Posted tagged ‘GMOs’

Let Ireland be open for innovation

March 3, 2011

As the political parties in Ireland sift through the entrails of the general election, and as Fine Gael and the Labour Party discuss a possible programme for government, let them not repeat the mistake of the outgoing Fianna Fáil/Green coalition in rejecting nuclear power and research into genetically modified organisms in their original programme. This presented Ireland as a place in which innovation was not particularly welcome.

There are, I know, valid arguments that can be raised against nuclear power and the distribution of GMOs. But there is no valid argument against doing further work on, researching into or analysing the possible benefits of either. It is time for us to take a mature approach rather than indulge in knee-jerk positions.

Precaution or caution? Attitudes to genetically modified organisms

March 25, 2010

I see that I have got an honourable mention – actually, I suppose it’s a dishonourable one – in Frank McDonald’s article in today’s Irish Times. The main drift of the article is his opposition to the decision by the European Commission to authorise the cultivation of genetically modified (GM) potatoes. He outlines various views and opinions around the European Union, and concludes that the Commission’s decision is wrong because ‘we still do not know enough to say for sure that such genetically engineered crops are safe.’ Along the way he cites an article I wrote for the same newspaper arguing that a country seeking to establish its credentials as a centre for innovation could not afford to rule out exploring the potential of GMOs. This is what he says about my arguments:

‘Writing in The Irish Times last month, Dublin City University president Ferdinand von Prondzynski complained that opposition to GMOs “has often been influenced by various campaigns using scaremongering labels such as ‘Frankenstein foods’ ” – before going on, in the next sentence, to indulge in scaremongering himself. “Indeed,” he wrote, “if we are to take the Government’s commitment to having Ireland as a GM-free zone seriously, one of the first steps we have to take would be to advise all diabetics to leave the country as we would have to ban insulin” – a patently ludicrous claim, given the way insulin is manufactured from GM bacteria in secure laboratories.’

I accept of course there is a difference between planting GM seeds in a field and manufacturing GM-derived products in a laboratory, but both come under the commitment to maintain Ireland as a GMO-free zone, so I would argue that there was nothing ludicrous about what I wrote.

But my argument in any case had a wider purpose. Saying we don’t know for sure whether something is safe is a silly argument against exploring it. Almost every product or process ever invented had aspects that could be unsafe if improperly handled. If Frank McDonald’s test is to be the bar we have set, it is a very high one, and GMOs would not be nearly the first thing to be removed. We might start with those we know to be unsafe but which are authorised, such as alcohol and cigarettes. We should consider banning cars, knives, petrol and goodness knows what long before we start bothering with GMOs.

If we are to be a centre of innovation we cannot go about it quite like that. I am not of course arguing that we should not take precautions to protect us from risks we can identify or reasonably suspect, but we should not allow ourselves to be driven by gut fears that we cannot really pin down. There may be GM foods that are unsafe, but there are organic ones also which, if misused, can be lethal. For example, eating a raw potato, whether GM or not, will inflict severe damage on you. What we need to do is to explore, and explore energetically, whether and how we can harness the potential of GMOs to address food failure and hunger across the world. I suspect that at least some of the angst about GMOs is a peculiarly western, middle class pre-occupation. We can afford our attitudes, and we may not be aware how they could damage others less wealthy than we are; not even particularly because we are depriving them of the potential of such innovation, but because we may push the less conscientious development of such innovation their way if we refuse to host a better regulated model.

Time to think again.

Facing up to scientific discovery

October 30, 2008

A  few years ago I was doing some research for a talk I was due to give on science and religion when I cam across a sermon delivered by a London vicar at his church’s annual harvest thanksgiving service in 1885. The following passage struck me particularly:

“Today you see in this church apples and pears, carrots and potatoes, wheat and barley. They are the fruits of the harvest, for which we offer thanks to Almighty God. God, in His mercy, works great miracles, and in His kindness clothes us and feeds us.

But there are other miracles. We have the railways, which take us at previously unimaginable speeds to places we could never have known, over great bridges and viaducts which defy nature. There is iron and steel. There are great machines, which work mysteriously and mightily. These are all miracles as well, and miracles which perhaps will touch the people of this city much more than the ploughshare and the sheaths of corn. And some will say they are not God’s miracles at all, but the miracles wrought by our scientists and engineers. In this church we say weekly that God became man. Others say and think that, with our factories and our industry, man has become God.”

Leaving aside the particular religious frame of reference which informed the sermon, throughout the periods of scientific and technological progress in human history there has always been an undercurrent also of suspicion and fear, and the gnawing worry that overcoming what we thought were laws of nature cannot be done without punishment of some sort for our arrogance. And such thoughts have not always been without foundation – as medical progress was pursued, for example, in the Nazis’ barbaric human experiments, or as chemical or biological weapons unleashed by irresponsible and cruel warlords wiped out communities.

Right now we are again at a point in scientific discovery where we need to take certain decisions. We need to come to a view whether our known capacity for particular types of innovation should or should not be pursued. So for example, the programme for government of the current coalition in Ireland between Fianna Fail and the Green Party contained two key commitments: to secure the island of Ireland as a ‘GM-free zone’, and to ensure that Ireland would be nuclear-free.

The first of these two commitments will have come as a shock to all sufferers of diabetes, as the standard drug used to treat them, insulin, is a genetically modified (GM) product. Furthermore, globally the opposition to GMOs (genetically modified organisms) is increasingly seen as a western, middle class obsession, as the imperative to feed the populations of developing countries with food containing sufficient nutrition will be impossible without GMOs. Our principles, their hunger. It is also now being argued by some that nuclear power is the only realistic way of providing an environmentally sustainable form of energy for the world.

It may be, of course, that there are powerful and good and overwhelming reasons for adhering to these principles set out in the programme for government. I am not wholly sure myself where I stand on them; but what strikes me as dangerous is that we appear to be suggesting that, as a nation, we are hesitant about scientific and technological progress, which is a dangerous impression to create, not least when we are also trying to escape from recession by attracting global R&D. The programme for government suggests, in these two statements, that we are not open to dispassionate analysis, which is very dangerous; and thankfully, on both issues debate is being conducted in a sensible way, with trade unions actually playing a very positive role.

This week in Ireland, we have also had some discussion about embryonic stem cell research, prompted by the decision to allow such research subject to certain conditions in University College Cork. Without wishing to suggest here what the correct decision is, I hope that this debate, too, can be conducted in a way that addresses both the scientific and the ethical issues raised, but does so without being driven by inherent fear of scientific innovation.

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 ending of poverty. We should not abandon that lightly.


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