Scotland’s boneheaded ban on GM: the scandal just got worse

Arms_of_the_Royal_Society_of_Edinburgh

Arms of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, bitterly critical of the Scottish Government’s handling of the GM issue

The Scottish government is becoming notorious for ignoring scientific advice, or not even asking for scientific advice on scientific questions. The latest example is the blanket ban on GM technology, which has drawn a blistering reproof from the country’s most respected scientific and intellectual organisation, the Royal Society of Edinburgh. This comes hard on the heels of the decision to ban fracking, when the scientific advice is to allow it within a suitably stringent regulatory framework. It is not as if GM food represents a new technology; it has been in use, and intensely studied, for over 20 years (see e.g. here).

But just when you think that things couldn’t get any worse, they got worse. Responding to criticism, the First Minister’s official spokesman has explained that since GM technology is “by its very nature hugely controversial”, it would endanger the reputation of the Scotland’s valuable food and drink sector. What evidence did it have for this assertion? None.

And just to ram the point home, he added: “Sometimes you have to be bold and take decisions that you think are in the national interest, and that’s what this was about. If ministers sat on their hands, and decided that they weren’t going to take any decisions until they had a report, scientific or otherwise, telling them what to do, you guys would be saying ‘when are you going to get your finger out and do something’. Sometimes you have to take bold decisions and do what you think is right for the country.”

So now we know. We have a Government that is prepared to decide “what is right for the country”, without waiting for any “report, scientific or otherwise”, that would supply the necessary evidence on which to base its decisions. How can such a Government even begin to develop a rational policy for food and energy, the most important problems facing the world today?

We (all of us) make up stories with ourselves as heroes, and, with the best of motives, choose our opinions to suit our self-images. Rational consideration of alternatives is a deeply unnatural activity. And so we have people who see themselves as Good Environmentalists advocating policies that deeply damage the environment. And politicians abdicating leadership to pander to them.

About Paul Braterman

Science writer, former chemistry professor; committee member British Centre for Science Education; board member and science adviser Scottish Secular Society; former member editorial board, Origins of Life, and associate, NASA Astrobiology Insitute; first popsci book, From Stars to Stalagmites 2012

Posted on September 25, 2015, in Politics, Science, Scotland and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. I suggest you look at GMOs, Herbicides, and Public Health in New England Journal of Medicine 2015 vol373(8) p 693. It says “In the United States, glyphosate use has increased by a factor of more than 250 — from 0.4 million kg in 1974 to 113 million kg in 2014. Global use has increased by a factor of more than 10. Not surprisingly, glyphosate-resistant weeds have emerged and are found today on nearly 100 million acres in 36 states. Fields must
    be now be treated with multiple herbicides, including 2,4-D, a component of the Agent Orange defoliant used in the Vietnam War.” It argues cogently against the use of GMOs until the risks from associated increased herbicides has been assessed properly.

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    • Thanks. What you cite is a perspective, i.e. opinion piece, but certainly informed opinion, and a serious contribution to the kind of discussion that the Scottish Government did NOT have. Here, I think, is the meat of the paper:

      “The National Academy of Sciences has twice reviewed the safety of GM crops — in 2000 and 2004.3 Those reviews … recommended development of new risk-assessment tools and postmarketing surveillance. Those recommendations have largely gone unheeded.” And, later,

      “First, we believe the EPA should delay implementation of its decision to permit use of Enlist Duo. This decision was made in haste. It was based on poorly designed and outdated studies and on an incomplete assessment of human exposure and environmental effects. It would have benefited from deeper consideration of independently funded studies published in the peer-reviewed literature. And it preceded the recent IARC determinations on glyphosate and 2,4-D. Second, the National Toxicology Program should urgently assess the toxicology of pure glyphosate, formulated glyphosate, and mixtures of glyphosate and other herbicides.”

      I’m not familiar with Enlist Duo. The problem of emerging resistance is, of course, inherent in the use of any herbicide (compare drug resistance).

      The paper does not call for a blanket ban on GMOs. It is a contribution to the kind of scientifically informed discussion of policy that I would welcome. This, alas, is NOT what happened, hence the outrage at the Scottish Government’s action, of which my post is one small expression.

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      • You’re right, but I think the article clearly indicates that the force behind GMO – which is expensive science – is a financial one. Those who research and apply these methods are often in it for their own ends, not for the common good, and they can’t be trusted to be responsible about it. If we had a better system of regulation we would be more likely to trust it. Look at the European regulation of motor vehicles: well known to be broken, but the moves to fix it are delayed because it’s not in government interests to interfere with industry. The capacity of government to make short sighted decisions is boundless, particularly if long sighted decisions will get them no votes.

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      • Once more, what you say is true, but in no way restricted to GMO. All product development, beyond the initial fundamental research stage, is expensive, and as such is generally financed by major companies who expect to profit from their innovations. Many companies cheat, and if they are caught doing so then the consequences for that company can be serious, as with VW right now.

        Those responsible for crimes like the VW fraud should be in jail. And the regulatory framework for GMO, much as for fracking, should be a matter of public debate, and adequate for purpose. But the blanket ban, and the way it was imposed without consultation and without factual justification, has short-circuited this necessary debate and for that reason among others is, I continue to maintain, boneheaded.

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  2. I don’t rail against the science of GMOs as we have been modifying seeds and produce since before the concept of genetic modification was possible and the benefits of hardier crops or the potential for engineering medicines into produce is obvious, but I do have major concerns about the likes of Monsanto who are attempting to corner the entire world market in seed patents – pushing their patented GMO varieties and outlawing “legacy” seeds. So reducing their corporate reach is welcomed, frankly.

    In any event, if the reputation of Scotland’s produce is protected (or enhanced) by this action to ban GMOs- even if you personally shirk at the lack of scientific understanding of those who purchase this produce – then you cannot argue against the decision on economic or pragmatic grounds. The Scottish Govt has to operate in the real world, not a laboratory vacuum!

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    • Yes, there are concerns about the ownership of GM crops, as of any proprietary seeds. But if that’s a lock-out argument, it’s equally a lock-out argument against any new varieties whatsoever.

      And we have been given no evidence for the claim that allowing GM crops would damage the reputation of Scotland’s produce. In fact, the ban WILL damage the nutritional value of farmed fish, by blocking the use of GM feedstock that synthesise omega-3 fatty acids.

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  3. Paul, a wonderful resource on GMO’s is Fourat Janabi’s book, The Lowdown on GMOs: According to Science. Book statement: intended to counter the rampant fallacious thinking and destructive activism permeating the biotech discussion based on little more than anecdote and ideology. Featuring the writings of public scientists, plant pathologists, renowned authors, farmers, science writers, professors, and journalists, they answer the hard questions asked of GMOs with elegance, ease, and evidence.

    http://www.amazon.com/Lowdown-GMOs-According-Science/dp/1502499304/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1443187592&sr=1-1&keywords=The+Lowdown+on+GMOs%3A+According+to+Science

    Fourat has an excellent blog, too. Random Rationality. Great bloke, presently living here in Brazil, and a go-to guy for GMO.

    http://randomrationality.com/

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  4. Margaret Gallacher

    Document’s have been leaked out about America and what kind of chemicals they put into GM food

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  5. Reblogged this on Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin and commented:
    At times trendy leftie / watermelon opposition to science is as daft as creationism

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  6. Another example of trendy-leftie (watermelon) opposition to science. Dare I say it , approaching creationism in folly and misunderstanding.

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