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:
- 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.
- 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).
- 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)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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: