Thursday, April 24, 2008

How Scepticism About Science Harms the Least Advantaged

In some previous posts (e.g. here and here) I lamented about the harms of dogma and ignorance. Popular opposition to genetically modified crops is another perfect example of this. It's easy for those in the richest countries to demand organic produce, even when it costs more than perfectly healthy, cheaper food (it's the same as our irrational aversion to drinking tap water).

But our scepticism about the science of genetically modified crops has harmful consequences for those in the poorest parts of the world where the costs of food are much higher. Many in the West like to think they are helping to combat global poverty by riding their bike to work, or having less children (indeed, perhaps none!), thus minimizing their carbon footprint. And yet many of these same people fiercely oppose what they view as "frankenstein" food; when the reality is that support for these technologies could actually help the most vulnerable people in the world. This reinforces a point I've made before: that good intentions themselves are not enough. Good intentions, when coupled with dogma or ignorance, can be just as harmful (sometimes even more harmful) that malicious intentions. True Wisdom is only achieved when we act in accordance with both our hearts and our heads.

While many people might intuitively feel that the idea of genetically modified crops sounds risky and dangerous, the reality is there is no scientific evidence to suggest they are unsafe (and yet many people still smoke and obesity is an epidemic, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence of their it you are really worried about our health, protest against smoking and physical inactivity!).

But don't take just my word for it. Here is what Health Canada says about consuming genetically modified foods:

Is there any scientific evidence to suggest that genetically modified foods are less safe that those foods produced using conventional techniques?

After twelve years of reviewing the safety of novel foods, Health Canada is not aware of any published scientific evidence demonstrating that novel foods are any less safe than traditional foods. The regulatory framework put in place by the federal government ensures that new and modified foods can be safely introduced into the Canadian diet. Safety assessment approaches are well established to address the potential risks associated with foods.

This NY Times article suggests that perhaps people in the developed world will come around to their senses now that we have set the fight against poverty back by 7 years. Here is a sample:

Soaring food prices and global grain shortages are bringing new pressures on governments, food companies and consumers to relax their longstanding resistance to genetically engineered crops.

....Genetically modified crops contain genes from other organisms to make the plants resistance to insects, herbicides or disease. Opponents continue to worry that such crops have not been studied enough and that they might pose risks to health and the environment.

“I think it’s pretty clear that price and supply concerns have people thinking a little bit differently today,” said Steve Mercer, a spokesman for U.S. Wheat Associates, a federally supported cooperative that promotes American wheat abroad.

The group, which once cautioned farmers about growing biotech wheat, is working to get seed companies to restart development of genetically modified wheat and to get foreign buyers to accept it.

...Through gene splicing, the modified crops now grown — mainly canola, corn, cotton and soybeans — typically contain bacterial genes that help the plants resist insects or tolerate a herbicide that can be sprayed to kill weeds while leaving the crop unscathed. Biotechnology companies are also working on crops that might need less water or fertilizer, which could have a bigger impact on improving yield.