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Newsletter 9th November 2007

- A breakthrough for GM food? - The trouble with science

A breakthrough for GM food?

In a BBC Radio programme (Hardtalk, 26th October) Mark Price, the managing director of Waitrose, was interviewed by Stephen Sackur. A rather interesting discussion ensued during the interview, initiated by the following statement from Mr Price: " For instance, it may be counter intuitive, but the carbon footprint of organics is more than GM crops. And that's a real dilemma because people say they want organic because it tastes better, because it's free of pesticide, but, from a carbon footprint point of view, GM is better. And those are conditions that we have to wrestle with."

Faced with further questioning, he did not duck the issue, pointing out that if global commodity trade became predominantly GM (and we are well on the way to this position with soy, while maize and rape are also heading in this direction), UK supermarkets would have no option but to include GM ingredients in own label products. His final comment on the subject was " We've always found ourselves in a leadership position, we were the first to take GM out and we may well be in a place where we have to explain to our customers why now it has to go back in. We are not at that point now; we may be in a few years' time."

Statements like this are a welcome sign of rationality in the debate, and all the more so coming from Waitrose, with its up-market, pro-organic positioning. It is a sign that retailers are thinking of outcomes rather than just fashionable labels. "Organic" tells the consumer that the produce has been grown according to a particular set of rules, not how fresh, tasty or nutritious it is. These rules dictate what input chemicals and cultivation methods can be used but say nothing about the end result. So, for example, evidence suggests that organic produce has about as much chance of having detectable pesticide residues as does its conventional counterpart. This is perfectly legal and has no implications for the grower's organic certification.

The one exception to the process-based rules of organic farming is the banning of genetic modification, which is deemed to be incompatible with the movement's principles, no matter how much it might, for example, reduce the use of crop protection chemicals. Under EU rules, organic produce can legally contain up to 0.9% of GM admixture – so called "adventitious presence" – as for all other non-GM crops. But there has been a fierce rearguard action by the organic lobby, anxious to keep such mixing below the level of detection. If they had been successful, this would have severely affected the farming community, effectively taking away the choice of growing to organic standards for some, or of sowing GM seeds for others. Fortunately, the zealots did not prevail.

But this brings us back to the situation on supermarket shelves. The organic brand has built up a wide range of positive associations amongst its fans, many of whom believe it is as much about taste and nutrition as any supposed environmental benefits. Since a number of high-quality growers have chosen to go the organic route, often with specialist varieties, it is difficult to do a proper side-by-side scientific comparison. Where this has been done, no evidence has been found of consistent, nutritionally significant differences. Recent hype about a study at the University of Newcastle has failed to be matched yet by hard evidence.

Many regular purchasers of organic food doubtless also approve of the Fair Trade movement and are concerned about carbon footprints. This introduces a further set of considerations which do not necessarily make for black and white answers. Mark Price's comment on carbon footprints illustrates this: should Waitrose stock more efficiently produced, lower carbon-intensity GM fruit and vegetables in preference to organic? In a similar vein, the Soil Association has recently been wrestling with the thorny issue of air-freighted organic produce. Undeniably, this is not what the founding fathers of the movement had in mind, but should that be a reason to disadvantage developing country farmers? It's not easy being Green.

Unless, of course, you happen to be a Lib Dem. Leadership contender Chris Huhne, in a statement which will be sure to appeal to a wide swathe of the party, has commented on the consultation report published this week by Defra on coexistence of GM and conventional crops. He says that Ministers should not approve GM crop cultivation in the UK until it can be proved safe and that non-GM crops will not be "contaminated".

Since no serious, credible safety concerns have been raised, the first point seems already to have been answered, and anyone who knows anything about farming will know that low level mixing (not contamination) is unavoidable, but has caused no significant problems in any of the many countries in which agricultural biotechnology is firmly established. In the meantime, a niche sector of the food and farming sector is trying to dictate the choices of the majority.

The Defra consultation itself attracted 11, 676 responses, 11,442 from "members of the public". 80% of these were stock letters or petitions expressing general opposition to GM as a matter of principle. When it comes to the crunch, the organic lobby can certainly get the troops out.

The trouble with science

Anyone who cares to read "The Trouble with Physics" by Lee Smolin will find a fascinating analysis of the way the scientific establishment can inadvertently stifle innovation. His field is theoretical physics, and he writes about how the last 25 years has been dominated by string theory, which has produced no testable predictions. It is a theory (or, more accurately, a vast set of theories) which can neither be proved nor disproved, but the majority of young physicists have been obliged to work in the field because research opportunities in competing areas such as quantum gravity are few and far between.

The result has been a period in which no new fundamental discoveries have been made; according to Professor Smolin, an unprecedented situation in physics over the last two centuries. The theoretical physics community has evolved into a self-reviewing body of scientists who are intolerant of dissent and provide little support for truly original thought. Revolutionary thinkers such as Einstein have no place in this framework (but then neither did the young Einstein while he worked on the special theory of relativity, so perhaps things haven't changed so much).

Unfortunately, with the way academic science is structured, this situation is likely to be all too common. There is a natural tendency for funding bodies to support a mainstream direction of research which has the backing of senior scientists, to the detriment of other projects. Ultimately, it's about risk: it seems safer to fund projects which will give incremental increases in knowledge than those which may provide radical insights but may equally well fail. Universities and governments have to be prepared to fund a proportion of higher risk projects and, indeed, in some fields they do. Would that this were the norm.