The culture of neatly simple science

July 2015

A book has just been published which describes the whole, sorry, history of "How the Venture to Genetic Engineer Our Food Has Subverted Science, Corrupted Government, and Systematically Deceived the Public".

Lawyer, Steve Druker, has cast a critical, analytical eye over the handling of GM by regulators, corporations, the media, prestigious institutions, and respected scientists, and has produced a very disturbing account.

In the conclusion of his investigation he asks the question who was ultimately responsible for the delinquencies and associated problems of the whole GM enterprise. His surprising answer is scientists.

Back in the 1970s, the public were already voicing concerns about the safety of GMOs. Anticipating that their research would become tied up in red tape, scientists convened three conferences ostensibly to evaluate the safety of GM. These meetings have since been used as proof of how responsible scientists are, and as a reassurance that scientists can safely be left to regulate themselves.

However, transcripts and interviews with participants of these meetings reveal a careful control over who attended them, how issues were discussed, and what information was disseminated. The focus was on how to persuade the "guys out there" that "there is nothing to worry about". Safety issues "tended to be factored out of consideration rather than confronted".

At the time, only bacteria were being genetically transformed, and the focus was on medical applications. The move to the much trickier and disruptive genetic transformation of higher plants which become our food, nevertheless, seems to have flowed seamlessly and without further debate or regulation from the stage set by those three conferences.

Indeed, what has now unfolded is that the only self-regulation embraced by scientists has been the repression of GM-unfriendly science and the ostracizing of colleagues who raise questions about GM safety. Long before any commercialisation of GMOs, scientists with GM-doubting opinions were branded as "kooks, shits and incompetents".

As Druker points out, although the biotech industry is now cast as the villains, none of them entered the picture until several years after those scientists' conferences on 'safety'. In fact, the first companies formed to capitalise on GM were founded by scientists themselves and funded by venture capitalists.

Even Big Biotech wouldn't be in business now without support from scientists willing to collude in its PR. Only someone with the perceived authority of a science professor or a scientific body would get away with claiming that an artificial gene "behaves exactly like any other gene", or that GM crops are "the safest crops in the world", or that "We've been testing (GM crops) for 40 years", or that each new GM crop is "subjected to rigorous analysis and testing". Because who, after all, will risk his career or the wrath of his peers by pointing out that genes are notoriously unpredictable and don't work at all unless you fit them with an artificial 'on-switch' powerful enough to overcome the plant's attempts to silence them. Or, who would point out that GM crops haven't existed for 40 years. Or, who would dare mention out that there is no established protocol nor mandatory testing for GM food safety in the US, and by the way the biotech industry has been allowed to re-write the basic principles of scientific methodology.

Having reached this distasteful, but inescapable, conclusion, Druker searches for a motivation for the loss of scientist integrity.

He notes that sometimes financial gain may be involved, and also that some scientists feel a moral duty to promote a technology frequently touted as the saviour of future humanity, and certainly fear of reprisal silences truth, but none of these are powerful enough reasons to cause the blanket subversion of science he reported.

Perhaps closer to the crux of the matter is Druker's finding that university scientists don't do their homework: they don't read the facts, they effortlessly parrot arguments prepared by industry PR departments, they have insufficient grasp of biology to appreciate how interference with a single metabolic pathway could have ramifications throughout the cell, moreover, a significant number of scientists have grown confused about the nature of molecular science and its relationship to the technology of molecular engineering. By subverting the standards they were trained to uphold in order to support enterprise, scientists are attacking science from within, .


A comment made by an organic farmer writing for the Telegraph prompted us to pursue another line of enquiry on what's happened to scientist integrity. 

Guy Watson, at university in the 1980s, had been intrigued by the "neatly simple" genetic code which apparently controlled the synthesis of proteins and, hence, all the structures and functions needed for life. 

Biologists in the 'hippy' era of the 1960s and 70s studied life which was anything but neat and simple, but in which everything had its place and function: DNA is structured into chromosomes which are central to the structuring of the cells which are structured into the body which is integral to the community, the ecosystem, the world and (some would say) the universe. Scientists couldn't help but be in awe of, and humbled by, the enormity of the knowledge, but it was never 'neatly simple'. 

Twenty years later students of 'biology' were being schooled in the neatly simple way genes work and told that the 98% of DNA which isn't genes are 'junk' or 'padding' with no function. Just why something as elegantly balanced and efficient and wholly connected as a living cell should waste energy and materials maintaining a pointless mass of material inside itself didn't seem a question anyone thought important. The safety of genetic transformation and the effects of GM foods on our bodies were other unimportant questions too untidy and complex to tackle: another piece of 'junk'. 

Fast forward another twenty years, and the hippy biologists, with their bigger life-picture containing lots of unknowns but no junk, are all retiring. So, while professors emeritus are noticeably at the forefront of the few scientists voicing concerns about GM, new graduates emerge with the technology to analyse and build DNA, create GMOs to order for their experiments, and use electronic wizardry to achieve unimaginable volumes of data. All very neatly simple, but sometimes young scientists often can't do anything much else. 

And old-fashioned humility? Druker suggests that 

"the virtual absence of humility from the thinking of the bioengineers and their governmental promoters is a glaring defect that rightly undermines confidence in their actions". 
At some point, scientists must take a step back and look at what their research is steadily unravelling about 'junk' DNA. All that 'junk' is in intricate concert organising the whole structure and function of life, while the neatly simple genes are fast emerging as a background store of useful information which the 'junk' adapts to its purpose. Some scientists somewhere will have the courage to point out the shakiness at the very basis of genetic engineering, and the implicit danger. 

Another truly cynical view is that biological science without all that awesome, humbling, untidy complexity has become so boring that enterprise is much more exciting. 

Read the book. It's enlightening and very readable. 

  • Steven M. Druker, Altered Genes, Twisted Truth, 2015, ISBN-13: 978-0-9856169-0-8
  • Guy Watson, Why did BBC's Panorama fall for pro-GM propaganda? Telegraph 19.06.15

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