintained, and that the benefits of continuing to develop GM food outweigh the risks.

This could be the nub of the matter. Questions about whether it is safe to eat GM food are easily solved. Those who trust the testing being done, can eat them. Those who don’t, won’t. Those who think it will help solve food security issues will argue for more funding of GM research. Those who favour other methods will argue for the promotion of those alternatives.

Is this really the most contentious issue on GM Food? How will you as a citizen make up your mind? What information would help you?

And as Andy Stirling said in one answer: “let’s celebrate the inherently political nature of science”


Posted on July 3, 2012 by in News. 3 Comments.

3 Responses to “let’s celebrate the inherently political nature of science”

  1. hilarysutcliffe1 says:

    Thanks for this helpful summary.

    I looked forward to this initiative as I was entirely undecided and, perhaps naively, expected to be be able to use this interaction to formulate a view of ‘what I think about GM?’. I’ve tried really hard to read the answers and use them to formulate a clear view on GM.

    So what do I think?

    I find I was more knowledgeable than I thought, that there were no great truths I had missed, that ‘what I think’ is perhaps more about who’s opinion I trust, my views on business, how much the research either way resonated with how I already think the world really is and could and should be.

    I think that we mustn’t let a thrall of technology blind us to the fact that there are many problems and many solutions, some of which science can contribute to, and some for which it is utterly irrelevant. We need to make better distinctions about the science, the system, the trade offs and the benefits against other solutions. I want to know more about how governments, business and ngo’s go about formulating their positions.

    How the necessary trade offs are prioritised is perhaps for me the most important – who says one aspect trumps another, what evidence do they use to make those judgements and how transparent can they be made to be about their decision making processes?

    But also I see that arguments are bandied about willy nilly by all sides, regardless of the specific circumstances where the technology may be used. So for me, what might work in the huge US fields which could be monocultures with or without GM – may bear little resemblance to what is useful to a UK farmer trying to make every last acre work as hard as possible for commercial return, or an African small holding growing crops mainly for local food or a rice paddy where environmental changes are wreaking havoc on existing crop strains. Each of these may require a different technical solution, different systemic support, a different economic input etc etc. Sometimes GM might be useful, sometimes it might not.

    I also think we shouldn’t be paralysed by fears, lobbying and loudly expressed opinions on all sides. I admire what the Gates Foundation is doing – cutting through the hot air, focusing on solutions and using inclusive, collaborative approaches to do that. I have no idea if what they are doing is right, but it seems better than going round in circles arguing.

    So that’s what I think. But you know what, I pretty much thought this anyway!

  2. lesfirbank says:

    It’s a lot about how to balance risk and benefit. At the moment, the risks of GM crops are uncertain but the evidence suggests they are very low, while the benefits of GM are also low to most people. The anti-s argue that the risks could be underestimated, while the pro-GM people argue that the benefits may also increase as new types of crops are introduced. My feeling is that at the moment, there are far bigger issues to worry about, like how to feed the world and improve our environment.

    • andrewstirling says:

      It’s very useful that Les makes this point to help summing up the issues. This is because it helps to highlight a key axis of disagreement between us. I realise the comment is made in good faith, but in my view, Les’ first sentence is itself a big part of our problem. If we treat the issues as being mostly about how to balance the risk and benefit of GM, then we’re missing the point. The key point missed by this is, that we have other choices!

      As I tried to summarise in my opening comments and several other contributions – and as has come out in several places in our discussions – there exist many alternative choices to GM. This is true in narrow terms of breed plants and animals for farming. It is also true in wider terms of addressing global food security issues. To see more of what I mean, please take a look at the ten points in my first answer.

      Each alternative has pros and cons. We should look at these in a balanced way – not just focusing on GM. And we should not just reduce these ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ to agronomic benefits on the one hand and safety and ecological risks on the other. Even around GM alone, the issues are much wider – including the directions taken by industry and the world economy more generally, as well as our deepest values about how we should address issues of social equity and how humanity should relate to the natural world.

      To force these broad political issues of research direction and technology choice into the apparently technical straitjacket of ‘risks and benefits’ – and to further confine attention so asymmetrically around GM alone – is one of the most irrational and undermining features of this entire debate. In fact, to try to force broad debate over choices in general into narrow exchanges over one particular privileged option, is a particularly pernicious kind of extremism.

      Let’s be more balanced about the attention we give to the different options and issues!

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