For or against GM crops? Other positions are available

Academic cheerleaders for biotechnology corporations need better arguments if they want to persuade the public, write Erik Millstone, Andy Stirling and Dominic Glover, introducing their article in a forthcoming edition of Issues in Science and Technology (PDF).

Companies involved in crop genetic engineering (GE) see themselves as principled heroes in a struggle against opportunistic reactionaries. Their critics come from many standpoints – some religious, some ethical but essentially secular, some scientific, and others socio-economic.

Transgenic crop developers have their share of cheerleaders in the academic community, but STEPS Centre researchers find the arguments invoked by those cheerleaders conspicuously weak. Too many protagonists in these debates behave as if the only positions available are simply to be ‘for’ or ‘against’ a single family of innovations; as if GE can be interpreted only as either absolutely indispensable or uniquely unacceptable. In reality, numerous other positions are available.

In 2009, STEPS members Ian Scoones and Dominic Glover criticised Robert Paarlberg’s encomium for transgenics in his 2008 book Starved for Science (Harvard University Press). (See Ian Scoones & Dominic Glover, ‘Africa’s biotechnology battle’ (PDF), Nature, 13 August 2009, Vol 460, pp 797-798).

Now, Drew Kershen and Henry I. Miller have appealed for genetic engineering to be ‘given some breathing room’ (“Give Genetic Engineering Some Breathing Room”, Issues in Science and Technology, Winter 2015). This time, we (STEPS members Erik Millstone, Andy Stirling and Dominic Glover) have published a rejoinder, ‘Regulating Genetic Engineering: the Limits and Politics of Knowledge’, to be published in the forthcoming Summer 2015 edition of Issues in Science and Technology. A downloadable version of our article is here (PDF).

‘Take it or leave it’

In the article, we point out that scientific and policy debates about the utility and limitations of genetic engineering are not simply polarized in black and white. Just because some GE cheerleaders locate themselves at the extreme end of a singular axis does not justify their attempt to lump together anyone who raises questions about GE as extremists at its opposite end.

In reality, GE offers diverse innovation pathways, so it is not just possible but sensible and prudent to reflect critically on the pros and cons of those pathways. GE is not a singular and homogeneous technology to which ‘take it or leave it’ are the only available responses.

Different options, benefits and risks

Moreover, GE is not the only modern biotechnology available to attack agricultural problems. Apart from transgenics, the options include cisgenics, apomixis, gene editing, and genomic and marker-assisted selection. Each of those approaches could (and likely would) entail different patterns of benefits and risks (social, political, economic, and cultural, as well as biophysical and ecological), depending on how and where they might be applied.

It is also the case that a wide range of social, organisational and institutional innovations (PDF) in the agricultural field could provide powerful ways to improve agriculture.


We also point out that no genuine consensus exists within the scientific community about the safety and acceptability of innovations produced using GE. The fact that the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility gathered recently more than 300 signatures from independent researchers, rejecting the claim that such a consensus exists, is sufficient proof.

Given that the available evidence base is incomplete, equivocal and uncertain, it is disingenuous to claim to be able definitively to judge the safety of particular products of GE, or of GE technologies as a uniform category.

But Kershen and Miller went even further when they suggested that scientific knowledge is so extensive and accurate that all the potential implications of GE – benefits and risks – can already be correctly predicted. Accordingly, they complained that GE is widely over-regulated (even in the USA!) in ways that impose high, unnecessary and avoidable costs.

We find their view complacent, and difficult to reconcile with, for example, the recent news that “…a genetically modified sheep carrying a jellyfish protein entered the French food system last year following what appears to have been a deliberate abattoir mix-up…” (N Michail, Food Navigator, 30 June 2015).

That bizarre event not only provides evidence supporting the theory that, if anyone tries to create an idiot-proof technology, someone will create a better idiot; it also shows why it is always prudent to anticipate unexpected events, and never to pretend that the future is either entirely predictable or controllable.

The recent paper by Seralini and colleagues, which reported high levels of toxic contaminants in the standard feeds used in animal tests across five continents, suggests moreover that judgements about the safety and acceptability of GM foods, as well as other tested materials, may be far less reliable than many have previously assumed (R Mesnage & G-E Séralini et al, ‘Laboratory Rodent Diets Contain Toxic Levels of Environmental Contaminants: Implications for Regulatory Tests’, PLoS ONE, Vol 10, 2015, No 7).

Scientific hypotheses about safety and benefits are supposed to be testable and tested, not excuses for insisting that no safety tests should be carried out. (See E Millstone, E Brunner & S Mayer, ‘Beyond ‘substantial equivalence’’, Nature, Vol 401, 7 October 1999, pp. 525-526). The safety and risk profiles of particular products of GE can be established only empirically.

To suggest (as Kershen & Miller did) that we have near-perfect or even sufficient foreknowledge for any or all GE products, in any or all contexts, constitutes a profoundly unscientific and antiscientific error. It is antiscientific because it suggests that a potentially illuminating set of experiments should never be conducted because their results are already known.

Special protection

We also criticise another example of flawed reasoning. Corporations active in GE have long insisted that their products must be covered by patents (rather than by, for example, traditional forms of protection, such as those provided to plant breeders by the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants under the so-called ‘UPOV Convention’).

But the corporations try to have it both ways. With respect to innovativeness, they insist that GE is radically different from traditional tools of crop and livestock improvement, so that special protection of ‘their’ intellectual property is justified. On the other hand, with respect to safety, harm, or risks the companies insist that GE is not remotely special or distinctive, and so no special testing should be required.

The claim for special protection for intellectual property is based on the claim that the R&D costs for GE are particularly high, and that without patent rights a commercial return could not reasonably be anticipated, so none of this valuable research would be done. But if it is true that GE is so precise that it “…actually lowers the already minimal risk associated with field testing”, as Kershen and Miller asserted, then the industry’s R&D costs should have fallen, not risen. Based on logic alone, the claims that GE is technically more precise and safer and corporate arguments for patent rights over GE products and processes are mutually inconsistent.

Science, policy and regulation

Arguments like Kershen & Miller’s imply that policy judgments about, for example, the regulation of GE can and should be based exclusively on scientific considerations. But regulatory policies have never been based solely on science and nor could they be! As analytic philosophers like to remind everyone, you just cannot derive an “ought” from an “is.”

Facts about the world are certainly relevant to policy, but even the most certain facts can never on their own settle normative policy questions. Norms, values, interests and priorities are not just second-order supplements to science that are required only when significant uncertainties exist. Values and interests frame the choices about which scientific questions to ask, what data are relevant, and how to interpret the evidence they find.

This is true of our own work and that of STEPS colleagues, in which we acknowledge our normative commitments to see science and technology used for the benefit of historically and culturally marginalised and disempowered communities and groups. The difference is that, while we try to be open about these values, some scholars who lend unqualified support to GE, and other generic technologies, are disingenuous when they pretend to a disinterested, unemotional (yet also strangely passionate), fact-focused neutrality.

Read the article in ‘Issues in Science and Technology’

‘Regulating Genetic Engineering: the Limits and Politics of Knowledge’ (PDF) by Erik Millstone, Andy Stirling and Dominic Glover, Summer 2015

Issues in Science and Technology website

Related content

Why science is not enough for good policy by Erik Millstone, SciDev.Net, 15 May 2015

Hot topic – GM crops: Risk, science, public trust

GM Food and the precautionary principle

Biotechnology Research Archive: 10+ years of research into genetically-modified crops, development and the global food crisis

Governing Agricultural Sustainability: Global Lessons from GM Crops by Phil Macnaghten & Susana Carro-Ripalda (eds.) (Routledge, 2015) – STEPS Pathways to Sustainability Series



  1. enserr and serralini, Surely you jest. Very poor article with bad, if any fact checking. Pathetic.

  2. And using a term like cheerleaders instead of doing real research is the work of a high school level journalist. Even more pathetic.

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