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Two new reports on genetically modified crops paint a convincing picture of their relevance to the needs of the developing world. But neither is likely, on its own, to convince the sceptics.

If politics was a rational process, in which emotion, subjective judgement and ideological commitment were consistently laid aside in the interests of knowledge-based decision-making, then it is highly unlikely that the debate over genetically modified (GM) crops would have taken on its present intensity. Each side of the debate would have recognised that both dangers and uncertainties exist. But each side would also be forced to acknowledge that what is known (as opposed to just surmised) about these dangers and uncertainties is substantially less weighty than what is known about their potential benefits.

In such circumstances, doubters of the technology might well be persuaded by two reports that appeared virtually simultaneously last week. One, prepared by Gabrielle Persley of The Doyle Foundation for the International Council for Science (ICSU), provides a valuable overview of what is accepted by the scientific community, what remains in dispute, and where gaps in knowledge continue to exist; in a rational world, this should be sufficient to decide what practices should and should not be allowed, and under what regulatory conditions (see GM crops 'could reduce poverty').

The second – still in draft form – was published by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, Britain’s equivalent to a national ethics committee. This essentially revisits – and confirms – the conclusion of an earlier report by the same body, published four years ago, that there is a “moral imperative” for making GM crops readily available to those in developing countries who want them. As with the ICSU report, Nuffield’s balanced conclusions provide little support for those many groups in both the developed and developing world demanding, if not an outright ban, at least a moratorium on the development of GM crops until more is known about their impacts on both human health and the natural environment.

So why is neither report likely to have the impact that it deserves? The short answer is to remember that while science, in the words of the late immunologist Peter Medawar, can be characterised as “the art of the soluble”, politics will always be what an earlier British politician described as “the art of the possible” – in other words, an activity whose limits are defined by what might be true, not what is likely to be true. The longer response is that the worldwide dispute over GM crops has become a symbolic battleground for a wide range of contemporary disputes,  from the privatisation of scientific knowledge to the arketing practices of global corporations. Each issue embodies beliefs and commitments that cannot be neatly packaged into either scientific or cost-benefit arguments.

No meeting of minds

Take, for example, the arguments used in a report produced the previous week by the international development organisation ActionAid under the eye-catching title ‘GM Crops – Going Against the Grain’ (compare that to Nuffield’s earnest ‘The Use of Genetically Modified Crops in Developing Countries’). The press release announcing the report – which claims to take "a balanced look at the impact of GM crops in developing countries” – carries the unequivocal headline ‘No evidence that GM will help solve world hunger’. The report comes up with the conclusions that such crops “are at best irrelevant to poor farmers”, and that “rather than alleviating world hunger, the new technology is likely to exacerbate food insecurity, leading to more hungry people, not less”. (See GM crops 'will not solve world hunger')

It would be relatively easy to take the authors of this report to task for its quick-fire conclusions. These are taken, not from any systematic study of the issues, but primarily from anecdotal evidence and press reports, where evidence that supports their conclusions is given a heavy weighting, and evidence that appears to contradict it, is downplayed, if not ignored. For the Nuffield working party, for example, the fact that GM seeds are currently better suited to large- rather than small-scale farmers is a reason to demand more research into how they could meet the needs of the latter; for ActionAid, it is quoted as a reason “why GM crops will not feed the world”.

Clearly the ActionAid report is not based on evidence and arguments that could be described as scientific. Equally clearly, however, its conclusions are more likely to resonate with those who would wish, for whatever reason (personal, political or otherwise), to see such conclusions emerge. It is no accident, for example, that that GM issue has become a key focus of anti-globalisation campaigns. For it neatly encapsulates many of the concerns – both conscious and unconscious – that form the core of such campaigns.

Loosening the boundaries of debate

There is no easy path through this quagmire, even if some elements of such a path are beginning to emerge. The British government, for example, is currently experimenting with a nationwide “public debate”, being conducted primarily through a series of regional public meetings at which scientists, environmentalists, business representatives and others are being asked to state their case. Elsewhere (for example in India and parts of Africa), there is talk of developing political ‘frameworks’ that will promote and regulate GM technology simultaneously, using more sophisticated political mechanisms than have been applied so far.

Part of the task is undoubtedly to ensure that those (such as the authors of the ActionAid report) accept the need to locate their arguments within the realm of what is likely, rather than what is possible. This is the strength of both the ICSU and the Nuffield reports. The first of these, for example, is realistic enough to acknowledge potential problems arising from the use of GM crops that have not been given sufficient attention, such as whether their use can be integrated safely with pest management systems. “This is an area requiring further action,” it states.

But there is a comparable need for those arguing the case for GM crops primarily on scientific grounds to be equally realistic about the non-scientific issues that arise. Neither the Nuffield nor the ICSU reports, for example, spend much time discussing the implications of the way in which the intellectual property system helps to increase the control of developing-country agriculture by multinational corporations – one of the key planks in the critics’ case. Neither do they address the belief systems that underlie much of the current condemnation of GM foods as “unnatural”.

It may be tempting to dismiss such arguments as “unscientific”; doing so, however, risks not only losing sight of issues that lie at the heart of the current debates, but also undermining their ultimate effectiveness.

Link to full report GM Crops – Going Against the Grain (PDF)

Link to draft Nuffield Council report The Use of Genetically Modified Crops in Developing Countries

Link to ICSU report New Genetics, Food and Agriculture: Scientific Discoveries – Societal Dilemmas

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