Euan McColm: Ban on GM crops is embarrassing

Far from enhancing Scotland's 'clean, green status', Richard Lochhead's ban on GM crops is a backward move. Picture: Julie Bull
Far from enhancing Scotland's 'clean, green status', Richard Lochhead's ban on GM crops is a backward move. Picture: Julie Bull
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Scottish Government’s populist move disrespects our scientists and lets down the country, writes Euan McColm

HOW can you tell if someone’s a Scottish scientist? After all, many of them take the form of normal humans. To the naked eye, a scientist may look just like you.

Scottish plants are to be kept pure and Scottish, unsullied by interferences

You could ask her, of course, but the problem is that you’d have to take the answer on trust. And scientists are not to be trusted, are they?

No, the only way to find out for sure whether a Scot is practising science is to throw her in a river. If she floats, she’s a scientist and can be dealt with appropriately.

If she sinks…well, the system’s not perfect but how else are we to stop these creatures, with their “chemicals” and their “laboratories”? Science is evil and no good can come of it.

Give thanks, then, for Scotland’s scientist-finder general, Richard Lochhead, cabinet secretary for rural affairs.

This great warrior against the scourge of progress recently struck a devastating blow against the practitioners of science, announcing a ban on the cultivation of genetically modified crops in Scotland.

Scottish plants are to be kept pure and Scottish, unsullied by the interferences of men and women who would dare to use human ingenuity for the good of mankind.

Naturally, Mr Lochhead did not base his decision on scientific evidence (there is no suggestion that GM crops pose any danger to us). Instead, his edict is entirely political in motivation; it’s cheap populism that exploits ignorance.

Yesterday, in response to the cabinet secretary’s decision on the issue, scientists revealed themselves to us.

An open letter to Mr Lochhead, signed by 28 research organisations, warns that the Scottish Government’s ban on the cultivation of all genetically modified crops, regardless of current or future scientific evidence about the benefits of particular applications, risks constraining Scotland’s contribution to scientific research and leaving the country without access to the sort of agricultural innovations that are, even now, making farming more sustainable elsewhere in the world.

The signatories – which include the Roslin Institute, cloners of the Godless abomination Dolly the sheep, and the Royal Society of Edinburgh – make clear their surprise and disappointment with the Government and point out that Scotland’s leadership in the field of science dates back to the 18th century and the Enlightenment.

Genetic modification of plants, the scientists write, has become a well established method and has a 20-year track record of safe use worldwide. What’s more, scientists are developing new plant breeding techniques that may be classified as GM in the future.

The letter concludes with the warning that the ban on GM crops in Scotland would prevent us from benefiting from future innovations in agriculture, fisheries, and healthcare.

Scaremongering about genetic modification has a proud history. Back in the 1990s, tabloid headlines screamed about “Frankenstein foods”. The implication was that crops with which scientists had meddled would be unsafe for humans.

This was ill-informed tosh but there’s no room for logic or rational thought when it comes to attacking innovation. (You may remember that the same types who oppose GM crops used to devote quite a bit of time to telling us that mobile phone masts would give us all cancer. That there was absolutely no proof whatsoever that this might be the case was neither here nor there.)

Mr Lochhead is an affable fellow but an unspectacular politician, the sort of whom it is said “he rose without trace”.

He – quite rightly – champions the Scottish farming and fishing industries but he rarely does anything that might attract our attention. It’s rather depressing, then, for those of us who are willing to consider the possibility that scientific research might not be the work of the Earl of Hell, that he has decided to take this step.

Let’s just, for a moment, say that the research is fair and reasonable and that GM crops do not present a danger to us. Wouldn’t it, in that case, make sense for Scotland to continue to produce them?

Wouldn’t it be worth looking at ways of protecting harvests against disease? Mightn’t it be worthwhile investing a little ingenuity in finding ways of ensuring there is food for those who need it? If we believe it is a good idea to, as the song has it, “feed the world”, should we really add “but only with organic sausages”?

Mr Lochhead, unsurprisingly, enjoys the support of a great many SNP voters who are delighted that he has struck a blow for the purity of Scottish produce. And, anyway, scientists have got away with whatever it is they do in those laboratories for too long. Who, exactly, do they think they are?

We shouldn’t simply take the word of scientists – or anyone who would seek to effect change in the way we live our lives – at face value. It is right to question them, to require from them proof for their assertions.

But we’re not, in Scotland, even doing that. Instead, in the cases of those working on the genetic modification of crops, we have decided that they must be wrong, that their work is of no value, that it’s even dangerous.

Has it really come to this? In the 21st century, rather than Scotland maintaining a proud (and, yes, we should be proud of the achievements of Scots scientists) tradition of leading the way in innovation and scientific discovery, we are absenting ourselves from that process.

The Scottish Government would have us believe that it is modern, outward-looking, progressive and fair, but Mr Lochhead’s decision on GM crops is none of these things. It’s petty, ignorant, and embarrassing.

Mr Lochhead says the Scottish Government is not prepared to “gamble” with the future of the country’s £14 billion food and drink sector. He says that Scotland is known around the world for its beautiful natural environment and that the ban on GM crops will protect and enhance the country’s “clean, green status”.

Perhaps it will. But it might also help us develop a reputation as a backward little place, where scientists are witch-hunted into obsolescence.