GMOs: Seven Obvious Questions in Search of Straightforward Answers?

cr2011158f1 From, via IR. Inspired by KK, of course. I don’t know who the campaignforrealfarming are, but for the moment I’ll treat them as worth talking to. You’ll notice there is a total absence of refs in the piece, so I feel no obligation to provide any in response.

The first three questions

The first three questions are:

1: After 30 years of intense effort and huge investment, can the GM advocates offer any examples of GM food crops that have brought unequivocal benefit to humanity or to the world at large?

2: Assuming that the advocates of GM food can demonstrate unequivocal benefits, can they also show that those benefits could not have been achieved – just as easily, at the same cost, in the same time, and without collateral damage — by traditional means?

3: Putting points 1 and 2 together, can the GM advocates demonstrate that the research on GM has been cost-effective? If the same amount of research effort and resource had been put into other approaches, could we not have achieved far more?

To my mind, these questions are all really rather beside the point. If companies wish to invest in GM, well, they can. Why should they have to answer questions about cost effectiveness? That’s their problem. We live, or we hope to live, in a free liberal society: you (individually, or banded together as shareholders in a company) can invest in what you like, subject only to not harming others (and note that q’s 1-3 are not about harm; they are seeking to have benefit demonstrated).

So campaignforrealfarming is looking profoundly illiberal so far. But perhaps further q’s will be better.

Note that I haven’t addressed the issue of whether public money should go into GMO research. That’s a bit messy, and doesn’t fit into my strict Hobbesian idealogical framework so easily. Broadly, I think I’d need to be convinced that there really was significant public money being “misspent” before getting worried; the article I’m quoting from doesn’t even try to do that.

Four and five

4: Can we really be sure that GM crops are safe — for our fellow creatures in the environment at large; or for consumers – whether livestock or people?

5: Taken all in all, do the advantages of GM really outweigh the perceived disadvantages and the conceivable risks?

These are really one question, and are the heart of the matter: are GMO’s safe? The campaign’s answer is clear enough though:

All of the philosophy of science over the past 80 years or so (at least since Kurt Goedel and Karl Popper) has been telling us that science does not, and cannot, deal in certainties. In short, even if GM does produce some successes, it cannot justify the confidence that so many of its advocates display. Their confidence suggests that they do not appreciate the limits of science itself – which is itself rather worrying.

Yup, that’s right. Science doesn’t deal in certainties. Therefore you can’t be certain that GMO’s are safe. Therefore you cannot really quantify the “conceivable risks”. And therefore its all too dangerous to bother with.

This is, I think, fundamentally their answer. And if they just said that, well, I think I’d disagree. But I could accept they were honest. But wrapping this core up in spun-sugar propaganda isn’t honest.

There’s a pile more stuff along the lines of “a huge and growing literature suggests that there is plenty of room for disquiet: stories of animals becoming sick when fed on GM crops; of “super-weeds” – crops fitted with genes for herbicide resistance that cannot be checked; of “innocent” insects including bees and butterflies being slain by crops fitted with pesticide genes” but with no references its all meaningless FUD.

More padding

6: Can we trust the GM advocates? Can we trust scientists who depend on commercial sponsorship?

7: What is the real motive behind GM?

Sigh. If you’re a company, your motive is to make money. If you’re an individual worker or scientist, you doubtless have a variety of complex shifting motives.

[Update: Eli has a nice post on this, which could be summarised as “Caution”. Which is indeed a sensible approach, as long as not carried to excess. What is excess caution though? Well, that’s hard to know in advance. A few more thoughts:

* “GMOs are intrinsically more dangerous, because we’re talking about plants, which are self-replicating. So things could run out of control”. Not false, but very incomplete because: the rate at which GM tech is becoming cheap is so fast that fairly soon (a decade?) we’re going to have to be able to cope with the GM equivalent of script-kiddies playing about in the bedroom turning the grass pink. Or malicious governments (doing things, not being turned pink by script-kiddies). So I don’t really buy the runaway stuff.
* that we should err on the side of caution is true, but isn’t an answer. We already do, with the range of trials needed. And the opposition from anti-GM groups isn’t “caution” any more than the denialism from the anti-IPCC folks is “scepticism”. How useful are lessons like CFCs, or lead-in-petrol? In terms of GMOs I doubt they are useful, because people are already aware of them. it isn’t as if people haven’t desperately striven to prove GMOs dangerous.]


* Exogenous plant MIR168a specifically targets mammalian LDLRAP1: evidence of cross-kingdom regulation by microRNA – Zhang et al., Cell Research (2012) 22:107–126. doi:10.1038/cr.2011.158.
* The Post-Productive Economy (via EW)
* Lecture to Oxford Farming Conference, 3 January 2013 – Mark Lynas