Taverne - "The real GM food scandal" (24/10/2007)

NOTE: Below's the cover story for the November edition of Prospect - a magazine aimed at British Parliamentarians. It's at least the fourth such article by Lord Dick Taverne to have been featured in the magazine.

Lord Taverne is also the Chairman of the pro-GM lobby group Sense about Science, and the author of the book, 'The March of Unreason' - a defence of science which when published in 2005 attracted some highly critical reviews.

James Wilsdon, head of science and innovation at the think-tank Demos, commented in a review of Taverne's book for the Financial Times, 'Near the start of the book [Taverne] decries those who 'use evidence selectively and unscrupulously to bolster prejudice, and who go through the motions of inquiry only to demonstrate some foregone conclusion'. A more apt description of Taverne's own method it would be hard to find.'

He went on, '...In attacking one form of fundamentalism, Taverne supplants it with his own: a naive and outdated scientism. His is a world in which science can do no wrong; in which research is untainted by vested interests, and companies such as Monsanto exist purely to feed the hungry. Those seeking a more thoughtful encounter with the contemporary dilemmas and opportunities of science are advised to march elsewhere.'

Margaret Cook, writing of the book in The Guardian, accused Taverne of 'hectoring dogma', of 'rant rather than reason', of displaying 'a little knowledge and a lot of bombast', of confusingly mingling 'myth with fact', and of perpetrating 'a number of howlers'.

Cook wrote, 'At every turn, Taverne betrays himself as an authoritarian, declaiming with patronising contempt to his audience while observing naive uncritical deference to the establishment. His method of discussion involves reductio ad absurdam of any argument he does not like or understand. It is uncomfortably reminiscent of party political arguments, whose object is to prevail, not to establish the truth.'

A classic example of this type of misleading point scoring in the article below is where Taverne upbraids critics of GM for not protesting against GM drugs in the way they do against GM foods. This completely ignores the point that, in comparison with GM foods, drugs are extensively tested before being released. Moreover, they're taken by choice, by people who consciously weigh the risks of taking the drug against the risk of leaving their disease untreated. An individual's choice to take such a drug also does not limit another individual's right to avoid it. GM food crops are totally different in all these respects.

A similarly disingenuous argument at the heart of the current Prospect article is the claim that because Ingo Potrykus, the co-inventor of 'golden rice' was being celebrated on the cover of Time magazine seven years ago 'as potentially one of mankind's great benefactors', and yet this GM rice is still not being grown in the fields, we can see that this beneficial technology has been obstructed by ideologically-driven protesters. But what the story of golden rice really reveals is how such GM products are massively hyped as a PR tool long before their true potential is actually known.

Despite Potrykus's many claims to the contrary, the real reason that the realisation of Potrykus's dream has kept receding is that a massive amount of further work has had to be done on golden rice in the intervening years - with huge involvement by industry scientists - simply because it was not capable of delivering the level of beta-carotene that would be necessary to have a fraction of the impact proclaimed as part of its massive PR campaign.

Equally typical is Taverne's reliance on 'evidence' from sources such as 'Graham Brookes and Peter Barfoot of PG Economics... careful study of the global effects of GM crops'. This comes without any admission that Brookes and Barfoot are long term GM supporters who produce questionable reports to order for the biotech and related agribiz industries.

But then this is, after all, someone who - in his own words - uses 'evidence selectively and unscrupulously to bolster prejudice'.

For a profile of Lord Taverne

For his Pants on Fire award

For more on Potrykus

For PG Economics


The real GM food scandal
Prospect, November 2007 (Cover story)

GM foods are safe, healthy and essential if we ever want to achieve decent living standards for the world's growing population. Misplaced moralising about them in the west is costing millions of lives in poor countries

Dick Taverne

Dick Taverne is the author of The March of Unreason: Science, Democracy and the New Fundamentalism (OUP)

Seven years ago, Time magazine featured the Swiss biologist Ingo Potrykus on its cover. As the principal creator of genetically modified rice -or 'golden rice' - he was hailed as potentially one of mankind's great benefactors. Golden rice was to be the start of a new green revolution to improve the lives of millions of the poorest people in the world. It would help remedy vitamin A deficiency, the cause of 1-2m deaths a year, and could save up to 500,000 children a year from going blind. It was the flagship of plant biotechnology. No other scientific development in agriculture in recent times held out greater promise.

Seven years later, the most optimistic forecast is that it will take another five or six years before golden rice is grown commercially. The realisation of Potrykus's dream keeps receding. The promised benefits from other GM crops that should reduce hunger and disease have been equally elusive. GM crops should now be growing in areas where no crops can grow: drought-resistant crops in arid soil and salt-resistant crops in soil of high salinity. Plant-based oral vaccines should now be saving millions of deaths from diarrhoea and hepatitis B; they can be ingested in orange juice, bananas or tomatoes, avoiding the need for injection and for trained staff to administer them and refrigeration to store them.

None of these crops is yet on the market. What has gone wrong? Were the promises unrealistic, or is GM technology, as its opponents claim, flawed - because of possible harm to human safety or the environment or because it is ill-suited to the needs of poor fa

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