Guest post by Chris Bryant
I was interested in Martin Rees’ comment, reported in Guy Micklethwait’s recent post, to the effect that the scientists of genetically modified crops entered the fray too late to have any impact. I followed the debate at the time with great interest.
The move against GM foods had been so severe in the UK that on 23 May 2002, Prime Minister Blair decided to address the Royal Society. He said it was time to end the air of suspicion and mistrust – and the ignorance – with which the public sometimes viewed the work of cutting edge scientists. He promised to break down the anti-science fashion in Britain and claimed he would never give way to misguided protesters who stood in the way of medical and economic advances. And this is where he got into trouble with both the scientists and the science communicators.
On 24 May, 2002, The Times newspaper reported that
the Prime Minister is privately furious at the actions of protesters which have resulted in work being held up on research into genetically modified foods, and at disruption that could threaten a neurological research project in Cambridge aimed at helping sufferers of Alzheimer’s disease. He is angry over the regular description of GM foods as ‘Frankenstein foods’, and at the way science was blamed for the BSE emergency. ‘BSE was not caused by bad science but by bad practices’.
Blair’s problem, and that of his Government, was that he defined science in terms of politics and the economy. The address caused great outrage on the Internet, with reputable scientists pointing out that because they had misgivings about GM foods they were not anti-science. I followed the debate on the PCST List (for science communicators). One scientist, writing from a prestigious address, summarised the debate by remarking:
so far as he (Blair) is concerned if you worry about GM foods and the government’s cavalier approach to the planting and dissemination of GM organisms, you are anti-science. On the contrary, you can be a scientist, support animal experimentation where it is of real benefit to humanity and still oppose the planting of more GM crops.
The Guardian Weekly (July 17-23, 2003) stated that
A bleak picture for the future of genetically modified crops in Britain was outlined by the Cabinet Office Strategy Unit last week, which said there was currently no benefit to the UK consumer or farmer in growing such foods because there was no market for them.
The unit warned that if there was a rush to grow GM crops the Government was in danger of further damaging the trust between the public and food regulators, which could lead to civil unrest and the destruction of crops.
If this was the advice received by the Blair Government, then to blame the scientists for coming too late to the fray seems harsh. Rather, it suggests the Government and the scientists were of similar minds and that failure in communication about GM crops was by then endemic.
Meanwhile, what was happening in Australia? A few days after the Guardian Weekly appeared, Simon Grose, writing in the Canberra Times (Food for Thought in GM Decision 31st July, 2003) reported on the Gene Technology Regulator’s decision to allow commercial plantings of GM canola in Australia. The article said that Jim Peacock acknowledged that pollen from GM canola will fertilise non-GM canola and mustard weeds in Australia and said this risk can be managed:
Frequencies are known, the events certainly take place, and the consequences of the events can be calculated. It’s no different to growing nontransgenic canola, all the same properties and risks apply there.
What was the sub-text? Trust me – I’m a scientist!
About the same time, a survey published in Australasian Science (July 2003) indicated that the majority of farmers surveyed felt that the benefits of GM did not outweigh risks.
The debate continued in the Canberra Times, with a leader on August 4 (2003) urging caution and an article, on August 7 (2003), by Michael Meacher, Britain’s Minister for the Environment from 1997 to 2003, pointing out that far from being successful, the introduction of GM canola in Canada had been an economic disaster. On August 11 (2003) an article by a Monsanto representative contradicting Meacher was published.
Nothing that Monsanto could say now would convince the reader that the Company was not grinding its own axe. I was confused – my feeling originally was one of caution; following this exchange it became one of extreme caution. And yet, only ten months earlier, in November 2002, the then Minister for Science, Mr McGauran, remarked to me at a scientific meeting that we had missed the worst of the reaction against GM foods – Australians, he said, appeared to be much more sensible than Europeans!
Image by flickr user ~jjjohn~, used under a Creative Commons licence