We began with two audience polls, a show of hands proposed by Ridley: how many people are in favour of GM foods? An overall majority in favour. Louise Fresco suggested a poll on how many are optimistic we can feed the world in 2050, again a majority. These two questions highlight the main themes of the discussion, that of the base issue of GM acceptance, and the need for which GM will be required to feed a growing population.
Fresco opened by stating the GM debate by highlighting that most of the GM work has gone into herbicide resistance, which ironically has generated the most resistance in another area – society. In recent years Bacillus thuringiensis toxin (Bt) has had a positive effect on health and ebnvironment, it has allowed small farmers in India and China to reduce use of pesticides, with a positive effect on health and environment. Can we extend that same duel benefit to other crops?
However Fagerström raised the more fundamental issue, the question of why is there this resistance in society? Especially given the empirical support for GM not being a problem is very strong. How did we end up here? Nüsslein-Volhard believes the issue is rooted in a resistance against science, rather than GM itself. Why do people not trust scientists? Why are politicians inclined to embrace the more fluffy ‘green’ organisations rather than scientific manifestos? The problem is that there is deeply rooted mis-trust brought about by a lack of education. I could liken it to the issues raised by Helga Nowotny this morning on the fulfilment of promise – genomic technologies meeting a pre-genomic society. After all, we have the genomes for several crops now (e.g. rice) so we actually know what we are changing.
The other issue is that in modern, western farms, farmers are paid whether their crop fails or succeeds; they just don’t need to care about more efficient production. In fact, if they increase production – the surplus just floods (and destablises) the developing countries. However, local action on governments in countries where these technologies are being developed negatively effects the prospects for these products in these developing countries.
Fresco highlighted that in discussing GM people don’t go into the details; there is too much generalisation. Focus on specifics, like perhaps the potato. We’re not talking about wide-crosses here (i.e. jellyfish genes in vegetables), but in fact practise sys-genesis, the back crossing with ancestral Andean types of potato that are resistant to phytophthora blight. We should show that GM can be close to the original, rather than some mutant chimera. Torbjörn agrees, and suggests that GM should be judged crop by crop like anything else. It’s like saying you are against electricity, just because some electrical items can be bad!
Another problem is that societies that most object to GM do not readily feel the tangible benefits of GM. Is the a comparable objection to GM cotton that we wear, or the idea of fast growing GM trees, or transgenic mosquitoes that don’t vector diseases such as Dengue. When we feel the advantage, so our perceptions of ‘risk’ diminish?
Fresco believes this is something that is much more related to our relationship with food, and a lack of knowledge of about the process. Everyone thinks they’re an expert in food; it has moral underpinnings and views (good vs bad) that are commonplace conversations. People have strong views about intensification, multinationals, international food chains, animal treatment, but many of these are centred in highly urban with a loss of connection with the steps embedded in bringing food to the plate. Euros accept modernisation by these routes in many other technologies, but not in food. People like small farms; they think small is better. The GM debate often focusses on quantity and not quality. However GM is not inherrently tasteless, it’s down to the cultivars being developed, as it’s not a big issues to return to old ‘tastier’ varieties, but improve productivity by improving production circumstances.
A final comment, raised by a question from the floor, was the role of GM policy skepticism; maybe the public is more skeptical of our policy-making apparatus than the technological apparatus. People don’t trust the decision value of politicians, thus don’t trust the application of these technologies. Fagerström suggests that scientific verdict should permeate into policy-making, rather than irrational decision-making.
Final take-home messages
Fresco: we are risk averse in the middle-classes. We learn by making mistaked. People don’t want to make mistakes anymore. Let’s not be afraid of risks. Just as cars were introduced as a death trap, we improve – better cars and licensing.
Pang: Can we take what we have learned about policy decisions in the developed world and apply to developing countries, so the same mistakes are not made.
Nüsselein-Volhard: Try to get the GM to make use of land that is not cultivatable by any other means.
Barton: Education – teach the consumer how this works. Going to need to produce 70% more food than we do today. The next 50 yrs will have to do ciumulatively what we achieved in the last 10,000 yrs. Applying genetics to food is going to be a critical component.
Ridley: In 2013 the vitamin-A enhanced golden rice, a fantastic non-profit technology, will be introduced. All eyes will be on how this is rolled out, and the responses of society.