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BBC Frontiers on Genetically Engineered Crops

Without realizing it I’d begun to fall into the trap of thinking of European positions on genetically engineered plants mostly as they impact countries in the developing world (European donors funding Greenpeace activity in Thailand, or the threat of losing access to European markets being used to discourage the use of genetically engineered crops in Africa), so it was great to stumble across this segment on BBC Frontiers and be forcefully reminded that the position of the EU (and of it’s member nations) is not set in stone and continues to be the subject of strong debate.

The segment is available streaming from the BBC’s website and it’s a fascinating listen. (Budget ~25 minutes, the stream is a little longer, but the end is just bookkeeping and transitioning to the next show.)

If you don’t have the time to listen to the whole thing (and you really should), here are a couple of key quotes:

“The honest answer is that we’ve had [applications] in the system for approval since 1996 and they’ve recieved four scientific opinions that have been positive. … one of the problems of course is that moving from the science into the political debate changes the dynamics completely an the argument just hasn’t been won at a political level or indeed amongst the public.” -Sygenta guy
“What we would like is to see decision makers taking into account the decisions of this authority [European Food Safety Authority] which have always given postive opinions to every GM crop ever submitted. But also to other independent scientists, national competent authorities, to public opinion, to evidences provided by NGOs and to social economic impacts of this technology.” Greenpeace European Policy Director for Genetic Engineering and Sustainable Agriculture
“What’s frustrating for the scientists is that this is no longer about the science but the messier world of politics and opinion. Although they claim the bulk of scientific evidence is on their side, that’s not how the decisions are being made.” – Reporter (Richard Hollingham)

The honest answer is that we’ve had [applications] in the system for approval since 1996 and they’ve recieved four scientific opinions that have been positive. … one of the problems of course is that moving from the science into the political debate changes the dynamics completely and the argument just hasn’t been won at a political level or indeed amongst the public. – Sygenta guy

Thirteen years in bureaucratic limbo. The science says it’s safe, but the decision makers who are supposed to base their decisions on that science know it’d be political suicide to approve any of these crops.

What we would like is to see decision makers taking into account the decisions of this authority [European Food Safety Authority] which have always given postive opinions to every GM crop ever submitted. But also to other independent scientists, national competent authorities, to public opinion, to evidences provided by NGOs and to social economic impacts of this technology. – Greenpeace European Policy Director for Genetic Engineering and Sustainable Agriculture [emphasis mine]

I’ve got several problems with his statement. But I’m only going to make two comments.

First of all, I agree that any science that’s sufficiently solid to make it past peer review should be included in decision making. Publishing frighteningly titled reports without given any uninvolved scientists the chance to point out errors in methodology does not qualify.

Secondly, note the portion I’ve highlighted in bold. If my outrage requires further explanation see footnote.*

What’s frustrating for the scientists is that this is no longer about the science but the messier world of politics and opinion. Although they claim the bulk of scientific evidence is on their side, that’s not how the decisions are being made. – Reporter (Richard Hollingham)

You, sir, have captured my feelings on the subject precisely. Thank you!

I apologize for any errors in my transcription and I once more urge everyone to listen to the whole segment.

*If simply having a majority of people think something was enough to make it true, we wouldn’t have to worry about man made global warming, as a majority of people either believe it isn’t happening at all or is “natural” (and we all know all natural things are good <– sarcasm), but we wouldn’t be able to enjoy our man-made global warming free world because since a majority of Americans also don’t believe in evolution *poof!* life has ceased to exist. Don’t get me wrong, I believe democracy is the most free and just way for a people to govern themselves, I just don’t think opinions should be a substitute to evidence when it comes to discussing facts.

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