Prof Brian Wynne says scientists’ judgment can be clouded by their own research interests

1. Scots GM crops backing “like a religious crusade” – Prof Brian Wynne
2. GM ban: Both sides of the argument – Pete Ritchie of Nourish Scotland

1. Scots GM crops backing “like a religious crusade”

Ilona Amos
The Scotsman, 19 Aug 2015

The Scottish Government’s decision to ban cultivation of genetically modified crops north of the Border has split the science community.

Last night the Scottish Government was under increasing pressure to rethink the ban after a group of nearly 30 leading scientific organisations became the latest to warn of the possible “negative impact” it could have on food, healthcare and scientific research.

The fears were raised in an open letter to letter to rural affairs, food and environment secretary Richard Lochhead, who last week announced the decision to outlaw GM crops in Scotland to protect the “clean, green” image of its £14 billion food and drinks industry.

The signatories included the Roslin Institute, creators of Dolly the Sheep, the European Academies Science Advisory Council and the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Spearheaded by the charity Sense About Science, the letter came hot on the heels of predictions by Scotland’s former chief scientific officer Muffy Calder that outlawing GM could have “apocalyptic” consequences for the country and the planet.

But now a professor specialising in perception of environmental risk has described the pro-GM campaign by fellow academics as akin to a “religious crusade” peddling visions of “damnation”.

Professor Brian Wynne, an emeritus professor at the University of Lancaster, said: “The GM debate is not black and white. It’s not just a binary option – either we have GM crops or we don’t. It’s far more complicated than that.

“The kind of language that has been used in the past few days, not just by Muffy Calder but also in the letter from Sense About Science, it’s like an obsession with GM.

“It’s a bit more like a religious crusade. The idea that if we don’t have GM then somehow it’s dereliction and hell and damnation and starvation is total rubbish.”

He says the scientific community is the least qualified in “understanding the limits of their own knowledge”, their judgment often clouded by their own research interests.

“We’re not trained at doing that in any systematic way at all during our scientific training. We get immersed in all sorts of commitments, including particular scientific paradigms or beliefs which do have alternatives.”

He claims his fellow researchers are “just as emotional as anyone else”.

Last week Prof Wynne joined campaigners including Friends of the Earth Scotland in a letter of support for the ban organised by Nourish Scotland, a charity working towards improving fresh food in Scotland.

EU rules dictate that GM crops must be officially authorised before they can be cultivated. But an amendment brought into force earlier this year allows member states and devolved administrations to restrict or ban the practice within their territory.

“Just because GM crops can be cultivated in Scotland it doesn’t mean they should be,” said Mr Lochhead.

“We respect the views of those in the scientific community who support the development of GM technology and the debate on the future of GM will no doubt continue.

“However, Scotland’s £14bn food sector has a reputation for a clean and green image across the world and allowing the cultivation of GM crops could damage that unique selling point.”

2. GM ban: Both sides of the argument

Pete Ritchie: Empowering farmers rather than GM is best way to feed the world
The National, 19 Aug 2015

There’s been a predictable chorus of protest from pro-GM scientists in Scotland and beyond at the Scottish Government’s decision to convert the moratorium on growing GM crops into a ban.

Nourish Scotland supports the ban, and here’s why. GM technology, and the way it has been applied over the last few decades, has over-promised.

It has over-promised in the claims it has made about how this technology will ‘feed the world’ or ‘reduce pesticide use’.

There are still 800 million people going hungry in the world, because they cannot afford to buy food, not because there isn’t enough food to go round.

Most of the world’s cereal crop goes to feed animals or make biofuel rather than feed people directly.

The best way to feed the world is to empower small farmers, especially women, with credit, storage, diverse local seeds, routes to market and techniques for working with nature and looking after the soil.

Small farms are more productive per acre than large ones, just as a well-kept garden or allotment is more productive per acre than a farm.

Of course it has delivered revenue and profits to agribusiness – bundling seeds up in a package with glyphosate has led to a four-fold increase in glyphosate use in the last 20 years. About 45 per cent of this is on GM crops, which are grown on about 12 per cent of the world’s cropland.

We now use 100g per person each year – and it doesn’t just vanish like fairy dust – it’s detectable in our food and our bodies. The International Agency for Research on Cancer recently categorised glyphosate as ‘probably carcinogenic’.

We are used to regular announcements about the next GM breakthrough providing the technical solution to a perceived food problem. This week, we’ve heard about inserting genes from algae into camellina plants so they produce more fatty acids to feed farmed fish.

Given Scotland’s superabundance of water, we could instead grow the algae (which is where fish naturally get their fatty acids from in the first place).

And we’ve heard about the GM blight-resistant potato: but it’s unlikely to get shelf space in the supermarket among the dozens of blight resistant potatoes already on the market.

We’ve heard less about the GM wheat which failed to repel aphids, while the conventionally bred superwheat from the National Institute of Agricultural Botany could significantly increase yields.

But the Scottish Government decision is scientific in a much broader sense than “does this particular technology work within a limited frame of reference”.

Instead, it takes a much broader look at the evidence. Does the Scottish and UK public want to eat GM food? No, by a majority of 4:1 – so there’s no local market. Do our export markets want GM whisky, GM seed potatoes or GM salmon? No. Is there a competitive advantage to marketing Scottish produce worldwide as GM-free? Yes. Could Scottish farmers adapt in 10 or 20 years’ time to growing GM crops if the technology was open source and there were universally accepted environmental and commercial benefits? Yes. For now, is GM in Scotland a hammer in want of a nail?

Pete Ritchie is Director of Nourish Scotland