Anti-GM campaigners are Britain's equivalent of the religious right in the US.by Dick Taverne / December 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
The debate about GM food arouses strong emotions and affects important business interests. Let me, therefore, begin by stating some basic personal beliefs. First, I believe our lack of concern for the environment is perhaps the greatest threat to the future of civilised society. Accordingly I have supported Friends of the Earth from the early 1970s until recently. Environmental considerations were also one reason why, with the advantage of residence in central London, I gave up a car in favour of a bicycle more than 25 years ago. Second, I am not a scientist, but I believe the lack of a basic public understanding of science, especially biology, is a serious defect of our culture. Further, I regard the public’s growing distrust of scientists and its indifference to scientific evidence, especially in the debate about GM plants, as a trend with dangerous consequences. Lastly, because opponents of GM foods question the integrity of anyone who does not share their views, I should add that I have no connection with any company involved in their production.
GM foods act as a kind of lightning rod for the public malaise with science. Earlier disasters, like thalidomide, undermined confidence in scientific experts. BSE destroyed it altogether. The public, according to a recent poll, now regards scientists as little more trustworthy than politicians. It is only too ready to believe sensational headlines about Frankenstein foods. Attempts at an objective analysis of the risks and benefits involved-by the Royal Society, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, the House of Lords and House of Commons Select Committees, for example-have been almost totally ignored by the press and have therefore had little impact on public opinion.
Justice and a healthy democracy require rational debate, the testing of evidence and the disregard of rumour and hearsay. Improvements in the condition of man depend on a respect for reason. How could we develop new life-saving drugs without regard for scientific method? The progress of all medicine depends on the careful examination of evidence and due weight being given to the best available expertise.
It is clear that the current public mood is broadly anti-science. Greenpeace and other organisations regard GM crops as so immoral or dangerous that they break the law, invade fields and destroy farmers’ property. One recent campaign led to the destruction of GM trees even though the purpose of growing the trees was entirely beneficial to…