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7 February 2000

A science for us all, not just for business

New safety rules for GM foods allow that "sound" research can be wrong. Ziauddin Sardarreports

By Ziauddin Sardar

Critics of genetically modified products have scored a major victory, thanks to an international agreement concluded in Montreal last weekend. But it is also a victory for a particular approach to science – one that accepts that, regardless of the safety assurances from conventional research, we should always build in some precautions.

The unexpected agreement, a personal triumph for the British environment minister Michael Meacher, recognises the rights of countries such as Britain and India to ban GM commodities. Under a new “Biosafety Protocol”, companies wanting to export GM seeds and crops to other countries for planting, food, animal feed or processing will have to tell their governments what they are planning. The governments, in turn, will have the right to refuse entry if they believe the imports present a threat to their environments or the health of their people.

The Montreal meeting was an outcome of the failure of trade negotiations held in Seattle last December, where violent clashes between protesters and police brought the World Trade Organisation to the forefront of public consciousness; and put the issue of GM products at the top of the WTO agenda.

The whole episode provides us with an ample demonstration of how science, politics and trade are now intimately linked. “WTO’s mantra of ‘trade first, think later’ has been subordinated to scientific research based on precautionary principle and reasonable management of risks,” says Andrew Simms, of the New Economic Foundation.

In Montreal, the multinationals argued that GM products are based on “sound science”; the proponents of biodiversity argued, meanwhile, that science has to be based on the “precautionary principle”. The two terms actually occur in the documents of the respective groups. “Sound science” is the clarion call of the WTO. The “precautionary principle” is entrenched in the Convention on Biodiversity, the world wildlife treaty signed in 1992 at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, on which the whole idea of the Biosafety Protocol is based.

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You might think that science that was really “sound” would incorporate a principle of “precaution”.

It all comes down to burden of proof. “Proof” – now that we no longer believe that science goes hand in hand with certainty but see that it offers uncertainty in the big policy questions – really boils down to arguments. If we shouldn’t accept GM products until we know that they are safe, and if the testing on a farm-scale might itself be dangerous, then we shouldn’t test – and we’ll never know whether they are safe. Depending on your point of view, you’ll either smugly say “QED”, or otherwise cry “Catch-22”.

The other way would be to say, “absence of evidence of harm is the same as evidence of absence of harm”. But that, as we know from our experience of the BSE/CJD controversy, is a dangerous position to take. Yet this seems to be the underlying argument of the “sound science” camp. We should look, they argue, for solid, refereed research which proves the possibility of harm, and if it can’t be found then the product or process should be deemed safe. The rules of the WTO specify that unless “sound science” says it’s dangerous, then no country can refuse to accept it as an import.

In the hands of the WTO, “sound” seems to mean science of, by and for the businessmen. And WTO’s operations are anything but transparent. Committees composed largely of corporate representatives make its adjudications in secret. The kind of notion of “sound science”, coupled with strong-arm tactics, that made Monsanto so notorious over here, are standard procedures in the WTO. The organisation is as ugly as its acronym.

But what are we to make of the argument that the precautionary principle amounts to a recipe for never doing anything? The classic formulation of the precautionary principle, freely available, is from the 1992 Climate Change Convention. There it is defined as “measures to anticipate, prevent or minimise [the] adverse effects” of scientific progress “where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage”. “Lack of full scientific certainty”, the definition states, “should not be used as a reason for postponing such measures”. The definition even suggests that precautionary measures should be “cost-effective so as to ensure global benefits at the lowest possible cost”. To me, this is a recipe for sensible prudence.

The battle between “sound science” and “precautionary principle” actually raises the question of what science is all about. One side really denies that uncertainty is crucial. And this would fit the image of science that we have had for some 400 years, and which still shapes science education at all levels. The other side suggests that science and the world of nature have changed. We can no longer speak of taming or conquering “her”, for that way has set us on the path to disaster. Recognising complexity and uncertainty is the only way for a science of survival. But such notions are antithetical to the science of the corporate laboratories, and science of the textbooks.

This battle is also about politics, and our conception of how we will live, or not, on our lonely planet. Scientific research can be well or badly done, and the results of that research can be used, misused or abused. It’s a question of vision, as refracted through power.

Up to now, science has mainly served as a handmaiden to power. But, as Seattle and Montreal have shown, the picture is changing. And changing fast.