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!