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9-Misc: UK GE debate - who cares what people think?

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TITLE:  Who cares what 'the people' think of GM foods?
SOURCE: The Times, UK, by Marc Henderson
        COMMENT by NGIN, UK
DATE:   June 13, 2003

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GM WATCH daily:
--- Below's a piece from Mark Henderson, the science correspondent of The
Times. He derides not just the current GM 'public debate' but the very idea of
public involvement in such decision making. What crops we grow, what foods we
eat, it seems, are matters best left to the experts.

Henderson's vision of that expertise is revealed by the article's reference
to this week's report from the Nuffield Council on Bio-ethics. It's the
product Henderson tells us of "an independent group with genuine expertise". In
reality, of course, the small Working Party of five behind the report is
dominated by "experts" with a history of passionate advocacy of GM crops. One has
even written a guide on how to "use pressure-group tactics to fight the
opponents". ('This will be like no other debate', Derek Burke, Times Higher
Education Supplement)

In between such impartial expertise and 'the people' stand the interpreters
- science correspondents like Henderson.

Ponder these Henderson headlines:

GM grass to put club golfers on par with the best
GM crops could revive endangered wildlife
GM cotton boon for Indian farmers
Bananas 'will slip into extinction without GM'
Stupidity just another disease to cure, says DNA pioneer
Attack on safety of GM crops was unfounded
New GM rice could transform the fight against famine
BBC incited eco-terror on GM drama website
Protesters 'censor' GM crop benefits
Imported plants 'far worse than GM crops'
Modified crops help man and wildlife
Blair condemns protesters who thwart science
Indian farmers reap benefit of GM cotton crops

All over southern India GM cotton has been failing, precipitating severe
losses for poor farmers, but Henderson gives us a fairytale in which smiling
Indians bask in the boon of GM crops.

According to Henderson's reports - gleaned from the experts, without GM we
face thwarted science, no bananas, eco-terror and famine; with GM it's great
golf, grateful natives, wildlife aplenty and an end to stupidity. This is not
just one-sided journalism here but stories that evaporate on a closer
inspection of the facts.

Of course, in the week in which we've been treated to another fairytale out
of India courtesy of the BBC's science correspondent, Pallab Ghosh, it's
clearly not just Henderson that makes UK science correspondents (with some
honourable exceptions!) a breed apart.

Who cares what 'the people' think of GM foods?

For a couple of hours this afternoon, a few dozen Greenpeace types, assorted
yogic flyers from the Natural Law Party, a handful of pensioners, and
perhaps the odd scientist or farmer are going to sit down and talk about GM food.
The gathering, in Harrogate, is the last in a series that makes up GM Nation?,
the Government's public debate about whether Britain should grow transgenic

You may not have noticed, but the consultation has been running for a couple
of weeks. According to ministers, it's an unprecedented chance for the man
in the street to influence their decisions. Margaret Beckett, the Environment
Secretary, says it's designed to "ensure all voices are heard".

The exercise has been farce from start to finish. And I'm not sure I want
the man in the street to set Britain's science, technology and agriculture
policy. One of the six meetings - held midweek at major population centres, such
as Taunton and Harrogate - spent much of its time discussing whether the Sars
virus might come from GM cotton in China. It's more likely to have come from
outer space. I can think of more useful ways to waste time and money.

Then there's the fact that the meetings will tell us nothing we don't know
already. The lack of advertising and helpful scheduling mean that every one
has been stuffed with green campaigners and New Age zealots who think GM crops
are the root of all evil. They were the only ones who were organised enough -
or who cared enough - to attend.

The best-attended meeting, in Swansea, attracted a whopping 180 people, most
of them already parti pris. The Government will be lucky if even a hundred
lay people with a genuine curiosity, rather than crop-tramplers with a Luddite
agenda, have joined in the fun. I could have told Mrs Beckett that
Greenpeace activists don't care for GM food. You don't have to spend £500,000 and lay
on tea and biscuits: five minutes on their website is more than enough.

Worst of all, the debate is seeking an answer to an asinine question. Asking
people whether they're for or against GM crops is as ridiculous as asking
whether they're for or against fire. As Prometheus found out, a mastery of
flame can be a boon or a curse. It is the tool of the arsonist and Gordon Ramsay.
The technology is morally neutral. It is how it is applied that counts.

So it is with GM crops. There is nothing good or bad about them per se: some
applications promise great benefits, to consumers, to farmers and to the
environment. Others will probably be damaging. Just because a herbicide-tolerant
sugar beet might be good - or bad - for Britain does not mean that maize
that makes its own pesticide will be the same.

The Government is making a nonsense of science and insulting the public's
intelligence by polarising the argument, seeking simple and sweeping answers
where none exists. As the Nuffield Council on Bioethics - an independent group
with genuine expertise - put it this week: "The possible costs, benefits and
risks associated with particular GM crops can only be assessed on a
case-by-case basis."

There is one small mercy - even if it begs further questions about why this
pointless consultation was ever started. Whatever the outcome of GM Nation?,
the GM issue is going to be resolved elsewhere. European law, and World Trade
Organisation rules mean that Britain will not be allowed to block GM crops
without sound scientific evidence of potential harm to human health or the

The real decision will be made in Brussels, not Westminster. Now there's a
subject for public debate.



 Hartmut Meyer       
 Kleine Wiese 6         
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