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The idea that those that oppose GMOs through direct action are equivalent to Nazi book burners is a troubling notion. It is based on two simplistic premises that science is neutral and that the advancement of knowledge is good. However, the premises contradict each other. If science is neutral, and science has the goal of the advancement of knowledge, then to my mind the advancement of knowledge can be neither good nor bad, just the uses to which it can be put. Any thinking person can agree that although science may be neutral, scientists and everybody else, are not. That corporate greed can undermine the neutrality of scientific results should be a cautionary tale to us all.
Consider that Nazi science was neutral, but the scientists were not. It is clear that Nazi science, although neutral, was often also immoral. Scientists could agree to go on wholeheartedly with the experiments, or sabotage them. The scientist as a Nazi would go on with experiment in good faith. The scientist as a moral person would find any way possible to disrupt it. So the question is who, if any, are the real Nazis in this debate?
Discussion over honest differences of opinion in the arena of scientific ideas is the way knowledge advances. Theories change on as experiments warrant. However, as with a medical trial, the experiment stops when the precautionary principle suggests that harm could be done.
As the patient is on the operating table, the GMO supporters argue that the patient will die without the operation. They argue that the anti-GMO people are causing the patient to die by halting the operation and saying that anti-GMO people are doomsayers. The death of the patient is itself a theory open to debate, as is the efficacy, morality and safety of the operation. This makes the GMO supporters not only the doomsayers, but also immoral by openly violating the precautionary principle.
The father of the Green Revolution would have supported the GM wheat scientists at Rothamsted, argues Prof Malcolm Elliot.
Genetically modified crops have the potential to save lives around the world Photo: ALAMY
Original article posted by Prof Malcolm Elliot 12:24PM BST 23 May 2012. He writes:
In 1968 Paul Ehrlich wrote in his book The Population Bomb that “mass starvation” due to “burgeoning population growth” was inevitable. “It is now too late to take action” to avoid hundreds of millions of deaths in developing countries, he declared, more than 40 years ago. Nothing could be done to stop all those people dying from hunger, because there were simply too many mouths to feed. It was already game over.
Indeed Ehlich used a flawed model to make his prediction. Unfortunately, he did not use the ubiquitous logistic curve which held true. Population should peak and level off as population density peaks and resources remained constant or decline. Everything else equal, this would have been true with no intervention. In fact, it might be argued that any intervention that caused the population to continue upward instead of leveling off, like a green revolution, is responsible for the current population issues and has killed more than it has saved.
That Ehrlich was wrong, both morally and factually, was largely down to the efforts of one man. Norman Borlaug was as concerned about population growth as Ehrlich, but instead of making doom-laden prophecies about mass death, he decided that the best course of action to stop people starving would be to help them produce more food. Now famous as the father of the Green Revolution, he toiled for years to breed high-yielding cereal crops and other innovations which enabled poor countries to dramatically increase agricultural productivity.
Some might be interested in this podcast: Exposing the Green Revolution: Myths, Realities, and Community Responses.
The task of feeding the world is only going to get harder in years to come. By 2050 the world’s population will approach 10 billion, and combined environmental crises mean we must produce much more food on less land with less water, fewer agrochemicals and less fossil fuel, while still maintaining biodiversity. At the same time, farming must adapt to changing climate zones and weather patterns. To do all this we must heed Borlaug’s plea to deploy the full range of cutting-edge techniques to produce higher yielding, higher quality, lower input, lower environmental impact crops. As founding director of the Norman Borlaug Institute for Global Food Security, I can testify to the urgency of this challenge.
I see the same fallacious argument here that was originally argued against. The only difference here between a doomsayer and a doomsayer with a solution that puts money and control of food in fewer and fewer hands, is that the inevitable doom predicted by the former is replaced by the inevitable doom hidden by the latter. I can forgive the former of blindness, the latter is unforgivable.
Among the techniques that Borlaug highlighted were gene manipulation approaches that promise to deliver results faster and more precisely than the classical crop breeding techniques. Dr Clive James, Borlaug’s deputy director at his wheat and maize research centre in Mexico during the 1970s and 1980s, today reports that the 94-fold increase from 4.2 million acres in 1996 to 395 million acres in 2011 makes GM crops the fastest-adopted crop technology in recent history. During the period from 1996 to 2011, millions of farmers in 29 countries worldwide chose to plant and replant an accumulated acreage of 5.9 billion acres – a testimony to the fact that such crops deliver sustainable and substantial socioeconomic and environmental benefits.
Yet this progress has not been smooth. Norman Borlaug was forced to spend his dying years campaigning to protect agricultural innovations like GM from being derailed by activists who opposed all genetic engineering for ideological reasons, or were simply against modern biotechnology on principle. As Borlaug warned in 2004, success for the anti-GM lobby could be catastrophic: “If the naysayers do manage to stop agricultural biotechnology, they might actually precipitate the famines and the crisis of global biodiversity they have been predicting for nearly 40 years.”
The idea that scientists invested in the idea of patenting corporate scientific technology lack any ideological bias would be laughable if it was not so sad and dangerous. His line of argument boarders on propaganda.
This warning seems particularly prescient right now, as anti-GM activists threaten to destroy publicly funded research on wheat at the Rothamsted Institute here in the UK. A group called “Take the Flour Back” has pledged to destroy the entire trial site next Sunday, while on Sunday a lone activist broke into the experimental plots and caused damage before being arrested by police. The threatened “decontamination” by anti-GM zealots is supposedly in response to the danger of pollen from the wheat spreading to neighbouring fields – the activists seem to be labouring under the misunderstanding that wheat is wind pollinated, whereas in fact it is self-pollinating, so little if any pollen ever leaves the plant. This sadly testifies to the extent of their understanding of agriculture.
Except you can read in GMO Compass this:
Normally, self-pollination occurs, which means wheat plants fertilize themselves with their own pollen before flowers even open. Nevertheless – depending on genotype and climatic conditions – cross-pollination with other wheat plants is possible. It usually occurs at a rate of approximately one to two percent. The rate can increase up to 9.7 percent when weather conditions are dry and warm.
Unlike, yes, but possible.
This attack on both scientists and the scientific method cannot go unopposed. It is incumbent upon everyone who values science and reason to stand up to vandalism and the destruction of legitimate scientific experiments. The attack on Rothamsted’s experimental plot must not go ahead.
Indeed we cannot stand for this attack on science. This attack on science by a handful of scientists with the hubris to push dogmatic, reductionist scientific advances in technology as representing the syne qua non of science is not acceptable. That something can be done, does not mean it should be done. Unintended consequences are more than just a small possibility.
Professor Malcolm Elliott is the founding director of the Norman Borlaug Institute for Global Food Security
Plant scientists at Rothamsted Research, a complex of buildings and fields in Hertfordshire, UK, that prides itself on being the longest-running agricultural research station in the world, have spent years preparing for their latest experiment — which will attempt to prove the usefulness of a genetically modified (GM) wheat that emits an aphid alarm pheromone, potentially reducing aphid infestation.
Yet instead of looking forward to watching their crop grow, the Rothamsted scientists are nervously counting the days until 27 May, when protesters against GM crops have promised to turn up in force and destroy the experimental plots.
The protest group, it must be acknowledged, has a great name — Take the Flour Back. And it no doubt believes that it has the sympathy of the public. The reputation of GM crops and food in Britain, and in much of mainland Europe, has yet to recover from the battering it took in the late 1990s. In Germany, the routine destruction of crops by protesters has meant that scientists there simply don’t bother to conduct GM experiments any more.
The Rothamsted scientists have also attempted to win over the public, with a media campaign that explains what they are trying to do and why. After the protesters announced their plans to “decontaminate” the research site, the scientists tried to engage with their opponents, and pleaded with them to “reconsider before it is too late, and before years of work to which we have devoted our lives are destroyed forever”. The researchers say that in this case they are the true environmentalists. The modified crop, if it works, would lower the demand for environmentally damaging insecticides.
Our current political system chooses to deal with world hunger through the model of “food security”, arguing that there is not enough food to go around and that we need techno-fixes to solve this. This approach ignores the fact that there is a global food surplus – many people just can’t afford to buy food. This problem is being amplified by land grabs- communities that used to grow food for themselves are being forced out of their ancestral homes, often by corporations expanding cash crop production.
The industrial food system throws away (in the journey from farms to traders, food processors and supermarkets), between a third and a half of all the food that it produces – enough to feed the world’s hungry six times over. (2)
Free trade policies imposed by the International Monetary Fund make it much harder for governments to protect small and family farmers from big multinationals. With the expansion of free-market capitalism, agricultural systems in many countries in the global south have become focused on producing cash crops for export to rich western nations. At the same time, their markets have been opened to food imports, including imports from US and EU companies at less than the cost of production. US farmers benefit from billions of dollars in subsidies which make up as much as 40% of US net farm income. This means they can afford to export their crops at well below production cost. (3) This is ruining the livelihoods of small farmers in the global south.
One difference between the climate wars and the GM wars is that some prominent scientists are participating in the direct action against technology (such as James Hansen and IPCC contributor Marc Jaccard). Another important difference is that in the case of GM crops, it is research itself being targeted, and the scientific community objects .
I would agree that the methods used in much of the climate debate are indeed driven by nonscientific corporate influences, but more in the same misguided way as the GMO supporters have used it. The difference here is that the end results of the climate change supporters are that we end up doing many things that we will have to do anyway. We need real sustainable solutions to both climate change and food shortages. The ‘why’ of climate change pales before the fact of it changing or the inadequacy of many of the current climate models. Simply, no one has been able to effectively debunk the idea that small local sustainable solutions to both climate change and food shortages are potentially the best, and least risky, of alternatives.