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Debunking Claims of Bad Science Against Greens Over GM

By Tom Chance

In the days since I wrote my first blog post on the Rothamsted GM wheat controversy I’ve spent more time reading up on GM than in the past nine years. It’s been a tortuous few days for me. As a big fan of the Bad Science movement who was loosely involved with improving the Green Party’s science policy; as the author of the 2012 London manifesto on which Jenny Jones and others stood, and somebody who has put a lot of my life in the last four years into helping her achieve great things on the London Assembly and Southwark Council; and as somebody who slightly sits on the fence on the GM debate; I’ve found myself agreeing with all quarters.

On the eve of the protest I thought I’d put down a few more thoughts following the debate.

There is a lot of nonsense from all quarters (but it’s not the end of the world)

The Sense About Science petition really took off because Take The Flour Back appeared to carry a number of misleading or false scientific statements on their web site. For example, wheat isn’t wind pollinated, as they claim. It looked like an open and shut case of Bad Science, one that many anti-GM campaigners remain unwilling to accept or engage with.

Robert Wilson sent me a particularly egregious case of mendacious attacks on GM. This report, signed by major environmental organisations and hosted by Friends of the Earth, makes repeated mention of the tragic suicide rate amongst Indian farmers and the adoption, post 2001, of GM crops. Yet when the report was published in October 2011 there appears to be plenty of research showing that hypothesis has been debunked. It’s slapdash at best, irresponsible and appallingly disrespectful at worst, to repeat this theory if it is false, and is typical of the approach that too many anti-GM campaigners seem to take.

But then the Rothamsted researchers, ably assisted by a remarkable online campaign from Sense About Science, went too far in debunking that claim. One of their researchers (I think it was Prof. John Pickett) went onto BBC news to say there was “zero” risk of contamination. This contradicts his statement to the Telegraph that it is possible but unlikely. Their claim that wheat is only “1% self-pollinating” also looks suspect when you consider that this EU-funded public information web site states the risk is up to 9.7% depending on climate and the type of what. The researchers have certainly put in place safeguards. But perhaps any risk is too great?

Too often campaigners on any issue can be their own worst enemy.

The “pro science” tweeters have also been willfully naive and amazingly one-sided on a number of issues…

The silver bullet

There is a tendency among some people who care about science to believe technology is a silver bullet. Any cursory study of the history of technology will quickly unearth a more complicated picture. Just as anti-GM campaigners can overstep evidence when they suggest there is absolutely no need for GM anywhere, so it is daft to think GM is a silver bullet and essential to our future food security.

GreenFacts have an official summary of a major 2008 World Bank study, in which over 400 experts looked at options to secure our future food supplies. The full study was called the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development. It’s a very good place to start if you want to understand the place of GM.

They concluded should be part of the solution. But they also think that dealing with problems with patents, land ownership and many other issues need to be part of the picture.

Anti-science?

One of the most depressing charges made against the Green Party is as follows: Jenny Jones, a prominent Green politician, is going to a demonstration that will attempt to damage a scientific research project. Therefore the Green Party is anti-science.

This is just simplistic nonsense. If you are really against all forms of non-violent direction action that involve damage to property; if you really think allegedly dangerous or unethical scientific research should be able to proceed without any interference from politicians or the public; then you may think Jenny are “anti-science” in a limited sense.

But Jenny hasn’t gone around destroying the many other GM research projects in the UK. The Green Party is fine with research, but in the case of this particular open air trial Jenny – and many others – think they have reasonable evidence that it is unsafe and so think it better to stop it going ahead than to sit back and wait to see if the disaster of contamination takes place.

Another possible charge is that in reprinting scientifically inaccurate statements, the party is anti-science. But that’s equally daft. It just shows the party hasn’t got sufficient processes to weed out these statements, and perhaps subscribes to some ideas that it needs to drop. Being wrong about the science doesn’t equate to being anti-science.

The Green Party, like any loose association of likeminded people, is bound to accommodate a wide variety of views. When journalists dug up scientifically inaccurate material in our policy documents a few years ago, we took steps to address that. No doubt this recent debate will reverberate through conferences and policy discussions for the next year or two. Like all political parties with strong principles and beliefs that overlap with areas of scientific controversy, we have a complicated relationship with scientific evidence. That isn’t going to change, not for us or any other political party.

This is an extract from a longer post  by Tom Chance licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

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2 thoughts on “Debunking Claims of Bad Science Against Greens Over GM

  1. Gavin Deichen says:

    The approach of the Greens here was about as clear as an anti-scientific approach is going to get; joining a group who is threatening to go and destroy scientific research is actively attacking science.

    This doesn’t mean that the Greens always get this sort of thing wrong – far from it, as Sunny Hundal points out they tend to be a lot better on this front than other parties – http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/may/25/greens-science-gm-food.

    But this counter-productive attack (which, if successful, would have helped biotech companies, who would like to beat these altruistic scientists to the punch), will only help to reinforce the (often convenient / opportunistic) opinion that the Greens pick and choose their science depending upon their political views or prejudices. Yes, all the parties do it but the Greens seem far more inclined to cite science as their motivation.

    As for complaints about their reprinting of inaccurate science: both sides released statements and the scientists were very willing to talk. The information was easily available. If you have limited resources, why not talk to the experts first? Why assume that the protesters are right? If there’s a lack of time and resources, surely you should default to *not* destroying the work of respected scientists? This is a very poor defence.

  2. Bigbluevan says:

    I haven’t seen much debunking anywhere.

    The Greens have dug themselves into a real deep hole over this. Their approach is truly anti-science and they seem to be taking a diametrically-opposed position to that on global warming as it suits them. People who worry are those – like religious zealots – who have a view on something and then fit the facts to suit. Sure you’ll say that’s what the other side do, but it’s not the same here.Take it from someone who doesn’t really care either way.

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