Healing the rift around GM crops

BES member Joanna Wolstenholme explores how a more constructive dialogue might be built around GM crops.

Field of Crops. Susanne Nilsson/Flickr
Field of Crops Susanne Nilsson/Flickr

The debate around Genetically Modified (GM) crops has been raging for years, and there is still little agreement between opposing fractions. As someone with a degree in Plant Sciences, I have heard much about the debate, but it was only when touching on more philosophical and social issues whilst studying for a masters in Science Communication that I realised there was more to it than I had previously considered. I was intrigued, and took the opportunity to explore the topic further for my dissertation.

I conducted 16 fascinating interviews with actors across the debate – those from industry and academia, biotech and agroecology, conventional and organic farming. I spoke to those that would be affected first hand by a decision to allow GM crops to be grown in the UK: farmers, food merchants, and agricultural industry bodies, as well as scientists on both sides of the debate. I was interested in what language is being used, and what this tells us about the underlying assumptions of those on various sides of the debate.

My research highlighted how there are major splits in how GM is perceived. To some it is almost a silver bullet, a solution to many of the issues that face conventional farmers, with the potential to make farming more sustainable. Yet to others GM is a corporate product, designed to make large companies money, and would disadvantage both the environment and the farmer. There were also many voices in the middle-ground, who are often forgotten about in the debate; those that see the potential for GM but are realistic about the current constraints and potential costs to the farmer, or those that do not outright reject the technology but feel more needs to be done to understand the holistic nature of the farming system before anything new is introduced.

‘Biotech’ and ‘Ecotech’

Interviewees could be broadly divided into two groups based on their perceptions of the technology; I called the different mind-sets ‘paradigms’ (a term previously used by Vanloqueren and Baret (2009), drawing on the ideas of Thomas Kuhn) and gave them the labels of ‘biotech’ and ‘ecotech’, shorthand for  complex collections of ideas. The biotech paradigm encapsulated conventional, chemically-assisted agriculture, where GM crops were generally accepted as just the next step in plant breeding, and a useful and necessary way of helping solve on-farm problems. By comparison, those working in the ecotech paradigm – generally those from the organics and agroecology movements – often saw conventional agriculture as long-term unsustainable, with bigger issues to solve before the unknown of GM crops was added to the mix. Whilst this is a generalist grouping of ideas it served to highlight a genuine split in opinion, based on widely differing underlying assumptions.

With such a split in viewpoints – to the extent to which the different paradigms could even be said to be acting in different realities – it is no surprise that little progress is made in the debate. The debate is often characterised by dismissal of those of a differing viewpoint as ignorant or misinformed – and this was indeed true of some of my interviewees. This disrespectful dialogue undermines discussion from the outset; if you dismiss your opponents, then surely you are just talking to an echo-chamber of your own supporters – and how is that going to further the debate?

Towards a constructive dialogue

GM crops is a topic which is not going to go away any time soon. It is imperative, therefore, to start to form a more constructive, understanding dialogue. Whatever your views, take a step back – what are the underlying assumptions they are based on? How well informed are you really about opposing views? I don’t mean the scare-stories on either side, I mean real, considered, nuanced arguments. Can you see a middle ground for constructive discussion?

It is up to us to work together to ensure GM crops are managed and used –or not – in a way that best supports a productive, sustainable and inclusive agriculture. It’s time to get talking!

By its very nature this 660 word summary of a 10,000 word dissertation somewhat glosses over the finer points of my research… If you would like to read the full dissertation I am happy to send you a copy – please get in touch at joanna[dot]wolstenholme[at]gmail.com!

Joanna Wolstenholme has just finished a MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London, having previously studied Natural Sciences (specialised into Plant Sciences) at the University of Cambridge. She is fascinated by issues surrounding the food chain – from growing, to eating and waste – and would be interested to hear from you if you have any comments on her work.