The Gene Jeanie: Something about science and the environmental movement

I’m sorry about the lateness of this blog, I have been ridiculously busy since Christmas with teaching, marking and general nonsense!

This week I took my MSc students to a talk by the environmental rights activist Dr Vandana Shiva. An ex-physicist who has, over the years, become one of the world’s most famous campaigners for the environment, appropriate agriculture and human rights particularly in India. She has taken on governments and multi-national companies and, as a result of which, she has been vilified and even had a her life threatened on a number of occasions. If you haven’t come across her you should! Google her name and read about her remarkable story and work. The parallels between her and Rachel Carson are many.

I was really looking forward to seeing her, as I have heard her a couple of times before and she is an impressive speaker.

Well, her talk this time was pretty much a polemical deconstruction of genetic engineering as applied to agriculture in the developing world. She argued that GMO’s were detrimental to the world’s poor as such crops would be owned and controlled by large Agri-chemical and Biotech companies, who by registering patents, were already stealing the developing world’s genetic resources. She attacked the argument that GMO’s are be able to withstand the effects of climate change by pointing out that they are often single gene modifications, but adaptation to the variables of climate change would need a multi-gene response.

She also spoke passionately about how most of the investment in such research was directed at cash crops destined for export markets. You end up with total production going up, but overall nutritional value going down, crops that have a longer shelf life but don’t taste of anything. Land is given over to providing for world markets rather than local populations who are forced off, sometimes at gunpoint.

This was all very powerful and spoken with the validation of having put herself in the front line.

But…for some reason I began to become uneasy about half way through.

I guess it was in part the confrontational nature of her language that promoted a sort of ‘us and them’ mentality. She pointed out the ‘brutalism’ of genetic research where even the techniques and equipment have aggressive names such as ‘gene guns’. Well, actually we’ve all seen gene guns; every male has one! OK, so the world might be a better place if men put them away now and again, but come on, it’s only a name.

I think the main reason for my main unease was the certainty with which she spoke. GMO’s were bad, being developed and controlled by evil companies whereas community based, organic production was good – indeed it was the only hope.

Well, about 10/15 years ago now I was doing agronomic research at the Rural Technology Unit at the University of East Anglia. I wasn’t doing research on GMO’s but friends and colleagues up the road at the John Innes Institute were. I can report that none of them were driven by avarice, greed or simple malice. They were in fact inspired to try to save the world, to put food into the outstretched hands of the hungry.

It seems to me that there is need for dialogue here. In a sense science is predicated on doubt. It is actually a very human way of knowing. It doesn’t deal in certainty, but rather uncertainty. Sometimes the environmental movement seems too certain to me, too uncritical of its own stance and because of that it is weaker.

OK, so the CEO’s of these multinationals may be evil, conniving super criminals, but the research scientists doing the work are not in my experience. Perhaps it is at this level that the discourse needs to take place and here the schools and the universities that teach science have a really important role to play, not least in promoting a dialogue on the ethics of scientific research, a discourse that perhaps should  consider the social, cultural and economic implications of our work.

Don’t get me wrong, I am an environmentalist and I still really admire Vandana Shiva’s work. It’s just that the polarisation into ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ has inherent dangers, not least of which is losing the power of science to actually help.

As a conclusion to this rather poorly thought through and hurried entry, I’ll ask the question that I didn’t get to ask her;

“How certain are you that locally based, community controlled, organic farming will, without fear of failure, feed not only my children but my grand-children who will, of course, know the world of the 22nd century?”