View from the fence

Social, environmental and economic issues surrounding GM foods, and the latest news

Wicked – a word for musicals not for GM crop opponents

8 Comments

Recently, Michael Purugganan, a Filipino plant geneticist (not working on GM), and a professor of biology and Dean of Science at New York University, wrote an interesting article about why he supports golden rice.

I was struck by his comment on false claims (a common one being that it can’t have enough vitamin A in it). Purugganan says: “Those who perpetuate these myths are doing a disservice to our country, especially to the malnourished, poorest Filipinos, and I urge everyone to seek out credible scientific evidence (with the stress on being both credible and scientific) to find the truth for themselves.”

His article is well worth a read, as is one of the sources he sites.

Our environment secretary Owen Paterson, however, took a different approach to showing his disapproval, not just of people who perpetuate myths but of anyone who opposes golden rice:

“It’s just disgusting that little children are allowed to go blind and die because of a hang-up by a small number of people about this technology. I feel really strongly about it. I think what they do is absolutely wicked.”

Unsurprisingly, the word wicked was what the press jumped on. Wicked is a perfect word for west end musicals about witches, but for politicians to be calling people who disagree with them? Is that constructive?

‘Wicked’ has connotations that the person intentionally caused harm, whereas the vast majority of people who oppose golden rice believe they are acting for the good of society. By calling these people wicked, Paterson has shown disregard for their point of view, and an unwillingness to address any valid concerns they have.

If the Government wants to bring this debate back to evidence, and I sincerely hope they do, I don’t think insults are likely to help.

Yes, it is frustrating that some opponents of golden rice spread mis-information, but it’s not appropriate to tar all opponents with the same brush. And even those who deliberately mis-represent the evidence, can we call them wicked?

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Author: Rebecca Nesbit

I am author of a popular science book 'Is that Fish in your Tomato?' exploring the fact and fiction of GM crops. In my work and leisure so far, I have trained bees to detect explosives, used a radar to study butterflies for my PhD, written a novel, taken the train from London to China, organised Biology Week, sold science jewellery on Etsy, and traveled to four continents with Nobel Laureates. Best off all, I've made lots of friends whose support I very much appreciate. Thank you! Please visit my website: http://rebeccanesbit.com/

8 thoughts on “Wicked – a word for musicals not for GM crop opponents

  1. I stumbled across another instance of insult slinging – this time golden rice is labelled as ‘evil GM’. Evil is another word I would ban from this debate http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/nov/04/response-zac-goldsmith-golden-rice-gm-food

  2. While I agree that this debate needs to be conducted on the basis of evidence, many of the claims being made in favour of GM crops do not have evidence to support them. For example many reputable people state that there is plenty of research proving that GM crops are safe – but that evidence has yet to be produced. The claim that GM crops are substantially the same as their non-GM counterparts does not in fact prove anything; substantial equivalence testing is considered by many to be completely inadequate. There has been research which suggests that the actual process of genetic modification itself gives rise to the danger of allergies and toxicity, because the process is imprecise. From what I have been able to discover, it seems that in fact no tests have been conducted to disprove these findings, and until rigorous independent tests have been carried out I believe we should resist the temptation to bulldoze poorer nations into accepted what is still an inadequately tested process.

  3. I agree completely that there are claims on both sides of the argument which are inflated at the very least. Studies into the safety of GM crops is something I need to learn more about. The high-profile ones (such as the Seralini papers) have been discredited, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t good ones out there, or that necessary studies are lacking.

    I am not sure we can say that the Phillipines has been ‘bulldozed’ into accepting golden rice (by bulldoze you mean ‘we’ have put political pressure on them, or not presented all the evidence?). This post was inspired by a Fillipino professor, so there is clearly desire from within the country to accept golden rice trials.

    • There is a significant ‘misinformation’ problem going on, which has been applied to, amongst others, the Seralini research. The discreditation campaign was itself based on flawed information. The pictures showing tumours in rats made the headlines, but that study was never designed to determine whether tumours were caused by the maize; rather it was designed to establish whether there were any toxic effects. The discreditation arose because it was claimed that the data around the tumours was not robust – which Seralini acknowledged – while the data around the toxicology was in fact robust. Campaigns to discredit anti-GM arguments, as with climate change and before that, tobacco, are very well funded by the industries which have an interest. What I hope is that someone somewhere conducts some genuine independent peer reviewed research into the safety of GM crops for human food – it has never yet been done, although there is plenty of evidence of the effect of GM food on animals such as pigs and cattle. Current testing is on the basis of Substantial Equivalence, which is itself a highly questionable method from the point of view of safety. In the US the FDA rely on tests conducted by the manufacturers, and carry out no tests of their own. To say that Americans have been eating GM food for years without ill effect is presuming that the extensive health problems in the US population have nothing to do with GMOs, despite the fact that many medical practioners have taken to prescribing organic diets for sick patients, to avoid GMOs.
      Much research needs to be done before we have any right to consider GM food to be safe, but unfortunately Governments are in too much of a hurry to give it the time it needs.

  4. Hi Tim, have you read Seralini’s paper? I’m planning to post about it soon. I was unimpressed by quite a few aspects of the science, so if you have a proper critique of the paper which makes you believe it has any validity, I would be interested to see your point of view.

  5. I shall be interested to read your post. I am not a scientist (in common with most other food-buying members of the public!) but I have done a lot of hunting for information via the internet. You may be interested in this link: http://www.gmwatch.org/index.php/news/archive/2013/14882-seralini-validated-by-new-efsa-guidelines-on-long-term-gmo-experiments
    What I would like, and have not so far found, is conclusive evidence that GMOs are safe, and as yet I am far from convinced. I am particularly worried by the reach of the powerful pro GM lobby and in particular in the USA their determination to avoid having their product labelled (why?). I am also concerned that the GM products commonly consumed in the US are only tested by the manufacturers, whose verdict is accepted without question by the FDA. I have personal knowledge of a case where someone (vegetarian) who developed worrying symptoms while living in Greece was told to go onto an organic diet to avoid GM food – the symptoms disappeared. Another aspect of GM crops which I feel is detrimental is the fact that it depends for its success on large areas of monocrop cultivation which is already proving detrimental in many regions.
    I would love to give this more time, but as I am emptying my house having sold it, at the same time as preparing to fly to Tasmania next Monday, as you can imagine I have some other priorities!

  6. I’m glad that people who aren’t scientists are taking an interest in scientific evidence, and I do very much sympathise that it can be hard to find in relation to GM. That’s why I’m writing this blog.
    Labelling is another thing that interests me, and the situation is very different in the UK, so I will be writing about that too.
    There’s lots of reasons why changing diets could lead to changes in health, so we need controlled studies which try to make sure there is a link between GM and health, and that’s what I’m going to be looking for. There’s a lot of information out there – I look forward to sharing what I find.
    Have an amazing time in Tazmania!

  7. Pingback: Jean-Claude Junker, Greenpeace and ‘Madness’ | View from the fence

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