Opinion: Genetic advantage

Following on from my previous article having a go at Nick Clegg over DNA databases, it is now time to turn to Christopher Huhne and some disappointing remarks concerning GM crops. He says, “Ministers should not give any go-ahead for commercial planting until they can state confidently that GM varieties would not contaminate non-GM foods and that they are safe.” Oh dear. You would have thought that after several years’ worth of GM food trials yielding precious little by way of cause for concern, the onus might at last be upon the tree-huggers to prove the alleged dangers of this particular genetic technology. But apparently not, so it looks like I’m just going to have to explain it all over again. Sigh.

Fear, uncertainty, and doubt over genetic modification often finds its root in the fallacy of the “noble savage.” This common misconception (which frequently afflicts the debate on climate change) would have it that the world in its natural state is perfectly fluffy, peaceful, and harmonious – or at least it was before mankind turned up with his corrosive concept of “civilisation.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau expressed this idea succinctly when he said in 1762, “Tout est bien sortant des mains de l’Auteur des choses; tout dégénère entre les mains de l’homme.” More recently, no less an intellect than Prince Charles echoed this sentiment when he declared, “I happen to believe that genetic modification takes mankind into realms that belong to God, and to God alone.” (Which just goes to show how little progress you can make in 200 years if you really put your mind to it.)

In reality, tout n’est pas bien with the natural order of the world. Far from being the handiwork of a benevolent Creator, nature displays all the cruelty and pitiless indifference which one might expect had it been designed by, say, the blind forces of evolution through natural selection. But while animals have been bitterly fighting it out for millions of years, the plants have not been sleeping either. Over the ages, plants have developed an impressive set of defence mechanisms of their own. These range from the familiar thorns and prickles, to the less visible toxins and irritants which are now responsible for the common food allergies suffered by many. And in addition to being cruel, nature is also inherently wasteful. For instance, plants typically grow much taller than necessary, thereby squandering valuable energy on a hardy stem which happens to be of little or no nutritional value.

The plain truth of the matter is that there is no fundamental difference between genetic modification, and the selective breeding and hybridisation which has been going on for millennia – save maybe that “natural” methods are way slower and less reliable than their hi-tech counterparts. The advantages of GM crops are legion. Pest-resistant crops make redundant the harmful pesticides which, ironically, so upset the eco-warriors of a generation ago. We now find ourselves in a position to breed out the harmful allergens, while simultaneously breeding in essential life-saving nutrients for the developing world. It would be nothing short of criminal to allow progress in this field to be retarded by the medieval superstitions of Prince Charles and his entourage. And as Tom Papworth pointed out, Chris Huhne is treading on dangerous territory should he wish to encourage a scepticism of genetic science, but not of climate science.

In summary, there are substantial benefits to be had from the related technologies of DNA profiling and genetic modification. Nobody is saying that there are no associated risks or drawbacks, but it is somewhat unfortunate if both Chris and Nick appear to be framing these debates as if the smallest fly in the ointment were sufficient to put the kibosh on the whole project. We are not a left-wing pressure group; we are a mainstream political party – and as such, Liberal Democrats should be endeavouring to produce practical solutions to real problems, not dancing to the ideological tunes of Liberty or Friends of the Earth. Neither should we be indulging in populist scaremongering on these vital issues – an irresponsible pastime which we might just leave to the fourth estate, seeing as they do it so well.

I thought that liberalism was supposed to draw its inspiration from the Enlightenment values of philosophical and scientific rationalism. Yet I detect little by the way of a balanced and reasoned argument on these policy positions. Nor do I detect any great mastery of the hard science so crucial to the process of their formulation. As a matter of interest, who is the chief scientific adviser to the Liberal Democrats? What? You mean we don’t have one? Now that explains a lot!

* Laurence Boyce is a Lib Dem member, and occasional contributor to Lib Dem Voice.

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17 Comments

  • While I agree with Laurence’s attacks on Rousseau et al, his inherent lack of robust skepticism is alarming.

    What should we fear most about GM? Haste. We should not let the scientific positivists persuade the rest of us that all will be well if only we trust them.

    Voltaire was right not just about Rousseau, but about Pangloss too.

  • GM, like most broad scientific advances, can be expected to produce some real dangers, just as some other bit of GM is likely to produce great benefits, while other GM will languish in-between.

    Until we can be persuaded that scientists are successfully distinguishing between the safe and the dangerous (which means finding and admitting the existence of the dangerous), we should not trust their optimism.

  • I can’t understand why you don’t have a job, Laurence – you’d fit in well as a lobbyist for monopoly capitalists. (That’s not intended as an insult, by the way: even if it was, one of the things I like about you is your refusal to be insulted). But what is liberal about handing control of future food production to monopoly capitalism? That is what this technology is about and that is why it is neither luddite nor obscurantist to oppose it.

  • One of the things I don’t like about you Laurence is the way that you raise serious issues and then refuse to engage with people who respond to you seriously.

  • Angus J Huck 24th Nov '07 - 11:55pm

    Tony Hill wrote: “But what is liberal about handing control of future food production to monopoly capitalism? That is what this technology is about and that is why it is neither luddite nor obscurantist to oppose it.”

    Yes, I think this is the key issue.

    I have nothing against genetic modification in principle. After all, an apple is a genetically modified crab apple, wheat is genetically modified grass, a dog is a genetically modified wolf.

    What does bother me is the issue raised by Tony. And on many occasions by George Monbiot.

    Now, I cannot stand Monbiot. I think he is a smarmy, condescending know-all, and I would love to shove a custard pie in his face and throw him in the Isis.

    But he has to be right when he says that allowing genetic material to be patented puts the control of the world’s food supply in the hands of a few (mainly North American) corporations and the oligarchs who run them.

    It is, as I see it, yet another example of powerful elites taking control of our lives.

  • Angus J Huck 27th Nov '07 - 5:12pm

    Laurence, do you know anything about the law of intellectual property?

    Do you know what a patent is?

    Have you any idea what consequences ensue if you breach some rich persons’s copyright (or they say you do)?

    Do you know what a Mareva injunction is? Or an Anton Piller order?

    One of my friends had a Mareva slapped on him because RCA accused him (falsely) of breaching their copyright on videos he was selling. He had no access to any of his assets for months.

    The same thing happened to one of my cousins. He went to the cashpoint one morning and found all his accounts frozen. Once a team of forensic accountants had combed through his books with no result he went to the High Court and was at last able to eat again.

    An Anton Piller means a team of bailiffs breaks down your door and rifles through your underwear, and you go to jail if you obstruct them.

    I suppose Hitler was that nice man who had tea with Neville Chamberlain in Berchtesgaden. No conceivable threat to anyone. Those who thought otherwise were “brainless morons” like David Icke. At least that’s the kind of thing I can imagine you saying in 1938.

    Patenting means that only those corporations who have the patent to a specific crop can licence its use.

    It means a handful of oligarchs control the world’s food supply.

    Is that what you want?

    Wake up, Laurence.

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