Item 2 is another interesting review of Lord Taverne's recently published book, 'The March of Unreason'.
This one comes from the Financial Times. Its reviewer accuses Taverne of his own brand of fundamentalism - "a naive and outdated scientism.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."
The reviewer concludes, "Those seeking a more thoughtful encounter with the contemporary dilemmas and opportunities of science are advised to march elsewhere."
Sir John Krebs has now retired from the UK's Food Standards Agency - to many people's relief!
He has used the occasion to launch an attack on his critics, as The Times reports (item 3), "Green and consumer organisations are businesses no more representative of the public interest than multinationals, the former head of Britain's food watchdog said yesterday."
Yet Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the Soil Association alone have more members than all of Britain's major political parties put together, and now, of course, two of the UK's big three parties are themselves calling for a GM ban until the technology is proven safe.
But the concern about GM crops run much deeper and wider than even this suggests. The Five Year Freeze, which is calling for a minimum 5-year moratorium on GMOs, represents over 120 National organisations and companies, who between them represent over 4 million people, there are also 500 councils among the Freeze's supporters.
This represents a massively broad coalition of civil society and public bodies and to dismiss this level of concern as "no more representative of the public interest than multinationals" says it all about Krebs' partisan agenda.
Even prior to his appointment as head of the FSA, Krebs was on record as saying that criticisms of GM food were "shrill, often ill-informed and dogma-driven". Some speculate that his historic support for GM may have been a factor in his being offered the top job at the FSA, particularly as his area of specialism had no connection with food safety - he's an expert on bird behaviour.
Finally, former GM crop scientist Dr James MacGregor told AgBioView recently why he retired from the field on scientific grounds.
Dr Chris Preston, an Australian weed scientist responded by saying why he regarded the environmental release of GMOs as perfectly safe. In item 1 MacGregor responds to Preston.
1. MacGregor on Preston - GM Crop Unscientific?
2. Peer Review - FT review on Taverne
3. Krebs lets rip - Krebs on his critics
1.Response to Chris Preston - GM Crop Unscientific?
I am glad Christopher Preston agrees that laboratory generated GM modifications are kept under strict containment conditions because they present unknown risk's to the environment. The environmental release of GM crops containing artificial transgenes which can mutate, transfer artificial components to autonomously replicating wild organisms, evolve and proliferate also present unknown risks to human health and the environment.
The lessons of the pharmaceutical industry may prove worthy of note, the withdrawal of pharmaceutical products demonstrates that even with the strictest testing regime oversights occur. With respect to the GM regulatory regime, the assessment ability is limited and is, as previously stated a snapshot exercise lacking in longevity. Importantly pharmacuetical drugs do not possess the capability to mutate, transfer components, evolve and proliferate, conversely escaped transgenes genes may prove impossible to withdraw.
As Chris Preston concedes mutation, a random genetic process that can occur within a generation, is not always predictable. I presume all regulators are aware that mutation is an inevitable natural process that can fundamentally alter transgene properties. To require mutation assessment of artificial transgenes proposed for environmental release could be considered only sensible. Failing to account for both mutation and gene escape, two well known natural phenomenon is unreconcilable with sound and impartial scientific judgement.
GM trait persistence post crop escape depends on the trait providing a selective advantage, as stated. The aim of some GM research is to produce traits that would provide advantages to recipient wild populations, i.e. pest resistant crops. Transgene proliferation in wild plant populations encountering the same pests would be expected due to positive selection. The aim of other GM research is to release artificial transgenes which have not undergone even basic predictive risk assessment and in area's containing potential recipient wild populations.
To my knowledge there is only one fundamental differences between GM and conventional crop breeding methods, the latter involves the transfer of naturally evolved genes from one cultivar to another. Whereas, the former allows the laboratory generation of artificial constructs that undergo a limited testing regime prior to release into the environment. The difference being that naturally evolved genes have already undergone environmental testing, during evolution.
I do not consider myself to be anti-GM, I simply believe that in it's current form considering the long term, it is not good science. If anything positive has come from the GM affair it is to reaffirm the need for centrally funded scientists who can offer independent and impartial scientific consultation. After all, scientists determine the world we live in tomorrow as politicians determine the world we live in today, scientists should therefore demonstrate the same impartiality in the advice they offer.
Ps. I am unfamiliar with the nature of Christopher Prestons chemical mutagenesis work, I would define GM as I have done in paragraph 5.
James Wilsdon, Financial Times (UK), April 15 2005
'THE MARCH OF UNREASON: Science, Democracy and the New Fundamentalism by Dick Taverne; Oxford University Press £18.99, 310 pages;
Lord Taverne is a man with a mission. In 2002, angered by the public backlash against genetically modified crops, the Liberal Democrat peer founded a pressure group, Sense About Science, "to promote an evidence-based approach to scientific issues".
Like every political movement, Sense About Science requires a manifesto, a core body of arguments around which its followers can rally. The March of Unreason sets out to perform this task.
Taverne's central message is that science is under siege. Environmentalists are leading the charge by promoting a dangerous mix of anti-technological Luddism, precautionary regulation and an irrational faith in organic agriculture. Organisations such as Greenpeace display a form of "eco-fundamentalism", which ignores any scientific evidence that fails to support its pre-ordained views. This tendency was particularly marked in the battle over GM crops, but applies equally to campaigns against chemicals and waste incinerators.
A second line of attack is from postmodernists, whose notions of science as a social construct have assaulted "the very citadel of science itself, its claim to objectivity". The notion that science is not simply the value-free pursuit of truth, but is shaped by social factors and the assumptions of scientists themselves, has eroded trust in science. It is also to blame, argues Taverne, for the misguided view that there should be more public dialogue, accountability and "democratic control" within science.
If science is not defended from the "pessimists and the anti-science brigade", Taverne warns that the engine of innovation that has sustained economic and social progress since the Enlightenment is likely to stall. Even democracy itself is threatened, as "the eco-warriors have encouraged a general cynicism about government and authority, have encouraged the public to support widespread corporate conspiracies against the public good and have added to the widespread suspicion that already exists of almost every kind of expertise."
Fundamentalism is rarely attractive, and Taverne is most effective when documenting the occasional excesses of the green movement. He also makes some thoughtful points about the limits of the precautionary principle as a framework for dealing with the uncertainties inherent in new technologies. Throughout, it is clear that he is motivated by a genuine passion and enthusiasm for science.
It is a shame, then, that this passion leads him to argue in such strident tones. The delicate interplay between science, risk and democracy demands serious analysis and reflection. But any subtleties in these debates are drowned in the torrent of polemic poured onto those he condemns as the "enemies of reason". Near the start of the book he 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.
Two flaws in Taverne's argument stand out. First, he offers a one-dimensional account of the relationship between science and the environment. He takes a particular case - that of GM crops - where environmentalists found themselves at loggerheads with the scientific establishment, and uses this to argue that almost all environmentalists are anti-science. In doing so, he sidesteps the fact that the green movement was born out of a greater scientific understanding of the earth, and that environmentalists today rely heavily on scientific evidence to underpin campaigns and policies on climate change, renewable energy and biodiversity. Most green groups now employ scientists, sit on scientific funding panels, and argue consistently for more research into environmental solutions.
Further signs of Taverne's confusion on environmental questions appear in his discussion of climate change. While he accepts that some global warming is happening, he strays close to a sceptical position in considering what we should do about it. Here is an issue where the scientific position is clear-cut: the overwhelming consensus of the world's climatologists, as represented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is that urgent action is required. Yet Taverne cannot bring himself to line up with the scientists if they and Greenpeace are on the same side.
Second, Taverne is mistaken in his belief that science will be strengthened by being insulated from accountability and democracy. He caricatures the case for public engagement in science, by likening it to inviting a referendum on whether the earth goes round the sun or vice versa.
But of course, it is nothing of the sort. Science takes place within society and much of it is paid for by our taxes, so it is perfectly reasonable to expect scientists to take account of public values, aspirations and concerns. Dialogue about the future direction of science is an important component of a well-oiled democracy. Involving the public at an early stage in controversial areas such as stem cell research can help to avert potential conflicts. Most importantly, as many scientists now acknowledge, tapping into different sources of public knowledge and social intelligence can enrich the culture and practice of science. People may not have "expert" knowledge, as traditionally defined, but this does not mean that they have nothing to contribute to scientific decision-making.
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.
-- James Wilsdon is head of science and innovation at the think-tank Demos.
3.Friends of the corporate Earth
By Mark Henderson
April 12, 2005
The outgoing food watchdog chief takes ecology groups with a pinch of salt
GREEN and consumer organisations are businesses no more representative of the public interest than multinationals, the former head of Britain's food watchdog said yesterday.
Sir John Krebs, who retired at the weekend after five years as chairman of the Food Standards Agency (FSA), said that groups such as Greenpeace and the Soil Association are unaccountable, partisan bodies with agendas as slanted as those of industry lobbyists.
Just as food companies press policies to benefit shareholders, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth design campaigns to appeal to the views of paying members. Both types of business quote selectively from scientific evidence and neither should be taken at face value by consumers or regulators, Sir John said. Even non-profit organisations can have commercial motivations. Many members of the Soil Association, for example, are organic farmers with a financial interest in promoting its value.
Other groups, such as Which?, formerly the Consumers' Association, derive much of their income from book and magazine sales, which their campaigns promote. In an interview with The Times, Sir John said that the agency found their views useful for "tensioning the debate" as a counterweight to those of big companies but considers their campaigns neither representative nor reliable.
Sir John said: "I see pressure groups as businesses -they have a constituency of people who pay their subscriptions or buy their magazines. That is not the same as reflecting the views of the wider public. They are reflecting the views of their constituency."
Under Sir John's chairmanship, the FSA repeatedly clashed with environmental groups over its stance on genetically modified and organic foods. The agency refused to endorse health benefits claimed for organic produce or to issue warnings about GM crops, as there is no reliable scientific evidence to support either claim.
Sir John said that both positions were founded on the best possible scientific advice. His critics, he said, want the FSA to step beyond the scientific evidence to support their views.
"This is about the fact that we are completely impartial and take the scientific evidence as we read it or as it's assessed by our independent experts," he said. "Some of these groups that have single issues to pursue tend to be selective in using the scientific evidence.
"They have a vested interest in us supporting the notion that it is better to eat organic food, and we don't have a position on whether people should or should not be eating organic food. There is no scientific basis for saying there is a health claim relating to organic food. There may well be environmental benefits but that’s a different aspect to it."
Green activists, Sir John said, often blurred the lines between food safety and environmental risk, as the public were generally more alarmed about health hazards.
Sir John, who will become Master of Jesus College, Oxford, in July, said that expanding the FSA's role in improving the nation’s diet would be a big challenge for Dame Deirdre Hutton, his successor.
Preventing food-borne illnesses and toxic contamination of food would continue to be the agency's core business, but Sir John said that it was aware that poor diet was a much greater threat to the nation’s health. About 5,000 deaths in Britain each year from cancer and heart disease are attributable to diet, compared with about 500 from food-borne diseases.
Sir John said: "One is trying to tread a delicate line, avoiding accusations of being part of the nanny state, but at the same time recognising that the risks associated with dietary health are actually greater by several orders of magnitude probably than most of the other food risks."