science, faith and g m food

Contemplating protests so widespread in America about genetically modified organisms (G.M.O.s), I’m struck by the facts that Americans to-day, just as peoples around the World, are taller and generally have a greater life expectancy than ever before. (Admittedly the Dutch are taller but that’s because much of Holland is below sea level and they have to be or they wouldn’t be able to see over the walls.)

Whilst it’s true that some parents are burying their children, this is due to a diet of manufactured food heavy in refined sugar, saturated fats and, to a lesser extent, salt — more significantly to an excess of such food. The general population, which ingests G.M.O.s not incidentally, as one might expect of animals, but as part of its diet, appears to be thriving – in America as where ever such products are available.

For a myriad of years we have as farmers been effecting genetic change in both crops and livestock. For most of that time the process has been slow : we could not isolate individual genes and, in any case, had no understanding of the precise mechanism that brought about the traits we sought. What the agrochemical industry is doing is merely condensing the work of decades, even centuries, in to years.


This is not to say that genetic modification is without risk : that exists whether scientists do it over a decade or farmers over a century ; development, something man is able to achieve at a rate not available to other species, entails risk. We sail the oceans and fly the skies ; occasionally a boat sinks or an aeroplane crashes : even the animals, having developed these skills organically over millennia, sometimes suffer such failure. So what ? Ought we then not to take risk ?

Safety is the management of risk and it’s because experience tells us that, left to their own devices, industrial corporations might not tell us about failures in their tests or about failures later in the field that we have the Food and Drug Administration and similar agencies in other countries to keep them, as far as they can, honest.

If we’re to feed the World’s burgeoning population — and the longer the poor are left in poverty (sc. not allowed to burn their own fuels so that they have reticulated electricity) the more rapidly it will grow — we must find ways of making the land more productive. One way is to increase crops’ resistance to pests. We can do this by spraying crops with almost indiscriminate pesticides, inherently risky to wildlife and the environment generally for obvious reasons, but much more efficiently by targeting particular pests with dedicated characteristics of the crops that will eliminate just those pests.

Till we become omniscient, however, we shall not be in a position to avoid risk altogether ; what we must guard against is fear of the unknown. We must get away from regarding science as a system of religious belief, its church the Internet, and return to science based on honest research, clear thought and scrupulous peer review — all things sorely lacking in the ‘science’ on which so much public opinion and policy are now based.


Is it actually science that is at fault or is it the green religion on which the blame must be placed?

At the moment it appears the green religion is leading the fight against science and advancement in all spheres, climate change, GM crops, population growth and so on, with their cry of ‘the earth is doomed’.

The more people that believe the doom and gloom the more self fulfilling it will be.

There is an answer to that – better education in science and engineering with the emphasis on teaching people to think for themselves. Unfortunately, that precludes the current generation and maybe the next until the necessary teachers can be produced that do not bow down to the green leftist religion.

Indeed. The problem is not science, but the wilful manipulation of scientific research reports (which are often, by their very nature, inconclusive, hedged with uncertainties, sometimes even vague) by people with axes to grind. So the report that states that the Earth’s climate may, if current modelling is correct, warm by between 1 and 3 degrees over a period of 50 to 100 years becomes “Climate will warm 3 degrees in 50 years, say boffins”.

The GMO objections of about a decade ago arguably had one thing about right. The results of the science were commercially exploited with ruthless drive and merciless resort to litigation against any who stood in the way, intentionally or not. That was a great tactical error by the corporations concerned. Had they been a little more patient, they would have won the day, I think – and by more honourable means.

Science and engineering are often highly complex and nuanced, and don’t readily respond to soundbite journalism or the sort of simplistic responses commonly found in the humanities. I agree with Ivan that better education is the key – but better journalism must play a part, too.
I’ve no qualms about eating GM crops although if we want better yields to feed the burgeoning population pumping more CO2 into the atmosphere is a better and cheaper way to go. What does worry me about the push for GM however is how it would concentrate almost total control of the food supply in the hands of a few corporations led by Monsanto which has as good a record on environmental sensitivity as Hitler had on racial diversity.

I have a few qualms about GM. The “feed the world” thing doesn’t really do it for me, given the previous outcry against “Terminator” genes (thankfully disavowed by Monsanto) and the patenting of basic foodstuffs. In both cases, the farmer is required to go back to the seed producer each year to buy more seed. In business they talk about “owning the layer”. For Amazon, it’s books, ebay does Auctions, PayPal does money, Apple has iTunes and the App Store. In this case the layer happens to be food, which is good for nobody but the big Agro-Tech firms.

Secondly, we’re not talking about selective breeding – that is taking the best of the plants to breed better ones. The idea behind GM modification is to take a genetic marker that doesn’t appear anywhere in the plant naturally, and introduce it. The resultant creation is visibly the same, but inherently slightly different. In a laboratory setting this might be interesting science, but to redesign the DNA of a crop and then to release it to the wild thereafter to cross-pollinate with all other “natural” varieties has a wide potential impact, and denies choice to those who like their cornflakes as nature (or God) intended. Once out of the box, this cannot be put back. Whilst not quite the “grey goo” spoken of by Eric Drexler there could be a similar effect.

For what it’s worth, the low tech solution is probably the better one here. Half the world is overweight, whilst the other half is hungry. It doesn’t take a genetic scientist to figure out that one.


Saturated (animal) fats are not unhealthy. The idea that saturated fats are unhealthy is based on the “lipid hypothesis” which has been thoroughly debunked by science. Humans evolved eating saturated fats and consequently are well tolerated.

In the last 50 years healthy animal fat has been replaced with fats that have never existed in human diet (refined oils, corn oil, vegetable oil, etc).. Resulting in the large rates of cardiovascular disease we see today.

Science has also proved that livestock feed a natural diet, grass feed beef for example, has a very healthy nutritional profile, compared to industrialized methods. Livestock on a natural diet have elevated levels of omega-3. For ideal health humans need a diet rich in omega-3. Fish is the only other major source of omega-3. Additional science has found that pasture raised beef produces significantly less methane (which greens love to ignore).

We live in a world were science is ignored, much like this article.


“If we’re to feed the world’s burgeoning (I had to look that up twice to see how it should be spelled!) population….” We already have the ability to feed the world’s burgeoning (didn’t need to look that up) population. It is not only, however, a matter of transport, it is a matter of political intransigence and financial incentives. The western world throws away twice as much food as the third world requires to avoid starvation. Political barriers (the EU agriculture policy to begin with) prevents the distribution of food around the world, as does the American policies of taxes, import duties and a preference for home grown agricyultural products, even though they cost three times as much as imported products. However, having staved off starvation of a third of the world’s population, it then falls to education to rebuild – chopping down trees so you can grown animale feed is not necessarily a good thing – and this is the real long term problem. I forget who it was who said something like, “First, kill all the lawyers.” Perhaps he should have followed that up with, “and then the politicians, and Jeremy Clarkson, and the French!”.


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