Wednesday, September 2, 2009

War of the GMOs

Nature has an important News Feature this week. It describes how the aggressively uncivil debate over genetic engineering has permeated the scientific community. Several examples are given where scientists publish (poorly-executed or overstated) evidence against the safety of transgenic crops and are viciously, and personally attacked by their colleagues.

I empathize with the frustration of the scientific community here. The huge potential of biotechnological applications to feed millions of starving people and lessen our environmental impact has been absolutely suffocated by over-regulation and the outcries of special interest groups. It has also led to repeated vandalism of the experimental fields of public sector scientists - with devastating personal consequences for the scientists. Overall, we are basically 30-years behind we're we could be, with the only transgenic plants in widespread use being endowed with unprepossessing agronomic traits, sold only by massive seed companies. This isn't the Second Green Revolution we've been waiting for.

Every highly-visible scientific paper that suggests the fears of environmentalists are justified is quickly snapped up by these special interest groups and has huge, long-term impacts on politics and regulation. This is how science and democracy are supposed to function - except that the public doesn't have the time or training to identify which papers are excellent and which are completely worthless (a fact that the public seems to be catching on to when every few months we hear completely contradictory medical and nutritional advice from newly published papers).

This is how science works: Every individual scientist puts in their two-cents, and over time, enough evidence accumulates to make it obvious what the true answer is. This process is short-circuited when special interest groups use papers (ANY paper that supports their viewpoint) simply as ammunition. Each of the "anti-GMO" papers mentioned in the Nature article was fundamentally flawed, or at least overstated the extent to which their results could be generalized from small lab experiments to regional ecosystems.

Ultimately it's the importance of debates such as the use of transgenic crops that make the discussion so contentious. It's therefore critical that scientists step into the public spot light and make their opinions known when bad (or at least over-extended) science is poised to influence society.

Nevertheless, this Nature paper is an important reminder for scientists (as well as all other citizens) not to allow their personal emotions and frustrations to overcome their professionalism. This discussion doesn't need to be cloyingly friendly, but it does need to be civil.

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