TCS Daily

Science, Anybody?

By Roger Bate - June 4, 2003 12:00 AM

When the British public recently voted Winston Churchill as the Greatest Briton Ever, it confirmed something we have long known: our achievements in mathematics, science and literature pale in comparison to the bristle of British bulldog tenacity.

Then last month ago a MORI poll confirmed that stubbornness as the greater part of our conviction. When asked if they are in favor of genetically modified (GM) foodstuffs, the majority (58 percent) of Britons said no. Only 14 percent agreed with the proposition. Five years ago, that result would have had people like me calling for further education, greater research, and more public debate on the matter. But today, it's clear that the education initiatives have been undertaken, the research has been done, and the debate is taking place. Indeed, in its recent submission to the UK government's GM Science review, the Royal Society found no scientific evidence to indicate that GM foods were any more dangerous to eat than all other foods.

The British public has either concluded that science can safely be ignored or is not hearing what it has to say. Either way, we're the losers. You may feel that if we don't like the sound of GM foods, and we can possibly avoid them, we should be free to raise two fingers to the big businesses trying to force them down our throats. But if we use our own personal "ick" factor instead of science as a guiding principle, then we have learned nothing from 400 years of progress. The birth of Dolly the sheep in Scotland confirmed that Britain could hold a commanding lead in DNA science but the MORI survey illustrates that we are happy to give that advantage away.

Over half the world's population now lives in countries where genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are farmed. Take your holidays in America, Canada, China or even Spain (where, in the heart of the EU, GM maize is now being grown commercially) and after two weeks of indulging in the local cuisine, the thought of genetic modification will never cross your mind. Pass through the customs barrier in London and suddenly the only thing you have to declare is your concern about gene splicing in your can of sweet corn.

In America, 70 percent of supermarket products now contain GM elements. Has a single litigation resulted? Is a "60 Minutes" special in the pipeline? Did it stop you eating them? No, no and no again.

Oh, and by the way, those emblems of our European food tradition, German beer and French cheese, have for years been produced with GM enzymes which, because of the EU's complex and illogical rules, do not have to be identified on their labels. When you didn't know, you didn't care, did you?

Neuroses are the orchids of concern, best reared among the leisured and the affluent. Europeans can afford to cultivate their GM concerns, but to allow them to influence those who patently cannot is unforgivable. Having to accept aid to feed yourself is a humbling experience. For beleaguered African nations giving an ear to European NGOs, the anti-GM message has lead to the rejection of American maize, the very staple of the world's wealthiest nation, by governments convinced they are being given poisoned food. Unfortunately, the starving multitudes who lose out are unaware that their governments are being ill-advised.

Nietzsche advised that we should pick our enemies carefully. Environmentalists have made a poor choice with genetic modification. To feed the world's burgeoning population we have two choices, either dramatically expand the area of land employed, with the resulting wholesale destruction of natural habitats, or farm current land more productively. The GM crops licensed around the world have allowed us to pursue the latter option, using fewer pesticides, reducing soil erosion and maintaining higher soil moisture levels. To argue that there are "more natural" solutions is to ignore reality. Taking the Underground to work is unnatural but will you walk ten miles instead? A recent report from the US showed that if weed killers were eliminated from farming there, 70 million Americans (or more likely Mexicans) would be required for hoeing duty to maintain current productivity. Faced with such drudgery, the organic approach seems a little less appealing.

If we refuse to accept the reality of what GM offers, the world will move on without us. There will be two consequences. The first is that the best of our young scientists will look abroad to institutions not afraid of supporting their research. The second is that we will, eventually, be forced to import products and technologies which we pioneered and could have developed at home. It will be familiar and sad and, unfortunately, just like Winston's finest hour, very British.

Dr Roger Bate is British, a fellow at the International Policy Network and co-editor of the book Fearing Food, Risk, Health and Environment.

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