Unjustified asymmetries in the debate on GM crops

In his valedictory speech as Government’s chief scientific adviser on November 27th , David King said there was a "moral case" for the UK and the rest of  Europe to grow genetically modified crops as the technology could help the world’s poorest.

A research paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences only one day after encourages this hope that GM crops might offer a solution to word poverty. New drought-tolerant plants are reported to grow with only one third of the usual water.

Nonetheless, antagonists of GM continue to point to the possibly severe side effects of the release of GM crops outside the lab. These unintended side effects might indeed outweigh the benefits, albeit such secondary effects seem very unlikely. But the keypoint overlooked in these debates is that the uncertainty is not only on the side of the harms from GM. The benefits of GM may also be unlikely to be realised – though not on scientific grounds. Overlooking these uncertainties raises an untenable asymmetry as the debate seems to suggest that the benefits are opposed by highly unlikely risks. This stands in the way of a rational evaluation of the use of GM crops.

The choice for or against the use of GM crops is a genuine decision under risk and demands for a sound evaluation not only of the costs and benefits. Also their likelihood of their occurrence has to be considered.

While antagonists of GMO frequently stress solely the severity of the possible harm, advocates focus only on the estimated, supposedly very low, occurrence probability of this harm. However, not only the harm from using GM crops is uncertain, but also the expected benefits. Even if crop with enhanced nutrition values or drought-resistant plants are possible, it is not at all clear that they will be used to solve problems like world poverty. The herbicide `Roundup’ is often referred to as an infamous example where GM technology was used for the opposite way. Monsanto distributed this herbicide to which only their own GM crops were resistant. One might also argue that filing a patent application on the new technology to produce drought-tolerant plants, and thereby restricting the extent of benefit, is another example. In particular it is to be noted that many famines nowadays are not primarily due to a lack of resources but rather from the problem of distributing the resources.

These considerations call for a more honest cost-benefit analysis when it comes to the release of GM crops – because undoubtedly both, costs and gains, might be enormous. It also puts a burden on the research, or rather on the researcher looking for funding and for people advising the government on research funding. In competing for research money, promises to solve problems the research just cannot solve must be omitted. Political problems like world poverty demand political solutions, not scientific ones.

Further articles on  King’s valedictory speech:

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article2950938.ece

http://news.scotsman.com/uk.cfm?id=1863342007

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7114595.stm

Articles on the scientific publication:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/main.jhtml?view=DETAILS&grid=A1YourView&xml=/earth/2007/11/26/sciplant126.xml

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