The Power of the Scythe

By Mike Holderness, 4 July 2003
Image: Illustration: Catherine Story [ ]

Taking heed of recommendations from the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission’s report ‘Crops On Trial’, September 2001, the Government launches its national discussion on GM this Spring. Mike Holderness takes a look at the performance so far

GM NATION: not a Cronenberg movie – though it surely should be – but the title of the new national public debate on genetically modified crops, which is launching, finally, on 3 June 2003. The project has been seriously delayed, not least by sustained and high profile complaints about its pitiful funding, which has now doubled to £500,000. (For this there will now be a CD-ROM – not available at Mute deadline time – and movie, albeit a Roger Graef one.)

All very 20th century. ‘The Steering Board began the debate process,’ says the Operational Note for the launch, ‘last November with a series of foundation discussion workshops – organised by the Corr Willbourn research agency – to let members of the general public frame the issues for debate.’ The focus groups will be reconvened. There will be public events. The government has promised Professor Malcolm Grant, Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University and chair of the Steering Board, that it will consider his eventual report ‘in depth to help inform policy-making.’

The Prime Minister has already spoken, of course, with Science. He’s very annoyed indeed with people with scythes who’ve cut down experimental GM plots before they can flower. He says they’re anti-Science, with the implication that anyone who opposes GM conforms to this type and is thus beyond the pale.

Science, as ever, speaks with many voices. But the dominant – if usually muttered – one is annoyed, to quote the writeup of a ‘heated’ Royal Society discussion meeting on 11 February, which states ‘that GM is being unfairly demonised [and] frustrated by the hurdles being put in the way of a technology which promises so much...’

Of course it’s tough being a scientist when the public insists on intervening in your work. If nothing else, there’s the simple annoyance factor: as some have complained, many of the public seem to believe that only GM crops have genes in them, as if regular ones don’t.

Certainly, many people believe that sea salt contains ‘naturalness’ and is thus good for you. But if they saw sodium metal burning in chlorine gas they wouldn’t touch the ash with a bargepole. And that’s just the Cabinet Ministers. As the 1999 official advice on GM from the Royal Society to the government nicely put it, open questions include ‘the capacity of Government to be an “intelligent customer” for the advice it receives.’

But the proverbial woman with the scythe is different. She learned more chemistry in the summer of 1999 than any current Cabinet Minister seems to have done since. She’s demanding – nay seizing – what really scares scientists: participation in the process. If ‘the mob is at the laboratory door’, demanding a say in what is researched, then, as philosophe Bruno Latour asks, what is there to prevent it demanding a say in the results, in Reality itself?

Not that any concrete reality is really central to the conclusions drawn so far – unless, that is, your definition of the term is a financial abstraction to start with. The 1999 Royal Society report is for example predicated on GM ‘promising’ to help feed 10 billion people by 2050. The introduction to the Cabinet Office Strategy Unit study of the economic impacts of the GM decision notes that arriving at the wrong answer could lead to biotechnology companies withdrawing from the UK, costing ‘the economy’, er, quite a lot.

The woman with the scythe (her again) has also read the hundreds of pages of advice and noticed that they barely mention what really annoys her: the commodification of practically everything. Specifically, the fact that six pesticide manufacturers have, since the late ’90s, bought up almost the whole of the trade that threatens – if GM works – to replace them, namely the seed companies. And, of course, the technology and patents that try to ensure that you can’t plant a cabbage without paying them.

She understands, though, that those focus groups, not the meetings and certainly not the science, will be the key. Politics - as Warhol said of art – is what you can get away with.

[ ][ ]The economics debate: [ ]

Mike Holderness <mike AT> is currently writing up a Royal Society meeting on embryonic morphogenesis