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July 13, 2000




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

Dear All,

It has seemed to me recently that I am simply repeating the same points.
Some are not convinced by scientific arguments about the safety of
genetically modified foods. For many the science is irrelevant - they have
other agendas. Some simply find the subject too difficult to digest, others
have political reasons (anticapitalism seems to be strongly correlated with
anti-science sentiments), still others blame science for all that seems
wrong in their modern lives. We have also seen a huge rise in alternative
religions (New Age cults etc.) in recent years. These alternatives are
often put forward as competing successfully with science as a font of
knowledge. I would reccomend that all read Carl Sagan's book "The
Demon-Haunted World". He analyses very well what science is and how it is a
unique and highly successful approach to discovering truths about the
universe we inhabit. Carl states that "95% of Americans are scientifically
illiterate". Even if not completely accurate this is a serious impediment
to rational discussion of new technologies. For those who hark back to a
"golden age", a "Garden of Eden" before the "problems" caused by science
emerged you would do well to note a passage in Sagan's book by the
historian Edward Gibbon who was commenting on the Byzantine Empire.

"In the revolution of ten centuries, not a single discovery was made to
exalt the dignity or promote the happiness of mankind. Not a single idea
had been added to the speculative systems of antiquity, and a succession of
patient disciples became in their turn the dogmatic teachers of the next
servile generation."

Science works and the evidence is all around us in abundance. As Sagan writes:

"In hunter-gatherer, pre-agricultural times, the human life expectancy was
about 20-30 years. That's also what it was in Western Europe in the Late
Roman and in Medieval times. It didn't rise to 40 years until around the
year 1870. It reached 50 in 1915, 60 in 1930, 70 in 1955, and is today
approaching 80.."

This tremendous leap in longevity was produced not by the Church or magic
but by applying scientific principles in an effort to unravel the secrets
of Nature. For those of you who still have socialist leanings here's one
from Leon Trotsky:

"Not only in peasant homes, but also in skyscrapers, there lives alongside
the twentieth century the thirteenth. A hundred million people use
electricity and still believe in the magic powers of signs and
excorcisms...Movie stars (or did he mean Csars?) go to mediums. Aviators
who pilot miraculous mechanisms created by man's genius wear amulets on
their sweaters. What inexhaustible reserves they possess of darkness,
ignorance and savagery!"

Many opponents of biotechnology espouse the "Precautionary Priciple" as
the only safe way of proceeding into the 21st century. This is an affront
to rational thinking. Nothing is 100% risk free but so what? There is no
other way of surviving but to "suck it and see". Our ancestors must have at
some time or other taken the risk of eating poisonous plants, the risk of
eating new crops or worse the risk of hunting and butchering their own meat.

Scientists in general think that this technology is very safe not least
because they have been producing and analysing transgenic bacteria, yeast,
animals and plants for many years. There is also plenty of evidence that
these kind of events occur naturally. Some have replied that these natural
events (including common crops like maize) and have evolved over millions
of years and are therefore safe. This is nonsense. First of all Nature does
not owe us a living. There is no reason why creatures evolved over millions
of years should not harm us. The July edition of Nature has one report
about the evolutionary history of virulence in E. coli. an organism that
has co-evolved with humans for millions of years and still "wants" to kill
us. Secondly crops like maize certainly are not evolved by natural
selection over millions of years but by us in a few centuries. Most current
varieties of staple crops are no more than a few decades old and produced,
in some cases, by irradiation and chemical mutagenesis.

There is obviously risks in producing crops this way but how many disaster
stories have we heard about mutated crops? None. How many studies have
found microwaving food to be 100% safe? None. Who will state that eating
bacon, watching TV, driving, flying, mobile phones are 100% risk free? Well
not me for a start but I am not so stupid to worry about a worst case
scenario and give up all these technologies. I wonder how many Greenpeace
activists use mobile phones, or expose themselves to electromagnetic
radiation from computers etc. etc.?

I ask for no more than the application of reason and logic to this debate.
I want complete transparency and as many scientists as possible to bring
their knowledge to the question of GM safety. Science moves slowly. It is
not irresponsible and has caused fewer deaths and resulted in greater
health and well being to more people than religion ever has. As Carl Sagan
says: "Except in pure mathematics nothing is known for certain".

Malcolm Livingstone

The views expressed here are my own and do not in any way reflect those of
my employer.

Malcolm Livingstone

Northern Grains Improvement Ph: (07) 3214 2___
CSIRO Tropical Agriculture Fax: (07) 3214 2288
306 Carmody Rd Int.Ph: +61 7 3214 2___
ST LUCIA QLD 4067 Int. Fax: +61 7 3214 2288