Everyone has a voice

James Meek

  • A Grain of Truth: the Media, the Public and Biotechnology by Susanna Hornig Priest
    Rowman and Littlefield, 160 pp, £14.95, January 2001, ISBN 0 7425 0948 6
  • Travels in the Genetically Modified Zone by Mark Winston
    Harvard, 288 pp, £19.50, June 2002, ISBN 0 674 00867 7
  • Seeds of Contention: World Hunger and the Global Controversy over GM Crops by Per Pinstrup-Andersen
    Johns Hopkins, 176 pp, £9.00, September 2001, ISBN 0 8018 6826 2

At school, I was taught by a married couple of maths teachers called Mr and Mrs Deas. Little imagination was called for from Mrs Deas. She taught what the Scottish curriculum of the day called ‘arithmetic’. Most of it was easy. I remember one lesson called ‘How to Write a Cheque’. There was no corresponding lesson on ‘How to Cash a Cheque’. Mrs Deas didn’t need to explain the usefulness of knowing how to count. Yet even with arithmetic, I’ve since lost my grasp of the fancier functions, like compound interest, which would have been so valuable now in working out just how much I’m being screwed by my mortgage lender.

Mr Deas had a higher calling, mathematics itself. His job was to build on the simple foundations of algebra we’d learned in primary school a shining city of calculus and set theory. At the time, he cut an impressive figure. He was captivated by the elegance of the proofs he showed us. He liked his matador role, posing in the path of the terrifying madness of maths before showing that he had it under control. His control over the other beast in the classroom – us – was as rigid. With the soft, cold voice of a Hollywood villain, he had a natural genius for menace. But he lacked the imagination to explain to us why we were studying such obscure and complicated matters as calculus, and, like a peasant army massed for indoctrination, we lacked the imagination to ask.

There were a few good students in the class, and one exceptional one. He took passive revenge on Mr Deas by becoming an accountant instead of heading for the maths faculty. Others did go on to maths and physics at university. The rest of us scraped through the exam and afterwards forgot everything we had learned. I can still add and subtract and do a simple percentage (and write a cheque) but I couldn’t solve the briefest equation now. I’m not blaming Mr Deas. It would have been good if he’d related what he taught to real things and people, such as nuclear weapons, or Einstein, or space travel, or us all becoming physicists, or us getting Firsts in maths and being recruited by Goldman Sachs and making a killing in the long bull market of the 1990s. Yes, that would have been good. But it wouldn’t have made me good at maths. Maths is difficult. It takes a special talent to be good at it. It’s not enough to study; it’s not enough to have an inspirational teacher, or not to be lazy. You have to have a desire for it, and an ability to swim in the numbers, not merely hold your breath and duck under.

Scientists draw strength from their homogeneity. They all belong to the calling of science, and they have social systems in common – the pressure to publish in learned journals, the scramble for grants. Yet when you get closer, there are no scientists. There are only mathematicians, and astronomers, and molecular biologists, and thousands of other specialists, but in non-scientists’ minds, some of these specialisms suffer by association. More than anything, it is the hermetic mysteries of maths, remembered with discomfort from schooldays, that intimidate the public and make journalists wary as to how to mediate between scientists and a non-scientific audience.

This is strange, because behind the daunting catch-all description ‘science’, the scientific controversies of our time don’t have much to do with maths or formulae. In their fine detail, the issues of cloning, stem-cell research, gene therapy, genetic testing and – the subject of these three books – genetically modified crops, are difficult. In their essentials, they’re not. They’re far more accessible to a non-specialist than quantum computing, cosmology or particle physics. Not just to a non-specialist, but to people who left school without having passed any science exams.

The reluctance of the public – and, in some cases, the media – to grasp the basic biology is seen by pro-GM scientists and their backers in agrochemical conglomerates as the cause of opposition to GM foods. The scientists are frustrated. What began as ‘Why won’t they trust us when we know best?’ may have shifted to ‘If only they understood, they would trust us,’ but the underlying resentment is the same: irrational, unnecessary ignorance, encouraged by nefarious, myth-spreading activists, is to blame for the anti-GM movement.

The resentment isn’t justified. It’s true that most people could understand the science of GM crops with less effort than they imagine, and that there is no great inclination to make that effort. But popular opposition to GM crops has little to do with whether people understand the science or not. It has a lot to do with hostility to unaccountable corporations having control over farming, an accurate hunch that scientists do not entirely know what they are doing, and an attachment to an idea of ‘nature’ that is emotional, sentimental and irrational, and therefore cannot be proved wrong or right by scientific means. Perhaps because of their increasing dependence on private capital, too many scientists seem to have become confused about the difference between science and the practical application of science. They need to remember that a public judgment about the application of science, based on non-scientific criteria, is valid.

In A Grain of Truth Susanna Hornig Priest reports that a 1998 US survey concluded that only a little over a fifth of the population could give a reasonable definition of DNA. She goes on: ‘It does not follow that because someone cannot give an acceptable definition of DNA they should have no voice in arguments about biotechnology.’

A few weeks ago I visited a clove plantation. The cloves – buds on a tree that, with its black and white bark, looks a bit like a birch – weren’t yet ripe: they were small, bright green and juicy. At the prompting of the guide, I picked one off the tree, put it in my mouth and chewed it. A second before I took the immature clove, it was a part of the living tree. It consisted of millions of clove cells, each containing a complete set of clove genes built up from DNA. In each cell, tens of thousands of clove proteins were interacting. Using the clove genes as a template, some clove proteins were assembling fresh clove proteins, other clove proteins were sending messages to each other, and yet more clove proteins were using the gene templates to replicate the genes themselves as part of the construction of new clove cells. That’s the substance of life’s continuity: genes acting as templates for proteins, which copy the genes, which act as templates for proteins, and so on and on for ever. I put that little green thing in my mouth, with its billions of alien clove genes and clove proteins fizzing in their sudden emergency. And I didn’t turn into a clove.

Something did happen, of course. A small group of the proteins in the clove cells reacted with proteins in my cells to send my brain the message of the bitter, intense clove taste, and to give my mouth the numbness that made clove oil an ancient remedy for toothache.

The difference between genes and proteins is at the centre of popular misunderstanding of the science behind the GM controversy. Genes are the information: proteins the users of that information. Without proteins, genes are like a set of instruction manuals without anyone to read and implement them. Without genes, proteins are like a population that has forgotten everything it knew how to do, and has no way of finding out what to do next. The wrong proteins can poison us, make us sick, even kill us, if we ingest them. The wrong genes, by themselves, cannot. It is very easy for alien proteins to get at our cells and cause trouble: it is extremely difficult for alien genes. Normally, there are only two ways alien genes can enter our cells – in viruses, and through sex with a closely related species. We are pouring alien DNA down our gullets all the time: it does not affect us. When we eat raw tuna, we are ingesting trillions of copies of the full tuna gene set, and we don’t turn into tuna. We might ingest millions of copies of bacterial gene sets at the same time – and we don’t turn into bacteria, either. Yet toxic proteins expressed by that bacterium’s gene set could poison us.

Man has been genetically modifying crops in a limited way for more than ten thousand years: for as long, in fact, as there have been farmers. At first, this simply involved picking the best plants from each harvest and setting their seeds aside as the basis of the following year’s crop. This process culminated in the career of Roswell Garst, the entrepreneur from Coon Rapids, Iowa, who from the 1930s onwards created the agroindustrial model that later made the introduction of GM crops in the US so swift. Garst brought together new technology (increases in grain yields being achieved through research in the cross-breeding of maize strains), salesmanship and organisation. He persuaded farmers to buy annual batches of scientifically crossbred seed from a large company, instead of using their local seed merchant, or indeed their own seed corn. His crowning moment came when Khrushchev travelled to Coon Rapids to meet him and buy his seed. (Mark Winston points out that both the US and the Soviet agricultural systems, which required huge amounts of fertiliser, collapsed at about the same time in the 1980s, the Soviet system because it ran out of money, the US system because maize became so plentiful that it cost more than twice its market price to grow.) Modern GM techniques aren’t necessary to produce the unnatural, misshapen, mis-sized organisms that conventional crops are today: compared to their wild originals, they are like dachshunds beside wolves. Our forearm-long ears of cultivated maize would not survive in the wild. The first ears of maize, cultivated seven thousand years ago, were thumb-sized. But in terms of improving yield, the increasingly sophisticated breeding of the last few hundred years has had remarkable results. In Ireland in the Middle Ages, farmers could expect to get as little as half a tonne of wheat per hectare of land. In 1990, the figure was more than eight tonnes.

The agroindustrial lobby – usually described as American, but in fact including several big European multinationals – would like the advent of GM crops to be seen as an extension of Garst’s programme: more scientific improvements, hardier crops, higher yields, more efficient use of fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides, more marginal land brought under the plough. Onward and upward. Proponents of GM crops in the scientific community (although these days, in the life sciences, it is increasingly hard to make a distinction between scientists and business people) believe that the public is being misled by an ignorant, malicious or sensationalist European media into an irrational mistrust of the science behind GM crops.

True genetic modification, as distinct from breeding, has scientists inserting into plants genes that couldn’t have got there naturally. Genes can move between different kinds of wheat by chance. But no amount of chance is ever going to see a jellyfish gene inserted into wheat, and that’s the kind of transformation GM scientists are carrying out. As Winston says, ‘the credibility of the scientific community has suffered as a result of its refusal to acknowledge the unprecedented nature of genetic engineering.’

One of the most widespread forms of GM involves the insertion into crop plants of genes from a bacterium called bacillus thuringiensis, known as Bt. Bt, commonly found in soil, produces toxic proteins that harm certain kinds of insect pest. When the genes that code for these proteins are artificially inserted among the natural genes of plants, the plants produce the toxins in their leaves, keeping various insects at bay without the use of pesticides. The first commercial use of Bt crops was permitted in the US in 1995: by 2000, almost a third of US maize and cotton production was Bt.

As with the clove and the tuna, ingesting Bt maize shouldn’t give the Bt gene a chance to sneak into your cells and become part of you – or at least no more chance than the natural maize genes. If the toxic protein were poisonous to humans, it would be dangerous to eat Bt maize, but Bt is considered sufficiently safe to be one of the few pesticides used by organic farmers. So what’s wrong with Bt crops?

The pro-GM lobby has a tendency to exaggerate our knowledge of what actually happens inside living cells, plant or animal. Yes, artificially inserted foreign genes are unlikely to hurt anyone by themselves. Yes, the proteins produced by those genes can be tested for safety – in isolation. What we don’t know is how the inserted genes are interacting with the genome, the totality of natural genes. Scientists know that there are many more proteins in cells than there are genes, which means that some genes must be producing more than one protein. How do they do that? In what sense are they genes, if their template keeps shape-shifting? We’re not sure. Proteins are so complex that the world’s most powerful computers have yet to model the folding of a single one. It is thought that BSE began as a result of the misfolding of a natural protein molecule: how do we know that an unpredictable reaction between a native and a GM protein, within a cell, might not produce an unforeseen hybrid molecule? We don’t.

The general rule that DNA from one organism doesn’t travel to another except by sex and viruses does not always hold, either. Horizontal gene transfer, as it is called, does seem to happen in a limited way when animals, including humans, eat any foods – genes from the food harmlessly enter a few cells lining the digestive system, and get no further. More worrying is horizontal gene transfer involving bacteria: there is concern that the manner in which genes are inserted into GM crops means that they could move from plant to wild bacteria, and from wild bacteria to bacteria living in the human gut. This is disturbing, given that some of the genes artificially inserted into plants confer antibiotic resistance on bacteria.

There are related fears that the spread of Bt crops could lead to cross-fertilisation with closely related wild plants, creating superweeds; that constant exposure might give pests resistance to Bt, depriving organic farmers of one of their few natural lines of defence against insects; and – perhaps the greatest underlying fear of all – that greater scientific control over biology means greater corporate control over biology, and hence greater corporate control over life itself.

I doubt that in this country, greater public understanding of the science behind GM crops would make us any more enthusiastic about following the US in applying the technology wholesale, but the understanding is still a desirable and necessary thing. Priest, an associate professor of journalism at Texas A&M University, accuses the US print media of being too ready to accept the corporate line on GM, and too reliant on the domestic arm of a single huge news agency, the Associated Press, known in the US as ‘the AP’, in Britain just as AP. Priest contrasts the non-partisan US press unfavourably with the partisan European print media. Characterising the US press as ‘legally free but economically constrained’, she says that in the UK and much of the rest of Europe news reports are not expected to be objective in the sense of being devoid of political meaning – despite the tendency for larger-institution perspectives to dominate just as they do in the United States.

Even more ironically, it is just this kind of partisan press that the US First Amendment guarantees were originally written to protect, rather than the kind of commercialised but politically neutral press that we have today in which most news markets are served only by a single paper.

Priest is too generous. Britain has its own dominant domestic press agency. With neat transatlantic symmetry, it is known as the Press Association, PA for short. The most powerful single influence on the framing of British policy and public opinion on GM foods is not the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, or the Prime Minister, or the head of the Royal Society. It is John von Radowitz, PA’s swift and industrious science correspondent. His take on GM press releases, his choice of newsworthy papers from the big weekly journals (Nature on Thursday, Science on Friday), his slant on press conferences, is seen the instant he files it by every news editor and top political press officer in the country. It might be thought that the happiness of a news editor could be measured according to how the contents of his pages differ from those of his rivals. Up to a point, this is true – everybody likes an exclusive (as long as it’s not exclusive because no one else was interested) – but it’s not that simple. The editors know that their rivals will have seen von Radowitz’s story, too. Can they risk ignoring it? What if they miss something important, and all the other papers and bulletins run it? Won’t they look as if they don’t know what’s going on? Wouldn’t it be safer just to get their man or woman to follow von Radowitz’s lead? But what if their man or woman doesn’t agree with von Radowitz’s take? Well, that can be very awkward.

In the case of GM crops, moreover, Priest’s description of a ‘partisan press’ doesn’t really apply to Britain, at least not in the sense of pro and anti-GM newspapers. There is not a paper that doesn’t pay lip-service to the idea that GM crops may be of use and benefit – and not a paper that isn’t on a hair-trigger to report the slightest hint that they may be dangerous. Normal rules governing ‘left’ and ‘right’ don’t apply. The nose-ringed make common cause with the green welly brigade. Where can the royalist papers go, when the future king has made it clear he thinks GM stinks? Whither the papers that once held to the idea of progress on behalf of all mankind, and science addressing the world’s problems, when biology has been privatised?

None of these books is British or about Britain, but Winston’s, an understated, perceptive account of a Canadian bee expert’s encounters with protagonists in the GM debate, contains an honest and recognisable portrait of the mood in the UK based on a visit here. He understands the enormous significance of the BSE debacle in public attitudes towards science. He points out the irony of British attachment to the purity of a countryside which, from the manicured fields of Hampshire to the grouse moors of the Highlands, has been twisted and tamed to suit human needs for thousands of years. He sees British hostility to the corporate export of biotechnology to the Third World as a belated act of conscience over the exploitative nature of its Empire. Compared with North America, where GM crops are everywhere, Britain is ‘an alternate universe’. Scientists have been ‘taken aback by the strength of the opposition, and puzzled by the protesters’ lack of engagement with scientific issues’.

The pro-GM lobby tends to blame the GM-sceptical media for this. Certainly, there have been distortions and simplifications in British reporting on GM, just as there has been much careful, conscientious journalism. But scientists and the biotech lobby should remember that newspapers, TV and radio, whatever their aspirations, cannot be teachers, and that their readers, viewers and listeners are not students. The media alert, inform, describe, polemicise, entertain, record, remind, recall, admonish. None of that is teaching. There is no test. The world came to know the language of psychiatry through the media, with the result that people are ‘schizophrenic’ if they can’t make up their minds, ‘paranoid’ if they think someone doesn’t like them, ‘neurotic’ if they’re worried, ‘anal’ if they’re neat and ‘psychotic’ if they’re angry. Teaching has to be done by teachers. And in a world where scientists have gained the power to transform living organisms at a sub-cellular level, allowing children to leave school without the simplest grounding in cell biology is as irresponsible as allowing them to leave without knowing how to write, read and count. Everyone should know what a gene is, what DNA is, and what a protein is. The great thing is that the core knowledge is so straightforward and so intuitive. And it doesn’t involve maths. Teaching that knowledge to children, preferably at primary level, is desirable: but it would not necessarily result in a public better disposed towards GM crops.

In their book, originally published in Danish, Per Pinstrup-Andersen and Ebbe Schiøler make a good point badly. They argue that the world’s poorest countries, which cannot feed themselves or afford to buy food from others, need access to GM crops in order to increase yields and to use marginal land to feed their increasing populations. They argue that it is for poor countries, not anti-GM protesters in rich countries, to make decisions about whether or not to use GM. After all, it is predicted that by 2050 there will be just 0.15 hectares of farmland for every Earth citizen, compared to the 0.26 now.

What the authors don’t make clear is why it is acceptable for rich-world scientists to collaborate with poor-world scientists, and for rich-world corporations to cut deals with poor-world governments, but not for rich-world anti-GM movements to campaign jointly with poor-world anti-GM movements. They admit that, initially, Western-style organic farming methods would improve yields in some of the lowest-yielding farmland in the developing world. Most tellingly, they have found very few African and Asian voices to back up their arguments. That doesn’t mean they are wrong about the hungry countries; feeding a world with ten billion mouths is going to demand some clever science. It’s just that there’s some tricky footwork going on in the book, as if the real point the authors want to make is not that that the rich world shouldn’t obstruct the introduction of GM crops into the poor world, but that the desperate need of the world’s poor for GM means that Europeans are being irresponsible by setting such a bad example to their former colonies.

Yes, decisions about GM in India are for the Indians: but decisions about GM in Britain should be for the Britons. Pinstrup-Andersen and Schiøler quote, with apparent approval, an editorial in the Wall Street Journal from last February: ‘Will someone please explain to us just what, exactly, is wrong with genetically modified foods?’ The question wants a mathematically clear answer. It isn’t going to get one. My objections to GM, like those of many people in this country, aren’t scientific, or even religious, but emotional, romantic and sentimental. Our ecosystem may have been poisoned, pillaged, privatised several times over, modified, tamed: but it still operates according to the self-renewing, evolution-designed system of nature. It is still a source of wonder, humility and, in its remaining unpredictability, hope – resources that, in this country at least, are in much shorter supply than sliced white bread. And the ecosystem is still de facto, held in common: given that GM is a technology that cannot be securely contained on someone’s private property, everyone has a voice.

I am not sure I have answered the Journal’s question. A better reply perhaps comes from an eminently corporate source: Sainsbury’s Jayn Harding, quoted by Winston. Of British consumers (you remember them – they’re the people who used to be citizens) she says: ‘They’re looking at it like “You’re playing around with my life and you don’t know for sure that you can play around with my life safely, and until you can, I don’t want you to.”’