It’s not quite accurate to say that language has entirely failed me, in fact, I am as loquacious as ever, but for a few minutes back there, whilst watching Paul Nurse present the Horizon “Science under Attack” show on iPlayer, I was definitely gobsmacked :-
http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00y4yql/Horizon_20102011_Science_Under_Attack/ (UK TV Licence Payers only. Sorry. I don’t make the rules.)
How is it that even Paul Nurse has entirely missed the key point about why people resent and resist genetic modification of crops and animals ?
There is a very clear dividing line between technology and science. Just because you can engineer something with technology, doesn’t mean you should do it. And it doesn’t mean it’s scientifically sound.
The results are not in from GM crop testing, and in some cases, GM crops are being deployed without the full long-term testing that everybody would expect.
This is worse than the presumptions of the pharmaceutical industry, pumping out Thalidomide and then having to say sorry (or not) to a generation of people born without limbs.
The reason we, the vast majority of people, don’t want genetically modified foods and fuels, is because the science is not complete. We don’t actually know yet the full scale of the impacts of GMOs on ecology, wildlife and human beings.
Technology is building the atom bomb and dropping it. Science is following up the cancer distribution in the Japanese population and making recommendations that this kind of weapon should never, ever be used again, as its effects have profound genetic implications.
Genetically modifying organisms is technology. It’s not science, and we shouldn’t have to accept it if we don’t want to.
It’s instructive to look at the research that is being done into “biosciences” (one of a bunch of phrases used to cover the practices of genetic modification of plants and animals). In the UK, the BBSRC is a prime example of the cooperation between technology and industry, where undercover of some pretty decent research, gene splicing carries on. If only people outside the research establishments knew more about this. Remember, it’s all about increasing the sales of herbicides :-
“…Development of resistant crops could provide a good way forward. If the genes responsible for resistance to pests could be identified, they could be bred into specially selected crops by either conventional or GM methods. GM crops that are resistant to pests have already been proven to be an important tool in developing sustainable alternatives to chemical pesticides. GM is not the only option we have available for crop protection, but given the challenges we face in securing future food supplies all technologies need to be considered, keeping possible social, economic and policy implications in mind…”
“…Herbicide-tolerant crops are engineered to enable crops to withstand doses of herbicides that would otherwise kill them. These crops are generally developed by the manufacturers of the herbicide with the hope of increasing the sale of that herbicide. Roundup ReadyTM crops, for example, are produced by the Monsanto company, the producer of the herbicide Roundup, a billion-dollar product that generates about 40 percent of the company’s annual revenue…”
In the United States, John Podesta, formerly somebody I considered one of the good guys, has joined Joule Unlimited to make fuel from genetically modified microorganisms. Tell me this is a good idea, and I’ll tell you that it could be decades after the technology is implemented before the full facts of contamination of the environment with gene fragments is in the scientific literature :-
Later that same day…
Having watched the BBC broadcast in detail, I have to answer the question posed by the good gene technology scientist. He asks something along the lines of “…if the GM technology has failed, why have millions and millions of farmers planted millions and millions of acres of GM crops ?…”
The answer is, of course, the salesmanship of the agricultural chemical companies in selling their herbicide-tolerant, GM crops.
It has nothing to do with the validity of the product, or even its viability. It has everything to do with the sales of chemicals.
Paul Nurse asks for scientists to be more present in the media and make their evidence more widely available.
So, Paul, where are the publicly available copies of all the GM crop science then ? Or is that too commercially sensitive as “intellectual property” to be shared with us ?
“Can Genetically Modified Crops Feed the World? : Genetic modification has been touted as a solution to hunger, but does it really boost yields? David Biello reports : April 16, 2009 : Humans have been genetically modifying crops for millenia the old-fashioned way – selective breeding. But new techniques that insert foreign genetic material, say bacterial genes to produce insecticide in a corn plant, have raised health and environmental concerns. And that has prompted European countries, most recently Germany, to ban genetically modified, or GM, crops.”
“Proponents argue that GM crops can help feed the world. And given ever increasing demands for food, animal feed, fiber and now even biofuels, the world needs all the help it can get. Unfortunately, it looks like GM corn and soybeans won’t help, after all. A study from the Union of Concerned Scientists shows that genetically engineered crops do not produce larger harvests.”
“Crop yield increases in recent years have almost entirely been due to improved farming or traditional plant breeding, despite more than 3,000 field trials of GM crops. Of course, farmers have typically planted, say, GM corn, because it can tolerate high doses of weed-killer. And the Biotechnology Industry Organization argues that GM crops can boost yields in developing countries where there are limited resources for pesticides. But it appears that, to date, traditional plant breeding boosts crop yields better than genetic modification. Those old farmers were on to something.”