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Pop Science & Propaganda: The GM Debate Revisited

Edward Targett

March 25 -- When the British government last week ordered its chief scientist to conduct a review of the merits of genetically modified (GM) crops, those involved in the long running debate over the controversial technology were unsurprised.

Designated a "wealth creator" and future growth industry by the government, biotechnology was unlikely to disappear despite widespread public opposition to the technology and the announcement was soon followed by all the standard tropes of the now-familiar debate.

Amol Rajan at The Independent welcomed the "new campaign against hysteria, irrationality, and stupidity in relation to GM food" while Clare Oxborrow, the senior food campaigner at Friends of the Earth lambasted ministers for an "obsession with GM as a techno-fix solution to problems in food and farming."

This time however, advocates of GM crops turned to a report they hoped could buttress their position with a no-nonsense scientific dismissal of widespread concerns; a essay by Dr. Matt Ridley titled "genetically modified crops and the perils of rejecting innovation."

The article - a chapter in the 134-page book "Science vs. Superstition" published by centre-right think tank the Policy Exchange - was lauded by commentators as a "superb and meticulous critique of today's anti-science and anti-industrial forces."

From the title onwards it was clear there was little truck for nuance in the publication; this was a "with us or against us" case of empiricism versus the hobgoblins of the pre-modern mind and Ridley, a former science editor of the Economist and banker with a doctorate in zoology, ploughed confidently into his exposition on GM crops.

"Genetically modified crops are an unnecessary, dangerous and untested innovation, bad for the environment and cynically foisted upon farmers and consumers for profit by multinational firms, or so goes the conventional European wisdom," Ridley jibed, before the dénouement: "Here I demonstrate that every one of these assertions is untrue."

Confidence in any author is an admirable trait, but a closer inspection of the paper raised a number of worryingly obvious lacunae. Ridley was non-executive chairman of failed British bank Northern Rock at the time it was taken into administration after a run on its finances, and his essay follows a remarkably similar trajectory to his bank: its reach extends its grasp and the confidence of those maintaining an interest dissolves after a closer look at the facts and figures.

Most clearly problematic at first glance is his claim that "almost by definition all crop plants are genetically modified" and that transgenic (GM) plants are "kinder, more precise and gentler than mutation breeding."

Dr Mae Wan Ho, a former reader in Biology at the Open University and currently director of the Institute for Science in Society is scathing about this claim:

"GM makes artificial synthetic combinations of sequences that never existed in billions of years of evolution. The constructs are created to invade genomes, and there is now definitive evidence that they integrate randomly, but preferentially into active regions of the genome, typically in rearranged, scrambled forms, causing mutations and sequence scrambling, not only at the site of insertion, but genome-wide." She responded.

"This process is uncontrollable and unpredictable, and so are the unintended effects due to new gene products being made, new toxins, new species of regulatory nucleic acids being unleashed, etc. To make things worse, the transgenic lines are unstable, which makes proper safety assessment well nigh impossible."

Ridley dismisses one of the few concrete examples of scientific testing he refers to on the potential side-effects of GM crops with the cursory comment that the scientist concerned, Arpad Pusztai, was "discredited." This is highly debatable. A decade after Pusztai first raised concern about the effects GM potatoes had on rats in his laboratory, his experiments continue to polarize scientific opinion, but what is beyond doubt is that after an initial firestorm, Pusztai - a world renowned expert on plant lectins and author of more than 270 papers - was prevented from continuing his work, forced out of his job and effectively gagged.

Dr Michael Antoniou, a geneticist at King College, London, in unimpressed with Ridley's comment. "I can reassure you that Arpad Pusztai's work was first rate and appropriately controlled and internally consistent. His data stands as valid," he writes. "P.S. I don't know who Matt Ridley is. What qualifies him to write on the subject in such broad terms?"

This is hardly the resounding vote of confidence one might expect from a scientific peer, but such a response may be partially explained by Ridley's tendency to construct some monumental straw men.

"Nostalgic urban dwellers would prefer farmers to leave fields fallow, to grow oats for horses, to tolerate cornflowers in wheat and bees in clover, and not to pollute streams with nitrate run-off" he steams; rhetoric so far removed from the actual debate over GM that one wonders at his motives almost as much as at his prose. (And does he think polluting streams is a good idea?)

As Professor Peter Saunders at Kings College writes, "I don't know anyone who opposes research into agriculture. On the contrary, one of the most serious objections to GMOs is that they divert attention and resources from research (into sustainable agriculture.) That's especially true of GMOs: there may be a better solution to a problem (like intercropping instead of insecticides) but if it isn't patentable there's nothing in it for companies - or, increasingly, for universities and research institutes, who are also expected to make profits."

The notion that GM crops might pose a threat to sustainable agriculture or organic farmers is one that Ridley dismisses in seven short, remarkable lines. In response to the concerns of organic farmers that their crops could face cross-pollination or contamination by GM crops he writes the following:

"By the early 2000s, many critics of GM crops had fallen back on a new argument, that pollen from GM crops somehow ‘contaminated' their own organic crops. This was entirely self-inflicted. Organic farmers had suddenly made their own new rule, that their crops must have less than a certain trace of genes from GM plants to still qualify as organic. Lo and behold, this rule gave them a reason to object to neighbours using GM crops. Ingenious, and circular, reasoning!" The palpable irrationality of this comment hardly needs further magnification, but Percy Schmeiser would no-doubt have something to say.

In 1997 the independent canola farmer was sued by GM giant Monsanto for patent infringement after the corporation's Roundup ready canola was found growing on his farm as a result of cross-contamination. Whilst Ridley can dismiss cases such as this (and there are many) in seven lines, it took Schmeiser an 11-year legal battle to get Monsanto to admit liability and pay for clean-up costs.

The above are a mere handful of the problems with this supposedly "meticulous" article; one wonders if the Independent reviewer who termed it "the best recent essay in defence of the science behind GM foods" had read it.

Perhaps Ridley's work was ‘subconsciously influenced' by his membership of the advisory council of Sense about Science; a charity which has come under fire for failing to disclose the industry affiliations of the experts it enlists.

The Times recently noted that eight of the contributors to the pamphlet are based at the John Innes Centre, which has received funding from biotech companies and that another contributor, Professor Vivian Moses is also the chairman of CropGen, a GM lobby croup that receives funding from the biotech industry. Matt Ridley is not known to have any affiliations with the industry and did not respond to a request for comment.

Whilst the failure of the Policy Review to note Ridley's membership of the charity's advisory board was no doubt oversight, Dr. Michael Antoniou, a geneticist at King's College London described Sense about Science's omissions to The Times as "outrageous" and Professor Guy Cook of the Open University noted that such failures of transparency "deal a severe blow to... authority of science, which rests upon rationality, objectivity, evidence and disinterest."

Indeed. With friends like these, the biotech industry must be wondering who needs enemies.


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Edward Targett works for South Korea's newswire Yonhap News Agency as a copy-editor and reporter. He graduated from London University's School of Oriental and African studies with a first class bachelors degree in Politics. He has interned at the International Crisis Group, worked for an eco-village in Australia, volunteered for an NGO in Malawi and has a long running interest in environmental issues.

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