"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Thoughts on GMO

I’m a science guy; I have a degree in genetics, follow technology trends, watch documentaries, read popular science books and magazines and am generally an all-round geek/nerd whenever it comes to new ideas and advances in any field. As a consequence of which I exhibit a tendency to scorn and scepticism when the popular media or lobby groups stand in the way of progress with cries of “frankenfood” or other scaremongering portmanteau and look on with despair when environmentalists attempt to sabotage field trials of GM crops designed to gather data on the very things they claim to be concerned about.
In general, I trust scientists. I trust them to be acting in good faith and with good intentions. I trust their knowledge, their expertise and in particular their ability to assess risk and be aware of the consequences of their actions. This is because scientists are people like me, the people I associate with and once studied alongside and under. Scientists are rarely ideologues since experimentation has a nasty habit of proving cherished notions false and, outside of B-Movies, they are only occasionally mad.
The media however always have an agenda, which is to make a science story ‘interesting’ to a lay public steeped in popular cultural tropes about science but barely literate about the science itself. This makes them seek out the conflicts, giving small but vocal protest groups equal time and weight in debates that elevate opinion over knowledge and ideology over data, none of which serves the public well.
The truth is that there are legitimate public interest questions about genetic modification that need addressing. From a strictly scientific point of view the message needs getting across that moving genes between organisms is not Frankenstein science. Genes have been jumping around and between organisms by natural vectors ever since the first Adenine molecule said hi to a Thymine, coding for whatever proteins natural selection saw fit. That scientists can now do the job with more precision than a random phage can is not an abomination to get spooked about but an achievement to be celebrated.
From a societal point of view we absolutely need to have the debate about how these advances are applied and in particular how the products are commercialised. For example should companies like Monsanto be able to own patents on both herbicide resistant grain and the specific herbicide it is resistant to? Is there a bio-safety reason to make GM crops sterile or is it only to stop farmers harvesting seed for the following year? Do we really need to label foods as GM once they are deemed to be safe for human consumption by government food standards agencies?
I don’t propose to offer answers to these questions but as a general principle I do believe that the research and development of GM technologies should not be entirely, or even mainly in commercial hands. Whilst I trust the good intentions of scientists I am less sanguine about the motives of corporations and separating the development of GM technologies from the marketing of them would take away a lot of the opportunities for exploitation (for the same reason I also think that medical research should not be done by pharmaceutical companies). Ideally, given the potential of GMO’s to increase crop yields and nutritional value I would rather see development centrally funded and overseen by the World Health Organisation or the U.N and the products released to manufacturers to sell under a (revocable) licence.
One of the issues that should be understood about GM crops is that once in use natural selection will continue to operate on the weeds and pests around them. Weeds exposed to high levels of Glyphosate will evolve their own resistance (more likely actually than acquiring it from their GM neighbours) and bugs confined only to pest resistant crops will evolve the ability to infest them. This is not a reason to vilify GM but a reason to modify farming practices to acknowledge the reality. This is nothing new: the transition from hunter-gathering to agrarianism and more recently to monoculture and the green revolution all required a shift in methods and practice. The provision of non-modified crops as refuges for insects among the pest resistant strains maintains biodiversity and lessens the selection pressure on the bugs to adapt, but farmers in several third world countries are failing to do this, partly for economic reasons and partly from lack of understanding, but this could be rectified under the right auspices.
I don’t deny the environmentalist's right to raise questions about the safety and wisdom of GM technology and I have sympathy with those who protest the way Monsanto and others appear to profiteer from it. But these are separate issues that should be addressed separately and without hysteria and disinformation. We may soon have 9 Billion mouths to feed and whilst I am not suggesting GM is the only solution to world hunger, it is a powerful tool to have available.

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