If the premise is wrong, what hope for the science?

February 2013 
Corn grenade. Image © Greenpeace / Statchett
This was a madness that seems to have been attained by following a line of perfect reason from a dubious premise” - Louis De Bernières' epitome of a fictional (but not fanciful) cardinal inflicting torture and carnage to 'save the souls' of those not observing the faith.

Future historians may well look back and write about our time ... about how willing we are to sacrifice our children and jeopardize future generations with this massive experiment that is based on false promises and flawed science just to benefit the “bottom line of a commercial enterprise” - Don Huber talking about the North American “experiment” with glyphosate (active ingredient of the weed-killer, Roundup) and Roundup-tolerant GM crops.
Are there parallels here with the biotech zealots systematically converting regulators, the global agri-food system, the media and scientists to their GM-faith? Non-believers are not quite put to the sword, but they are routinely insulted and belittled (see below): if they are scientists, they're hounded out of office, made unemployable and unpublishable. Our future has been placed in the hands of the god of Profit, with the angel, Biotech Science, at his right hand.

Defining anti-GMism:

In a recent single, three-paragraph editorial 'View', the Telegraph managed to repeat just about every put-down spawned over the years by the biotech industry's PR boy to discredit anyone in the anti-GM movement

Apparently, if you're not following the GM-faith, you're part of an angry and noisy minority whose stance is humbug and based on superstition not science. Also, you're stupid because people have been eating GM food for years. Worse, you're depriving hard-pressed farmers in the Third World and condemning future generations to certain starvation for want of GM food. You're, moreover, a bone-headed Luddite and probably a lawless vandal to boot. And anyway, mankind has always been modifying its food, so what's your problem?

One of the most powerful scientists in Europe, the chief scientific adviser to the European Commission repeats the biotech industry sound-byte that “There is no substantiated case of any adverse impact on human health, animal health or environmental health, so that's pretty robust evidence, and I would be confident in saying that there is no more risk in eating GMO food than eating conventionally farmed food.”

Given that there hasn't been a single clinical trial, that neither safety tests nor monitoring protocols appropriate to GM foods have ever been developed (never mind applied), and that livestock aren't allowed to live long enough to act as health barometer, these biotech assertions are clearly baseless. The evidence isn't 'pretty robust', it's non-existent: no one's collected the necessary scientific data.

Paradoxically, in the same interview, the chief scientist calls for less politics, less emotion and more science in the GM debate.

Other influential scientists routinely pin the blame for the GM concern which won't go away on the “negative influence generated by lobby groups, and the associated political and regulatory issues” (Leaver). COMMENT In other words, the only safety problem with GM is all those pesky people demanding evidence.

All this mad pro-GM spin seems to have been attained by following a line of perfect reason from the dubious premise that GM food is 'substantially equivalent' to conventional food, and therefore as safe.

However, there's one very respected agri-scientist (see below) who can give those of the GM-faith an argument.

Don Huber took a sane step back and looked at the science of GMOs. Then he looked at what's happening in America with all its biotech crops. His premise is one that doesn't lead to any assumption of safety: “There's nothing substantially equivalent to gene insertion in nature”.

Prof. Don Huber
Huber is emeritus professor in plant pathology at Purdue University, a retired colonel who worked with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to reduce the impact of plant disease outbreaks in the United States and a member of the emerging diseases and pathogens committee of the American Phytopathological Society. He has the full complement of markers of academic success: journal articles, books, and awards.
His area of expertise is plant disease

The gene highest in Huber's awareness is the one which enables plants to accumulate glyphosate. This is a favourite gene of the biotech industry because it enables farmers to apply unprecedented volumes of Roundup to their land, and enables the industry to reap profits twice over, once for the GM seed and a second time for the herbicide.

Huber lists the science which shows the unfolding harm from these Roundup-Ready crops: disrupted soil microbial ecology, increased plant disease, reduced soil and plant nutrient contents, and lowered plant water-use efficiency.

He also describes the increase in many chronic diseases such as coeliac disease, allergies, chronic fatigue syndrome, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, miscarriage and sudden infant death, which have paralleled the rise in glyphosate use: he concludes that there's a pattern here that should be investigated.

On safety evaluations, Huber deems them inadequate with “substandard and extremely misleading interpretation of the results”.
“The allegations that Huber has compiled are incredibly damning of GM products and the inherent increase in glyphosate that goes with the Roundup Ready products. Those people who have confidence in the wisdom of our governing and regulating bodies will find these stories hard to believe. Some will suggest that science has shown these technologies to be safe That would be misinterpreting the science.” (Frick)

Now we have a choice. Do we start from a premise of substantial equivalence, and inherent safety? Or, do we start from a premise of non-equivalence to anything in nature, and inherent risk? The science carried out will depend on which premise we start from, and the answers we get will depend on which science we choose to do.

  • Brenda Frick, Scientists raises concerns about GM crops and glyphosate,, 21.12.12
  • Mankind has always modified its food sources, and has increased crop yields in the process, Telegraph View, 10.12.12
  • Louis de Bernières, The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman, ISBN 0-7483-9857-4
  • GMOs: “Anne Glover, you are wrong”,, 30.07.12
  • Prof. David Leaver, Support for agricultural R&D is essential to deliver sustainable increases in UK food production, All-Party Parliamentary Group on Science and Technology in Agriculture, November 2010

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