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May 15, 2012

Polarisation helps no one

As yet another genetically modified food dispute emerges, Tom Wakeford calls for the two sides to start talking if they want to avoid damaging public confidence in science and in scientists

Two projects that aim to bring a fresh approach to debates concerning the future of food and farming are gathering pace this month.  One is Democratising Agricultural Research, based at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). The other, Our Food, is run from the University of Edinburgh.

Etched into the mind of anyone working in the food or farming sectors in the late 1990s was the controversy over GM. It came in the wake of the last Conservative government’s well documented failure to communicate the risks of new food processing methods exposing humans to mad cow disease, BSE.

GM polarised arguments into one of two camps. On one side was the government, the research councils, the chemical and biotechnology industries, National Farmers Union and, initially at least, the main supermarkets. These GM promoters attempted to persuade the UK public that the technology was a natural progression from traditional breeding. It would quickly, they claimed, increase crop yields, reduce food prices and even provide new cures for disease.

On the other side were environmentalists, consumer groups, organic farmers and a minority of bioscientists, who denied some or all of these benefits. Many argued there was even a danger of an unstoppable ecological disaster by the process of horizontal gene transfer – a theme picked up in a dystopian BBC drama co-written by the Guardian’s editor and aired in prime time during 2002.   

The pro-GM lobby argued that GM scepticism among the public was largely down to their ignorance. A small group of us begged to differ. Beginning in 1998, we staged a series of deliberative public dialogues in the UK and abroad. These hearings were designed to allow a cross section of the population to express their views, having been informed by a range of arguments and evidence.

These initiatives, including the government’s own 2003 GM Nation debate, demonstrated many aspects of science communication that were pertinent to the debate. These included the tendency for some scientific researchers to overstate their certainty in some of their statements, which they almost always presented as hard facts. By contrast, people without formal qualifications often contributed expert opinions that were based on their life experience on issues that scientists had considered to be purely in their realm.

The outcome of GM Nation and a range of other processes provided evidence that the more people learnt about the GM technologies that were available at the time, the less keen they tended to be on them. When some politicians, such as former Labour environment minister Michael Meacher, tried to use the conclusions of this process to open up science policy-makers to greater public accountability, their attempts came up against powerful vested interests. For the nine years since, the first stirrings of what could have been a vibrant debate on how to resolve competing knowledge claims relating to the future of food and farming have largely fallen silent.

Despite increasing amounts of research raising doubts over the long-term benefits of GM, the vision presented by the government’s recent Future of Food and Farming report continues to follow the rationale used by the original GM advocates. It sees agriculture developing down a route of ever greater intensification and industrialisation. Meanwhile, publicly funded capacity for food and agriculture research in the UK has almost vanished over the past fifteen years, leaving most research in the hands of multi-national corporations promoting agriculture based on artificial fertilisers and pesticides. Providing alternative visions of how we might feed ourselves has so far been left to global dialogue initiatives, such as Democratising Agricultural Research, which involves smallholder farmers from around the world, and to comparatively small funders, such as the Soil Association, who fund non-chemical based agricultural research.

The strategy behind Our Food, which focuses on the UK, is to build a community of practice involving community groups, the Coop, the Centre for Food Policy and research funders, such as BBSRC. Drawing on tools of conflict transformation that were developed in Latin America, the initiative is bringing together different perspectives, including those from both sides of the genetically modified wheat controversy. Like the IIED initiative, we aim to build enough common ground for a new collaborative model of agri-food research to emerge that involves everyday people, such as farmers and food consumers.

When I worked in a plant genetics lab almost twenty years ago, scientists who expressed scepticism about the benefits of particular GM crops were tolerated. Now I can only think of one person inside the UK academic science who holds this view publicly and has kept their job. It seems likely that this is because a belief in GM is now a tacit entry requirement to such institutions, rather than the case for GM-based agriculture having got much stronger.

The two entrenched sides in the GM wars undertake research that is based on different basic assumptions, and judge their success by different criteria. One has an annual budget of £6billion in the EU alone, while the other has almost zero.

The new Soil Association Chief Executive, Helen Browning, knows her history. She recently gave a spirited defence of the Luddite rebellion as part of her critique of the lack of joined-up thinking that characterises current agricultural research. Organic farmers like Browning suggest, like the Luddites, that technology must be for the common good. She believes currently available GM crops and animals, are not, nor are the potential future benefits of GM worth the current research investment being made.

Last summer, DEFRA organised a national event about food security where only those broadly sympathetic to investments in GM and industrial intensification were speakers. With a tendency to turn to those who share the same beliefs for mutual support – what psychologists call groupthink - the two sides seem to be moving ever further apart.

These recent trends appear to be drawing us into a re-run of the GM war, the two main outcomes of which could be our inability to take a balanced view of the evidence, but also the increased risk that many of us, particularly those among us who live in poverty, will be unable to feed ourselves a healthy diet. Unlike disputes between left and right most of us debating the food system share the same core values – we neither have blind faith in the benefits of all technology, nor do we want to commit to a future food system that relies solely on techniques from pre-industrial eras.

Our Food is issuing an open invitation to all those involved in food and agricultural research to come and join us this process of epistemological bridge-building. Whether we have complete faith or deep scepticism about particular technological futures, it is surely time for us to draw back from barricades and join with wider society in dialogue. Conversations could rebuild our trust in the capacity for reason of those who don’t share our opinions while also restoring our faith that we might be able to use research to create healthy people and a flourishing countryside.

Tom Wakeford is a senior research fellow in the school of health in social science at the University of Edinburgh


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