The fear of genetics
Ten years ago or so I had a meeting with members of the local community living in the vicinity of the university I was then leading, Dublin City University. They had asked for the meeting to express their concerns about the development of the university’s National Institute of Cellular Biotechnology. More particularly, they were concerned, as one gentleman expressed it, that we were up to ‘Frankenstein kind of things’. I guess he was thinking of Dolly the sheep, and was wondering whether we might take that a few steps further in our newly funded institute. I explained to him that what my colleagues were working on was diabetes and cancer. My visitors were somewhat reassured, but a small group remarked to me, as they were leaving, that GMOs (genetically modified organisms) were undoubtedly evil. Why, I asked. Because everyone knows they are, they replied.
A little later, in 2008, the then newly installed Irish coalition wrote into its programme for government that Ireland would be a ‘GMO-free zone’. I was appalled by this, as I felt it would convey a signal to others that Ireland would not be willing to engage in scientific innovation in some of the areas where that would be needed most and offered the most promise; and the Irish Times published a piece setting out my views. And now all this has been brought up again for me as the Scottish Rural Affairs Secretary, Richard Lochhead MSP, has announced that there will be a ban on growing genetically modified crops in Scotland. This decision has been criticised by a number of research organisations and universities and has been the subject of some media discussion. The Minister has assured his critics that there will be no ban on research carried out in controlled conditions, but the reality probably is that those seeking to do and to fund such research will not choose a location where the process is seen to be contrary to public policy. Innovation will go elsewhere.
In both nutrition and life sciences, scientific innovation has tended over the last decade or two to focus on genetics. This isn’t altogether new. Insulin, with which diabetes is treated and which has been around since 1922, is a GMO. A good deal of medical research has moved, over recent years, from chemical synthesis to biopharmaceutical remedies, and this trend is accelerating. The capacity to feed the world as the population continues to grow may come to depend on GMO research.
For those who are not expert in this field the available literature – or often, the propaganda – on both sides of the GMO argument is unhelpful, because both sides use ‘evidence’ that is not easily verifiable by the rest of us. But there are few signs of ‘Frankenstein kind of things’ damaging us or our environment. In any case, we need to continue to do research, and we should not place it into a setting of general suspicion that is not visibly evidence-based. The idea that innovation should exclude genetics is a dangerous one.
Scientific discovery and technological innovation has its risks and needs ethical oversight, but we must also remember that it has done more than anything else in human history to make possible the feeding of the hungry, the healing of the sick, and the combating of poverty. We should not abandon that lightly. By all means let us make sure that new experiments with GMOs are properly controlled and subject to appropriate safety checks. But let us not start with the assumption, without the need for any proper evidence, that this is a form of innovation to be opposed.
I strongly hope the Scottish government will re-consider its decision on this issue.