I’ve been following a heated discussion on twitter this past week about a planned protest on Sunday in the UK, in which environmentalists plan to destroy a crop of genetically modified wheat being grown as part of a scientific experiment at Rothamsted, in Hertfordshire (which is, incidentally, close to where I grew up). Many scientists I follow on twitter are incensed, calling the protest anti-science. And some worry that it’s part of a larger anti-science trend in which the science on issues such as climate change gets ignored too. In return, the protesters are adamant that the experiment should not be happening, no matter what potential benefits the research might bring.

I’m fascinated by the debate, because it seems to be a classic example of the principle of complementarity in action, with each group describing things in terms of different systems, and rejecting the others’ position because it makes no sense within their own worldview. So, it should make a great case study for applying boundary critique, in which we identify the system that each group is seeing, and then explore where they’ve chosen to draw the boundaries of that system, and why. I think this will make a great case study for my course next month.

I’ve identified eight different systems that people have talked about in the debate. This is still something of a work in progress (and I hope my students can extend the analysis). So here they are, and for each some initial comments towards a boundary critique:

  1. A system of scientists doing research. Many scientists see the protests as nothing more than irrational destruction of research. The system that motivates this view is a system of scientific experimentation, in which expert researchers choose problems to work on, based on their expectation that the results will be interesting and useful in some way. In this case, the GM trials are applied research – there is an expectation that the modified wheat might lead to agricultural improvements (e.g. through improved yield, or reduced need for fertilizer or pesticide). Within this system, science is seen as a neutral pursuit of knowledge, and therefore, attempts to disrupt experiments must be “anti-knowledge”, or “anti-science”. People who operate within this system tend to frame the discussion in terms of an attack on a particular group of researchers (on twitter, they’ve been using the hashtag #dontdestroyresearch), and they ask, pointedly, whether green politicians and groups condone or condemn the destruction. (The irony here is that the latter question itself is, itself, unscientific – it’s a rhetorical device used in wedge politics – but few of the people using it acknowledge this). Questions about whether certain kinds of research are ethical, or who might yield the benefits from this research lie outside the boundary of this system, and so are not considered. It is assumed that the researchers themselves, as experts, have made those judgments well, and that the research itself is not, and cannot be, a political act.
  2. A system of research ethics and risk management. If we expand the boundaries of system 1 a little, we see a system of processes by which scientific experiments are assessed for how they manage the risks they pose to be public. Scientific fields differ in their sophistication for how they arrange this system. In the physical sciences, the question often doesn’t arise, because the the research itself carries no risk. But in medical and social sciences, processes have arisen for making this judgement, sometimes in response to a disaster or a scandal. Most research institutions have set up Internal Review Boards (IRBs) who must approve (or prevent) research studies that poses a risk to people or ecosystems. My own research often strays into behavioural science, so I frequently have to go though our ethics approval process. The approvals process is usually frustrating, and I’m often surprised at some of the modifications the ethics board asks me to make, because my assessment of the risk is different to theirs. However, if I take a step back, I can see that both the process and the restrictions it places on me are necessary, and that I’m definitely not the right person to make judgements about the risks I might impose on others in my research. The central question is usually one of beneficence: does the value of the knowledge gained outweigh any potential risk to participants or others affected by the study? Some research clearly should not happen, because the argument for beneficence is too weak. In this view, the Rothamsted protest is really about democratic control of the risk assessment process. If all stakeholders aren’t included, and the potential impact on them is not taken seriously, they lose faith in the scientific enterprise itself. In the case of GMOs, there’s a widespread public perception (in the UK) that the interests of large corporations who stand to profit from this research are being allowed to drive the approvals process, and that the researchers themselves are unable to see this because they’re stuck in system 1. I’ve no idea how true this is for GMO research, but there’s plenty of evidence that’s it’s become a huge problem in pharmaceutical research. Medical research organizations have, in the last few years, taken significant steps to reduce the problem, e.g by creating registers of trials to ensure negative results don’t get hidden. The biotech research community appear to be way behind on this, and much research still gets done behind the veil of corporate secrecy. (The irony here is that the Rothamsted trials are publicly funded, and results will be publicly available, making it perhaps the least troublesome biotech research with respect to corporate control. However, that visibility makes it an easy target, and hence, within this system, the protest is really an objection to how the government ran the risk assessment and approval process for this experiment).
  3. A system of ecosystems and contaminants that weaken them. Some of the protesters are focused more specifically on the threat that this and similar experiments might pose on neighbouring ecosystems. In this view, GMOs are a potential contaminant, which, once released into the wild cannot ever be recalled. Ecosystems are complex systems, and we still don’t understand all the interactions that take place within them, and how changing conditions can damage them. Previous experimentation (e.g. the introduction of non-native species, culls of species regarded as pests, etc), have often been disastrous, because of unanticipated system interactions. Within this system, scientists releasing GMOs into the wild are potentially repeating these mistakes of the past, but on a grander scale, because a GMO represents a bigger step change within the system than, say, selective breeding. Because these ecosystems have non-linear dynamics, bigger step changes aren’t just a little more risky than small step changes; they risk hitting a threshold and causing ecosystem collapse. People who see this system tend to frame the discussion in terms of the likelihood of cross-contamination by the GMO, and hence worry that no set of safeguards by the researchers is sufficient to guarantee the GMO won’t escape. Hence, they object to the field trials on principle. This trial is therefore, potentially, the thin end of the wedge, a step towards lifting the wider ban on such trials. If this trial is allowed to go ahead, then others will surely follow, and sooner or later, various GMOs will escape with largely unpredictable consequences for ecosystems. As the GMOs are supposed to have a competitive advantage of other related species, once they’ve escaped, they’re likely to spread, in the same way that invasive species did. So, although the researchers in this experiment may have taken extensive precautions to prevent cross-contamination, such measures will never be sufficient to guarantee protection, and indeed, there’s already a systematic pattern of researchers underestimating the potential spread of GMO seeds (e.g. through birds and insects), and of course, they routinely underestimate the likelihood of human error. Part of the problem here is that the researchers themselves are biased in at least two ways: they designed the protection measures themselves, so they tend to overestimate their effectiveness, and they believe their GMOs are likely to be beneficial (otherwise they wouldn’t be working on them), so they downplay the risk to ecosystems if they do escape. Within this system, halting this trial is equivalent to protecting the ecosystems from risky contamination. (The irony here is that a bunch of protesters marching into the field to destroy the crop is likely to spread the contamination anyway. The protesters might rationalize it by saying this particular trial is more symbolic, because the risk from any one trial is rather low; instead the aim is to make it impossible for future trials to go ahead)
  4. A system of intellectual property rights and the corresponding privatization of public goods. Some see GMO research as part of a growing system of intellectual property rights, in which large corporations gain control of who can grow which seeds and when. In Canada, this issue became salient when Monsanto tried suing farmers who were found to have their genetically modified corn planted in their fields, despite the fact that those farmers had never planted them (it turned out the seeds were the result of cross-contamination from other fields, something that Monsanto officially denies is possible). By requiring farmers to pay a licence fee each year to re-plant their proprietary seeds, these companies create a financial dependency that didn’t exist when farmers were able to save seeds to be replanted. Across developing countries, there is growing concern that agribusiness is gaining too much control of local agriculture, creating a market in which only their proprietary seeds can be planted, and hence causing a net outflow of wealth from countries that can least afford it to large multi-national corporations. I don’t see this view playing a major role in the UK protests this week, although it does come up in the literature from the protest groups, and is implicit in the name of the protest group: Take The Flour Back.
  5. An economic system in which investment in R&D is expected to boost the economy. This is the basic capitalist system. Companies that have the capital invest in research into new technologies (GMOs) that can potentially bring big returns on investment for biotech corporations. This is almost certainly the UK government’s perspective on the trials at Rothamsted – the research should be good for the economy. It’s also perhaps the system that motivates some of the protesters, especially where they see this system exacerbating current inequalities (big corporations get richer, everyone else pays more for their food). Certainly, economic analysis of the winners and losers from GM technology demonstrate that large corporations gain, and small-scale farmers lose out.
  6. A system of global food supply and demand, in which a growing global population, and a fundamental limit on the land available for agriculture, place serious challenges on how to achieve a better match of food consumption to food production. In the past, we solved this problem through two means: expanding the amount of land under cultivation, and through the green revolution, in which agricultural yields were increased by industrialization of the agricultural system and the wide-scale use of artificial fertilizers. GMOs are (depending on who you ask) either the magic bullet that will allow us to feed 9 billion people by mid-century, or, more modestly, one of many possible solutions that we should investigate. In this system, the research at Rothamsted is seen as a valuable step towards solving world hunger, and so protesting against it is irrational. The irony here is that improving agricultural yields is probably the least important part of the challenge of feeding 9 billion people: there is much more leverage to be had in solving problems of food distribution, reducing wastage, and reducing the amount of agricultural land devoted to non-foods.
  7. A system of potential threats to human health and well-being. Some see GMOs as a health issue. Potential human health effects include allergies, and cross-species genetic transfer, although scientists dismiss both, citing a lack of evidence. While there is some (disputed) evidence of such health risks already occurring, on balance this is more a concern about unpredictable future impacts, rather than what has already happened, which means an insistence on providing evidence is irrelevant: a bad outcome doesn’t have to have already occurred for us to take the risk seriously. If we rely on ever more GMOs to drive the global agricultural system, sooner or later we will encounter such health problems, most likely through increased allergic reaction. Allergies themselves have interesting systemic properties – they arise when the body’s normal immune system, doing it’s normal thing, ends up over-reacting to a stimulus (e.g. new proteins) that is otherwise harmless. The concern here, then, is that the reinforcing feedback loop of ever more GM plant variants means that, sooner or later, we will cross a threshold where there is an impact on human health. People who worry about this system tend to frame the discussion using terms such as “Frankenfoods“, a term that is widely derided by biotech scientists. The irony here is that by dismissing such risks entirely, the scientists reduce their credibility in the eyes of the general public, and end up seeming even more like Dr Frankenstein, oblivious to their own folly.
  8. A system of sustainable agriculture, with long time horizons. In this system, short term improvements in agricultural yield are largely irrelevant, unless the improvement can be demonstrated to be sustainable indefinitely without further substantial inputs to the system. In general, most technological fixes fail this test. The green revolution was brought about by a massive reliance on artificial fertilizer, derived from fossil fuels. As we hit peak oil, this approach cannot be sustained. Additionally, the approach has brought its own problems, including a massive nitrogen pollution of lakes and coastal waters, and poorer quality soils, and of course, the resulting climate change from the heavy use of fossil fuels. In this sense, technological fixes provide short term gains in exchange for a long term debt that must be paid by future generations. In this view, GMOs are seen as an even bigger step in the wrong direction, as they replace an existing diversity in seed-stocks and farming methods with industrialized mono-cultures, and divert attention away from the need for soil conservation, and long-term sustainable farming practices. In this system, small scale organic farming is seen as the best way of improving the resilience of the global food production. While organic farming sometime (but not always!) means lower yields, it reduces dependency on external inputs (e.g. artificial fertilizers and pesticides), and increases diversity. Systems with more diverse structures tend to be more resilient in the face of new threats, and the changing climates over the next few decades will severely test the resilience of our farming methods in many regions of the world.  The people who worry about this system point to failures of GMOs to maintain their resistance to pests. Here, you get a reinforcing feedback loop in which you need ever more advances in GMO technology to keep pace with the growth of resistance within the ecosystem, and with each such advance, you make it harder for non-GMO food varieties to survive. So while most proponents of GMOs see them as technological saviours, in the long term it’s likely they actually reduce the ability of the global agricultural system to survive the shocks of climate change.

Systems theory leads us to expect that these systems will interact in interesting ways, and indeed they do. For example, systems 6 and 8 can easily be confused as having the same goal, but in fact, because the systems have very different temporal scales, they can end up being in conflict: short-term improvements to agricultural yield can lead to long term reduction of sustainability and resilience. Systems 6 and 7 can also interfere – it’s been argued that the green revolution reduced world starvation and replaced it with widespread malnutrition, as industrialization of food production gives us fewer healthy food choices. Systems 1 and 4 are often in conflict, and are leading to ever more heated debates over open access to research results. And of course, one of the biggest worries of some of the protest groups is the interaction between systems 2 and 5: the existence of a large profit motive tends to weaken good risk management practices in biotech research.

Perhaps the most telling interaction is the opportunity cost. While governments and corporations, focusing on systems 5 & 6, pour funding and effort into research into GMOs, other, better solutions to long term sustainability and resilience, required in system 8, become under-invested. More simply: if we’re asking the wrong question about the benefit of GMOs, we’ll make poor decisions about whether to pursue them. We should be asking different questions about how to feed the world, and resources put into publicly funded GMO research tend to push us even further in the wrong direction.

So where does that leave the proposed protests? Should the trials at Rothamsted be allowed to continue, or do the protesters have the right to force an end to the experiment, by wilful destruction if necessary? My personal take is that the experiment should be halted immediately, preferably by Rothamsted itself, on the basis that it hasn’t yet passed the test for beneficence in a number of systems. The knowledge gain from this one trial is too small to justify creating this level of societal conflict. I’m sure some of my colleague will label me anti-science for this position, but in fact, I would argue that my position here is strongly pro-science: an act of humility by scientists is far more likely to improve the level of trust that the public has in the scientific community. Proceeding with the trial puts public trust in scientists further at risk.

Let’s return to that question of whether there’s an analogy between people attacking the biotech scientists and people attacking climate scientists. If you operate purely within system 1, the analogy seems compelling. However, it breaks down as soon as you move to system 2, because the risks have opposite signs. In the case of GMO food trials, the research itself creates a risk; choosing not to do the research at all (or destroying it if someone else tries it) is an attempt to reduce risk. In the case of climate science, the biggest risks are on the business-as-usual scenario. Choosing to do the research itself poses no additional risk, and indeed reduces it, because we come to understand more about how the climate system works.

The closest analogy in climate science I can think of is the debate over geo-engineering. Many climate scientists objected to any research being done on geo-engineering for many years, for exactly the reason many people object to GMO research – because it diverts attention away from more important things we should be doing, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions. A few years back, the climate science community seems to have shifted perspective, towards the view that geo-engineering is a desperate measure that might buy us more time  to get emissions under control, and hence research is necessary to find out how well it works. A few geo-engineering field trials have already happened. As these start to gain more public attention, I would expect the protests to start in earnest, along with threats to destroy the research. And it will be for all the same reasons that people want to destroy the GM wheat trials at Rothamsted. And, unless we all become better systems thinkers, we’ll have all the same misunderstandings.

Update (May 29, 2012): I ought to collect links to thought provoking articles on this. Here are some:

Andrew Wisdom - Cities as Systems of Systems
New Course: Systems Thinking for Global Problems

10 Comments

  1. Sorry for enormous comment…

    “In this view, the Rothamsted protest is really about democratic control of the risk assessment process. If all stakeholders aren’t included, and the potential impact on them is not taken seriously, they lose faith in the scientific enterprise itself… the protest is really an objection to how the government ran the risk assessment and approval process for this experiment.”

    There was, of course, a risk assessment process, described on Rothamsted’s Q&A page. It included a two-month public consultation period. Anti-GM folks, it appears, did submit to this. You mention that Rothamsted is an easy target, but probably not an appropriate one if you’re wanting to challenge corporate control of the food system.

    The protestors don’t want ‘democratic control of the risk assessment process': they believe they are correct that GM is not safe to be studied. I’m not sure how any democratic risk assessment process can take account of the fact that some will generally want to veto any particular project (cf. windfarms).

    The comparison to pharma: yes, we’re in sticky water here, research-wise. Huge companies with tanker-size PR machines that overlap research institutions: a horrible tangle.

    “Within this system, scientists releasing GMOs into the wild are potentially repeating these mistakes of the past, but on a grander scale, because a GMO represents a bigger step change within the system than, say, selective breeding. // As the GMOs are supposed to have a competitive advantage of other related species, once they’ve escaped, they’re likely to spread, in the same way that invasive species did.”

    For me, the thing here is to try and understand where GM fits into the overall picture of how humans, plants and landscape interact. As this piece picks up, plants have of course been in an arms race with predators, and always will be. This Michael Pollan vid makes the same point: plants are incredibly intelligent, albeit using biochemisty, so we tend to dismiss it. I think, in particular, we need to be careful claiming that GM bestows the plant with a strong competitive advantage in the wild. They generally do poorly without our pampering. I would like to hear from someone more knowledgeable about how far any farm crops have gone on their own – my quick foray has only found various GM-related tales of plants-gone-feral.

    The point is: humans and plants have been in symbiosis since farming began. Every plant development along the way has been a similar step into the unknown, but as I said in a comment elsewhere today: “I wonder if some people think GM crops are somehow going to be like Himalayan Balsam? Notice in that case, ecological damage was caused by some 19th century idiot deliberately introducing a species with ‘splendid invasiveness’.”

    GM also needs to be set aside the history of mutation breeding, which basically randomises genomes and then selects and filters, looking for desirable traits. It uses some pretty foul tech like chemical mutagenesis and irradiation. It’s been used to look for targeted traits, as Nicolas Harberd discusses in seed to seed. That wikipedia article points out that thousands of grown varieties came from these processes and notes it’s been something of a silent ecological experiment. My genetics knowledge isn’t great (I absorb some by osmosis from my plant scientist partner), but I’m having difficulty seeing how GM is the step-change you’re saying it is, when compared to this. Perhaps that means both are unethical, but it’s important context. It’s also interesting that mutation breeding seems not to have got mired in global IP.

    Nevertheless, it does suggest to me that GM has been singled out as a bogeyman by people who haven’t really looked into how it fits into the overall cultivar development system.

    “If we rely on ever more GMOs to drive the global agricultural system, sooner or later we will encounter such health problems, most likely through increased allergic reaction.” Really? Again, when compared with 80 years of mutagenesis, why are you saying GM poses a new level of risk?

    On sustainable agri, I’d just reiterate the same point: both humans and plants are in a constant arms race. That’s never going to stop. Doing nothing isn’t an option: there’s no set of static cultivars that will provide us with nutritional stability. And, as I keep on banging on about, there must surely be no a priori reason why genetic plant science can’t work with agro-ecological approaches and participatory breeding.

    That covers the point about the Green Revolution (which was, in fact, a case of, at least in part, using food policy and breeding to fight the perceived risk of communism spreading through hunger-based politics; see this.) There, you have breeding for a particular outcome. A more democratised, producer-led breeding system should be able to work round that, including addressing the issue of inputs.

    “In the long term it’s likely they actually reduce the ability of the global agricultural system to survive the shocks of climate change.” Strong. Are you sure? Again, compared to mutation breeding or more traditional techniques, what’s GM doing to do that’s so different? If we find cultivars able to do marginally better, we use them – always have.

    On the opportunity costs of GM, I see your point – but if we’re talking about opportunity cost, compare again to mutation breeding. GM may offer much finer-grained control, rather than just mashing the genome and sifting for possibly useful traits.

    On condoning the trial destruction: I suppose that comes down to whether you feel the ethics and risk part was managed openly/appropriately enough. Taketheflourback don’t, but then they never will – they believe they are enacting the democratic will of the people. I’m not sure what more could have been done, consultation-wise. I also think they’ve displayed a lack of understanding of the issues. Do you actually think the ethics process was invalid or warped, then?

    My last point would be: in the past I’ve had one foot in UK activist circles. I’m sure many would hate me now, but there’s a large contingent for who this sort of thing is a lifestyle choice. Some form of direct action must take place. They must go and put it to The Man. I’ve done it myself, got arrested, spent a night in a cell. I think this is another system you’ve missed: the particular social structure of the protest movement; how it constructs its targets and its worldview. It’s broad, of course, and many are deeply committed and thoughtful. But it has its own rituals and norms: I don’t think you’ll see quite this level of excitement at, say, the idea of protesting outside a large IP lawyer firm, even though one might argue they’re a more relevant target, given taketheflourback’s stated aims. You mentioned the system of scientists, so I think it’s important you add this second social system in there.

  2. Do you understand why I asked if Big Activist condones or condemns this action? It’s because they always insert themselves in this discussion and have plenty to say about this work not being done. They’ve had nearly full reign on this topic in Europe, preventing most of the work and planting so far. Yes, I do want them to declare on this: are they (as they claim) not opposed to the science? I have read plenty of things where they claim that if it wasn’t corporate, and had environmental benefits, that it would be different. Well, now is their chance and you may note that they have been largely silent on this. Why? And why can’t I ask them? Nobody else seems to be asking. And usually they are pretty clear.

    Can you provide more detail about the process that occurred for Rothamsted for public engagement? Not just what happened since the threats–but before that. You may find some guidance for that aspect here: http://www.sciencewise-erc.org.uk/blog/?p=368#comment-84

    Your discussion of introduction of species misses some. Can you tell me more about the horrifying introduction of the tomato to Europe? It’s as if you think only bad consequences come from this, and ignore plenty of other fruitful (heh) things. Can you imagine a world without pizza?? How much would that suck?

    And it is fine to talk about future possible impacts–if you also give as much time to inaction. What happens if we don’t act and use tools and technology to impact human lives and the wider planet?

    Do you really understand what happened in the Schmeiser case? From what you wrote I don’t get that impression.

    Are you aware that Greenpeace destroyed a nitrogen-efficient wheat last year in a similar manner to TTFB intends?

    I completely disagree with your climate vs plant science framing. We may not be able to feed everyone in the future with fewer inputs + fewer synthetic chemicals + climate instability + preserving as much land as possible for biodiversity. The risks are there in a business-as-usual scenario here as well.

    But the scientists are the ones doing things wrong and should destroy their own research? No.

  3. Pingback: Collide-a-scape » Blog Archive » Collide-a-scape >> The Genetic Engineering Bugaboo

  4. This is fascinating, thank you.

    I think a further point to explore is whether, at the boundaries, there are any institutions or norms that facilitate meaningful dialogue.

    What struck me with this issue is how little people in certain systems were willing or able to really discuss the issues (particularly system 1 and the entrenched “lifestyle choice” activists Dan mentions). Going by the Twitter feed of Jenny Jones, which I monitor, there has been a minority interested in engagement and a majority who jumped to snap conclusions and haven’t budged an inch.

    The dominant norm exhibited on Twitter was the retweet or hashtag to make visible a mass of opinion. Unsurprisingly, scientists were much more likely to be on Twitter and savvy with the tool than the protestors. Second was a deluge of questions which nobody could reasonably be expected to respond to, creating the impression that Jenny and other protestors were being evasive. Where there was debate, the difficulty of expressing a position in 140 characters combined with retweets/quotes of out-of-context tweets made for a low quality debate.

    Back on good old blogs – gosh, old? – the debate has been much better.

  5. @Dan Olner Thanks for the dtailed comments. Looks like I’ve missed at at least one important system: the system of protest groups and the self-reinforcing mindsets they foster. The funny thing here is that many scientists I saw twittering last week also ended up creating a reinforcing feedback mindset loop where they dug themselves ever deeper into outrage over the protest rather than stopping to understand…

    The comparison with selective breeding is important, but there are at least two systemic differences, relevant to some of these systems. First, selective breeding is an open technology – small scale farmers can do it themselves for free, whereas gene splicing is only available to big corporations. Second, GM can achieve things that are either impossible or would take decades/centuries with selective breeding (if this were not the case, nobody would bother). Here, timeframes matter. Selective breeding happens at about the same pace as natural ecosystems can evolve in response. That doesn’t make it safe, but it gives both people and ecosystems a lot more time to assess the impacts and respond/adapt. GM intoduces changes much faster than this (which of course is it’s primary benefit in the arms race you describe). But therein lies the problem: in complex systems, information lags mean it can take a long time to detect / understand important changes. In the case of a disaster from releasing a GMO it will be way too late by the time we understand what’s happening for us to do much about it. Again, an interesting parallel with climate change here!

  6. General discussions like this are certainly useful (if somewhat academic) but decisions to run or oppose field trials (or anything else) are specific. Or are they?

    The trial itself is specific – this crop , that location, etc. – but much of the opposition is not. Many opponents are opposed to all possible GM trials. This is shown by their choice of language, lack of attention to specifics and failure to say what GM trials they would support.

    GM can be, and has been, used to change crops in various ways with varying environmental impacts. To oppose ALL GM is about as sensible as opposing all metalwork or all drugs.

  7. Two quick thoughts. I think there’s some important related stuff to discuss re. Tom Chances’ comments – has twitter further polarised? (Though on Jenny Jones, all she needed to do was say what she wrote in her telegraph piece: “The rumours are wrong; I’ll be at the picnic on Sunday, not destroying the crop.” That even fitted in a tweet, & several of us tweeted that for her. There is also a valid discussion about whether an elected politician being there is condoning any destruction. Whether twitter is a poor medium for doing that…

    Steve, on selective breeding: that wasn’t what I was talking about. Mutation breeding is a whole different ballgame. As you can see, we’ve already run that particular experiment, and now those genes are out there, mixed in with other cultivars. The process is pretty crude: nuke or chemically randomise genomes; grow (in e.g. atomic gardens!); look out for useful traits. Basically a randomised hillclimb with human judgement optimising for traits we want (as against what might work to expand in a given ecosystem). There’s no real way of knowing the full impact of the mutagenesis. I would like to canvas plant scientists on this: my gut feeling is that GM could potentially be considerably more controlled.

    One might use that as an argument for rejecting both mutation breeding and GM as too risky, but I just wanted to make clear that GM has more of a context than just traditional selective breeding.

    My partner also got quite ‘animated’ by the idea that “As the GMOs are supposed to have a competitive advantage of other related species, once they’ve escaped, they’re likely to spread, in the same way that invasive species did.” I discussed that a little: I think it’s factually wrong. “Likely” is definitely wrong. There is a risk – same as for any genetic change, whether GM or anything else. Is GM worse?

    My partner put it this way: farm plants are pampered to hell. We kill all their competitors, provide all their needs, and generally remove all obstacles we can to their trouble-free growth. That’s why they’re called domesticated plants (note the ‘domestication syndrome’). We’ve bred them precisely to allow us to keep their heavier seeds (or, from their point of view, they’ve set up a symbiosis with us as their gene-maximising partners.) Breeding changes we make would have trouble turning into a new form of Himalayan Balsam.

    Though it’s something I think we could do with asking some ecologists and plant scientists about. A plant like canola (rapeseed in the UK) does spread from fields a little; GM varieties have also done so – but is the researcher quoted there right to say they won’t do well in the wild? As I say, I would have thought not, since they’re domesticated. They just don’t have traits that will allow them to succeed without our support.

    To put as questions: can any small genetic alteration to farm crops we’re able to make produce something able to exploit an undefended ecological niche? Are the two genetic search spaces – ecological and human-productive – distinct enough to avoid that? Are there fundamentally different levels of risk for selective breeding vs mutation breeding vs GM?

  8. Just a few things I want to add, along with the things some other people have brought up already. You bring up lack of understanding between systems in your post, but from the in a way that makes it seem like this is mostly the scientists/pro-Rothamsted supporters who are responsible for failing to engage with the protesters. I’ve found that the protesters themselves appear to be the ones least likely to listen. Any people who are pro-Rothamsted research are taken to be pro- all GM research and therefore un-trustworthy to listen to. The problem here is, and the reason this has polarised debate so much, is that the large amounts of people defending the Rothamsted research are doing only that, defending this particular, singular, experiment. David Flint brought up the very good point that most of the opposition to the Rothamsted trial doesn’t actually go into specific details about the problems with this specific crop, location, funding or actual GM modification. Rather they start with the premise that all GM crops are bad and seemingly finish there because what the Rothamsted researchers are doing doesn’t really conveniently fit into the traditional view of corporate backed GM science. When I’m reading the reasoning behind opposition to the Rothamsted research, I don’t understand because the points people are bringing up don’t seem to apply to this particular situation.

    You’ve written this blog from this systems approach angle with 8 different “systems”. These systems seem biased and to correspond to arguments you’ve heard against the use of GM crops in general, and not research on a small scale as in Rothamsted. This accounts for the fact that while there is a “system of scientists doing research” there is no “system of low information protesters protesting”. After reading a few different blogs about this subject may I suggest two qualities in this potential system:

    1) Lack of scientific understanding

    The problem of misunderstanding is exasperated when people who aren’t scientists/plant scientists try to argue the finer points of the experiment but end up misunderstanding/representing the sources they cite. You yourself are guilty of this:

    You mention the Rothamsted researchers have taken extensive precautions guarding against potential cross-contamination with other cereal. You post a paper as proof that scientists have “systematically” underestimated pollen dispersal. In the context you post it in, you would think the paper would be about wheat or at least a meta-review of pollen dispersal in GM plants. What it actually is one study about pollen dispersal amongst grasses, far from proof about “systemic” underestimation of pollen dispersal.

    You cite a paper that compares crop yield between organic and conventional farming as evidence that organic crops don’t always produce lower yields. The actual paper shows the mean ratios are never over 1:1 with conventionally grown crops. In only 3 out of 37 of their comparisons does even the standard deviation of the results go over the 1:1 barrier and in those cases the standard deviation is exceptionally large.

    2) Extraneous arguments

    Arguing in general about GMOs while again ignoring the specifics of the situation at hand. The majority of the rest of your post fits under this umbrella. I’m not sure what you are getting at with “system 2″ or if you don’t understand the process lengthy process people go through when dealing with GMO products. As someone mentioned, there was a two month public consultation where anyone at all could contribute to the decision of whether or not to carry out the experiment. Potential risk and “beneficence” are well covered.

    System 3, I covered slightly. Not only have the Rothamsted researchers taken measures to prevent contamination, if a stray seed did escape into the wild it would be rapidly out competed as it is domesticated wheat and not made to be grown in the wild. System 4, 5 & 6 have very little to do with a small government funded experiment. The way you have framed system 7 is truly bizarre. Let’s leave aside that there is no human health risks involved in this particular experiment, GMOs maybe increasing allergies is the best you can do? New foodstuffs are produced all the time that “may” produce an allergic reaction in certain people. Should we stop naturally crossing different strains of fruit just in case some people are allergic? All new foods go through lengthy testing periods before they are considered safe. Again, System 8 doesn’t really have anything to do with the Rothamsted research but does provide somewhat of a contradiction that I found funny. You say that introducing GM products to the wild is such a serious problem due to the fact the ecosystem has no time to react while posting a news article which shows that some pests have already done just that to some of the Monsanto pesticide corn!

    Just as a last note, I am very surprised that you are for geo-engineering. You state that eco-systems are very delicate and well balanced (which, of course, they are) and any little human interaction thing can throw them out of whack (which it can) in ways we can’t imagine. Yet you are for the truly enormous interactions we would have to have with the climate (arguably at least as complex and a huge component in the ecosystem) via geo-engineering to rein in climate change. The consequences for those interactions could be disastrous in ways we cannot predict, why do you make such a distinction?

  9. @Matthew Cooper : Thanks for the comments – you make some good points. But I think you’ve slightly misunderstood my intent. I’m describing systems that I’ve seen described or alluded to elsewhere. All are *interesting* because various groups of people perceive them to exist, and hence make arguments about GM technology from the perspective of those systems. That doesn’t mean all of them are equally *important* in deciding whether a particular trial should go ahead – indeed that’s the discussion I think we should be having.

    So if I have a bias, it’s to be inclusive, and capture as many different perspectives as I can. I do have a problem with people who insist that decisions about the Rothamsted experiment must be made purely in terms of the specifics of that experiment. Like it or not, the experiment itself *is* a political act, aimed at testing the waters for whether wider public acceptance of GMOs is now possible in the UK. Hence, while some of the protesters do think this specific experiment is dangerous, others are more focussed on the long game – protesting this experiment as a symbolic act, to halt the process of weakening the rules on field testing. So for system 7, for example, you can evaluate it through both lenses: either the health risk of the specific trial (which is probably trivial) or the health risk of the broader process of opening up field trials and deployment of GM tech (which is cannot be dismissed so easily, but society may decide it’s outweighed by the benefits).

    So when I say the researchers should halt the trial, I mean it only because there’s no rush – the bigger conversation should be had first – and I don’t mean just a two month consultation process focussed on a specific trial – I mean a broader public debate about the risks of embarking on this path that takes all perspectives into account, especially the longer term risks, which are usually ignored. While some protesters can be dismissed as “low information”, not all can, and hence those perspectives need to be taken seriously.

    WRT to the Foley et al paper, yes, that was precisely my point – organic farming generally means lower annual yields, but under the right circumstances, they can *approach* industrial yields. But in terms of long term sustainability questions, these are the wrong measures anyway.

    Finally, I don’t know how you interpreted my comments as being in favour of geo-engineering. I’m not – I think it’ll be an unmitigated disaster. I’ve seen some of the early model studies which show that things like stratospheric sulphates *can* bring the global mean temperature down to counteract GHG-induced warming, but the collateral damage will be huge, because while the mean global temperature drops, the regional variability gets worse – in other words it cools some of the planet too much, and other parts not enough. I think the research probably needs to be done, but I suspect I would end up opposing any field trials.

    There’s one example with geoengineering that’s almost exactly analogous to the debate about Rothamsted. Currently, ocean fertilization experiments are banned under the international treaty on ocean dumping. If a national government decided to push back on this ban, by starting such experiments, then nearly all the same arguments pro- and anti- the Rothamsted experiment would apply. (The analogy isn’t perfect though, because in the case of GM, the current ban is limited to Europe, while other countries have already raced ahead; with ocean fertilization, the current ban is global).

  10. Firstly, I’m very sorry about misunderstanding your view on geo-engineering! I followed your link to your collection of geo-engineering studies and from the effort you’d put into collecting all the data I assumed that you were on the “pro-side”. We all know what we get when we assume so, again, I apologise. I thought it was a very unusual set of opinions, which is why I wondered how you held them together!

    I think I understand your position better and I think your explanation has helped me understand why this has turned into such a big deal. I think people like myself have been seeing it as a small issue will others are seeing it as a flash-point for a larger issue. I think this is the thing for me:

    I agree with the need for larger scale consultations about the use of GM products. Right now, I’m glad that the use of GM crops is minimal in most places in the world. If there was to ever come a time when there was a larger scale debate then I think we should have has much available information as possible before it gets decided either way and this means more research. This means the generation of more GM lines and experiments into their efficacy to see if it is actually worth going through with. Allowing this research also means we can decide on what the dangers are when it comes to having GMOs in the wild. If GM field-testing was outlawed full-stop right now, we’d be trying to have an informed debate while missing large amounts of information. It would just be both sides slinging pros and cons at each other without any further way to prove anything. It seems silly to me to outright ban such as useful tool as GM-field studies completely over concerns that haven’t been proven. I know it seems ridiculous but GM-field studies are the only way to prove that GM-field studies are dangerous. It would be nice to perform studies on wild cereals crossed with GM lines to see if they have a fitness advantage in nature compared to the wild-type. Perhaps that could part of the standard testing for GMOs before they are put into mass cultivation.

    I don’t think anyone has brought up “weakening” the rules of field testing. The reason this experiment has gone ahead is because of the rigorous controls the Rothamsted people have put into place to stop any possibility of pollen dispersal. GM rules in the UK are incredibly strict and they haven’t been loosened just for this experiment.

    You aren’t implying this but, just to be clear, I don’t think the scientists intended this to be anything like a political act but you are right in saying it has been turned into one. It’s also quite easy to be caught up in the debate and assume that the public feel as passionate about the issue as we who are arguing do. I don’t know if there have been any impartial polls done on the Rothamsted situation, but it would be interesting to see if the public at large actually care at all.

    Thank you for the interesting point of view!

  11. Some useful links as we’re discussing risk of GM vs overall agri risk. I’m not endorsing either of these, just sticking things here. Via GMO pundit: claims that evidence shows “biotechnology is not per se riskier than conventional plant breeding technologies”. One might want to argue about the neutrality of the process used to reach that conclusion – though note, that’s the mirror-image of people arguing the IPCC would obviously be “pro-warmist”. We need more detail, really.

    Compare to this: claims about unintended consequences of early genetic alterations to wheat. All very sciencey, but I haven’t yet found anything robust on it. Nevertheless, an interesting case at least of how some people view modern wheat.

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