When will scientists engage in serious debate?

“PANIC ATTACK: INTERROGATING OUR OBSESSION WITH RISK”: now there's a fine dispassionate title for an unprejudiced debate on scientific progress. But this one was held at the Royal Institution no less (May 9); and was preceded by a survey of 40 scientists who were invited to tell us how awful our lives would be if the fashionable but crackpot “precautionary principle” had been allowed to prevail in the past: no heart surgery, no antibiotics, hardly any drugs at all. No risk, no gain. Ostensibly, the RI debate wasn't geared expressly to biotechnology. But it was part of the general softening up before the government tells us (as it is due to do this autumn) that “the public” (or at least that part of it that is worth listening to) has agreed that GMOs are a good thing.

In truth, though, the precautionary principle is a subtle idea. It has been variously stated—not least by the European Union—but it generally includes some notion of cost-effectiveness. Thus the point is not simply to ban things that are not known to be absolutely safe. It also embraces the concept of cost-effectiveness. It says, “Of course you can make no progress without risk. But if there is no obvious gain from taking the risk, then don't take it”.

Clearly, all the technologies listed by the 40 well-chosen savants were innately risky at their inception (as all technologies are). But all of them would have met the criterion imposed by the precautionary principle because they all offered tremendous benefits—the solutions to very big problems—if only the snags could be overcome. To all the items on the sages' list, GM crops stand in absolute contrast. Some at least of the risks can be defined. But at least in the present economic climate, the benefits that might accrue from them seem extremely dubious.

Thus, the scientists tell us, if the precautionary principle had been in place, we would not how have antibiotics. But of course we would—if the version of the principle that sensible people now understand, had been applied. When penicillin was discovered in the 1920s the world was laid waste by infective bacteria. Children died, sometimes en masse, from diphtheria and whooping cough. Any dubious drain brought the threat of typhoid, and any wound could lead to septicaemia and even gangrene (and memories of World War I were still fresh). Above all, as an old general practitioner once told me, the family doctors of the day placed infections in two categories: TB, and the rest. Penicillin was turned into a practical drug during World War II—when the many pestilences that result directly from war, mostly bacterial, again threatened to kill more people than the bombs. Of course antibiotics were a priority. Of course the risks (such as they could be perceived) were worth taking. Absolutely not would the precautionary principle (as now construed by the people who actually understand it) have stood in the way.

But so the dreary list goes on. With the dreaded precautionary principle in place, the experts tell us, we would not now have the aeroplane, any drug with side effects (which means all effective drugs), anhydrous ammonia fertiliser, aspirin, the bicycle, electric light-bulbs, blood transfusion, CAT scans, knives, the measles vaccine—and so on and so on. Yet if the precautionary principle had been applied by people who understand what it means then all of those creations would certainly have passed muster, because all offered incomparable advantages compared to the risks that could be perceived at the time of their introduction. (Yet some of the listed items are simply mysterious, not to say ludicrous. With the precautionary principle in place, the sages tell us, humanity would not have discovered America. Well, goodness me).

There is much else in the concept of risk, too, besides mere statistics—for real human beings, subtle and evolved creatures that we are, do not survive to three score years and ten simply by thinking like pocket calculators. A crucial issue for real human beings is that of choice. We really don't need telling that ski-ing is more dangerous than GM tomatoes. But people who ski, choose to do so. They do not have skiing thrust upon them by portentous experts, of the kind who now feel they have the right to re-construct our crops. Especially in a democracy, that makes all the difference. Again, too, there's the matter of cost effectiveness. Skiing (I'm told) is exhilarating. Where is the exhilieration in GM soya?

Contrast all of the above with the realities of GM crops. The zealots claim and clearly believe that without GM crops, the future population of the world cannot be fed. That, as a matter of starkest fact, is untrue. The crops that really matter are wheat and rice, and there is no GM research in the pipeline that will seriously affect the yield of either. Maize, the third great crop, has been widely manipulated, but (like soya) it is mostly fed to animals—and excess livestock, though profitable, is one of the world's great biological burdens. By 2050, with present trends, the human population will be 10 billion while livestock will be eating the equivalent of another 4 billion. In truth, GM is used not to solve real problems, but to make production cheaper and hence more profitable, which is an extremely equivocal ambition. The “experts” who ostensibly set such store by evidence and “rationality” seem unaware of the most basic data.

The zealots are at least as na´ve politically. To be sure, they are right to insist that GM crops could be of benefit to the Third World—but again, while insisting on realism, they misconstrue the reality. Thus, they tell us, population is rising fastest in the poorest countries and traditional farming simply cannot cope. It needs modernising, and this should include GMs—to provide high-yielding crops in difficult conditions (too dry, too hot, too saline) more reliably than can be done by traditional breeding. This is indeed a valid argument: the case against GMOs is not luddite. Yet it's usually wrong to suppose that traditional farming could not cope -- if only it was given half a chance. Angolan farmers fail (sometimes) because their country has been at war for 30 years (there's a cease-fire now) and their fields are mined. So too Cambodia, which was a rice exporter in the 1950s before the US bombed it end to end (nothing personal; but they thought the Vietcong might be hiding there).

So of course traditional farming could benefit from some up-grading. So could any of us. But increasingly, since the monetarist days of the 1980s science and high tech have been supplied by corporations, and cannot be applied to the specific, field-scale problems of small farmers because that is not profitable. As things are, Third World countries cannot buy into GM except by turning their subsistence, mixed-crop, labour-intensive farms into industrialised plantations devoted to highest-yield monoculture for export. The result will be world glut (the thing that traditional farmers fear as much as total wipe-out) and prices will be rock-bottom (the price of coffee on the world market has dropped by 70 per cent since 1997). GM in the Third World does not imply happy, well-fed people raising bounteous crops in their own ways in arid valleys steeped in salt. It means plantations, horizon-to-horizon, employing a few local labourers (while the erstwhile farmers are dispossessed), raising coffee and soya for as little as the western supermarkets can get away with. If GM technology could be liberated from its present political/commercial bind, then it could be of use. But if it is applied as things are, as the zealots (including Britain's government) are urging, then Third World countries would lose all chance of autonomy forever. They would become the empires of tomorrow, even more emphatically than in the past.

In the past 20 years the world has indeed become more dangerous—but not because of new technologies. If they were handled properly (with sensible deployment of the precautionary principle) then humanity could surely cope with them. What's really worrying is the subversion of good sense and common humanity, that are so vital if we are to handle new technologies adroitly. Governments see themselves as the prop and natural allies of commercial forces that they once felt duty-bound to protect us against; but the coup de grace is the sell-out of academe, who now feel it is reasonable to lend their intellects and their skill to commercial and political propaganda. Even the dishonesty implied in this would be less worrying if it was geared to true scholarship; but in putting their names to fatuities like this, two-score well-known scientists have declared in public that they neither appreciate the realities of the modern world, nor even the details of the specific idea (in this case the precautionary principle) that they were invited to attack. To be ruled by experts who do not understand democracy is bad. But to be ruled by experts who are not even particularly expert, is truly a disaster.