Soya beans are political hot potatoes

August 27, 1999

The green mob that shouted down geneticist Steve Jones (left) makes him fear for the future of GM foods. He tells Kam Patel the problem is not one of science.

Recently the geneticist and popular science writer Steve Jones stood up before a "baying mob" of green activists and tried to air his views about genetically modified food. He failed - the ecowarriors howled him down.

The incident only served to heighten the genetics professor's growing alarm at the stand-off between the British public and the country's university scientists, a confrontation that becomes daily more bitter as activists take the law into their own hands, trampling fields of trial GM crops.

"As I said (at the meeting), the greenest political party there has ever been was the Nazi party. The Nazis were great believers in purity, that nature should not be interfered with. I fear that there is an element of that in the Greens," Jones says. "It is one reason I have never joined them. The Green Party has a very authoritarian, pureness of blood, 'our roots are in English soil' kind of feel to it, which I hate. In the end, genetics is only a science. We should have learned not to treat it as a political football."

In the past year, there have been angry, sometimes farcical, clashes between scientists, politicians and the public over GM foods. Jones, professor of genetics at University College London, says none of the actors emerges with credit. Scientists and politicians have failed to get a clear message across about the risks and benefits of GM foods. Confused by their conflicting advice, people have decided that the foods are unsafe and that they are being lied to by experts in bed with big business.

Jones believes that one reason for the sorry state of affairs is that scientists and politicians have been too sanguine about the general public's ability to appreciate how science works. "The public does not understand that it is perfectly possible to have a fierce scientific argument that remains unresolved; that that is not a failure of science but a fact of life. Politicians and journalists like certainty, but often science cannot provide it. And it certainly cannot when there are no data to back the argument up."

That misunderstanding emerged forcefully last year after Arpad Pusztai claimed that genetically modified potatoes were poisonous to lab animals and, by implication, to people. The claim, enthusiastically spread by the media, hugely intensified public anxiety about GM foods. Jones says:

"Pusztai simply came out with statements saying the stuff is dangerous to lab animals. Other scientists said, 'Give us the evidence.' ButI he could not do so." In such circumstances, scientists could do little but condemn Pusztai's attitude.

The public's response was very different, however: most people felt that Pusztai was right and the establishment wrong. Then the Royal Society weighed in and quickly scored an own goal, simply by following its own rules. The society appointed six eminent scientists to review Pusztai's work. As usual, the reviewers were afforded anonymity. What, the public asked, did they have to hide? The judgement of the six scientists that the Pusztai research was flawed did little to allay fears.

Might it have been better to make known the reviewers' identity? "It is arguable that that should have been done," Jones says. "But it would have been a difficult decision. When you submit papers for publication they go to anonymous experts who tear them to pieces. I am reviewing one now that looks like it is heading that way," he says, pointing to some papers on the floor. "But I am not going to review somebody's work and say publicly that it is rubbish because that would bring me grief. I can say things anonymously that I would not say were my name attached. I have had reviews of my own research papers saying they are rubbish. It infuriates me and if I knew who it was, I would strangle them. Resentfully, I know that is the only way the system could work."

If Jones is critical about how the GM foods debate has been handled until now, he has no easy answers for the future - beyond explaining the scientific process more clearly. For he believes that the public's suspicions now reach beyond science.

Every October at UCL, Jones gives his genetics students an introductory lecture in which he provides an overview of research in human genetics, including the ability to screen foetuses for genes linked to specific illnesses, such as cystic fibrosis and some cancers. Foetuses may then be aborted.

At the lecture's end Jones provocatively suggests that what is happening now is exactly what the eugenicists wanted - the bad not to be born and the birth rate of the good to rise. "I ask them where the limits should be - where they would draw the boundaries. But I only ever get two questions: 'Is it going to be in the exam?' and 'That's all well and good, but what about GM food?'" Students accept astonishing things happening in human genetics without turning a hair but worry about GM soya beans. And that I just do not understand. It is an indication that this is really not a problem of science at all."

Perhaps British people's reaction to GM foods signifies deep anxieties about the pace of technological change, I suggest. Perhaps, Jones agrees. "The problem is that people are scared of the unknown. In a sane world, BAT (the tobacco company) would be closed tomorrow because we know cigarettes are fantastically dangerous. YetI there is more bad publicity about soya beans than there is about the risk from smoking. The public is used to being told cigarettes are dangerous and smokers, drug addicts that they are, have dismissed the risk. But over GM soya the public does not know whom to believe."

For Jones, the problem is exacerbated by the lack of a freedom of information act, so that even if there is no hidden agenda on the part of politicians and big business, that is impossible to prove. Logic suggests that if GM products were dangerous, companies would be sued, so they have a strong incentive to be careful, Jones says.

But he is not an apologist for genetic engineering. His big worry is not that eating GM foods might make people sick but that genes inserted into crops to provide protection, say, against a certain insect, could "leak" out into other species and confer the same resistance. The fear is that such transfers could dramatically re-engineer the environment with catastrophic consequences.

The 20th century, Jones says, has witnessed two major evolutionary experiments: one involving antibiotics, the other insecticides. Both have been fantastic successes. But in the past 20 years there has been rising concern about bugs that can resist the arsenal of antibiotics and insecticides thrown at them over decades. "If we knew when we started what we know now, antibiotics and insecticides would have been used much more carefully. But for GM crops, we seem to have learned nothing."

Genetic manipulation is set to become the third and easily most powerful evolutionary experiment yet tried, and Jones fears that its enthusiasts are pushing it along the same path. "It's the same kind of thinking: it is a fantastic technology, let's use it everywhereI I could be wrong, but if I am not, the disaster with GM will be much, much bigger.

"Evolution is a machine for making the almost impossible. It has no strategy, but it does have fantastic tactics and its resources are endless. And GM enthusiasts should bear that in mind before tinkering with it so blithely in the interests of a marginal increase in productivity," he concludes.

Despite his concerns, Jones concedes that there are potential advantages to embracing GM crops. "People tend to forget that there are now almost no famines - the first time for 10,000 years. Our world is saturated with food. We have temporarily escaped the Malthusian trap; but we need technology, perhaps including techniques of genetic modification, to make sure we stay outside it.

"The most important determinant of the technology's future is the western consumer, yet its potential is greatest for tropical countries. If GM foods become uneconomic because they are mishandled in the first world, they will not be developed for the third world, and that is not something people in well-off countries should encourage without carefully weighing up the evidence. For me, what is needed are proper experiments and a somewhat less Gadarene rush hoping for instant profits from soya beans."

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