"Gut feelings" are just as valid as political rhetoric in the new Rational Parliament. And why not?

In ancient Athens, each citizen had to take a turn offering his governance. The Rational Parliament attempts to bring that spirit back, because certain issues are too important to leave to the professionals.

Last month, thousands of farmers descended on the centre of New Delhi to show their support for the use of biotechnology in agriculture. A few days earlier, thousands of other citizens had gathered in the same place. Their goal was to persuade the Indian government to do the opposite: not to allow field trials of genetically modified crops.
 
Had these two gatherings taken place on the same day, violence would almost certainly have ensued. The issue of genetic modification is a flashpoint for extremism, with ideology and egos elbowing facts out of the debate.
 
India has a fast-growing population, and the Indian parliament is considering if biotechnology should play a part in the food production industry. Thanks to public interest litigation on the matter, so is India’s Supreme Court. Here’s a question: why aren’t you?
 
Most of us feel unqualified to approach these issues. But our use of biotechnology matters wherever we are, and there is no reason to think you are less qualified than the politicians who get to make the call. In ancient Athens, each ordinary citizen had to take his turn offering governance, making thought-out decisions on the questions of the day, based on his best understanding. What makes you so special?
 
It’s hard to find a good way to engage with complex problems. Marches and rallies inevitably polarise opinion. Debates between panels of experts often leave an audience feeling powerless and paralysed by partisan rhetoric. Wouldn’t it be good if you, like the Athenians, could discuss both sides for yourself, quietly and without fear of provoking violence? And then listen, politely, to other people’s views before casting a vote on whether we should proceed with something?
 
That’s the idea behind the Rational Parliament, which will debate genetic modification at its inaugural meeting in Conway Hall, central London, on 10 September. It is open to anyone and everyone who wants to take part (though numbers are limited). There will be short presentations from scientists who have published on the subject, but anyone who turns up will be considered a Member of the Rational Parliament (MRP) and can ask questions or table motions. Towards the end of the evening, MRPs will use a ballot box to cast a vote for or against the motion.
 
It’s just possible the outcome will have some influence in the UK’s other parliament. As the Speaker of that house, John Bercow, recently pointed out in a controversial speech on reform, history shows societies can lead as well as follow parliaments. The Rational Parliament’s aim is dignified democratic engagement with the scientific topics of the day – difficult to achieve in the older house.
 
At the Rational Parliament, submission of robust evidence will be encouraged but “gut feelings” are valid submissions, too, and if they are widely shared they will be influential. Not everything that matters can be put into peer-reviewed journals (though they’re a good place to start).
 
In fact, when it comes to GM and many other current issues, we have a lot of facts at our disposal. Should we choose to sit down and look at them without prejudice, it may well be that there is an obvious answer. But it is also possible there is no right answer yet, just a right way forward. Either way, it’s far too important to leave to the professionals.
 
Michael Brooks will be speaker of the house at the inaugural debate of the Rational Parliament. Details: rationalparliamentgm.eventbrite.co.uk 
Indian farmers demonstrate during a protest against the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill in New Delhi. Image: Getty

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.