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Newsletter 26th October 2007

- Science and consensus - Crop protection in Europe - Organic standards

Science and consensus

It is true that science progresses via the formation of consensus: over time the vast majority of scientists accept the evidence which builds up and consider a hypothesis as valid. It is equally true that science also progresses when that consensus is challenged by new observations or hypotheses. Most scientists work on incremental advancements, increasing the body of knowledge within or on the borders of an existing consensus. A minority, whether by luck or judgement, come up with consensus-breaking theories or evidence.

In some cases, as with physics in the early and mid 20th century, the mainstream of the profession knows that their existing theories are inadequate and actively welcome testable new hypotheses. Thus the groundbreaking work of Einstein on relativity and of Schrödinger, Dirac and others in the field of particle physics were seized upon and tested by experiment. However, the opposite is often the case, with belief in the consensus so strong that new proposals are resisted, despite significant supporting evidence. The suggestion by Wegener that continents move relative to each other – the forerunner of the now accepted theory of plate tectonics – was for many years rejected by mainstream scientists.

Climate science is a current example of a strong consensus position which is actively rejecting challenges from sceptics about the primary driver of change. The rights and wrongs of each position are immaterial. The point is that the media have to find a fair and appropriate way to reflect the position. At one extreme, reporters could simply accept that a strong consensus exists and see no need to balance stories by publishing conflicting views. The result would be protests from sceptics. Alternatively, they could include a contribution from a sceptic every time something on climate is published. The result would be protests from the mainstream who would claim that uncertainty was being highlighted where none exists. They are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

Think also of the GM crops debate which had a high profile a few years back. In this case, there was an equally strong scientific consensus that, properly evaluated and monitored, GM crops presented no human safety concerns or unacceptable environmental consequences. Nevertheless, there were few press reports which did not at least give prominence to the minority view of environmental activists who opposed the introduction of plant biotechnology.

For both these examples, it is clearly impossible to please everyone. Responsible journalists have an obligation to report accurately, and it is not an easy task for them to go beneath the superficial arguments and decide what to include and what to leave out. There is no objective formula for balancing opposing views. Critics who say that giving the oxygen of publicity to minority views gives the public a false view of the balance of opinion may have a point, but to deliberately exclude such views amounts to censorship. Ultimately, reporters must exercise their professional judgement, and will of course be subject to the normal complaint mechanisms if they get it wrong. The media must remain free to report as it sees fit, and the reading, listening and viewing public must be trusted to make up their own minds on issues. All any scientist can ask is that there is no wilful misrepresentation of the evidence.

Crop protection in Europe

The European Parliament has this week considered two important proposed revisions to the current legislation covering approval and use of pesticides. The first of these was the first reading of a proposed new pesticides regulation to replace the existing directive 91/414. The environment committee had proposed a number of extremely stringent amendments to the original proposal from the Commission and, in a vote on 23rd, a number of these were passed. However,  this does not mean that they will necessarily ever reach the statute book.

The main concern is that the amendments would move away from an existing science-based risk assessment and management system to one based on hazard alone. In other words, a substance which, for example, breaches a particular toxicity norm would not be approved for use no matter how small the actual risk is. This and other proposals would severely reduce the number of crop protection chemicals available to farmers, reducing yields, increasing costs and reducing international competitiveness, with little or no likelihood of any real increase in safety.

But the most worrying aspect remains the insistence on hazard rather than risk as a basis for approval. This represents a further ratcheting up of an already highly precautionary regulatory system and sets a disturbing precedent for legislation in other areas. Fortunately, in a second vote a day later on the Thematic Strategy for Sustainable use of Pesticides, the Parliament rejected calls for arbitrary reduction targets and buffer zones next to watercourses. In this case, commonsense prevailed.

Organic standards

The Soil Association has been agonising over organic produce which is imported by air. Their compromise seems to be to allow growers in developing countries to continue to call their produce organic as long as they meet certain “ethical” trade criteria. The only problem is that most overseas growers do not currently meet the standards, and may not be in a position to so. Even those which do will doubtless be subject to considerable bureaucracy.

Air freight accounts for only about 1% of organic produce sold in the UK, itself a very small sector in the overall food market. So what’s all the fuss about? To some extent this issue highlights some of the internal contradictions in the organic sector. Originally, the ethos was one of low-input farming, free form synthetic chemicals (including fertiliser) and carried out very much on a local basis. However, with “organic” now having become a fashionable premium brand, the Soil Association finds itself to some extent a victim of its own success.

Although farmers’ markets and box schemes are locally popular, the bulk of organic produce is bought from supermarkets and many processed foods are offered in organic versions. Fitting into the modern food chain has meant compromise and tensions within the movement. Some would love to restrict organic to locally grown, fresh produce and see no place for airfreight. Others recognise that disadvantaging developing country farmers is not good public relations. Hence, the rather unhappy compromise we now see.

It is difficult to believe that the organic movement will not suffer some schism before too long. On one hand, we will have the fundamentalists who genuinely believe in the detailed list of shalts and shalt nots. For them, the philosophy is as important as the practice, and nothing will convince them that organic food is not healthier and better for them On the other hand, there are the realists who want to grow food less intensively and with more regard for the environment. For them, it is the outcome rather than the prescriptive rules which are important, and there is no reason why they would not, for example, embrace GM crops for their environmental benefits, which would be anathema to the Soil Association. It will be fascinating to see how the debate develops.