Putting GM in a Lead Coffin

by Julian Savulescu

It is time to put the GM debate in a lead-lined coffin. To lay it finally to rest. And get things in perspective again.

It is the role of a father to educate his children, if he can. That includes dispelling myths, belief in witches and ghosts and other false views of the world. To this end, I would try to educate my daughters when we would go shopping about the dangers of GM or their complete absence. I would point out vegetables and fruits that had been produced by cross-breeding and crude genetic modification, like tiger tomatoes. We would hunt for the most genetically modified, which was hard because most things had been engineered. I encouraged them to seek out products which included GM ingredients and shun those which claimed to be GM free. One has to support the good and at least discourage the bad.

In one of my more zealous moments, i contemplated getting a T shirt made saying “I ONLY eat GM”

I looked into the GM debate in the late 90s to see if there were interesting ethical issues. The only ethical issue I could find at that time was the unethical resistance to a safe, useful and well tried technology. I was shocked at the level of public debate in Europe over GM.

Colin Blakemore has written a thoughtful exposition of the treatment and regulation of GM in this country and in Europe. What is interesting from a perspective of practical ethics is how such a negative debate could persist about GM for so long. Is it vested farming interests? Luddite lack of education? Religion, including rabid runaway environmentalism?

The rest of the world will utilise the benefits of GM. Europe will just be left behind with more expensive, inferior quality, less useful, less healthy foods. If they resist GM, how would they ever embrace nanotechnology that holds the promise of healthier everyday foods, including less fattening fats?

I recently bought a 60s or 70s house in Oxford. I was looking at the plumbing and realised it had lead pipes supplying the water. I nearly fell over with shock. Lead is a dangerous substance known for years to cause cognitive impairment and a number of health problems. It makes you dumber. It reduces your IQ, or at least that of growing children. I was even more shocked to find that 40% of dwellings have lead pipes supplying drinking water and lead was used until the 1980s. Since December 2003, a standard of 25 µg/l has been applied to the point of use by the consumer (commonly regarded as the kitchen sink tap).  In 2013, the standard in the UK will tighten to 10 µg/l. This implies that even by those standards, we are drinking water with 2.5 times too much lead. And it is likely to be substantially higher in individual supplies. The government and people don’t test their water.

Lead is much more likely to be harming people’s health than GM foods.
Yet this has attracted not one iota of attention compared to the monster of GM.

Risk and harm surround us every day. The challenge is to evaluate these with good evidence, rationally. The story of lead and GM is sadly a common one. We place vastly too much attention on the miniscule risks and fail to attend to the elephants in the room. People are biased. The availability bias explains why people believe homicide is more common than suicide, despite that latter being much more common.

Yet bias, fear, irrationality, faith and misplaced values dominate and lead public debate. We will be the ones who are worse for it.

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7 Responses to Putting GM in a Lead Coffin

  • Well, that was immoderate. Surely, in the voluminous literature on GM food production, the author could find an example of a skeptical stance which isn’t ‘vested farming interests [,] Luddite lack of education[,] Religion, including rabid runaway environmentalism?’ or the like. A recent example I have on hand is the virtue ethical treatment in Ronald Sandler’s book ‘Character and Virtue’ (2007). Sandler denounces GM (with qualification) for reasons too complex to go into here (not least of all because I don’t really agree with him), but it certainly isn’t one of the examples Savulesco mentions above. I find Savulesco’s mention of ‘vested farming interests’, because a great deal of criticism against GM, Sandler’s included, highlights that GM is, as things stand, more in the interest of vested farming interests than in anybody else’s. We certainly don’t need more efficient ways to produce agricultural monocultures, or high fructose corn syrup. Believing that certainly isn’t an example of environmentalism taken to the extent of religious fervour.

    Perhaps Savulesco is disappointed that the majority of discussion is of the type he mentioned, and that is certainly possible, perhaps even likely. But surely among philosophers he could find something better. In an analogy, most discussion of animal welfare in farming is of the kind he mentions, and shouldn’t be taken seriously by anybody. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t philosophically interesting, even pressing, cases to be made for animal welfare, which deserve our attention. And I expect the same for GM.

    Perhaps the real focus of the piece is how there is a lack of perspective about the dangers we face. That is almost certainly true, but that doesn’t mean that lesser dangers should be entirely disregarded. You can believe that lead-lined pipes are a larger problem, without putting skepticism about GM in any kind of coffin whatsoever.

  • Julian Savulescu says:

    It was blog, not a philosophy article. It may have been a bit hyperbolic but a point I did not make is that many of the objections against GM are against other targets, such as multinationals and monopolistic exploitative farming practices. Nothing necessarily to do with GM in principle. But thanks for the thoughtful comment.

  • D.P. O'Connell says:

    While I got a chuckle from your ‘dark’ humor, in going out with your daughters to seek out the ‘most GM’ products, it also indicates that you are predisposed to disregard most or all arguments against GM, regardless of their validity. Perhaps you read some papers early on which simply struck you as ridiculous and after that didn’t bother reading others.

    But as the first commentator points out, there are a lot of idiots out there arguing against GM … but this doesn’t mean that there are no arguments against GM which are valid and sound. Your thesis seems to be that the question is long since decided, so let’s move on to something that really matters.

    On the contrary, just a brief search turns up a recent study from 2009 in the International Journal of Biological Sciences, which seems to indicate hepatorenal problems (i.e., organ failure in liver and kidney) in rats fed with three varieties of GM foods developed by Monsanto. While limited in scope, studies like this give cause for concern.


    It seems to me the thing to do would be not to put the issue away and move on, but rather to develop criteria in order to distinguish valid from invalid arguments for (and against) GM, and to fund further experiments with GM foods, longer animal studies, even intergenerational ones.

  • Julian Savulescu says:

    The target of this blog was the ban on GM. There are no good reasons for a ban. There is certainly a lively discussion to be had on how GM should be used, what the limits should be, etc. The benefits of GM are so great (greater food productivity, nutritional value, reliance on pesticide, etc) and the risks so low that we should move to how we should regulate the use of GM, not about banning it. GM food is not Monsanto. We could construct beneficial GM foods that could be ethically developed and distributed. The challenge is not whether to GM, but how to GM.

  • One recalls the iconic image of John Gummer feeding his daughter Cordelia with a beefburger to prove that Brtitish beef is perfectly safe since there was no evidence of it being harmful to humans in spite of cats coming down with spongiform encephalopathy.

  • D.P. O'Connell says:

    Fair enough, Julian – GM is here, the question is how will one use it. Only because of the nature of GM, once it is (e.g., in the case of corn) planted, then it can spread. Look at the case of Germany, where one type of GM corn was banned, but then the supplier mixed in some of the GM seeds (somehow), and now you’ve got that type of GM corn in seven different German states.

    Once GM is ‘out there’ there is little control for the farmer next door who wants to have his field remain GM free. All this is only to argue for extensive testing for each type of GM food before it is planted, and extensive regulation on how and where it is planted.

    Statistically, the risks are low, but not that low. What is the profit if we feed 25% more of the world but then discover, in two or three generations, that this or that type of GM food is causing birth defects or organ failure?

  • Julian Savulescu says:

    Jerry, I did not eat meat in the UK when I first came in 1994 because even I knew there were data strongly supporting the presence of risk. The BSE scandal was a lesson in government not taking proper account of scientific evidence. The GM scandal is exactly the same – the failure to take proper account of scientific evidence. There is little if any evidence of real risk, yet there exists a ban. For more today on irrationality of current policy, see
    Biotech Crops Benefit Environment & Farmers, Research Group Finds – June 9, 2010


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