Getting to the grist about GM (part 1)

Nathanael Johnson at the online magazine Grist is presenting a series of articles about genetic modification (GM), also called genetic engineering (GE). I’m grateful to my fellow blogger applpy at Thought + Food for drawing attention to this. For some reason, I’ve been having trouble getting the Grist website to open. Anyway, today I’m able to read what Mr Johnson is saying.

He started his series by asking ‘The genetically modified food debate: Where do we begin?’ As you know, I get frustrated when people assume that the GM story is all about food safety. Evidence of harm is almost entirely absent.

Well, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Every science student learns that. It’s difficult learning and I’ve seen quite senior people slip up on it. But please, in the GM story let’s accept that there’s very little evidence of people being directly at risk when they eat GM crops. When I find that evidence, I mention it here on my blog, but there’s not a lot of it. There are more compelling topics about GM.

Don’t give up on Mr Johnson’s series. He starts with the question that most people start with. He says, ‘The quest for greater certainty on genetic engineering leaves you chasing shadows: When you’re dealing with gaps in knowledge, rather than hard data, it’s hard to tell what’s an outlandish hypothetical, and what’s the legitimate danger. Anything, of course, is possible, but we shouldn’t be paralyzed by unknown risks, or we’ll end up huddled in our basements wearing tinfoil hats.’ Good words, says argylesock, adjusting my tinfoil.

The other thing I like about this first article in Mr Johnson’s series is the way he discusses Mark Lynas. Mr Lynas got famous for opposing GM crops in Britain a few decades ago and he got famous again for apologising about that a few months ago. He told our National Farmers Union (NFU) in January this year that he wants to put science back at the centre of the GM debate. He’s not a scientist and I don’t think he understands the science about GM very well. He’s been more at home strutting with a symbolic scythe. Soon after his speech to the NFU, I said that I’d follow up on the Lynas story but I ended up deciding that he’s not really worth the bother.

Mr Johnson and I agree about Mr Lynas. ‘When Mark Lynas made his speech saying that he’d changed his mind about genetic engineering, I was unconvinced, because he didn’t dig into the evidence (he provides a little more of this, though not much, in his book). Lynas did, however, make one important point: There are parallels between opposition to GM crops and other embarrassingly unscientific conspiracy theories. If there are grounds to oppose genetic engineering, they will have to be carefully considered grounds, supported by science.’

That’s enough for this blog post. If I continue being able to access the Grist series about GM, I’ll continue reviewing it here.


About argylesock

I wrote a PhD about veterinary parasitology so that's the starting point for this blog. But I'm now branching out into other areas of biology and into popular science writing. I'll write here about science that happens in landscapes, particularly farmland, and about science involving interspecific interactions. Datasets and statistics get my attention. Exactly where this blog will lead? That's a journey that I'm on and I hope you'll come with me.
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4 Responses to Getting to the grist about GM (part 1)

  1. Pingback: Getting to the grist about GM (part 2) | Science on the Land

  2. Pingback: GM in Britain: NIMBY or red tape? | Science on the Land

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