Prospect, December 2007 » Web exclusive »
Dick Taverne's GM fantasies are emblematic of his failure to recognise the unsustainability of modern agriculture
The pro-GM lobby has always had a tendency to shoot itself in the foot. From Monsanto's bully-boy tactics trying to force its GM products on reluctant EU countries back in the 1990s, through to today's inept combination of legal threats and would-be seduction, the GM lobby knows how to alienate people more effectively than any other sector. Dick Taverne operates comfortably in this tradition.
His starting point is simple: that anyone who has reservations about the use of genetic modification (GM) in agriculture is simply 'anti-science.' Taverne then attributes to GM opponents an almost superhuman capacity to whip up fear and hostility among ordinary citizens, whom he portrays in turn as ignorant, gullible folk who should just sit back quietly and put their faith in the men in white coats.
I resent this on both counts. I am not an anti-GM fundamentalist. I have always been open to the possibility that GM might have a role to play in securing a more sustainable food production system, and have said so in public. I recently caught up on various cutting-edge projects on a recent visit to the John Innes Centre near Norwich, and have just finished a radio documentary on agricultural biodiversity, which I like to think was reasonably balanced. But the fact that I still have concerns over GM - on health, environmental, agronomic and governance grounds - marks me down in Taverne's world as an emotionally flawed dipstick.
I also despise Taverne's contempt for the general public. He adheres rigorously to the 'empty vessel' school of science education: most people are stupid and ill-informed on most issues, and it is the task of scientists to fill them up with objective 'facts.' But Taverne's own abuse of science makes him a dodgy vessel-filler. He states, for instance, that: 'there is not a shred of any evidence of risk to human health from GM crops.' Yet he must know that this is a seriously misleading statement. When GM crops were introduced into livestock feed in the mid-1990s, trials into the potential health effects were not required, and even now are still not routinely required. Taverne must also know that there is a body of emerging evidence that demonstrates a range of unexplained - and potentially health-threatening - effects from the consumption of genetically modified organisms.
Taverne is therefore right that there is no evidence of people keeling over and dying as a direct consequence of ingesting GM products; he is totally wrong in seeking to persuade people that there is no evidence regarding potential health risks. Hence the continuing need for strict regulation based on the proper application of the 'precautionary principle,' which Taverne dismisses out of hand as further evidence of anti-scientific obstructionism.
Taverne also states that there is little evidence of environmental damage from GM crops, and that 'worldwide experience of GM crops to date provides strong evidence that they actually benefit the environment.' To demonstrate this evidence, he quotes from one recent (assertively pro-GM) study without even mentioning that there is a substantial body of strong evidence (as published in peer-reviewed science journals) detailing substantial damage to the environment.
Taverne also does a fine line in exaggeration. For instance, his account of the interesting case study of 'golden rice' - genetically modified in such a way as to address the problem of vitamin A deficiency in poor countries - is laughably one-sided. He pins the blame for delays in bringing golden rice to market entirely on over-zealous regulators and environmental campaigners. But the problems with golden rice have much more to do with underperformance (early strains would have necessitated the consumption of at least 12 bowls of rice a day to achieve the required dosage of vitamin A), controversy among nutritionists (many of whom believe the answer lies more in a proper diet, including green vegetables), and even aesthetics - Taverne may not like this, but a lot of people still prefer their rice white.
A lot of the overclaiming is done by allusion. Taverne refers repeatedly to the supposed contribution GM crops make to reducing hunger and disease, and to combating drought and high levels of salinity in soil. This will appear odd to anyone in the business - there is little published research supporting Taverne's claim. This is hardly surprising given that almost all GM crops today are grown either for non-food purposes (primarily cotton), or to produce the protein needed to feed the livestock for our ever more meat-intensive diets. On balance, given the latest evidence about the impact of meat-eating on the incidence of cancer, let alone a host of other health impacts, GM feedstuffs are probably responsible for killing far more people than they have rescued from drought, disease or famine.
That's precisely the kind of cheap shot that will enrage Taverne. But I use it deliberately. Because what angers most people about Taverne's GM fantasies is his refusal to confront harsh truths about the inherent unsustainability of modern agriculture - a reality reinforced by GM products at every turn. Today's resource-intensive monocultures are depleting and polluting ground water, degrading soil quality, damaging biodiversity, consuming vast amounts of energy and contributing significantly to climate change. GM or non-GM, this is simply unsustainable, and dangling in front of people the chimera of genetically modified monocultural techno-fixes is classic escapism of the worst kind.
In his editorial introducing Dick Taverne's article, David Goodhart talks of the challenge of avoiding 'a Malthusian crunch,' and the potential contribution that GM might make. But there is no avoiding that Malthusian crunch until we understand that people are short of food today not because of a lack of food, but because of poverty, high levels of wastage throughout the food chain, and our meat-intensive diets - which are not sustainable for the 2bn or so people who enjoy them today, let alone the 9bn with whom we’ll be sharing this planet by 2050.
Get your head around those facts, and then let's have a serious, balanced discussion about the potential of GM to bring forward solutions in what is going to be a very different world.
Jonathon Porritt is founder director of Forum for the Future, and author of 'Capitalism as if the World Matters; Revised Edition 2007' (Earthscan Paperback) —available from the Forum for the Future website