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- Date: Fri, 26 Feb 1999 04:36:43 -0800 (PST)
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The Brits have been described as "panicked" over genetically-manipulated
foods. Even with the precedent of how the previous administration handled
"mad-cow" disease, the current administration seems loath to approve the
taking of precautions, basing its public statements on "sound" scientific
advice. A couple of days ago, 19 persons, eminent because they have been
elected to the brit. "Royal Society" published a statement which was not
helpful in distinguishing between the "advice of good scientists", and
So here is the advice of a "good scientific journalist". (That's my
Labs are full of researchers who can't see beyond the microscope
By George Monbiot
Guardian (London) Thursday February 25, 1999
When 19 eminent Fellows of the Royal Society publish a joint statement,
the world, quite rightly, takes note. We need, the biologists told us in a
letter to the newspapers this week, 'to distinguish good science from bad
science' and 'bring good science into the centre of decision-making'. To
which we all reply, quite so.
But what, precisely, is good science?
What the professors meant, of course, is research subjected to the
scrutiny of other scientists, or 'peer review'. What they did not mean is
science which improves the lot of humankind, rather than harming it.
Indeed, according to Professor Lewis Wolpert, until recently chair of the
Royal Society's Committee on the Public Understanding of Science, science
is 'value free': the pursuit of knowledge, whatever its nature, is neither
moral nor immoral. This is precisely why we have learnt to mistrust it.
The physics labs in which some of the best scientific brains in Britain
design grenades which maim without killing, or bombs which destroy people
but not the infrastructure, practice 'good' science, subjected to peer
They are also saturated with values. They place a higher value on
their research grants than on the lives with which they toy. Precisely the
same approach appears to govern many of the nation's biology labs.
For the war now being waged across the planet is an economic one, as big
corporations attempt to seize the resources upon which some of the poorest
people on earth depend. And many of the best biologists in Britain are
fighting on the wrong side.
In an article in the Guardian last week, another eminent Fellow of the
Royal Society, Professor Christopher Leaver, argued that genetic
engineering will save the world from starvation.
His assessment would be hilarious, were we to forget how influential he
The distinguished professor correctly identified the problem: that the
world's population is growing and the amount of land on which food can be
produced is shrinking. He then went on to enthuse about the tremendous
potential for genetic engineering: the new crops it is producing mean that
farmland can now be used to grow soap, plastics and high-tech animal feed.
These crops, presumably, for this is the point of the research, will have
a higher market value than food crops grown for humans. Farmers, in other
words, will be encouraged to stop contributing to the world's diminishing
supplies of food and start, instead, to produce industrial chemicals.
Prof Leaver argued that genetically modified crops would help developing
nations. He went on to boast that, thanks to genetic engineering, rape, a
crop most effectively grown on vast factory farms in the northern
hemisphere, can now produce plenty of lauric acid. The new technology
threatens to destroy the market for coconut oil that sustains millions of
peasant farmers across South-east Asia and the South Pacific.
It's hardly surprising that scientists, even the most illustrious, can no
longer distinguish good from bad. British students are forced to
specialise earlier than those of most other countries.
Post-graduates discover that research money flows more easily for narrow
science with precise technological outcomes than for visionary science
with no immediate application. Our laboratories, as a result, are crammed
with idiot savants, people with a profound understanding of their own
subject, but who know nothing whatever about the political and economic
realities which govern its deployment. Christopher Leaver's primitive
Modernism, his childish faith in technology's ability to solve political
and economic problems, are shared by some of the best researchers in
Britain. Unable to see beyond the sub-microscopic, they have, unwittingly,
become mercenaries in the corporate war against the poor.
If the world's
impending food crisis is to be solved, it will be done through a fairer
distribution of food and the means to grow it, soil conservation
strategies and a switch away from the consumption of vast quantities of
meat and milk.
Genetically engineered plants offer the world very little of benefit that
conventional breeding has not already produced. But they offer the
corporations control over what, indeed whether, we eat. The people who
develop them have got the science right, and everything else wrong.
Scientists have become mercenaries in the corporate war against the poor.
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