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Date:

June 10, 2000

Subject:

MGOs

 

AgBioView - http://www.agbioworld.org, http://agbioview.listbot.com

Dear colleagues and other subscribers to AgBioView,
I have been trying to read the tidewave of GMO messages on our
site, and found them most informative and interesting. I would like to add
my own thoughts.
Our messages fighting the anti-GMO opinion should be less
agressive. We should not discuss with the activists, who will never change
their minds. Our target should be the "non-aligned" majority. In the past,
I did research on gamma irradiation of produce and got involved in
discussions ressembling the OGM debate. My experience was that when I
presented the facts in moderate terms without hiding the uncertainties, the
non-aligned public reacted rather favorably. Claiming that we know
everything and that there are no negative aspects to GMOs reduces our
credibility and yields defensive opposition.
As was pointed out, the MGO opposition is part of a global reaction
to the global world situation. People oppose all kinds of aspects of the
global economy for many different reasons; the coming together of these
unrelated and often contradicting motivations (e.g. some people fight for
less government, and in the same breath, argue for government banning GM
products with all the ensuing government regulation) looks more and more
like a kind of cultural revolution in which the general public is
unadvertently drawn. In fact, I think that the opposition is committing a
progressive suicide: a large fraction of the public is not ready to follow
it into the recent excesses of the main opposing organisations. And the
contradictions in the movement are becoming increasingly apparent. The many
"scientific" objections raised are not important by themselves. If we argue
factually, sensibly and with moderation, without personal attacks, I think
most of the public readily understands that once people have chosen sides,
every available piece of wood is used to kindle the fire ("on fait feu de
tout bois") and people take the arguments with a grain of salt. The organic
battle is only a small subset of the current cultural (anti-government,
anti-multinational, anti-capital, anti-science, pro-environment, etc), and
should be deemphasized on our site.
The argument of transparency and free choice is valid. Labeling
(e.g. "genetically improved for reduced pesticide content") is desirable,
but it is unfortunately not really an option beacause of unavoidable
boycott. Free choice should go both ways. I never understood why open
encouragement to boycott all products of a supermarket or of an industry
because they sell GM products is considered legal and tolerated.
A large part of the present controversy is derived from economic
considerations, particularly the financing of research. The Amercican dream
includes this disputable concept of "less government is good government"
("illusion" or "nightmare"?). As a result, public funding of research has
been slashed and partly replaced by industrial partnership. To attract
private funding, the governments have extended patenting of research
products to processes, then to new varieties resulting from traditional
breeding, and more recently to genetically engineered lines. A few of us
warned against this approach: quality of research, freedom and integrity of
research, public domain, control of research by the public via the
government, etc. However, the majority of the research community accepted
the approach and the money. In a way, science sold its sole like Dr Faust.
We pay dearly for it now with reduced credibility, suspicion of conflict of
interest, privatisation of knowledge, and reduced trust from the general
public. The scientific community is partly to blame for its present
hardships. I think limits should be brought to the patenting of genes, both
in traditional breeding (as it was not so long ago) and genetic
engineering, and the balance between parallel public and private research
should be reinstated. The scientists would be working in either or both
fields. Public research would be freed of the present cloud of suspicion;
and private research would be taken as the economic activity it is, with
its primary aim of making money, and no warranty that the product is good
for us. The public would again feel that they have some say in the decision
making process. The scientists would have more opportunity to serve the
public and depend less on private interests. Several weighty arguments
(anti-multinationals, anti-capital, anti-scientific conflict of interest)
of the opponents to GMOs would loose their credibility. Of course, this
supposes that our polititians accept to fund public research at an
acceptable level, enabling it to compete with private funding.
The fact remains that we now have to fight an uphill battle to
convince the unaligned who are afraid of innovation and the unknown that GM
is a neutral process which can be used to our benefit or detriment, and
that it presents little risk as compared with its unmeasurable benefits
for mankind. AgBioView has an important role to play, but it is important
to tone down if we want the unaligned to read us and to consider our
opinion.