The precautionary case against GMOs is as strong as ever, today’s dangerous Select Committee report notwithstanding

(This is a piece from the archives, first published @ thenewshub 26 Feb 2015)

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The House of Commons Select Committee
have published today a report, in which they argue that there is no precautionary case against GM food. They are comprehensively wrong. Here’s why, in a nutshell.

lt might be true that the evidence against GM food is weak. Even if that were true, that would in no way license the conclusion that GM food is safe. One needs to consider the vast unevidenced realm of what else might have happened in the past but didn’t and of what might happen in the future (which by definition hasn’t happened yet), and not just the thin sliver represented by the best available evidence.

The Select Committee were offered this argument in evidence to their inquiry. They chose to ignore that evidence.

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee now claim that:

The scientific evidence is clear that crops developed using genetic modification pose no more risk to humans, animals or the environment than equivalent crops developed using more ‘conventional’ techniques.

House of Commons Science and Technology Committee

With all due respect, that is false.

Speaking for myself, I am willing to accept that there probably isn’t strong scientific evidence that GM crops have harmed humans or animals to date. And even the evidence of harm to ecosystems, though real, is not overwhelming. That’s common ground that I am willing to concede to the advocates of GM. But even granting that doesn’t help prove their case. For the fundamental point that Nassim Taleb and I make in our work on GM, work that the Committee sadly seems to have ignored despite my having brought it to their attention, is that absence of evidence of harm is not evidence of absence of potential harm. The scientific evidence is not “clear” that GM crops pose “no” more risk than other crops. On the contrary, a genuinely precautionary approach will not stake our future recklessly on top-down engineering of the very thing that we live off: our land, nature, and our crops.

It didn’t help the Committee that the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Mark Walport, so evidently fails to understand the Precautionary Principle itself (see sections 111-112 of the Select Committee report), and is seeking to ‘dumb it down’ to be more or less vacuous. Sir Mark would do well to read the piece that Taleb and I wrote.

The Committee claim that:

..it is clear from the evidence given to the Committee that…simply because a crop has been produced via genetic modification [does not mean that the precautionary principle needs to be invoked].

House of Commons Science and Technology Committee

Again, this is very far from clear. In fact, the Committee have clearly prejudged the issue, against the Precautionary Principle, as I have pointed out before today. They have failed, ironically, to actually take an ‘evidence-based’ approach to their own inquiry. They clearly went into this exercise already quite determined on what the outcome they would reach would be. They fitted the ‘evidence’ to the conclusion that they wanted, and not the other way around.

The Precautionary Principle ought to be invoked when an action surrounded by uncertainty risks unleashing ruin. The potential destruction of our food system or of our natural biodiversity is just such an uncertain risk.

As I warned at the outset of the inquiry, along with colleagues, the very terms of reference of the Committee biased the pitch against precautiousness, and in favour of ‘evidence-based’ approaches. Who could object to being evidence-based? But essentially what the inquiry amounts to – to be seeking to justify – is a reckless disregard for precaution, and instead a peculiar dogma that states that until we have evidence that something is harmful, it should be presumed to be safe. But to say again the crucial point; absence of evidence of harm is not evidence of absence of harm. Being ‘evidence-based’ is a soundbite-excuse for not considering precaution, and for not considering ethics.

In relation to GM food, that we don’t have a great deal of evidence of harm is not a sound evidence-based reason for thinking that we have evidence of absence of harm. We do not. And precaution dictates that we should therefore be precautious.

Future generations may barely get the chance to reproach us, if we fail to be.

As a post scriptum, one of those ‘evidence-based’ members of the Science and Tech Select Committee is David Tredinnick MP, who made the news yesterday because of his belief in astrology. Somehow, I think we can do better than this.

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