Scotland bans GM crops, and all of Science sighs. What’s the deal?

By Dr Robin George Andrews @SquigglyVolcano & Dr Alfredo Carpineti  @DrCarpineti   

The opposition to genetically modified food is irrational, and when governments who should know better ban it without cause, scientists must speak up.

Scotland’s rural secretary has just announced that the growing of genetically modified crops will be banned in the fields of England’s feisty northern neighbour.

Unfortunately, like many people on gluten-free diets who aren’t coeliacs, many who approve of this move simply do not understand what they’re eschewing even is. Although Hollywood may beg to differ, most scientists across the world aren’t evil, conniving bastards bent on world destruction, and it would benefit almost no-one if dangerous mutant crops were unleashed on the world. In fact, a recent poll from the Pew Foundation found that nearly 90% of scientists from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) – one of the world’s largest science bodies – have concluded that, based on increasingly mounting evidence, GM food is perfectly safe. In contrast, only 37% of the American public concurred. So what’s happening here?

Here’s the thing: everything we consume has been genetically modified in some way or other. Genetic modification simply means changing the naturally occurring state of a crop or animal for our own means, and we have been doing this way before technology we know and love/hate today emerged. Ten thousand years ago, different rice and corn crops were bred together by simply mixing seed types together and growing a variety of crops to suit our needs. Did you always wonder how we could have seedless grapes and still grow additional grape harvests? The banana originally never looked like a curvy yellow phallic object; carrots all used to have purple skin. Heck, I don’t hear anyone complaining when we genetically modify flowers to produce hybrid offspring, adding a plethora of colour to our gardens the world over.

The reason we use GM crops is because they suit the demand of our growing, demanding population. Some crop varieties are more resistant to harsher winters or dry summers than others, so we choose those when we need. Some other crops are more resistant to disease; when these are used, less harmful pesticides – to both humans and the environment – need to be used as a result.

If you are thinking of a lab coat-wearing eccentric injecting purple goo into plants and animals and serving them up on a plate, stop. As amusing as that image is, that isn’t what’s happening. It’s just as incorrect as reacting in horror at finding out much of our food is irradiated briefly to destroy any pathogens living in or on them. No, eating an irradiated piece of food won’t give you superpowers or force a disgusting mutation where you grow five arms out of your nose.

When it comes to scientific terms, please do a little research. Scientists do not expect the public to be anywhere near as scientifically savvy as they are; however, being “scientifically literate” helps. If anything, it improves your ability to detect bullshit, including the anti-GM babble that renders so many people inherently untrusting of what sounds like the real-life application of the morals of Doctor Frankenstein.

Our brains have evolved to feel first and think second as a survival instinct. We know this, and that’s just it: many things in life are counter-intuitive. Just because something feels like it is right or wrong, it does not mean that it is in fact right or wrong without any logic or evidence to back it up. Unless the argument against GM crops is made on an economic basis – where one company monopolizes the region and puts farmers out of business without a modicum of cooperation – then the scientific, health-based argument against it has absolute no foundation whatsoever.

Studies have shown that in the GM debate, just like in the vaccination debate, there is no way that one can convince the “No” camp that they are wrong based on scientific evidence. We can produce peer­reviewed studies; we can produce review papers on the studies themselves, and even the reports by governments and independent organizations around the world including the World Health Organisation.

We can tell people in the No camp that they are experiencing confirmation bias, that their own pre­conceptions are influencing the way they interpret information. We can listen and argue, we can shout and called them stupid, we can ignore them and dismiss them completely: we won’t get through to them. But now the Scottish Government has given legitimacy to their voice, so we, the scientifically informed, cannot be quiet. So we have a simple message for the people that want GMO banned.

Hello, ladies and gentlemen of the reactionary crowd. We know that you don’t like GMOs, and we certainly don’t want to force you to eat any of them. You should be free to eat whatever you want. But while you can happily live without GMOs, other people can’t.

For example, diabetic people need GMOs to produce insulin. Without insulin, they will die.

Ok, maybe now your argument is ‘let’s ban all the GMOs that are involved in our food’. Sounds good, unless you work in the UK dairy industry. 90% of hard cheeses are produced thanks to the rennet from GMOs. We could go back to pre­GMOs technique, but there are not enough newly born calves to eviscerate in Britain.

So, our plea is not for you to change your mind, but for you to stop being hypocritical. If you hate GMOs then stop eating cheese, but do not take our freedom of eating cheese. We really like cheese. And we do hope you’re not diabetic.

Richard Lochhead said that the Scottish government was unprepared to gamble with the future of the country’s £14b food and drink sector when he announced the ban. The reason? A consumer backlash: people just dislike the idea of GM crops without even knowing what it is.

Scientists and open-minded, informed people: let’s get out there and put forward the evidence – and the basics of the process – behind genetically modified crops. They feed millions across the world, and we’ve been doing genetic modification for tens of thousand of years with enormous positive effects on the human race and the environment. Scientists carefully trial new crops, and if successful and beneficial, they then permit their growing en masse. It’s that simple.

Inform the people, and the governments against GM foods will change their tune.

1 Response

  1. MysteryIdiot

    I don’t disagree with you, but splicing a gene from a scorpion into some plant is not quite the same as putting two wheat varieties together in a field, that’s disingenuous.
    I think the economic argument against allowing Monsanto to monopolise elements of the food chain is very strong. I’d be interested to see whether the farmers who use GM wheat in the developing world are significantly better off than their peers.

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