Sunday, 23 June 2013

The Time is Right for GM Crops

That's a fact?

According to environment secretary Owen Patterson, the time is right for GM crops and it is the duty of the British Government to convince the public that this is the case. He then said that GM crops are probably safer than conventional crops and seven million children have gone blind or died over the past decade because attempts to grow a strain of GM rice (Golden Rice) commercially have been thwarted (implying, perhaps, by anti-GM campaigners and that there are no other solutions to malnutrition).

The minister went on to back a scientific approach:
"We need evidence-based regulation and decision-making in the EU. Consumers need accurate information in order to make informed choices. The market should then decide if a GM product is viable," 
A rigorous and transparent scientific evidence-based approach is to be welcomed,  although this goes a bit further than Mr Patterson's statement. Assuming that the evidence based regulation allows only GM crops with a very low risk to health and the environment to be developed commercially, leaving it to the consumer to decide on viability may be an acceptable approach.  If, however, the regulated risk level is not low enough, this may lead to unacceptable damage which the politicians will blame on the "consumers demand" for these GM crops.  While many consumers would make the right choice, inevitably many more would choose cost or marketing hype over other considerations such as nutritional values, health risks or environmental degradation.

The first hurdle in convincing the public that GM crops are acceptable, if indeed they are, is to collate the necessary evidence of their safety, scrutinise it,  assess benefits and risks and present the conclusions in a fashion that can be understood by the lay person but with sufficient supporting documentation that independent experts and others with some scientific understanding can drill down to the details. 

Unfortunately the Government and its environment secretary do not have a good track record of accepting the findings of scientists and applying them to policy. 

Climate Change

The environment secretary revealed his ignorance of the science of climate change in a recent radio discussion. This is what he said:

"The climate's always been changing, er, Peter [Hain] mentioned the Arctic and I think in the Holocene the Arctic melted completely and you can see there were beaches there - when Greenland was occupied, you know, people growing crops. We then had a little ice age, we had a middle age warming. The climate's been going up and down, but the real question which I think everyone's trying to address is, is this influenced by man-made activity in recent years and James [Delingpole] is actually correct. The climate has not changed - the temperature has not changed in the last 17 years …"

It would appear that the environment secretary is ignoring the scientific evidence despite a study that found that of 13,950 peer reviewed scientific articles on global warming published between 1991 and 2012, only 24 rejected global warming and a further study found that less than 1% of almost 12,000 scientific papers published between 1991 and 2011 disagreed that human activities are the main cause

The Skeptical Science website discusses this statement more fully here.

Badger Cull

Then there is the decision to ignore any scientific evidence supporting alternative approaches to reducing bovine tuberculosis other than a badger cull.  They even cherry pick parts of the government's own research - playing down the risks it identified that a cull could increase the spread of TB and even if it is done effectively (ca. 90% kill rate every year for 5 years), the best that can be achieved is a modest reduction.  


Despite a growing body of scientific research linking use of neonicitinoid pesticides to declines in bee populations and other non-target species, the British government lobbied hard to prevent a Europe-wide ban. The justification for continued use was primarily that its ban may effect crop yields and that further assessment of the damage caused should be made before deciding on a ban. The 
opposite of the precautionary principle whereby you don't use a new product until it has been proven safe. 

Fortunately, Britain was in the minority and there will be a two year ban, which gives a window for further research. Pesticides are not the only threat to bee populations: changing weather patterns, the verola mite, alternative crops and land use changes affecting habitat all play a part and, if we want to avoid losing these key pollinators, all threats need to be identified, quantified and controlled and not blindly ignored until it is too late as appears to be proposed by the environment secretary. 

Big Business and the Corporate Agenda

This government has consistently shown blinkered support for big business, whether the giant agribusiness or fossil fuel companies, without due consideration of the consequences or the effect on individuals or the environment. Regardless of whether there is a genuinely a place for using genetic engineering in crop research and development, support by a government that can not be trusted when it comes to interpreting the scientific consensus will be viewed with the same suspicion as the large self-interested corporate GM developers such as Monsanto.

If the debate is to move forward then someone without a commercial interest needs to act as an independent arbiter:at this time, when government can not be trusted, then who?