Organic Consumers Association

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The Pro-GM Lobby's Seven Sins Against Science

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Genetic Engineering page and our Millions Against Monsanto page.

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 rigor. In this essay Peter Melchett explores how such crude characterizations 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.

This characterisation of those opposed to GM as being anti-science has always ignored the fact that the NGOs concerned, like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the Soil Association, are staunch supporters of science, have scientists working for them, and run campaigns to combat problems which were only identifiable through scientific investigation, like the depletion of the ozone layer and climate change. People opposed to GM, including farmers and environmentalists, often have professional or scientific qualifications, and are well versed in the scientific disciplines that affect agriculture. This has not stopped supporters of GM crops dismissing all of these people as irrational, emotional, anti-science zealots.

This characterisation also ignores the fact that the major organisations, and most individuals, who oppose GM crops are not opposed to the use of GM technology in medicine, nor to marker assisted selection (MAS) crop breeding, which relies on scientific knowledge of a plant's genome. If this was really a case of being 'anti-science', how could we approve of the use of GM technology in medicine or MAS crop breeding?

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