Wednesday 12 August 2015

Acts of Cowardice: SNP and GMOs

Last week, the SNP government in Edinburgh announced it would ban genetically modified crops in Scotland. The European Union already has strict rules for safety of genetically modified organisms; the SNP is seeking to opt out from these rules and ban GMOs altogether. The government's reasoning was expressed by Agriculture Secretary Richard Lochhead:
[Lochhead] said that Scotland was known around the world for its "beautiful natural environment" and banning the growing of genetically modified crops would protect and further enhance its "clean, green status". 
Mr Lochhead added: "There is no evidence of significant demand for GM products by Scottish consumers and I am concerned that allowing GM crops to be grown in Scotland would damage our clean and green brand, thereby gambling with the future of our £14bn food and drink sector. 
"Scottish food and drink is valued at home and abroad for its natural, high quality which often attracts a premium price, and I have heard directly from food and drink producers in other countries that are ditching GM because of a consumer backlash."

This is a remarkable act of cowardice. Lochhead isn't even attempting to engage with the science behind GM crops. He is not saying he has any concerns about safety. If he did, at least there would be scope for rational debate about risks and benefits.

"Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away." – Philip K. Dick

What exactly are the risks of growing GM crops? The scientific consensus is that they are minimal, and well covered by existing regulation.

Conversely, the anti-GM lobby is not very specific. Instead of evaluating each proposed intervention on its own merits, the likes of Greenpeace declare that all types of genetic modification are universally bad, and endanger our precious bodily fluids harmony with nature. Some anti-GM campaigners may be more responsible and nuanced, but Lochhead is not concerned with them. He is afraid of people who will shun Scotland and its produce, if so much as a single field is planted with GM crops.

The beautiful but artificial landscape of the Scottish Highlands. It was once covered
by primordial forest, but long ago cleared by humans for grazing sheep.

We have been modifying the genes of food species by selective breeding for thousands of years. Our crops and domestic animals would not last a week in the wild. They survive because of constant care and attention by human beings, and usually the application of artificial fertilizers and pesticides. In that sense, unless you live exclusively off wild plants and game, most of what you eat is "unnatural".

Using fire and electricity is also unnatural, in the sense that no other species does it. Being natural is overrated. Starving to death in a bad year is natural. Dying of smallpox used to be natural. The great thing about being human is that we don't have to live like other species; instead, our technology allows us to live in comfort and security.

It is true that GM technology changes nature in a new and different way; but the choice is not between natural and unnatural. It is between the limited risks of GM, and the absolute certainty that our current system of industrial agriculture endangers wild species, depends heavily on artificial additives, is unsustainable in the long term, and faces new challenges from climate change.

Lochhead does not deign to address the material risks. No, he is concerned about public relations and the national "brand". His statement is a capitulation to the anti-GM lobby -- not because they're right, but because he calculates they are more popular than the alternatives.

The economic effects he cites are marginal at best. It is mad to suppose tourists will stop visiting Scotland's spectacular landscape, because some small part of it might be planted with GM crops. The same goes for consumption of Scottish whisky, salmon, or other food and drink.

Scottish salmon is delicious, but the SNP fears it will be shunned,
 if it is known to have swum within a hundred miles of genetically modified potatoes.

The ban will have negative consequences for scientific research and development. Scotland has a strong tradition of achievement in this area. It supports high-quality jobs, and it saves lives.

The reaction from the scientific community has been overwhelmingly negative. As Professor Huw Jones of Rothamstead Research said:

This is a sad day for science and a sad day for Scotland. GM crops approved by the EU are safe for humans, animals and the environment and it’s a shame the Scottish Parliament think cultivation would harm their food and drink sector.

Suppose a Scottish scientist wants to test genetically modified food crops which could reduce the need for pesticides, or help farmers suffering from the effects of climate change. The SNP government is now telling her to take her research elsewhere.

To the SNP, perception is everything, and science is unimportant. Its broader commitment to the environment leaves much to be desired, as a report by RSPB Scotland, WWF Scotland, and the Scottish Wildlife Trust made clear in 2013. The GM ban is classic greenwash, a cheap gesture which is not matched by real action. One could call it postmodern policymaking, but there is a much older term for it: Bread and circuses. The SNP is practicing leadership with no higher principle than to appease a mob.

It's not even a potent mob. The SNP is polling at a stratospheric 62% for next year's Holyrood elections. It has no need to scrabble around for votes by pandering to anti-GM paranoia. It certainly has no need to burn its credibility as a supporter of science and technology. The SNP enjoys public trust and approval which are the envy of any other elected government on earth; it is a shame it has chosen to misuse its power in this way.

Usually, when the SNP does something irrational, it is trying to stir up resentment against the Auld Enemy in Westminster. Its discussion of currency options during the referendum campaign, and later railing against legislation on fracking, had a similar detachment from reality. This time, though, Westminster has nothing to do with it. I can only guess that for the SNP, allowing ideology to trump reality has become a habit.

I am mildly surprised the SNP are not trying to blame Westminster for the menace of GM crops.

This provides a useful object lesson for the SNP's more starry-eyed followers. The Scottish independence movement likes to give the impression that, once Scotland is freed from the archaic shackles of Westminster, it will enter a glorious new era of wise and enlightened government. This is clear evidence the SNP are prepared to be just as irrational, and craven in the face of lobbying, as their counterparts in London.

I take no pleasure in observing this sad excuse for policymaking. I've made no bones about the fact that I have serious differences with the SNP, but there is much about it that is admirable.

For a long time, support for the SNP has run far ahead of that for Scottish independence. It is a social democratic party with an appeal based on optimism and solidarity. It inspires belief that collective action can make life better for us all. The fact is, Nicola Sturgeon would make a more impressive leader of the Labour party than any of the candidates who are actually standing.

Like it or loathe it, the SNP matters. It is in a position of overwhelming dominance at Holyrood, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Its policies in Scotland can provide inspiration and practical examples to progressives south of the border. It is also the third largest party at Westminster. With Labour dousing itself in petrol and looking around for a match, and the Lib Dems a pitiful remnant of their former selves, it is the only viable opposition party we've got.

So far, the SNP has proved adept at inconveniencing the Tories on things like fox hunting in England and Wales. I have much less confidence in its ability to address more substantial issues.

Update 2015-08-18: Twenty-eight research organisations, including the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the Roslin Institute, and the University of Edinburgh, have signed an open letter condemning the GM ban. (I did my BSc and PhD at Edinburgh University so I am particularly pleased they are backing the letter.)

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