Greenpeace: This is why we stand against GM crops

by admin 24. October 2014 22:05


This article is a response to "Climate sceptics exploit double standards of eco-warriors", by Fred Pearce, which claims that Greenpeace cherry-picks data in its campaign against genetically modified crops.

Our decision to oppose genetically modified crops is about a lot more than the science behind the technology, says Greenpeace chief scientist Doug Parr

Fred Pearce makes the accusation that we at Greenpeace undermine our own case by supporting the "science" on climate change but not supporting it in the case of GM golden rice But this misinterprets the role of science in context and what it can, and can't, tell us about the world.

We agree with climate scientists about the scale of the threat from climate change, with marine scientists about the poor state of our marine environment, and with terrestrial ecologists about the need to protect biodiversity, for example in our tropical forests. But elsewhere there is a tension. On technologies such as GM crops, nuclear power and fracking for shale gas we are often accused of being at variance with scientific opinion. What's going on?

Science is descriptive, not prescriptive. Science does not advocate for planting GM or organic crops, nor does it favour renewables over nuclear. But it can identify and sometimes quantify risks. These risks are not entirely determined by the attributes of the technology – their magnitude is dependent on their social context – on the wisdom, capacity, resources and attitudes of the organisations that seek to manage them. Greenpeace questions the ability of society to handle potentially catastrophic risks, the ability of political institutions to manage those risks under commercial pressure, and the distortion of priorities that flow from particular technological pathways.

Food for all

Take GM crops. Greenpeace's ultimate objective is secure and nutritious food delivered in an environmentally sustainable way for all people on the planet. What are the political, economic and institutional means to deliver that outcome? What role do companies and intellectual property rights have in that process?

The huge variety of answers to these questions means anyone who thinks the only relevant issue is whether GM crops are safe to eat is by default viewing the existing way society deals with those questions as largely satisfactory. We don't. But that isn't about science. That's about the context science operates in, where the benefits of innovation fall, and the ability of governments to manage the novel safety risks that GM crops bring.

And let's be clear, there is evidence of risks specific to GM crops – to the environment. We need to see more research before any of them can be declared "safe", not least because dealing with replicating organisms in an open environment is different in character from that of chemical or radiological risk.

For similar reasons, being pro or against nuclear energy has little to do with taking sides in a scientific dispute, and a lot more to do with picking the best solution to a multi-faceted socio-economic issue of energy resources and politics.

No silver bullet

These are complex problems. Accepting that there is no silver-bullet solution to energy supply or nutritional deficiencies, what we are left with is a range of more or less good options from which to pick the best and most effective. If you rank these options on the basis of feasibility, timing, costs and deliverability, neither nuclear energy nor GM food are likely to score very highly. Nuclear energy comes at continually high costs, requires long construction times, has risks of serious accident and weapons proliferation, and leaves us with the unsolved and costly problems of radioactive waste – so it is a far less attractive option than renewables and energy efficiency.

Equally, GM golden rice has yet to see the light of day after being presented to the public 15 years ago and conceived many years before that. It is opposed by many farmers in key countries like the Philippines, and only tackles one aspect of a broader dietary problem. Meanwhile programmes based on food supplements and vitamin-A rich vegetables have already helped tackle vitamin-A deficiency in countries such as the Philippines and Bangladesh.

Further, Philippine farmers organisations see the potential use of golden rice as taking the country down a track that will lead to less local control of their own agriculture. You may disagree with their analysis, but be clear this is not an argument about science. These are reasons why we think GM foods are the least favourable option to address this problem, and as an upcoming report from Greenpeace will show, other biotechnologies such as Marker Assisted Breeding – which allows plant breeders to more easily select for desirable characteristics such as disease resistance without resorting to genetic manipulation – are making real strides in delivering on the ground for some of the traits that GM has long promised but failed to deliver.

So none of this is to say we have a problem with technology, when developed and delivered in the right context. We developed the ozone-friendly refrigeration technology which is now the industry standard, because the industry said it was impossible. Then we combined that technology with solar power to produce fridges that can store vaccines and other medicines off-grid. We made the UK's first off-shore wind farm happen by holding our noses and getting into bed with a major utility. We produced a petrol-driven family car in 1996, more efficient than any petrol car on the market then or now, to show the world that it was economics, not technology, holding the motor industry back.

We can debate choices for technology futures and visions for society, and science plays a vital role in helping make those choices. But societal choice about technology is very different from scientific descriptions of the state of the natural world.

Doug Parr is chief scientist for Greenpeace UK, New Scientist


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