As they say in Yorkshire, The Royal Society should think on

The Royal Society has issued a new report supporting GMOs. But does the Roy Soc really understand the issues?

The Royal Society no less, the most august of all scientific academies, has just issued a report guide to tell us that GMOs pose no threat to health, and that they will be needed to feed 10 billion people who will be with us by 2050. The new Society President, Professor Venki Ramakrishnan, has proposed that the UK should lift its ban on growing GM crops for commercial purposes. More: the Roy Soc has taken it upon itself to run a series of public panels across the UK throughout the Summer and Autumn. Yet many excellent scientists, not least the members of GM Watch, suggest that we should not be as confident of GM safety as the Royal Society appears to be — and some have asked, why does the Roy Soc seem so keen to promote GM? Should it not play the dispassionate scholar and simply present the facts, and weigh the scientific evidence, con as well as pro?

But there are three other “meta-arguments” too that are rarely given a proper airing. To whit:

1: Are the world’s experts really as expert as we are led to believe? Are their assumptions really founded on fact?

In its latest report the Royal Society, fountain of truth, quotes the World Bank, pinnacle of power, who tell us (in line with Sir John Beddington’s “Foresight” report for the British government in 2011 on The Future of Food and Farming) that the world needs to produce 50% more food by 2050 just to keep pace with rising numbers and people’s aspirations. In other words, agricultural strategy must above all be productionist. But according to Professor Hans Herren of the Millennium Institute, Washington DC, the world already produces enough to feed 14 billion people – twice the present population and 40% more than we should ever need, given that the UN tells us that numbers are on course to level out at around 10 billion. This figure of 14 billion is easily checked. Thus Google tells us that the world produces 2.5 billion tonnes of cereal per year, which provides enough macronutrient for 7.5 billion people; and cereal provides only half the world’s food (and the other 50 per cent includes vegetables, meat, fish etc which provide all the micronutrients that cereals may lack). As I discuss in Six Steps Back to the Land (Green Books, 2016) the idea that our aspirations are rising, and in particular that we are “demanding” more and more meat, is deeply suspect. True, people are eating more meat but that does not imply an innate yearning, which is what the word “demand” implies in common parlance, as opposed to commercial newspeak. The commercial and social pressures to eat more meat (including the fact that it is the ultimate fast food) are enormous.

In short, we need not be productionist, as the mantra has it. We should be focusing on quality and provenance. Why then does the World Bank, the British government, and the Royal Society tell us what is not so? Do those who claim we need 50% more really believe what they are saying?

2: Is science all it is cracked up to be?

Science is presented to us as the royal road to certainty and truth. We are given to understand that science proves things, and that once proved, they stay proven. Philosophers of science have been pointing out the nonsense of this for the better part of 100 years, as I discuss on the College for Real Farming and Food Culture website (in Part VI.1, the section on Metaphysics). But still the myth persists. Many practising scientists, including many in high places, really do believe that they are party to unequivocal truth.

This raises an even wider question:

3: Are scientists properly educated?

Clearly many scientists know little or nothing of the philosophy of science, since they are taught none and do not care to read widely. I have heard some in high places express their contempt for philosophy. This means, though, that they do not understand the limitations of their own subject and indeed that they do not know what science really is, and what it is not. Still less do they appreciate the political, economic, and political context in which applied science must operate. As evident from the editorial columns of Nature, scientists and science’s mainstream commentators tend simply to be technophiles: to assume that all the world’s problems will yield to scientific, high-tech solutions, and that these solutions should be given preference over all others. High-tech, after all, is taken self-evidently to represent progress, and progress is taken self-evidently to be good. The wreckage left by ill-advised high-tech projects imposed the world over by various imperial and commercial powers over the past decades, passes them by. It hardly seems to occur to them that their interventions may have consequences that cannot be foreseen, and which could be detrimental; or that traditional “low-tech” solutions might be best, if only they were given a chance. In short, their self-confidence often seems to be well-nigh absolute, and so too, commensurately, their ignorance of what other people’s problems really are, and of the alternative solutions.

I suggest that science should never be taught without due reference to the philosophy of science, and without discussing its political, economic, social, and moral implications (with further discussion of what morality actually is). Science education is singularly unreflective – and so too, alas, is the Royal Society. Its latest pronouncements raise afresh Justinian’s question — “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” “Who will guard the guardians?” – or indeed will protect us from the excesses of those who presume to know better than the rest of us?

4: Specifically – do GMOs live up to the claims? Are they ever the best solution?

I wrote about this in the Colin’s Corner section of the Campaign for Real Farming website way back in 2012 in an article called “GMOs: seven obvious questions in search of straightforward answers”. The discussion is in the original article and I won’t repeat it here but the questions – with the answers reduced to one-liners – are as follows (and I challenge anyone to show otherwise):

1: After 30 years of intense effort and huge investment, can the GM advocates offer any examples of GM food crops that have brought unequivocal benefit to humanity or to the world at large?

The answer seems to be “No”.

2: Assuming that the advocates of GM food can demonstrate unequivocal benefits, can they also show that those benefits could not have been achieved – just as easily, at the same cost, in the same time, and without collateral damage — by traditional means?

Again, the answer is no.

3: Putting points 1 and 2 together, can the GM advocates demonstrate that the research on GM has been cost-effective? If the same amount of research effort and resource had been put into other approaches, could we not have achieved far more?

Decidedly not cost-effective. GM has at times proved highly profitable for those who control the technology, but that is not the same thing at all.

4: Can we really be sure that GM crops are safe — for our fellow creatures in the biosphere at large; or for consumers – whether livestock or people?

Despite the new Royal Society report, the answer again is no.

5: Taken all in all, do the advantages of GM really outweigh the perceived disadvantages and the conceivable risks?


6: Can we trust the GM advocates? Can we trust scientists who depend on commercial sponsorship?

Most scientists are very honest people but their lack of political nous, their innate technophilia, and their need to make a living in a world where commerce dominates, make them very vulnerable.

7: What is the real motive behind GM?

Commerce, in turn fired up by the neoliberal imperative to make more money than anyone else in the shortest possible time.

The Food and Drug Administration of the USA used to have a rule, and perhaps still does, that no new drug should even be considered for commercial release unless it can clearly be shown to have advantages over existing drugs.  The same principle can and should be applied to all new technologies. All new technologies are innately risky and as Donald Rumsfeld pointed out in his famous spiel on “unknown unknowns” we cannot always anticipate even the nature of the hazards that may arise. So if there is no proven advantage in GMOs, why are we even discussing whether they are safe of not? Why are we discussing them at all? Commerce is again the answer – that and the belief of governments like Britain’s that increase in GDP, “economic growth”, is what matters most, irrespective of the means by which wealth is achieved or who it finishes up with or who benefits or suffers along the way.

It may indeed be desirable that people at large should discuss GMOs, and we certainly should discuss the whole issue of food and farming far more seriously than we do, because nothing is more important and the general level of discussion, not least in mainstream “media”, is frankly dire. But whatever discussions are held must be properly informed, and the provenance and allegiances of those who take part must, as is the present buzzword, be “transparent”.

The Royal Society has shown with its latest display of GM zeal that it is not as well informed as it supposes itself to be, and it is not unbiased, and that the Society and science as a whole are not the objective seekers after truth that the mythology assures us is the case, but are hugely subject to outside pressures.

In fact, the main lesson to take from the new report is that the Royal Society should be far more aware than it is of the world’s realities, and far more self-critical. Otherwise (not for the first time) its influence is liable to be deeply pernicious. Science should be one of the greatest assets of humankind and for that reason alone, the Society’s lack of reflectiveness is deeply regrettable.

Colin Tudge, May 27 2016

One Response to “As they say in Yorkshire, The Royal Society should think on”

David Llewellyn Foster says:

Truly excellent post Colin. Enviably cogent, subtle and profound.

I was really shocked to learn about this alarming drift toward insidious certainty, on the part of a supposedly august institution.

It is deeply disturbing to witness such an influential paradigm of excellence, apparently falling prey to predatory commercial interests; and moreover, displaying such cavalier hubris and bold-faced ignorance of the necessity to allow for the manifold implications of how scientific method has been interpreted, challenged and applied over time.

It is as though they must be inhabiting another universe or phenomenological reality in which science has become a game of one-upmanship ~ devious and depraved entertainment for impoverished intellects.

Apparently this new normal, is a neo-liberalised reality in which Karl Popper never existed, Bertrand Russell was a figment of some other equally eponymous fictive imagination; and the greatest feminist thinkers of the last fifty years are nothing more than victims of hallucinated aberration, at best muddle-minded and deluded sophists but, rather more to the point, plainly demented chimera.

Were it not for the preponderance of sense that informs the more acutely argued narratives accessible today, I would despair!