A recent report from MPs on genetically modified crops shows a lack of scientific logic and knowledge about risk, argues Rupert Read. Confusing inconclusive evidence of harm from GMOs, with conclusive evidence of safety, they reach a false and dangerous conclusion – that the EU should give free rein to pro-GMO governments.
The House of Commons Science and Technology select committee has recently published the results of its inquiry into genetically modified crops and our attitude to them within the EU.
I was one of a number of contributors of evidence to the select committee. I felt compelled to do so, despite my fears (which I made clear at the time along with a number of colleagues), that the stated reasons for conducting the inquiry prejudged the result.
The publication, which is making headline news across the entire press, has sadly shown that these fears were well founded.
The preamble to the terms of reference for the inquiry declares that “GM is one of several technologies necessary to foster a ‘vibrant sector’ in UK agriculture”, but is being held back by EU red tape.
What ought to have been at best a potential conclusion of the research was thus its guiding principle. Instead of an invitation to open and honest discussion of the merits of the EU’s precautious stance, what we got was a call to find ‘scientific’ reasons to prop up foregone and pre-judged economic logic.
Easy not to find what you’re not looking for!
The main bone of contention is the EU’s use of the ‘precautionary principle‘. According to this principle, where practices such as the growing of GM crops carry with them an unknown level of risk (which may be small, but is more than zero) of catastrophic harm, the burden of proof should lie in demonstrating that they are safe, rather than that they are harmful.
There are sound reasons, both ethical and practical, for adopting this stance. If we wait for evidence of harm, it follows that harm – potentially catastrophic – would already have been done before we can step in with legislation.
Given any potential for catastrophe, however small, we ought not to accept this on moral or on prudential grounds. From an economic perspective, the cost of funding research to prove the practice is safe is placed on the corporations who stand to gain from it. This lifts the burden from EU taxpayers who stand to suffer from harm.
The preamble to the select committee inquiry stated that:
the ‘precautionary principle’ has been criticized for holding back development of the technology, despite European Commission reports finding no scientific evidence associating GM organisms with higher risks for the environment or food and feed safety.
This was either a disingenuous misrepresentation of the very concept of the precautionary principle, or merely an expression of premature rejection of the principle before any evidence had been submitted.
It was irrelevant that the Commission thus far had no evidence of harm, because they were not looking for evidence of harm but evidence of safety.
Clear scientific evidence of ‘no more risk’, claims report
Distressingly, deeply-worryingly, the published report now claims that:
The scientific evidence is clear that crops developed using genetic modification pose no more risk to humans, animals or the environment than equivalent crops developed using more ‘conventional’ techniques.
Despite the now much stronger claim, the grounds for this conclusion do not move beyond the lack of evidence of harm already referred to in the preamble.
This was precisely the logical mistake that I warned against in my submitted evidence, in which I brought to the attention of the committee my work on GM and precaution co-authored with Nassim Taleb, author of ‘The Black Swan‘.
The bottom line of that work was that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Merely that we arguably haven’t yet seen significant evidence of harm from GM food does nothing to support the claim that the potential for ruinous harm is not there.
And as reported on The Ecologist earlier this week, there is no scientific concensus that GM crops and food are safe, indeed:
The totality of research outcomes in the field of GM crop safety is nuanced; complex; often contradictory or inconclusive; confounded by researchers’ choices, assumptions, and funding sources; and, in general, has raised more questions than it has answered.
A lack of conclusive evidence that GM poses a risk to us does not mean that we should give the big agro-tech firms free rein, turning Britain or Europe into a giant experiment from which there may be no going back.
A smoking gun?
A useful analogy here is the case of smoking. For years governments were prevented from instituting measures to curtail the sale of cigarettes, because the powerful tobacco companies blocked them at every turn by demanding incontrovertible evidence that cigarettes caused harm.
It took years before the medical profession had collected enough evidence to face up to the highly paid lawyers of the cigarette firms.
Challenges to advertising restrictions and proposals for plain packaging are being mounted even to this day, on the basis of a lack of evidence. Think how many lives could have been saved if we had adopted precautionary reasoning in this case, and required tobacco companies to prove their products were safe before we allowed them onto the market.
Did it ever make much sense to fill one’s lungs repeatedly with a cocktail of smoke and chemicals? Did we really have to wait for proof beyond reasonable doubt that smoking causes lung cancer to justify action to rein in the cigarette companies, their advertising, etc.?
The stakes in the case of GM are even higher. Smoking caused an ‘epidemic’ of mortality and morbidity, but it never threatened to ruin us altogether. Where there is a threat of ruin – where there is a risk to our entire ecosystems and food-systems – then we should not have to wait for the ‘evidence’ to come in before we act. For, by the time it comes in, it would be too late.
This is when precautionary reasoning is decisive: in cases where there is a risk of ruin. This is what Taleb and I have shown. This is what the Select Committee have palpably refused to think about, and set their face against: thus putting us all at risk.
EU pen-pushers standing in the way of British enterprise?
Sadly, the government will now no-doubt use the results of this ‘inquiry’ as a stick with which to beat the EU, and to bolster the Tory narrative of the EU as nothing more than a gang of small-minded foreign pen-pushers standing in the way of the proud British spirit of free enterprise.
Their report’s conclusion that “decisions about access to and use of safe products should be made by national governments on behalf of the populations that elected them, not by the EU”, and their call on the EU “not to unjustifiably restrict the choices available to other elected governments and the citizens whom they represent” are a demand to let GMOs rip without further ado.
We should be glad that for the moment this report has no power actually to influence EU procedure. It is a worrying glimpse of what this country would look like without the modest protection EU legislation currently provides from some of the worst excesses of corporate domination.
Dr. Rupert Read is Reader in Philosophy at the University of East Anglia, Chair of Green House, and a regular contributor to The Ecologist and to Resurgence. He is also the Green Party’s prospective parliamentary candidate for Cambridge in the 2015 general election.