Saturday, 10 November 2007

Is a lack of evidence enough reason to ban GM crops?

When I heard yesterday morning that the Government consultation on genetically modified crops had closed, and that the issue was therefore back in the news, I knew that the Lib Dems were about to shoot from the hip again. And Chris Huhne has duly delivered:

“Ministers should not give any go-ahead for commercial planting until they can state confidently that GM varieties would not contaminate non-GM foods and that they are safe.”

This seems a strange inversion of liberal philosophy. The first principle of a free society should surely be that everything is permitted unless it is explicitly banned: we may later debate what is forbidden (e.g. murder) and what is inviolable (e.g. expression), but if we err towards the Napoleonic model whereby everything is forbidden unless it is explicitly sanctioned our society is not free, it is permitted.

So it is mistaken to argue that something should be banned until it is proved to be safe. On the contrary, it is those who wish to ban something upon whom the burden of proof should rest; the reactionaries and conservatives should be able to demonstrate that harm will result from the planting or consumption of GM crops before we even consider a ban.

The alternative is based on the ‘precautionary principle’, which in its 1992 formulation states that “'Where there are threats of serious or irreversible environmental damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost effective measures to prevent environmental degradation”. But the precautionary principle was supposed to address issues where there was broad agreement though debate still continued; it was formulated to justify ignoring the objections of a small number of dissenting scientists.

Now, however, it has been corrupted to suggest that “'Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall be used as a reason for postponing measures that are aimed at achieving non-environmental goods.” In other words, whereas it once overcame fringe objections, it now elevates them to such a status that they are given a veto.

So a “crack-pot global warming skeptic” can be ignored, but a “crack-pot GM food skeptic” must be obeyed.

This is of course rank hypocrisy and demonstrates one of the more malign effects of the rise of Green thinking. “The environment” (in this case, a rather idealised view of the environment) becomes a higher goal, the service of which overrides other goods such as freedom, progress or prosperity. It does not need to be this way, however. It is entirely possible to protect our environment without resorting to double standards or demonising human activity.

There are two other arguments that are used to oppose GM crops: that they will cross-pollinate and so contaminate other, more “organic” crops; and that the majority oppose GM and in a democracy a majority should prevail. These at least deserve a second look, but under careful scrutiny they, too, fail.

Cross-pollination raises the classic debate about externalities: to what extent should Farmer A put up with the unintended by-products of Farmer B’s operations. In this case it is a zero-sum game: one cannot set a price on the organic nature of Farmer A’s operation, so one cannot price Farmer B’s externalities. However, it does not follow that Farmer B should be banned from planting GM crops. After all, one way or another, the freedom of one farmer is limited. Which farmer’s freedom is curtailed is a philosophical and moral question. To my mind, it is Farmer B who should be free to plant her GM crops, for two reasons.

Firstly, while there is a chance that Farmer A will see his organic crop contaminated, the probability is lower than the certainty that Farmer B will be prevented from planting GM crops if the government intervenes; the latter definitely results in curtailed freedom whereas the former may not (it is up to Farmer A to then assess his risk). In addition, it is possible that Farmer A could separate and destroy any contaminated crops and retain the GM-free crop for sale (though in practice this probably, at least currently, presents difficulties).

Secondly, the externalities of Farmer B’s operation are an unintended by-product; she is not actively seeking to inconvenience her neighbour. By comparison, Farmer A is actively seeking to prevent Farmer B from planting GM crops by using the power of the state. Deontologically, Farmer A’s deliberate assault on Farmer B’s freedom is less justifiable than Farmer B’s accidential affect on Farmer A’s.

As for democracy, Friends of the Earth claim that 95 per cent of the 11, 676 respondents to the consultation opposed the growing of GM crops in the UK. This may seem an overwhelming number, but it represents just a tiny fraction of the citizen in the country. This highlights one of the misunderstandings about government consultations: they are a means to better inform decision makers, not a straw poll of opinion. In a consultation, the views of ten ignorant people should count for less than one informed person. In a representative democracy, we choose decision-makers whose instincts and integrity we trust, but we delegate to them because they have the time to look into and understand a subject. If we do not like the decisions they make we can sack them. The alternative, direct democracy, leads go decisions being made by the most motivated, the most organised and the best resourced. Rather than the government of the people, by the people, for the people, it becomes government of the busy, by the bossy, for the pushy.

Here it is worth noting that Friends of the Earth may have had a hand in the imbalanced results: The BBC reports that “80% [of the responses ] were in the form of stock letters or petitions, which conveyed a ‘basic disagreement’ with Defra's proposals…” It is of course very easy for a membership organisation such as Friends of the Earth or Greenpeace (or the British Legion or Amnesty International) to mobilise its supporters, especially if they include a pre-written letter on their website or a card in their next mailing, to which members need merely attach a signature and a stamp. There is no Friends of the Farmer, Friends of the Scientist or Friends of the Consumer to run a counter campaign; even where such organisations exist (for example, the National Union of Farmers or Which?) their interests are broader and so their members will not automatically coalesce around an environmental question.

The fact that the consultation is not democratic is only half the story, however, and here I would remind Mr. Huhne that he is a Liberal Democrat. The fact that a majority objects to something is not in itself reason to ban it. Fifty years ago a majority were probably (and a hundred and fifty years ago certainly) repelled by homosexuality, but that did not justify a ban, which liberals led a noble campaign to repeal. Today we can find majorities in favour of banning all sorts of things that minorities might wish to do. A liberal democracy is not a majoritocracy – and there is a reason why nobody has ever bothered to find a more euphonious word for such a dangerous idea – and it is democracy that should serve freedom rather than the other way round.

To prohibit the planting of GM crops because of an overly cautious approach to scientific advances, pushed by special interest groups, would not even be justified if the ban were supported by the majority, which has in no way been proven.

It is therefore wrong to impose such a ban in general – and that’s even before one begins to consider the science and polices around this specific issue!


Left Lib said...

The burden of proof must be on companies to prove that GM is safe.

We do not want a repeat of DDT poisoning all over again, when the regulations were laxer.

In a competitive market, testing for safety is a cost that most companies would like to ignore in order to get their products on the market and make profits asap. Governments have the wider interests of society to consider, and should make sure no one short cuts this process.

Peter Mc said...

DDT and GM are not comparable.

More gene shuffling goes on in the average male's bollocks than Monsanto could countenance, and GM goes on freely between species and genus' in the natural world.

GM (like nuclear) we should get over: we may be needing it soon.

Joe Otten said...

I'm not so sure there is any evidence that we do need GM. The industry has not produced any products that are so fantastically good - much better yields for example - that this question is critical yet.

However, Tom is right that this is not about the "environment". Rather is it a rejection of anything with an ethical yuck factor - which GM has to many with a religious view of nature.

There's no logical reason that no GM product should be permitted organic status. Organics was supposed to be about what chemicals are added to the soil, but it has become a broader quality/ethical mark. Perhaps it will add fair trade to its requirements soon. (Whether its interpretation of quality and ethical is correct is a whole other issue.)

So while pollen spread might affect the rules of the organic industry, I don't see how it affects the chemical, quality, and ethical nature of the organic farmer's product in any way. In which case the rules are unreasonably written to make trouble.

Left Lib said...

As far as the organic movement is concerned, I do not see what right any government has to dictate to a movement that historically they opposed in the first place.
It was Schumaker who argued that nature is hugely complex in a way that is beyond the understanding of science. The process of evolution takes place also in a complex fashion, usually over long time scales. Finding short cuts to evolution, such as using chemicals on farms is problematic, as Rachel Carson pointed out in Silent Spring - a title she chose for her book to reflect the lack of birds singing in springtime. Chemicals that kill pests such as insects also kill their preditors. Once the insects build up a resistance, then their numbers increase once again and the preditors are no longer around to control them. Add to that of course that chemicals are being introduced into the human food chain in which our immune systems have not had time to evolve any form of resistance to the harmful effects of those chemicals.
Non-organic food is meant to be cheaper, but becomes very expensive when events like BSE happen. We appear to be fortunate enough to have largely got away with BSE. What was alarming at the time the disease was first identified was the unknowns. Scientists had not anticipated this would happen, and it was only by luck that the outcome was not sigificantly worse.
Now why should the taxpayer fork out for disasters like BSE?
It is the companies that want to bypass the process of evolution and make a quick profit, they should pay if they want to play around with nature and end up killing people dreadfully as BSE did.
You notice by the way that there is nothing "religious" in my arguments, they are perfectly logical. It is those who have faith in market forces, but believe that persuing profit can only lead to benign outcomes, they are the ones who are religious.
I do not have faith in market forces or necessarly in state intervention. I believe in pragmatically muddling along, trying to get the right balance between markets and regulation and treating each case on it's merits.
There should be nothing religious about politics.

Joe Otten said...

Left lib, indeed your arguments weren't religious. But then you weren't talking about GM, which is what I was referring to.

It seems to me that each GM product should be judged on its merits. And who is buying GM products that offer no advantages? While slight cost savings are perhaps not sufficient to justify the technology, that wouldn't be the case if it could deliver, say, significantly bigger yields, or smaller chemical inputs.

And what exactly is the problem with GM? Compared to conventional breeding, or evolution? It is easy to exaggerate the "leap into the darkness" angle. Sure, some products might be out on a limb, as are some products in other fields, but this does not damn the whole technology.

Tom Papworth said...

At last, I get around to responding.

(One day I’m going to develop the courage not to intervene in the debates I spark off :o)


I disagree about your point that companies will not bear the cost of testing. As they will be ruined by litigation if they poison their consumers, and even if not their businesses will be destroyed by any mistakes, they have a powerful incentive to get it right.


I think that there is already some cross-over between Organic and Fair Trade, though I can’t remember where I saw it. Conversely, it can also be argued that campaigns for Organic and Low Mile food are producer-led campaigns to protect local farmers from international competition.

However, there are clearly benefits to GM crops. There is a “Golden Rice” being developed in Asia that will boost the beta carotene intake of poor Asians and so is expected to alleviate half a million cases of blindness in children every year. Chinese farmers have seen profits rise by $500 an acre. I have heard that there is also a GM seed that is resilient enough to grow on untilled soil, which has so far enabled farming at a reduced carbon output equivalent to taking 17,000 cars off the road.

But even if the benefits were not yet proved, it would remain the right of every farmer to experiment to see if s/he could establish a benefit. Without that experimentation we may as well declare progress over and just settle down to living like this forever.

Geoff again,

There appears to be some confusion in your argument between GM crops, organic farming and BSE. As Joe pointed out, GM crops are more organic because they require less chemical assistance (as they can be hardier and more insect resistant). There is no link between either GM crops or advanced agricultural farming on the one hand and BSE on the other; BSE resulted from feeding cows the spines of their relatives, not from chemical fertilisers and GM crops.

I also dispute the suggestion that nature is beyond the understanding of science. It is of course a journey rather than a destination, but successes such as the genome project prove that we are well capable of understanding nature. There is too much anti-scientific romanticism in the anti-GM (and related) arguments.

I do agree that government should not dictate to the organic movement. Government should protect everybody’s freedom: let the organic farmers be organic, the GM farmers farm GM, the fertilisers spray chemicals, create a system for regulating disputes and legislate against harm. Therefore I also agree that government should not pay for clearing up the (unrelated) BSE problem: this should be paid for by suing those responsible for causing the health crisis.

As regards to how religious the arguments are, while I think some people do revere nature in a very mystical way, I would prefer to describe it as “romantic”, by which I refer specifically to the anti-enlightenment movement that felt uncomfortable with scientific advances in the C18th and C19th.

Joe again,

I basically agree, except where you say “slight cost savings are perhaps not sufficient to justify the technology”. Let the people decide – their real views being best expressed through markets.

Laurence Boyce said...

Superb analysis Tom. I take my hat off to you.

Richard Gadsden said...

This posting has been nominated for posting of the year in the Lib Dem Blog awards.