The pro-GM lobby’s seven sins against science
17 December 2012
The role that genetically modified (GM) food should play in our food chain is a highly contested political issues. One interesting facet of the debate in the past year has been the pro-GM lobby’s interest in staking the ‘scientific high-ground’; simultaneously positioning itself as the voice of reason and progress, while painting its opponents as unsophisticated ‘anti-science’ luddites, whose arguments are full of dogma and emotion, but lack scientific rigour. In this essay Peter Melchett explores how such crude characterisations are themselves based on logic that is itself profoundly damaging to the concept and representation of ‘science’ in our national culture.
Powerful forces in Western society have been promoting genetic engineering (now usually genetic modification – GM) in agricultural crops since the mid-1990s. They have included many governments, in particular those of the USA and UK, powerful individual politicians like George Bush and Tony Blair, scientific bodies like the UK’s Royal Society, research councils, successive UK Government chief scientists, many individual scientists, and companies selling GM products. They have ignored the views of citizens, and most sales of GM food have relied on secrecy – denying consumers information on what they are buying (20 US States are currently embroiled in fierce battles over GM labelling, strenuously opposed by Monsanto). Worse, they have consistently promoted GM in ways which are not only unscientific, but which have been positively damaging to the integrity of science.
This is, of course, an argument usually aimed at those who, like me, are opposed to GM crops. We are accused of being ‘anti-science’, emotional and irrational, and more recently, of being as bad as ‘Nazi book burners’ by the President of the National Farmers’ Union. This criticism has been effective in framing the debate about GM crops in the media in the UK, where the conflict over GM is routinely presented as a debate between those who are pro and those who are anti-science. This is reinforced by the fact that those selected to speak in favour of GM are usually themselves scientists (albeit often working for GM companies, or funded to work on GM crops), and those selected to oppose GM crops are usually environmentalists, farmers, or citizens concerned about the safety of the food they eat. Scientists who are critical of GM crops are almost never interviewed by the media.