There’s been a lot of fuss this week about Jenny Jones’ support for Take The Flour Back, a revival of mid-1990s anti-GM activism. On one side, so the story goes, you have plucky scientists just doing research, and on the other side you’ve got anti-science vandals and woo-merchants.
The truth is rather different, but to be fair to the skeptic firing squad, some of the Take The Flour Back logic was poor. They’re worried that one of the genes inserted at Rothamsted is ‘most similar to a cow’. Moo moo moooo moo. At best this is a ill-expressed concern with a marginal aspect of the trial. At worst it’s like Chris Morris’s Brass Eye sketch in which some hapless berk is given a crab and persuaded to say that paedophiles have more in common with the crab, genetically, than they do with people.
Even if it had been a gene sequence from an actual cow that’d hardly be the point, although eating flour from a crop of that sort be unacceptable to some vegetarians, Hindus and so on.
But on the question of whether this trial should go ahead, and whether it’s appropriate to intervene to stop it, the protesters are still right and the so-called skeptics are still wrong.
I should declare an interest, or at least some history – I was convicted in Edinburgh in 1999 for an anti-GM protest, and acquitted on appeal in 2003. You regularly hear that one side of this fight makes emotional arguments and the other relies on science, and that’s true. We brought scientific expertise into court to talk about the existing evidence of gene flow, instability of the genome from retroviral DNA insertion, and issues with specific genes, including those used as antibiotic resistance markers, or to express the BT toxin, or to confer tolerance to herbicides made by the same companies.
At that time, we also raised concerns about corporate control over the food chain, and the consequences of that were already being seen in America, India and Brazil. The arguments against us mostly implied we sought to take food from the mouths of starving children in the South, and described us as Luddites, people wanting to take us back to the dark ages and deny the public a shiny future of bountiful crops. Despite this 180˚ distortion, their PR megaphones had some success reversing the roles and pitching themselves as the rationalists taking on the emotional and ill-informed opposition.
They also successfully narrowed down what science should be to appeal to a group who should have been amongst our chief allies – actual scientists, even including some who’d describe themselves as environmentalists. This appeal spread even to some parts of the left who ought to have been anxious about corporate control of the food chain even if biodiversity seemed a frivolous concern for them. They didn’t want to look like Luddites, especially if somehow these magical new products could end hunger.
Specific experiments aren’t necessarily intrinsically good science, for all sorts of possible reasons. Is the methodology robust? Has a subset of the results been cherry-picked to suit funders? Can the results be statistically significant? Have extraneous factors been minimised? Should it have been done double-blind? Fundamentally, for the GM field trial question, is it ethical? Ethics isn’t something alien to science, some hippie obsession. It’s embedded in good science. Academic research has to pass the universities’ ethics committees, and it’s easy enough to think of research that would fail without having to Godwin the debate.
Research could be unethical if it exploits subjects, but also if it has potentially irreversible consequences. There were some, for instance, at the Trinity experiments who admitted a fear that nuclear fission would start an unstoppable chain reaction and destroy the world. Fortunately they were wrong. It wouldn’t be acceptable to test oil spill response technologies by replicating the Exxon Valdez.
And GM field trials tell you only one thing more than GM trials in secure labs – how those crops interact with their environment. Lots of those interactions are already demonstrated, and proving them again is hardly worthwhile. For pollinating crops, we know that genes will spread. But wheat is largely self-pollinating, the defenders of the Rothamsted experiment tell us, and that should be good enough. Don’t bother your pretty little heads about that word “largely”. But the science is against them – including this wheat-specific research. We know that traits like herbicide tolerance spread widely, to other conventional crops, to organic crops and to weedy relatives.
And it’s not just wind or insect pollination that leads to gene flow. Back in 1999 we argued about horizontal gene transfer through soil bacteria, too, and that’s happening as well: “the successful transfer of transgene-borne antibiotic resistance genes to bacteria might be unavoidable according to a plethora of scientific data“. More alarmingly still, from the same paper, “several commercial [GMOs] contain antibiotic resistance genes that are still under the control of bacterial promoters as remnants of the bacterial vectors used to construct the [GMOs].”
The most important question for the defenders of field trials is this – what happens if problematic gene flow takes place from your trial, and how would you seek to rectify it? There is as yet no recall button, especially when (as with herbicide tolerance or the BT gene) an inserted sequence has adaptive qualities, and until there is it’s simply unforgivable to plant GM crops in the wild, especially fertile ones.
The other confusion here is between science and the technological implementation of it.
I am resolutely pro-science, although I have no post-school scientific qualifications. I admire Ben Goldacre’s regular destruction of myths, dodgy research, and woo groupthink. To take the alternative medicine debate, I don’t believe in homeopathy or acupuncture or iridology. Or anything that’s not been properly scientifically tested and found effective. I do, however, believe that there can be benefits from going to see a doctor who takes an interest in your lifestyle, not just your symptoms. Combined with a placebo, and an understanding of reversion to the mean, I see why some alternative treatments feel effective. But for me that’s a case for proper doctors to be trained and paid sufficiently to adopt some of the wider human concern in their patients that the quacks rely upon, rather than dishing out water and mint breath fresheners or worse.
But, going back to the distinction between science and technology, and returning to the atom, Rutherford’s research was elegant and admirable pure science, while Oppenheimer’s role on the Manhattan Project was at best an ethically dubious development drawing on that research. We gained a lot from Rutherford’s work, but Oppenheimer’s legacy has hung over the world for more than half a century. I have no problem with the discovery of PCBs in the lab, but if I could go back in time and monkeywrench efforts to put them into the environment I would.
I’m not even anti-GM. We were promised secure vats of GM bacteria churning out medicines or other resources. Go for it. Let’s see it. Start with treatments for the diseases of the South which have proved so uneconomic for the drug companies. I’ll be right there, and I’ll do you your glowing press release for nothing.
But field trials of GM crops are bad science. It’s time for the skeptics to look again at that actual science, rather than just lauding field trials as obviously valuable research. In fact, if they want to support good science rather than this irretrievable externalisation of risk onto the environment and the food chain, they should get their hands dirty with us.