Wickedness, Mr Paterson?

Here in Britain our Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, is a big fan of genetically modified (GM, genetically engineered, GE) crops. For example, he’s in favour of Golden Rice (GR).

GR is a GM crop being developed and promoted as a solution to the Vitamin A deficiency which damages eyes and immune systems in the mothers and children of many poor countries. Many of those people rely on rice (Oryza sativa) as a staple food.

I told you how I’m not impressed by Mr Paterson’s calling people ‘wicked’ for disagreeing with him about GR. Now Andy Stirling, a professor of science and technology policy, comments in the Guardian on Mr Paterson’s ‘wickedness’ jibe. Prof Stirling reminds us that science isn’t ‘fairy dust’ for people to kill ideas they dislike. No, he says, ‘science’s greatest assets are scepticism and democracy.’

Prof Stirling says that instead of (or as well as) promoting an irreversible choice of GM crops, people could consider other actions. Actions such as marker assisted selection (MAS), conventional plant breeding, mixed farming, dietary supplements, land reform and income redistribution. ‘But what [these actions] significantly lack are the kinds of attributes valued especially highly by those seeking to control markets, seize intellectual property or command rents on global supply chains. Whatever position one takes on GM, these kinds of worldly ambitions offer better candidates for ethical scrutiny, than the mere act of questioning GM, so vilified by Paterson…

‘To deny choice and reduce scope for questioning merely to “yes” or “no”, is totalitarian. To then brand as “wicked” and “disgusting” those reasonable people who are thereby forced to say no, is an even more dangerous kind of extremism. Whatever views we take of GM, this is a slippery political slope that we slide down at our peril.’

Mr Paterson is a career politician. When he took up his current job as head of our Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) I thought, ‘He’s a countryman. Might know what he’s talking about.’

But Mr Paterson has put his welly into a few muddy messes. This week, I think his ‘wickedness’ jibe about how people should feed themselves in poor countries is another misplaced welly.


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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