Friday, 6 August 2010

It's our decision, not theirs

Some of the coverage this week about the cloned cattle, or rather offspring of cloned cattle, which have got into the food chain seems to have shown a degree of confusion between cloning animals and genetically modifying them. And some of it has been somewhat alarmist as well.

There are, in my view, good grounds for continuing to reject the application of both technologies at this stage; but that isn't the same as saying that all laboratory research should be stopped.

In the case of cloning, the evidence is clear. At current levels of knowledge and expertise, many if not most cloned animals suffer developmental problems and lead short and painful lives. Not all the reasons for this are properly understood as of yet, and for me that's adequate reason for keeping cloning in the laboratory for the time being.

In the case of GM products, whilst the techniques for adding single genes which act as 'on-off' switches for single characteristics are well tried and tested, the understanding and control of genes which act in concert is far less well understood. And the long term impact of releasing exotic gene combinations into the natural environment is another huge area of uncertainty. Again, that's adequate reason for me to want to keep the technology in the laboratory at this stage.

There is a danger, though, that fear of the unknown, or just the highly complex, leads to a form of 'anti-science'; and we need to be careful that we don't throw the baby out with the bathwater as it were. I don't oppose continued research in both cases; it's more a question of deciding how much research is enough to give us the degree of certainty which we need.

And that's another point. One of the things that struck me about the coverage this week was that some people were seeking an absolute degree of certainty about the safety of eating cloned cattle. Science just cannot give us those absolute guarantees which we instinctively seek. All it can give us is probabilities based on a mixture of facts, estimates, and assumptions.

Science can do the research, and give us the probabilities. But it is for all of us to decide, through political processes, when that science is to be applied, and what degree of certainty we want to see first. That in turn requires a more informed debate than we often seem to get on subjects which are highly complex.

It also means that we should not allow ourselves to be driven into a too-early application of new technologies by the agri-businesses which are, ultimately, mostly concerned with recovering their investment in the research and delivering value to shareholders.

The real issue is a long way removed from the entry of two cows into the food chain; but that event, apparently based on someone flouting the law for their own gain, will have been of some accidental benefit if it encourages us to deal with the underlying questions.


Stonemason. said...

You might not have heard, but a report from the USA stated that GM attributes have jumped from a GM species of plant to a species considered a weed, so it seems caution regarding GM is probably best. It was Radio 4 early morning.

John Dixon said...


Hadn't heard that specifically, but it doesn't surprise me in the least. It's what I was getting at in saying "And the long term impact of releasing exotic gene combinations into the natural environment is another huge area of uncertainty.

Siônnyn said...

Stonemason has got that wrong. What the report said was that GM crops had been found growing wild, which is a totally different story.

My objection to GM crops has to do with only the patent issue. Once you start growing crops developed by, say, Monsanto, you are tied to them forever. You can't seed next years crop from this year's - which has been the basis of agriculture from the beginning - you have to buy your seed from them!

The Luddite, anti-science movement (championed in this country by Charles, heir to the English (and Scottish) throne) is dangerous, but so is big agribusiness! For different reasons!