TCS Daily

Illogical and Undemocratic

By Jan Bowman - August 18, 2003 12:00 AM

Policymakers worldwide regularly make major decisions based on the assumption that European consumers are firmly opposed to genetically modified (GM) food. This is a belief that has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  By their hasty decision not to stock GM, British supermarkets -- which uniquely control 75 percent of U.K. food sales -- have helped persuade consumers to fear GM food.


The supermarkets' ban extends to excluding from their own brand products meat from animals fed GM feed -- a more sophisticated restriction than the average U.K. shopper would ever dream of requesting.


The irrationality of some of their decisions is clear from the case of the first Welsh farmer to take part in GM canola trials. He had to bow out two years later under pressure from the supermarket that bought his blackcurrant crop. Despite the total absence of a genetic link between blackcurrants and canola, his customer threatened to cancel its order if he continued the trials. "The GM debate got a little bit silly," as farmer James McConnel put it, and the supermarket insisted "it could not have this taking place on the same farm." Such extreme actions have terrorised the Canadian Wheat Board into shunning GM wheat for fear of losing its overseas customers.


But how much does the public really distrust GM foods? In fact, surveys show that consumers are ambivalent -- they don't know who or what to believe. A poll last year by the U.K. Consumers' Association, itself anti-GM, found that "the main concern was not knowing enough about it." Other studies suggest that consumers distrust those in charge to make the right decision.


The potential of opinion polls to mislead is reflected in surveys of organic foods. Polls routinely show more public support for organics than they do distrust of GM. Yet 70 percent of organic food is still bought by just 8 percent of U.K. shoppers, and it remains a niche market. The Iceland supermarket chain bought up 40 percent of the world's organic vegetable crop in 2000 "to meet growing demand from consumers." It ended up losing £20.3 billion and half its share price.


A good test of consumer concern about GM is how many people feel strongly enough to do more than just sign a petition against it. We had a chance to check this in the U.K. last month, when the government sponsored 600 consultation meetings round the country. I went to three: a council debate in Coventry, a meeting in nearby Stourbridge where both invited speakers opposed biotech, and a "drop-in event"-cum-debate in Birmingham organised by the local community forum. At all of them the audience numbered no more than 60, and was overwhelmingly middle class, white, and already anti-biotech. Another meeting in nearby Stafford was called off due to a lack of interest.


It seems likely that if consumers had a genuine choice, and could see some benefits from buying GM produce, they would. But why are policymakers chasing public opinion like this anyway?


Opponents of biotech insist that the public's views on GM must be considered at every step. But to give the same weight to the views of laypeople as to those of the scientific community on a matter of science is not only illogical but undemocratic. After all, the public once objected to anthrax vaccinations for fear cows would sprout from people's arms. If nature worked exactly as it appears, there would be no need for science.


Opponents of GM dismiss scientific research which conflicts with their beliefs as just a matter of opinion - or worse, a corrupt and sinister lie. By rejecting most scientific research as value-laden, activists are using a cheap shot. They encourage us to believe mavericks purely on the basis that they contradict the official view, and automatically accuse anyone who supports GM of harbouring ulterior motives.  As someone asked rather plaintively at the Stourbridge meeting, "Isn't there ANY independent research being done on GM?"


("No" was the immediate and succinct reply from Dr. Malcolm Hooper, who had just used his speech to give us a lengthy, irrelevant but alarmist account of what pesticides do to the human body given the chance. Unsurprisingly the final vote, as in Coventry, was overwhelmingly against GM.)


Yet scientists have been getting funding from the state and from private companies since the dawn of scientific research. Like everyone else, scientists will have their prejudices. Mistakes and corruption do happen. However, society has on the whole benefited from the large-scale funding of research, and it is practically impossible to do research without it. As John Pidgeon, director of the Broom's Barn research station in Suffolk, said of his own study (which found that wildlife can flourish in fields of GM crops), he took sponsorship from Monsanto because no one else would put up the money.


Critics of GM will automatically assume that Pidgeon's research was biased. Their cynicism encourages a blanket distrust of all scientific experts. Yet if we can't trust experts on their subject, who are we to trust? Campaigners against GM may be independent of Monsanto, but they are certainly not independent of popular prejudice, nor are their beliefs subject to peer review.


Policy makers should stop begging the public to make up their minds for them - a strategy bound to undermine public confidence -- and listen to the experts instead.  The decision on whether or not to adopt GM foods should be made on the basis of science, not opinion polls.


Jan Bowman is a TCS contributor.

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