The remarkable scientific consensus

October 2013

Planet -  Jones Valley Urban Farm
Image credit: Alby Headrick on Flickr
“Genetic engineering has aroused an unprecedented controversy in the scientific world. It has been described by one Nobel prize-winner as creating the greatest ethical problem that science has ever had to face” (Straton).
This apparently topical quote is from an article entitled “The Genetic Engineering debate” and dates from 1977. At this time, the GM being debated involved microbes, viruses and fungi, all much simpler that the higher plants and animals being genetically transformed today.

Since then, what's happened to the GM debate?

According to Prof. Jack Heinemann, the GM controversy is now being settled using fear and insults: 
“Hunger, pestilence, and economic failure are the images of fear increasingly being used to drive acceptance of GM crops. Ignorance, anti-science, ideology and hypocrisy are the insults used to counter questions about the safety of GM crops coming from scientists and the public.”
Heinemann is being very polite. Back in 1977, a pro-GM Nobel prize-winner described GM critics as “shits and incompetents”.

After nearly four decades of debate descending into mud-slinging, there seems to be the first signs of a conclusion: 
“There is a remarkable consensus among scientists ... that we need an urgent global transition to small scale sustainable agriculture and localised food systems that can reverse most, if not all, the underlying causes of deteriorating agricultural productivity, conserve natural soil and water resources while adapting to and mitigating climate change” (Nabhan). 
Sustainable, small, local food production systems are not compatible with the uniformity of globalised agriculture, nor with high-environmental cost, high social cost, high cost biotech crops. Put another way, GM is making a bad situation worse.

The 1977 article finished on an ominous note: 
“The Atomic Age began with Hiroshima. After that no one needed to be convinced that we had a problem. We are now entering the Genetic Age; I hope we do not need a similar demonstration”.


If recent reports of the harmful effects of the glyphosate herbicide which is accumulated by most commercialised GM crops [1], and the results of the only life-long feeding study on one such GM crop [2] are anything to go by, we may already be witnessing the slow-motion Hiroshima of GM.

What we have never witnessed is a proper debate on GM, because the means to stifle it emerged at about the same time as Straton's article (see GAMING THE EXPERTS - October 2013)

[1] SICKLY GM-FED COWS - News, October 2013
[2] GM MAIZE IS NOT SAFE TO EAT - News, October 2012

  • Gary Paul Nabhan quoted by Mae-Wan Ho, Towards 100% Renewables - Surviving Global Warming, Institute of Science in Society Report 25.09.13
  • Jack A. Heinemann, Keep the pause button on GM pressed, The Hindu 7.09.13
  • David Straton, 1977, The Genetic Engineering Debate, The Ecologist, 7:10

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