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Face the Facts: Scientists Can Get Things Wrong - what Tony Blair is doing is not so much riding to the defense of science as riding to the defense of industry

23 May 2002

Today, Tony Blair is due to give a speech in which he will condemn people who are "against science". "It is time to defend science," he said earlier this week, "to make clear that the Government is not going to allow misguided protests against science to get in the way of making the most of our opportunities."

Mr Blair hates the fact that the people who tear up crops in fields of GM maize have managed to swing public attitudes against the development of the technology. So he is trying to push an image of the protesters as being merely muddle-headed Luddites. He seems to buy into that lazy myth that anyone who is against genetic modification must hate modernity and believe that the world could be run by goodwill and yoga alone.

There may be some people in the environmental movement who shudder at the idea of technology and hard facts and who rely on chanting and angels' voices instead. But such people are marginal. It is absurd for Tony Blair to suggest that the environmental movement in general and the anti-GM campaigns in particular stem from an antipathy to science.

Because the modern environmental movement, far from seeing science as anathema, is founded on science. You could date the contemporary movement from the publication, 40 years ago exactly, of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. This is a poetic lament for a beautiful world that is threatened, but it is founded on a hardheaded examination of the effects of DDT.

If it hadn't been for Carson's reputation as a naturalist and her careful work to delineate the effects of the overuse of insecticides, Silent Spring would quickly have been forgotten. As it was, it had the immediate effect of changing government policy in the US on the use of DDT, and the longer-term effect of making us think far more deeply about our relationship to the natural world.

And just as 40 years ago, so today. Although campaigners are sometimes guilty of using poor science when it suits their arguments, even so, there is no influential environmental campaign that isn't founded on science. >From the meteorologist who can call our attention to the pattern of climate change, to the naturalist who can point to the dwindling of the skylark on English heaths, scientists have teased out the hard evidence that all green campaigns rely upon.

As for GM technology, Tony Blair should be aware that by far the most unsettling arguments against the release of GM crops into the environment are now coming from scientists. These scientists are arguing that the newest developments in genetics suggest that genetic modification cannot be as straightforward and predictable as some would have us believe.

There are many reasons for people to feel suspicious about the use of genetically modified organisms in the environment from the way that they might threaten biodiversity by encouraging heavy use of pesticides, to the way that the technology is controlled by big business, so disempowering small farmers who become reliant on corporate products. But the most compelling dissent comes from scientists who are suggesting that genetic modification of crops relies on over-simplistic science.

There are the arguments of Barry Commoner, for instance, senior scientist at the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems at Queens College, New York, who has said that "The biotechnology industry is based on science that is 40 years old and conveniently devoid of more recent results, which show that there are strong reasons to fear the potential consequences of transferring a DNA gene between species."

Although the industry relies on a simple model of gene behavior, that one DNA gene leads straightforwardly to one trait even when it is moved into different organisms, newer research suggests that gene expression is not nearly so predictable, and that moving genes might therefore lead to myriad unforeseen consequences.

Scientists who are exploring more complicated models of genetics also argue that the release of genetically engineered crops before gene expression is truly understood represents a massive, uncontrolled experiment.

In other words, fear of genetically modified organisms is not confined to the non-scientific world. In fact, a statement first drawn up by the Institute of Science in Society three years ago, which calls for a moratorium on the environmental release of genetically modified crops, has now been signed by over 450 scientists from over 50 different countries.

Of course, an awful lot of ordinary people who feel they are against genetic modification have little interest in following any scientific arguments, and are merely swayed by a vague sense of alarm, summed up in the word "Frankenfoods". Even those of us who do try to follow them will not feel equipped to make any judgment about which scientists are right, and which are wrong. All that we can do is to take note of the fact that the scientists are not speaking with one voice, and that arguments against putting genetically modified organisms into the environment are now being made by respected scientists. And that makes us feel justified in demanding that the industry should go slow.

After all, scientists have certainly built us some wonderful highways of progress, but some of them have also, at times, thrown us into some dead ends. Nuclear energy did not turn out to be a clean answer to our energy needs, thalidomide did not turn out to be a good drug for pregnant women, asbestos did not turn out to be a risk-free industrial product, BSE could be passed to humans - and when these realities were faced, some scientists got egg on their faces.

If we point out that in this case there is room for doubt, we are not being anti-science, but simply realistic about the fact that sometimes scientists get it right and sometimes they get it wrong.

What Tony Blair is doing now is not so much riding to the defense of science, as riding to the defense of industry. He would like as much as possible of the potential profits from the biotechnology industry to be made in Britain. And he relies on his minister for science, Lord Sainsbury, who happens to support GM technology and who happens to have donated millions of pounds to the Labour Party, to reassure him over the importance of pressing ahead with developing genetically modified crops.

Tony Blair is underestimating the unease that many people feel when they see big business exerting influence over the kind of science that the Government will support. We would feel more faith in both government and science if instead, Blair decided to put more money into more independent research which could allow scientific voices to come through even if they dissented from corporate interests. Because there are many scientists who are currently working on projects to increase biodiversity and increase food production at the same time, who struggle to obtain the kind of cash for their work that scientists in the biotechnology industry can expect.

But it is much easier for Blair to dismiss the unease that people feel than to engage with it. And although he is wrong to say that the protesters are against science, this may turn out to be an effective way of shutting down debate.

Natasha Walter
Published in the Independent © 2002 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd

Genetic engineering


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