Held to ransom . . .

When I started this blog some 20 months ago, I decided that I would write about topics related to the things I’ve done and seen throughout my professional life on three continents, as well as other topics that come to mind now that I’m retired and look back on the decades.

I more or less decided to steer away from controversy. But no longer. And my ‘conversion’ began a couple of weeks ago when I posted a story about genetic modification (GM) and Golden Rice. There are several issues that society has to confront right now, particularly in the UK, scientists need to step up to the plate and explain – in terms comprehensible to ‘Joe Public’ – the science behind these issues, and also why it’s important not only to do the right science, but to do the science right.

Source: IRRI http://farm1.staticflickr.com/98/368496234_1ff4a2cc01_m.jpgThat was the mantra of one of my former IRRI colleagues, plant pathologist Tom Mew: Do the right science, and do the science right.

I accept that the public is less than confident in the scientific community – suspicious even. I see two issues. First, most people do not understand the scientific method, based on observation, hypothesis generation, careful and rigorous experimentation, analysis and interpretation of results, and drawing conclusions or lessons. The paradox is that science does not always provide clear black or white, yes or no, answers. Science is involved with the assessment of risk.

But if the science is done right, and subject to the appropriate peer review then it is a system that has stood society in good stead for centuries, and has led to progress from which everyone (or the majority) in society has benefited. Just think of the progress made in medical science, in genetics, in physics and chemistry.

That’s why I get so riled when I see science being subverted or even hijacked by special interest or activist groups. Take the example of GM crops for example. As I admitted in my recent post, the scientific community didn’t exactly cover itself with glory and make the case strongly 25 years ago when the first GM crops were being promoted. The activists like Greenpeace and others essentially ‘won’ the campaign, labeling such GM crops as ‘Frankenstein foods’, a label that has been extremely difficult to overturn. It annoyed me the other night that, following a very well informed piece on the BBC’s One Show about the testing of a GM wheat by Rothamsted International in Hertfordshire (scientists have introduced a gene from a mint species, Mentha x piperita, that ‘disturbs’ aphids and they do not settle and feed – aphids transit virus diseases in plants and these cause serious yield problems) the silly Lucy Siegle immediately launched into a description of ‘Frankenstein foods’, diluting what had been a well balanced report by one of her colleagues. All credit to Sir Terry Wogan, that evening’s guest on the show, who said he would eat GM food. What concerned him was the involvement of multinational companies ‘controlling’ GM technologies and products. Even though the film report highlighted the work of Rothamsted International (with some private sector partners), no-one sought to clarify that indeed much of the GM scientific research undertaken in the UK and in many other countries is funded from the public purse.

With the recent activist groups attacking a Golden Rice field plot in the south part of Luzon in the Philippines, there has, at last been, been a worldwide condemnation of their action, and a concerted effort by scientists to explain and place in context the relevance of and benefits from investing in the science of Golden Rice.

But there are two other issues that have me exercised these days. These are ‘fracking’ (and associated issue of ‘renewables’) and the two pilot badger culls in Somerset and Gloucestershire in England’s southwest. Quite unrelated issues I grant you, but the common theme are the attempts (often successful) to disrupt or halt legal activities aimed at providing answers.

Let me elaborate.

Hydraulic fracturing or fracking is the process of fracturing shale rocks deep underground to release trapped natural gas, crude oil even. It’s a technique that is apparently revolutionizing natural gas production in the USA, reducing energy costs and securing for many decades into the future that country’s energy needs. But it is controversial, with fears that it is causing earthquakes – at least seismic movements of low intensity, and possibly polluting aquifers. Following drilling in northwest England near Blackpool, there were a couple of minor tremors, and all exploration was halted for the time-being. But when an exploratory site was opened in West Sussex at Balcombe recently, thousands of activists descended on the village and the company concerned, Cuadrilla, had to cease operations. Not only did the intervention of the activists cause disruption to village life, but because of their stated intention to break into the site and possible cause criminal damage, there was a heightened police presence – at the cost of hundreds of thousand of pounds, if not millions, to the taxpayer. You and me!

Do I support fracking? I don’t know. What I do support is the need to fully investigate how this approach can be carried out safely and efficiently in a country as densely populated as the UK. There’s no point, in my opinion, making the argument that we should rely now less on fossil fuels and instead be turning towards renewables as though they could meet this country’s energy needs. Undoubtedly society’s use of fossil fuels has and is exacerbating the problem of greenhouse gas-induced climate change. But please would someone explain to me where the energy from renewables is going to come from in the short- to medium-term. For the foreseeable future, society is going to continue relying on fossil fuels, hopefully those which can be exploited more efficiently. We’ve already moved away from coal generated electricity towards natural gas. Our nuclear power industry seems to be going nowhere. None of the political parties here in the UK had enthusiastically embraced nuclear power. That was until a motion in favor of nuclear power was passed yesterday by the Liberal Democrats at their annual conference in Glasgow in favor of nuclear power

The badger cull
Let me state, right away, that I do not support the indiscriminate killing of animals. But we do have a crisis in agriculture here in the UK caused by the ongoing incidence and spread of bovine tuberculosis among cattle. And it’s particularly prevalent in the southwest. It seems the jury is out concerning the role of badgers in spreading the disease to cattle, and maintaining a reservoir of the pathogen to re-infect both disease-free badger populations and cattle herds. It’s costing the livestock industry – and us, the taxpayers – millions in compensation, never mind the heartache suffered by farmers as they watch their prize pedigree herds being taken away for slaughter. What about a vaccine you may ask? Under EU rules the use of a vaccine – even if an effective one was available (which experts admit may take up to 10 years more) – is not permitted. So what is needed are measures that reduce the level of environmental inoculum. And that means reducing the badger population or reducing the level of infection in badger populations. Badgers can be vaccinated against bovine TB, if they can be trapped, but vaccination will not cure sick animals and, according to information I have read, there are many very sick badgers wandering about the British countryside.

Now the science of bovine TB control in badgers has not provided unequivocal answers. Different scientists or scientific panels cannot agree on the consequences of carrying out a badger cull. Clearly this is a situation that calls for some further scientific study. And so the Westminster government has sanctioned a cull of ‘all’ badgers in two pilot areas, up to 5,000 badgers each. The Welsh government has also approved a cull. The problem is that the very thought of killing badgers, needlessly it seems to many activists, has sparked a huge controversy. I listen to the farming program most days on BBC Radio 4 and hardly a day goes by without some discussion about bovine TB and the pros and cons of the cull. But the very activities of the activists threaten to disrupt the cull during which marksmen shoot badgers in the pilot areas at night. So what do we end up? Well, lots of dead badgers that can be studied for their health status. But depending on the success or not of the cull, we may or may not (and I fear the latter) get a solid set of scientific data, properly analysed, and that won’t be disputed, upon which everyone can agree and that point the way forward in terms of controlling the spread of the disease in nature. The activists say the cull is not necessary and have failed before. But they do not have the data to conclude other approaches are better.

It seems to me that society is being held hostage by special interest groups. I am far more comfortable with policy decisions based on reputable science and solid data. Developing and applying policy is not without risk. Science helps to determine what those risks might be, and to provide an understanding of what limits to those risks we should accept. Unless we do the science, as in the case of testing GM crops in the field – with the potential that they will bring enormous benefits to society, as is expected of Golden Rice – then it’s as though we are blundering about in the dark. One person’s opinion is as good as the next. That’s not the best way for society to make decisions and progress.

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