Friday, March 26, 2010

Do Those Who Pay Lobbyists Get What They Pay For?

The International Policy Network (IPN) is almost beyond belief. The head of the organisation, Julian Morris, has an article on India's recent decision to place a moratorium on the growing of genetically modified (GM) brinjal (aubergine, egg-plant). Morris puts this decision down to their use of the 'precautionary principle', which Morris doesn't approve of. He refers to India's high rates of poverty and malnutrition, implying that their decision to reject GM brinjal (for the moment) will contribute to these problems.

For several reasons well known to Indian farmers, GM crops do not reduce poverty, far from it. For a start, GM seeds and other inputs are much more expensive than conventional ones. Secondly, the usage of these inputs goes up, steadily, the longer the crops are grown in the same place, so profits go down. Thirdly, yields go down, reducing profits even further. Fourthly, none of the other promised advantages of GM crops have materialised. GM has been an expensive waste of money, of land and of people's lives.

As for malnutrition, the previous points make it clear that GM crops are not going to have much positive impact on this. We have been promised crops with higher nutritional value but, in addition to getting less food from GM varieties, there is no nutritional benefit. According to Wikipedia, the precautionary principle "states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is not harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those who advocate taking the action".

What could Morris have against such a principle in relation to GM? There is more than a suspected risk of harm, of several kinds, to the public and the environment; there is little or no scientific consensus but nor has there been much scientific research; the burden of proof should lie with the proponents of GM, but they have consistently failed to do any research that could allay fears. Morris says his disagreement is that you can't prove a negative. But proponents are not being asked to prove a negative, they are being asked to carry out adequate research to show that GM crops are safe to humans, animals and the environment, economically viable, politically viable, ethical and many other things. The risks of not doing this research are too great.

The Indian minister in question, Jairam Ramesh, did not simply grab whatever expedient he found handy and place a moratorium on GM brinjal. He held a lengthy and comprehensive consultation. This is something an industry paid lobbyist who runs an institution that pretends to be an educational think tank, such as Morris, would have little understanding of. People who voted for Ramesh were asked their opinion and they said 'no', overwhelmingly. If Morris had his way, Ramesh would have paid large consultancy fees to Morris and his ilk and done what they advised, regardless of what Indian farmers and consumers wanted.

Morris goes on to fault the use of the precautionary principle by the EU to ban animal growth hormones. He sees this decision as flawed (really, read the article!). But his grasp of basic logic is as poor as his knowledge about GM organisms. He argues that water and oxygen would be banned under the EU's interpretation of the precautionary principle 'if they were classified as pesticides'. That's like saying that pedestrians would have to obey speed limits if they were classified as vehicles.

Like many interested parties who have their snouts in the GM gravy train, Morris sees any opposition to GM or any other dangerous technology as anti-science, anti-technology, rather than sensible criticism and protest against health and safety issues being decided purely on the basis of profits for multinationals. He seems to have little time for anything remotely like a scientific argument. He's not too astute politically, either. The "small but politically savvy band of opponents" in India that he refers to are none other than the Indian electorate, people who will be most directly affected by decisions about further exposures to GM risks.

The IPN website claims to have 'ideas for a free society' and to be 'bringing down barriers to enterprise and trade'. It would be more accurate to say 'this is as free as it gets, put up with it'. If I thought Morris was trying to clarify moot points, to analyse certain alternative interpretations of data, to shed light on difficult issues, I would at least defend his right to do that, even if I didn't agree with him. But there is no sense, science, logic, even political clout, behind what Morris writes. He seems to be writing utter nonsence because that's what he gets paid to do. But if the quality of his arguments are anything to go by, he doesn't get paid very much.


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