Homeric Cheese v. Technophiliac Relish

David Cooper writes about GM food

‘Wonder bacteria will manufacture drugs and food supplements, while contributing to the production of cheese and other foods. They will be used to prevent frost damage to strawberries. Crops will be created to resist pests and diseases ... Food products from wonder fish, cattle and poultry will also find their way onto the grocer’s shelves.’ These might have been predictions from a utopian tract by some 1930s technophile – H.G. Wells, perhaps, or J.B.S. Haldane. However, change the tense and replace ‘wonder’ by ‘genetically engineered’ and ‘grocer’ by ‘supermarket’, and you have an actual passage from a recent book, Eat Your Genes.

Tense and names are not all that have changed. The developments envisaged as leading to an agricultural utopia in the 1930s are currently regarded by the great majority of people in this country as being on course for dystopia. People won’t knowingly eat ‘Frankenstein’ foods; masked eco-warriors, dressed like Woody Allen’s storm-trooping spermatazoa, are busy wrecking GM field trials; banks are advising investors to get out of GM shares; and having found their way onto supermarket shelves, GM foods are quickly finding their way off them again. Producers of these foods have been taken by surprise, doubtless lulled into a false sense of security by the docile absorption of their products into the American diet. ‘What’s GM food?’ was for years the response of US shoppers, whose trolleys bulged with the stuff.

This change in perceptions is puzzling, the more so given that my 1930s futurologist had not experienced the problems of petrochemical agriculture (DDT, fertilisers and all) during the postwar ‘green revolution’ – problems which GM techniques, as much as organic farming, are supposed to consign to history. (In 1962, the first lady of environmentalism, Rachel Carson, was enthusiastic, for just this reason, about the potential of the bio-insecticide B.t., now reviled for its alleged effect on certain butterflies.) Nor would my futurologist have witnessed the Third World famines of recent decades to which, once more, genetic engineering of crops is promised to provide a permanent solution.

Hardest to explain is the sheer passion of the hostility, which contrasts strangely with a relatively sanguine attitude towards genetic engineering in other areas. One sympathises with the geneticist Steve Jones, who has described his bewilderment when, after he has explained to his students the serious moral issues surrounding research in human genetics, their only response is, ‘That’s all well and good, but what about GM food?’ His bewilderment, Jones points out, is like that felt at the enthusiasm of the Nazis for both eugenics and the ‘purity of nature’. Similarly striking is the contrast between responses to hi-tech developments in medicine and those in agriculture. People who want their pills to be state-of-the-art, and smile condescendingly at their grandparents’ panaceas, are determined, it seems, to eat nothing that granny might not have baked. This is odd given, first, the hardly questionable health benefits of some GM products (fatless chips, calorie-free sugars and so on) and, second, the tendency in recent years to soften the distinction between medical issues and wider concerns for the well-being of ‘the whole person’.

Finally, this hostility is not reliably accompanied either by an informed understanding or cogent arguments. An example of the misunderstandings involved is the nearly universal assumption that GM methods are the ‘opposite’ of organic ones. In fact, there is no more reason why a GM plant cannot be ‘naturally’ grown than there is for an IVF baby not to be ‘naturally’ brought up. (This does not prevent the EU from refusing to allow organically grown transgenic crops to be labelled as such, apparently in order ‘to protect consumers’ trust in organic products’.) As an instance of unimpressive argument, consider the monotonous refrain that GM foods, even if they have the advantages their producers claim, are not ‘necessary’. Nor, by the austere criteria of need implicit here, are more economical cars, improved toothpastes or, come to that, organic potatoes. By more relaxed criteria, we need GM foods, if we believe them to yield the benefits claimed, as much as we need any other improved products.

Of course, that is a big ‘if’: bearing the BSE/CJD crisis in mind many people do not believe that genetic engineering will deliver the agricultural goods. The GM companies and their outlets are themselves partly responsible for this credibility gap. Having announced the imminent demise of herbicides, the companies initially focused on growing herbicide-resistant crops immune to the chemicals which they then obliged farmers to use for getting rid of the weeds. Having proclaimed the advantages for developing countries of GM agriculture, some of them concentrated on selling these countries seeds for crops suitable only for export, while simultaneously encouraging First World farmers to grow frost-resistant strains of the very crops on which some developing economies rely. Tesco falsely announced in 1996 that their modified soya beans were ‘indistinguishable in composition’ from conventional ones. Still, the credibility gap explanation goes only so far. People do not exhibit a similar readiness to doubt the up-beat claims made for Viagra or Prozac. For scepticism towards its benefits to be so eagerly embraced they must, surely, be already primed to reject GM food.

It is easy to identify some of the priming agents; among them, a popular press which has evangelised against GM food by, for example, the extravagant broadcasting in 1998 of the then unsubstantiated, and now discredited, work of Dr Pusztai on the effects of transgenic potatoes on the immune system of rats. The nomenclature hasn’t helped: ‘genetically engineered peaches’, ‘transgenic cauliflowers’ – these are not terms which a good marketing firm would recommend. (Contrast ‘organically grown carrots’: would as many people eat them if they were labelled ‘grown in excrement’?) The explanatory power of these priming agents is limited, however. The popular press would not have launched its campaign if it wasn’t confident of receiving a warm welcome from a public already disposed to accept its message. As for the nomenclature, that raises the wider question of why, when it comes to what we eat – though not to what we wash with or get from the chemist’s – technospeak elicits an antagonistic response.

Reasons of a more respectable, more ‘rational’, kind are at hand to persuade cooler and more informed heads that GM field-trials must be banned or indefinitely postponed. There is, for example, the unenviable reputation of multinational corporations, pre-set targets for those who have emigrated from leftist politics into environmental activism. But the most serious of these reasons cluster around the issue of risk. Granted that some GM foods will be beneficial to human health, how does one guarantee against the production of, say, new and virulent allergens, or against a repetition of the 1989 episode in Seattle when people died from taking a genetically engineered food supplement? If we accept the benefits of transgenic plants which won’t require the assistance of pesticides, how secure are the safeguards against these hardy strains invading other crops as ‘superweeds’, or against the adaptive emergence of insects even hardier than the plants? Granted the positive potential for developing agricultures of, say, drought-resistant maize or salt-tolerant rice, can we exclude the possibility that the exotic strains introduced will cause havoc in the indigenous crops of these countries?

And these are only the predictable risks. These very new, and very complex, procedures could, after all, produce disastrous outcomes which we are not even able to anticipate. People who raise that issue are unlikely to be mollified by Monsanto’s assurance that there is currently ‘no evidence’ that ‘altering genes could lead to unforeseen problems’. Of course there is no such evidence: if there were, the problems wouldn’t be ‘unforeseen’. As a recent ESRC briefing paper puts it, ‘ “absence of evidence” of risks is not the same as “evidence of absence”.’

There is nothing approaching unanimity on the issue of risk, but if the material which I, and the Prime Minister, have been reading is representative, then the weight of ‘serious scientific opinion’ is on the side of the following propositions. First, while it is impossible to remove all danger of damaging, even disastrous, outcomes, the risks involved in GM production are significantly less than they are claimed to be by Friends of the Earth, the Prince of Wales and other critics. Second, the potential benefits of GM foods are greater than those critics argue. (Recent studies by the population expert, Tim Dyson, suggest that it will become increasingly difficult, though not perhaps impossible, for the world to feed itself without these foods.) No doubt the relevance of some of the tests which have given rise to the prevailing scientific opinion, such as those which ignore the seed-carrying capacity of birds, can be questioned. But let us assume that the two propositions are true, that ‘serious scientific opinion’ has got it right. Is the argument then won? Must we agree with one AgrEvo spokesman that, provided reason, sound science and pragmatism are all we listen to, GM crops are bound to be accepted in the UK?

The answer to both questions is ‘no’. Sound science, let’s optimistically assume, can provide a pretty accurate audit of potential risks and benefits, and pragmatic reason can assure us that, for example, it is rational to prefer the less to the more risky of two policies which promise equally beneficial outcomes. What no amount of sound science and logic can settle, however, is the proper trade-off between risks and benefits. There is no rational decision procedure for choosing between ‘Play safe!’ and ‘Reach for the sky!’ or, in the language of games theory, between a policy of minimising the worst possible outcome and maximising the optimal one. For what is at issue are opposing, indeed incommensurable, strategies of rationality or, better perhaps, attitudes to life. To enjoy the experience of a lifetime, Jack will risk a lot, while Jill won’t. Who is the more rational? Neither.

The illusion that science and logic can settle issues of risk arises from the fact that in many instances there is already a background consensus on the parameters of what is acceptable. That consensus will itself have resulted from various factors, the most important being, simply, what people have grown used to. The contingencies at work are obvious from the way in which consensus varies over time and from place to place, as well as from one area of life to another. In the US and the UK, for example, the risk of losing just one soldier in combat is increasingly regarded as too great to take. Or contrast our fairly sanguine acceptance of thousands of road-deaths every year with our unwillingness to tolerate even a single death from rabies. Again, drink kills as many people as tobacco, but bottles of whisky display no ‘Serious Risk’ warning.

In the case of GM foods, background consensus is precisely what is lacking, and to judge from the continuing arguments in the case of nuclear energy, there is little prospect that it will soon emerge. There is, however, a more important reason than incommensurable strategies of rationality for this lack of consensus and, therefore, for the limits of any contribution from sound science and logic. The question ‘Are the potential benefits of GM food worth the risk?’ engages with convictions which it is not for science and principles of logic to pronounce on.

A bad, though familiar, response to this is to concede the intrusion of conviction, but to treat it as ‘mere sentiment’, something pragmatists should ignore. Hardly better is grudging acceptance that sentiments must be taken seriously, but only for the respectably pragmatic reason that they are an annoying obstacle to carrying through hard-headed policies. It is crass to suppose that critics of GM foods are governed by mere sentiment, by soft-centred unreflective feelings that may conflict with their more considered judgments. On the other hand, if the word is understood in its 18th-century sense, sentiment is not a feeling that could fail to be engaged. In that sense, it is an emotion associated with what moves and affects us, and its presence is a precondition for anything mattering to us – including the benefits to humankind which biotechnologists typically have in view. Polly Toynbee fails to note the irony when, in her Radio Times column, she first complains of the sentimentality of opponents of animal experiments and then invites us to reflect how we would feel if a girl’s life might have been saved through such experiments. ‘If nothing deserves an immediate response of love or horror, then neither does rationality or human welfare,’ Stephen Clark has observed. To take sentiments in this respectable sense seriously is not to worry about how to circumvent them, but to reflect on the conception intimated by them of human beings’ proper relation to the world.

What is intimated by the ‘response of horror’, even on the part of those who do not question ‘sound science’s’ estimate of risk and benefit, at the prospect of a genetically engineered environment? A clue is provided by the ubiquitous references to Frankenstein foods, Frankenstein bugs and so on – a rhetoric James Watson is unwise to dismiss as the ‘screaming’ of ‘left-wing nuts and environmental kooks’. In the preface to her novel, Mary Shelley – who was well-acquainted with the Watsons of her day – made it plain that Victor Frankenstein’s project was ‘supremely frightful’, not because of the possibility of disastrous consequences, but because of his ‘human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world’. Shorn of its theological trappings, her point is the one made a century and a half later by Iris Murdoch: the engineering of life simply for human benefit manifests a lack of ‘humility’, of ‘selfless respect for the independent existence’ of the creatures and lifeforms which belong to the world in which we live.

It is undeniable that respect for the integrity of things is something many people today see being violated by transgenic techniques. This feeling is unlikely to be scotched by cheerful reassurances that these techniques are nothing ‘absolutely new’ and that, anyway, they only involve ‘shunting genes around’ between species which are all made of the same genetic material. To be ‘absolutely new’, gene-splicing need not be discontinuous with such earlier techniques as hybridisation: its novelty may reside, rather, in marking the absolute attainment of what Francis Bacon called our ‘command over nature in action’, of unsurpassable nonchalance towards species’ intrinsic tendencies of procreation and growth, of a complete transformation of life into artefact. As for wondering why anyone should worry if genes are shunted about, when genetic material is everywhere the same, this is like wondering why one should object to shunting notes from a rugby song to the Choral Symphony, when the basic materials of music are everywhere the same. It’s just the kind of point which confirms the fear that all sense of the integrity of lifeforms has atrophied: to identify a living thing simply with the stuff it is made of is to be blind to the rich variety of characteristics which, from less blinkered perspectives, gives it a distinctive identity. Pace Richard Dawkins, it is wrong to say that humans, animals or plants are ‘merely vehicles for genes’. If they were, we could never have distinguished between them before the dawn of genetic science.

It would be wrong to imagine that edifying talk – of humility, integrity and so on – is the preserve of critics of GM food. The portrait of its advocates as motivated only by economic advantage is no less distorted than that of its opponents as victims of ‘mere’ sentiment. The Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser – a guarded advocate – says, and means, that the most powerful argument for further development of GM agriculture is ‘the quality of life’ it promises for millions. Nor should the serious issue be perceived as one that pits a Ruskinesque ‘nostalgia for Homeric cheeses’ against a technophiliac relish for the shock of the new. Once ‘sound science’ has done its auditing, the character of the debate as one between competing conceptions of the good life and of the true status of human beings in the wider order will emerge more clearly. Thus reviewing the debate may not facilitate a resolution – I suspect the competing conceptions are incommensurable – but it may encourage greater mutual patience than is currently evident.