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Date:

June 19, 2000

Subject:

COMMUNICATION WITH THE OTHER SIDE

 

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

dear All

Angela Ryan who workds with Mae Wan Ho contacted me recently
with a view to trying to set up some sort of dialogue. i was rather
brusque at teh beginning and sent her patrick Moores document
and teh Aachen declaration if i remember i can't think of much else
but I did write some sort of letter. She answered back and I worte
four lengthy things in return. The first tries to see points of possible
agreement and reasons that people disagree. i may not have all
these accurate in any way. Ralph Blanchfield thngs opponenets are
anticapitalist, organic zealots or back to nature boys. i think his acid
test is yet to be used on this network run by Angela Ryan; underwhat
conditions will you accept GM plants?

Anyway happy reading if you are not bored with it all.

First things first. It is good that scientists get to grips with each other because that is the way it
should have been all along. Not involving activists, not involving the press who don't
understand the issues. So before coming to your specific points about four subject matters
lets circumscribe some areas of agreement. By the way don't expect a lot of output from me I
am already booked up for many things and usually it is a matter of grabbing a few minutes here
and there to contribute something.
Possible points of agreement. Please circulate to your network.
Use our knowledge to improve the human condition. That comes from the enlightenment,
Montesquieu and all that. I have had a number of students from the developing world and
when ever I have asked what is the best thing I can do for them and their countries they
always say do what you do best.... we all benefit from that. So I use my brain. I'm not
much good at other things to my chagrin.
Humanitarianin our attitude to fellow man....that is to provide the conditions in which each
personality can grow and develop and fulfil their biological function. Our unique biological
feature is our brain and the complexity of thought and character that results from it. For
most animals reproduction i.e. selfish gene scenario seems to be all it is. But for us it is the
flowering of the personality to its fullest extent; to allow the potential in each one of us to
unfold with the minimum of constraint.
To minimise impact of mankind on the earth as the best condition for long term survival but
with the conditions above. That view comes in part from Rachel Carson. Although there
are other things wrong with her book that is one I think we can probably agree on.
Slowstarvation is, according to Amnesty International (I am a member for many years) the
worst of all tortures. Relieving starvation should be our primary aim. No-one can think
about the environment until they are secure in food and property. There is an old
expression 'no food one problem; much food many problems'. I used part of that in the
title of my Nature article. But it reflects an important issue; no one can think about the
environment until they are secure in other ways.
Stereotyping.We are all guilty of this. I once spent twenty five minutes in a small enclosed
room with Kevin Dunnion, Head of FOE Scotland while we were waiting for an interview
hook up. I pointed out to Kevin that I thought of him as an un-thinking crop-trampling
thug who wants to return us back to the Middle ages dancing round the maypole in some
form of primitivism, (indigenism), captive to disease and a short brutish life. His reply was
that I was a white-coated, cold, shouting scientist who plotted the destruction of the
environment whilst taking back handers from large companies to force goods down
peoples throats. After ten minutes of direct information we came to a better understanding
although we disagree about the best way forward for mankind. Neither stereotype was
right nor even remotely right. So can we agree to start off with some understanding that
we come from different directions because of pre-conceptions and also from what
follows. I spent 20 years as a board member of the Centre for Human Ecology in the
university here although I was a very lazy visitor. I have always had concerns about the
environment but upbringing leads me to place the value of human life above all others.
Food and security first. (the interview with the two of us passed of peacefully)


Reasons for disagreement or agreement with GM. Let us try to be transparent about this.
You see I think people have a predisposition in this debate and they then search for evidence
to support their predisposition! Not good for scientific neutrality but how may of us are really
well informed?

1. Commercialisation; objections to global capital, to exploitation. Much of this comes from
fears that in the developing world, large companies will do them out of money or tie them into
unprofitable conditions. But the knowledge is independent of profits as the Rockefeller
foundation shows ; public funding is the way forward but it can't be done if the technology is
demonised. Which is why I defend it vociferously. Companies are a two edged sword. Their
power can be overwhelming but on the other hand the bigger the company the quicker
advances it can make. Look at Microsoft for example.
Monsanto can call on the expertise of 1500 Ph.Ds; few can match that world-wide. The
answer surely is to try to use the conglomerate in a meaningful way. I don't see Monsanto or
others as having real interests in the developing world. (In fact in an aside on stereotyping I
have found many of those who work in large industrial concerns and chemical companies
spend their weekends bird-watching, reporting numbers of butterflies and so on, great interest
in the environment which they can enjoy thanks to good standards of living). But you may not
know that Rockefeller has already purchased a virus resistant potato (it may be GM I am not
sure) from Monsanto which it has then given to Mexican hill farmers free. It has done so on the
assumption that when you make farmers richer they will buy other seed from Monsanto when
they feel they want it. (put Monsanto in perspective it only sells 3% of world seed). That is a
constructive way forward. Rockefeller funded Potrykus to make vitamin A rice and as many
will know that is to be marketed free to those that want it. While I can feel for the objections
over commercialism (I have been a member of the Labour party for 35 years) attempts to
demonise have other knock on effects particularly in the third world. That is, an attempt is
being made to bludgeon others into accepting our framework of life which is based on different
principles. We are not entitled to coerce others in this way, they must be free to decide for or
against any technology without encumbrances from environmentalists, primitivists etc. When
some of your group say to me that they can quote representatives from poor countries saying
we don't need this or that; how many of those are farmers; how many have been asked
unbiased or loaded questions? In how many cases was it objection to commercial exploitation
rather than objection to the technology itself? Has any attempt been made to canvas large
numbers?

Let me quote from a letter from Dr Khush at the International Rice Institute when I made a
query about vitamin A rice. I had sent him an article by a Swiss woman who was antagonistic
and asked for his view. " I learnt about the unfortunate controversy about the vitamin A
transgenic rice. It is a pity that well fed westerners are trying to tell the people in the third
world what is good and what is not good for them. Why don't they let the concerned people in
the third world decide how to take care of their nutritional and health concerns. Do they
believe that people in the developing countries lack the basic intelligence? Their mentality
smacks of colonialism. We must do everything in our power to stop these people interfering in
others business." I have told FOE that their policy is neo-colonialism, that is imposing our
world picture on others. Greenpeace certainly is. No one view is the right one; those that
believe otherwise are authoritarian and dogmatic; opinions are pluralist, that is what democracy
teaches us. If you object to GM in the UK, to which you are entitled, then it is necessary to put
a caveat in your objection that this should not influence others in anyway elsewhere in the
world who may have a totally different perspective; to be for or against GM is personal
decision such as one might find with the choice to eat organic food. It's solely your business
and no one else's if you want to eat it. That is why I object strongly to Greenpeace and indeed
FOE campaigning world-wide on this issue which is inherently one of personal choice. Only
specialists can sort out environmental issues...leave it up to them. While I mention the
International Rice Institute, they have a field of rice outside from which three crops have been
taken continuously for 30 years with no loss of yield. Conventional = sustainability ?

2. Biophilia. The plant in the room syndrome. We all like living things and it's why I came
into plant biology, simple love of the organism. Prince Charles thinks if we attempt to reduce it
(i.e. investigates its inner workings) we destroy it. This is a common and old view and while
we can look at things holistically (both Steiner and Goethe attempted to do this) you don't get
very far with improvement. It upsets some people that somehow scientists seem to break into
the sanctum and GM sounds something like rape; animal genes etc yuk. However I notice
that people who state this view are only too willing to share in the goodies that reductionism
and scientific exploration brings. Prince Charles will not refuse the latest antibiotics when he is
ill for example and flies his private aeroplane, drives his rolls or jag although by that time if he
has his way we may be worshipping at temples to Diana or some other earth goddess etc.

3. Pessimism versus optimism. I call this the Melchett scenario because he stated to the
House of Lords that all technologies have drawbacks and therefore we should not develop
anything. Basically this works on the assumption that we have trashed the planet, technology is
responsible therefore be anti-science and anti-technology. It's a simplistic view and neglects
totally any of the benefits again that Melchett enjoys but prefers not to refer to. It merely
reflects disenchantment with some aspects of Western society. If he really believed in what he
says why doesn't he buy a small Scottish island and retreat to it to live in the supposed primitive
nirvana? When Eva accused me of attacking Greenpeace because she said they cited facts,
they do but only a limited number that merely confirm their pessimistic view of life and the
world. They attempt to force their view on all of us whereas they should stand for parliament.
That is our democratic system not NGO's. Such people used to be called misanthropes and
you will find them nicely parodied in Shakespear. To me the supporters of this incredibly
misanthropic view are pessimist about everything and technology is a suitable conduit to funnel
their fears about their own life. Perhaps someone can enlighten me on that one. In contrast are
the optimists and I guess I am one of those. Things are good, just look back one hundred years
and see how far we have come. Average age of death 100 years ago 45; now 80. Clean
water, warm houses an abundance of food and money, toys books ad libitum. The best of all
futures awaits us, we can and deal with problems as they arise. I want everyone to share in the
benefits I have had and have a full life. I want everyone in sub-Saharan Africa to have a car,
frig, tele, supermarket for food if they want it. The ultimate resource is the human brain and
problems can always be countered whatever they are....and I mean that very strongly. Rely on
our intelligence to deal with things as they come; don't see a dark and foreboding future ahead,
it won't be. Like some of the others on the network I have lived through the nuclear age and
1963 was pretty hairy but sense won out in the end. Strong belief in the value of creativity and
not aware of serious problems to face mankind, just difficulties. I have a strong belief in a
growing society in numbers, young people are creative and flexible and providing they have a
commitment to taste, a growing population is to be welcomed. All western societies have now
become top heavy with old and middle aged people who are inherently conservative, afraid of
any change, frightened of the future and hoarding their property. That why antiques road show
is so popular; most on there are not concerned with the beauty of antiques merely how much it
is worth. I am afraid I believe that much antagonism in the UK to GM comes from that source.
It does not bode well for our future particularly as I am part of the blue rinse brigade (well I
don't have blue hair but you know what I mean).

4. Commitment by career. Two sorts here. Those who make a career out of objecting to
everything, the outsider, no doubt common in Greenpeace. Mutton dressed up as lamb in
some cases. Unable to see themselves as part of any society, objection a way of life. Takes
the trendy view whatever it is of those thought to be outside the main stream. Takes a nihilist
approach. In my early days long hair intellectuals were all the rage, poetry readings, beatniks
flowers and San Francisco, smoky jazz clubs particularly Miles Davis; you weren't anything
without the latest LP. I still have the books and Kerouacs "on the road" still appeals. I was
part of it and revelled in the folk songs, I learnt the guitar sufficient to make reasonable
accompaniments, read poetry aloud, philosophy pondered the meaning of life and lived in a
garret in Chalk Farm. These days it's organic and the environment. Tomorrow it will be
something else. On the other side is the career scientist defending his technology which he may
have helped develop or someone with a strong view of the supremacy or rightness of the
scientific divide. Sees nothing wrong with companies and accepts the capitalist system as
providing all current needs in abundance. Likes what money provides. Not much more to say
there. I like what money provides too.

Now I've put down all this information because I suspect that our acceptance or otherwise of
the GM issue is determined by one or more factors above. There can be very few of us who
actually read all the papers and information and can actually take all of it in. I said in one article
that almost without exception GM opponents are not plant biologists. In other words a long
history of knowledge of the ins and outs of plants leads me to see things in different ways to
someone who hears only the slogans, soundbites and propaganda to put the case in the
extremes. We have to recognise the preconceptions we bring to the debate and try to see
critically behind those to examine the technology naked as it were without us dressing it up in
something else. If all this sounds too difficult I thought that the Durkin programme was good.
Why? It redressed a lot of negative propaganda from greens and pointed out that we are all
part of one world. You can't possibly survey opinion in third world and developing countries
from a few sound bites of a few people but that cuts both ways. That's why statements from
supposed reps from the third world mean nothing. The most moving part of the programme
were the elderly couple who had not eaten for three days; for me that was the reality that many
experience. If GM can help them out of that hole then so beit. I am for it and if there are
problems then let's get on and solve them speedily instead of arguing about them.

I have not yet answered you about the four subjects you sent me earlier in the week. That will
come but I have to write a short article for Tribune first, so sound bites only but necessary to
counter sound bites by Simpson who is really FOE. expect part 2 Friday or Monday.

kind regards

Tony

My phone has not stopped ringing today about Prince Charlie boy. I will leave the country if
he becomes king.

Anthony Trewavas FRS
Institute of Cell and Molecular Biology
Mayfield Road
University of Edinburgh
Edinburgh EH9 3JH
Scotland
Phone 44 (0)1316505328
Fax 44 (0)1316505392
email Trewavas@ed.ac.uk
web site http://www.ed.ac.uk/~gidi/main.html
To view the web site simply click on the address