GM Free Cymru

GM and the corruption of science

Thursday, 17 January 2013 10:43

The Oxford Real Farming Conference 2013

Colin Tudge 15 January 2013

...GM did not feature at the Oxford Real Farming Conference. But it was given star billing at the other conference, and despite denials from on high it clearly dominates establishment thinking; the jewel in the crown of the high-tech agriculture that is supposed to save the world. So a word or two is in order:

GM and the corruption of science

In the meeting over the road, at the Establishment's Oxford Farming Conference, there was wild enthusiasm for GM. Journalist Mark Lynas led the charge. "The GM debate is over", he declared. "It is finished. We no longer need to discuss whether or not it is safe – over a decade and a half with three million GM meals eaten there has never been a single substantiated case of harm". He also demonstrated to his own satisfaction that GM is necessary, which one might reasonably feel is the sine qua non. Sounding slightly more cautious, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs, Owen Paterson, told us that we must reach "a balanced understanding of the risks and benefits". But, he added, "… we owe a duty to the public to reassure them that it is a safe and beneficial innovation" – which might lead the unguarded reader to conclude that his own mind is already made up.

When he was younger, Lynas began by telling us, he helped to scupper GM trials. But late in life he discovered Science and realised the error of his former ways. Now he has the zeal of the convert. On the broad front, he implies in his latest book that human beings are now on the point both of omniscience and omnipotence, and life in general need hold no fears for us. We have the power to put things right. Indeed he has called his latest book The God Species.

My own awakening has been the other way around. I came to science and particularly to biology at school in the 1950s and started "reading" zoology at an old, damp, and exceedingly cold university in 1962. Those were intellectually exciting times indeed. In 1959 (when I was in the sixth form) the world celebrated the centenary of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species. What Julian Huxley called "the modern synthesis" – the blending of Darwin's ideas on evolution with Gregor Mendel's insights on heredity – was still fresh; an intellectual triumph to rank alongside Einstein's relativity and quantum physics. More than that: it was known by the 1950s that genes are made of DNA (not protein, as had seemed more likely) and in the early '50s Francis Crick and James Watson provided their famous 3D model of DNA structure; and, for good measure, they tossed in a key insight on how it all might work. Suddenly, it seemed, the Darwinian-Mendelian synthesis could be explained in molecular terms. By the mid 60s Bill Hamilton and others had shown how Darwinian natural selection might (and he felt should) be conceived not primarily as the selection of individuals or of species, but of genes; the idea that Richard Dawkins expanded most elegantly in the 1970s in The Selfish Gene. I was steeped in all this. Heady stuff it was too, and still is.

In the early 1970s I first became seriously interested in agriculture — and went to work for Farmers Weekly. In those days FW clung fiercely, as did science itself, to its independence from government or commercial interference. I remember the deputy editor Frank Butcher, a proper, old-style journo — writer, thinker and moralist — berating the lay-out team for allowing an advert for tractors to fall opposite an article on arable. That could be mistaken for sponsorship, he raged. Nowadays editors actively seek advertisements to run alongside articles – for what is supposed to be the problem?

But steeped though I was in molecular genetics I was just as startled as everyone else by the first announcement in the early 1970s of "recombinant" DNA, soon to be dubbed "genetic engineering". Paul Berg, in California, transferred a piece of DNA from one bacterium to another and showed that it was functional. From the outset, it was clear that there could be dangers. Indeed Berg himself urged caution in what became known as "the Berg letter"; a letter later interpreted (though Berg said it wasn't intended as such) as a call for a moratorium. Berg was interested mainly in medicine and warned in particular about the dangers of transferring potentially dangerous genes to E coli, which of course is ubiquitous and is also a favourite laboratory microbe. But the potential dangers are more general. Novel genes parachuted in to novel recipients could have untoward effects that may not become apparent for generations. Genes that escape into other species in wild ecosystems could have knock-on effects of many kinds that are innately unpredictable. And so on. The point is not to say that we should never take risks, but common sense says at the very least that any risk we do take should be very clearly outweighed by the potential advantages.

With due caution the research continued and by the 1980s, genes were being transferred between plants. In the late 1980s I wrote a series of scientific reports for the old (and sadly missed) Agricultural and Food Research Council and reported for BBC Radio 3 on agricultural research from various centres around the world; and in about 1990 I wrote a book (a little-known work but rather good, I think) called Food Crops for the Future. By then some of the early fears had died down and "genetically modified" (GM) crops were well on the agenda. I wrote with particular enthusiasm about a plan proposed at ICRISAT (the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics) in Hyderabad to introduce genes from ground-nuts into sorghum. Ground-nuts are ridiculously drought-resistant legumes, while sorghum is a staple cereal which, though also wonderfully drought-resistant, is not quite so tough as the humble pea-nut. It all looked very promising.

But a lot has changed in the 20 or so years since the innocent visions of the early 1990s: in world politics and economics; in the relationship of science to government and commerce – and indeed in the perception of what science really is, what it can do, and what it is for. Crucially, views have changed on the ways that genes actually work. To anticipate: for reasons of science – not for reasons of anti-science, or Luddism, or any of the other canards that are hurled at all who question the rise and rise of biotech in general and GM in particular – the zeal of 20 years ago now seems misplaced. But the commercial and political die had been cast before the science and the philosophy of science had caught up. The bandwagon was already rolling, with governments, corporates, and scientists from even the greatest universities firmly on board. Just as children run behind the circus, so politicians and business people and the occasional journalist, open-mouthed and whooping, have beenswept along: Tony Blair, Dick Taverne, Caroline Spelman, Owen Paterson — and indeed Mark Lynas.

Some of the political shift this past 20 years has been in the right direction. Thus the relationship between the rich countries, which presumptuously call themselves "developed", and the poor countries, tendentiously called "developing" or sometimes "the Third World", has traditionally been essentially imperialist: de haut en bas. Often, to be sure, it has been well-intentioned — but the assumption has been nonetheless that "we know and they don't". The dogma had it that crops fail in poor countries because the farmers are "ignorant" and are slow to adopt western methods. The truth has dawned only slowly and in some circles has still to dawn — that actually, crops sometimes fail in poor countries largely because those countries tend to be tropical and tropical countries can be difficult to farm, beset as they commonly are by drought and flood and over-powerful sunshine; and the sensible strategy in unpredictable and often extreme climates is not to seek to maximize output but to guard against the worst; and that zebus and the rest may be less milky than Holsteins but they do actually survive; and in general that small farmers in poor tropical countries tend typically to know exactly what they are doing and in some ways conceptually are well ahead of their northern counterparts and that anyone who truly wants to help should ask the locals what they really need and help them (but only if invited) to build on what they already have.

Such principles were spelled out in 2009 by IAASTD (International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development) in Agriculture at a Crossroads. Other on-the-spot thinkers such as Michel Pimbert, recently appointed as Director of the Centre for Agroecology and Food Security at Coventry University, and Professor Bob Orskov of the James Hutton Institute, Aberdeen, urge in particular that farmers in general, worldwide, know what's good for their land and what is likely to work, and all who would help must work in partnership with them.

But there has been another, most unfortunate counter-trend: the growth, from about 1980, of the neoliberal, free, ultra-competitive global market, which in practice is a global race to maximize measurable wealth and in practice is dominated, as was always inevitable, by the transnational corporates, for whom the maximization of wealth is their raison d'etre. Governments like Britain's over the past 30 years, whatever the ruling parties may have called themselves, have been transfixed by neoliberal thinking and vied with each other to attract and support the corporates. Agriculture has been re-conceived as "a business like any other" and business as a whole has been re-conceived as a machine for making money – no longer the natural pillar of a free and democratic society, as many businesses including some of the biggest once aspired to be (and some still do insofar as this is possible).

In the face of all this, the idea that we in the west should help poor countries only if invited and should start (if invited) by seeking to understand what they do and ask how they think we could be of help, has at best been marginalized. Successive British political leaders (Gordon Brown was particularly enthusiastic) have urged transnational companies to "invest" in Africa while urging Africans to seize the western shilling: essentially treating all the tropics as virgin territory where big companies can practice high-tech agribusiness in extenso. In essence, this is another imperialist takeover without the bother, expense, and danger of military occupation, achieved by the mere infiltration of money and propaganda. In this, biotech, and particularly GM, has become a key player. The patents that accrue with GM ensure that the power can remain with the big biotech companies that provide the GM. Governments that are focused above all on the creation of wealth naturally support these companies. All this may seem cynical in the extreme but it is vindicated, at least in the minds of the perpetrators, by the rhetoric which says that GM crops are essential, and the bigger the scale on which they are grown, the better. The rhetoric is in turn reinforced by appeal to science. Biotech is high tech and high tech by definition is rooted in science. If GM is scientific it must be "rational" and therefore good and all who say otherwise are clearly irrational (meaning crazy) and bad (elitist, etc).

Several large and very well-informed groups, including GM Freeze led by Pete Riley, have spelled out the many detailed objections to the GM rhetoric. Peter Melchett, organic arable farmer and Policy Director of the Soil Association has summarized much of what needs saying in an excellent essay "The pro-GM lobby's seven sins against science", while Brian John has done a superb point-by-point dissection of the Lynas essay (and there are liks to both on this website). My own summary of the shortcomings (written before I knew about Peter's and Brian's essays) is in Colin's Corner ("Seven obvious questions in search of straightforward answers"). The following points are particularly relevant to the present burst of GM euphoria, as trumpeted by Lynas:

1: When "genetic engineering" first swam on to the radar in the early 1970s scientists were much more confident than they are now that they knew how genes work. Such confidence is characteristic of all new sciences: physicists of the 17th and 18th centuries were sure that they would soon understand all there was to know and A A Michelson in the late 19th century, just before Einstein described relativity and Max Planck launched quantum theory, declared that physics was more or less sewn up apart from the dotting of Is and the crossing of Ts. In particular, in the early 1970s it was still widely assumed (broadly speaking) that one gene means one protein – which to a large extent meant one gene one character; so that genes could be dropped into genomes with predictable effects just as new cogs can be dropped into clocks. It was already well known, though, that most characters involve more than one gene (Mendel himself pointed this out in the 1860s, although he didn't use the word "gene") and that most genes affect more than one character. Now it's clear that there are very few genes compared to the number of proteins (and even fewer compared to the number of discrete characters) and that most of the genome is concerned not with coding proteins but with controlling and generally modifying those that do. In other words the relationship between the genes and the phenotype (the visible, physical and behavioural features) is not Newtonian (simple cause and effect) and digital but is decidedly "non-linear". The genome as a whole is not like a piece of clockwork that an engineer can fiddle with in perfect confidence. It is more like human language that we aspire to edit. But it is not a language of our invention and it can never be understood exhaustively. We edit the genome at our peril, with fingers crossed.

At least, those who do not proceed with fingers crossed clearly do not understand the nature of the problem. What's so terrifying about the gung-ho genetic engineers in agriculture is not so much what they actually do, although that can often be dubious enough, but their self-confidence; a confidence magnified in those celebrants who came to science late, like Lynas and Dick Taverne. All scientists nowadays in all fields (or at least, all who take an interest in the philosophy of science and are not simply trying to provide their employers with something new to sell) understand the principle of non-linearity, and recognize that in the end the world cannot be known exhaustively, and omniscience and omnipotence if there are such things really do belong to God, and God is what we certainly are not.

2: Then there is the practical point: that although, in early days, scientists spoke excitedly of super-drought-resistant crops and all the rest to help the poorest people and in general to "feed the world", that's not how the technology has been used at all. We have GM maize for no particular purpose except that it is GM and carries a patent and therefore pays a premium to the company that supplies it – and half of the maize grown in the US is used not for food or even for feed but for biofuel. We have GM soya – grown not least in the Brazilian Amazon and the Cerrado (the dry forest), to feed European livestock. We are assured from on high that pigs, poultry, and cattle cannot be raised without soya which these days just has to be GM yet all were raised for thousands of years in Europe until about 20 years ago, without it; so here is another obvious falsehood. Then there is Roundup Ready GM rapeseed which can be sprayed with herbicide (ie, Roundup) which kills the weeds but not the crop. Sounds good, up to a point. But again, rapeseed is not one of the world's vital crops – it just looks that way because it is lucrative. Then again, so it's widely reported, the herbicide-resistant genes have spread to weeds, which now are harder to control than ever. Use of herbicide may even increase. (See

Neither is it true, as we are assured, that GM crops yield more heavily – at least not consistently under field conditions, which is what matters. In fact, although many millions have been spent on R & D these past 30 years, it is still hard to find any examples of GM food crops that are unequivocally worthwhile, that could not have been produced just as quickly and in general more safely by conventional means. I have challenged people in high places to provide such examples and none so far has given a convincing answer. On the other hand, we can find plenty of collateral damage – not the least of which is the loss of genetic diversity, as traditional crops and wild plants are shoved aside to make way for the new GM monocultures. Yet, so all but a few eccentrics agree, if the world is to flourish in the future then diversity is what we need above all else. It is our insurance against change.

3: Taken all in all, it is very hard indeed to defend the idea that GM really is helping to "feed the world", or indeed that it is seriously intended to do so, whatever may have been the intent at the outset. The technology has been tried and tested and is falling short. Of course, some good things have come from it. The techniques that enable genetic engineers to provide novel crops can also be used to identify particular genes that would speed the endeavours of conventional breeders – and that can certainly be worthwhile. There is always room for precise knowledge, even if we choose not to act upon it. More generally, objection to the misapplication of GM in agriculture does not imply objection in all contexts – the technologies are proving very useful in medicine. More generally still, objection to misapplied technologies does not imply a fear of science in general. Some of the greatest scientists have been among the most cautious (not the least of whom is Paul Berg). What the world doesn't need is hype, and the felt imperative to translate knowledge into instant wealth.

4: In general, one of the great tragedies of the past 30 years has been the compromise of science itself. The AFRC for whom I once did some work controlled about 30 research stations that carried out fundamental and also applied research into all forms of agriculture in all British conditions (and a few overseas), and they in turn were supported by a network of Experimental Husbandry Farms. The government provided the money and the institutes themselves decided how to use it and fed their results directly to farmers. Nowadays most of those AFRC institutes have been closed or privatized – perhaps the most blatant example of government-sponsored vandalism since the dissolution of the monasteries, and similarly supported by misleading propaganda. Now, agricultural research in this country depends overwhelmingly on commercial sponsorship while taxpayers' money is used to prime the commercial pumps. The scientists who receive the sponsorship insist that they retain their intellectual freedom but research that does not support their sponsors' aims tends quickly to draw to a close. Vast subjects that cry out for research are more or less neglected unless some mega-company can see an opportunity for profit. The AFRC's Letcombe Laboratory, devoted to soil research, was closed in 1985 and the whole topic since has been sidelined although it may well prove to be the most important of all.

Overall, I know no-one who is truly versed in the realities of agriculture, and in the nature of the world's food problems, and who also understands science, who thinks that GM technology is essential. I know very few who are appropriately knowledgeable who think that it is even a good thing. I know very few indeed who are properly informed who feel that the present emphasis on GM is half-way justified. But governments, corporates, financiers, and indeed the scientific Establishment itself, in the world's most prestigious universities and in the Royal Society and other such academies, have already invested far too much, including their own careers and a very great deal of tax-payers' money, to change course; and there are journalists on hand, alas, who are happy to supply the hype. All who are party to this nonsense, up to and including the scientific Establishment, should, as they say in Yorkshire, think on.

Meanwhile, those who give a damn must as ever sidestep the pressures from above and get on and do something better. (Feeding pigs and poultry without GM or indeed without soya would be one way to start).

The seeds of Renaissance: a people's takeover

The people with the most money and influence, consciously or unconsciously, have for the most part signed up to an ultra-materialist, neodarwinian, neoliberal model of the world and take it to be obvious that all aspects of life must be plugged into it. The ultra-materialist, neodarwinian, neoliberal model has produced a form of agriculture that seeks primarily to maximize money and is therefore geared to production, value-adding, and the cutting of costs (which means primarily the cutting of jobs). This in turn has caused enormous damage including mass unemployment worldwide and has led inevitably to a huge concentration of power and wealth in fewer and fewer hands. But since the people in whose hands the power and wealth have come to rest are also those who make the rules, and since there are plenty of intellectuals and experts who are happy to follow where wealth and power lead, it seems that we are stuck with the status quo, and that the destruction is bound to continue, until finally, perhaps within a few decades, we hit the buffers.

Unless, that is, people who can see what's going on and give a damn, do something about it...