Key concepts: British GM controversy, Friends of the Earth, science wars, genetic modification

Attention Conservation Notice: It's about science and politics. Almost 2,000 words long. Highly opinionated.

Entries in the Viridian Summer Health Warning Contest:


And the winner is: Matthew Spong (*), at Matthew Spong's bold entry was judged "best suited to the half-blind, feeble and semiliterate." Matthew Spong's contest prize is a coveted cowboy hat.

Source: Science magazine, Vol 285, page 1337, 27 August 1999

"ScienceScope" column by Erik Stokstad and Pallava Bagla


"In a move that one researcher calls a 'crude attempt to intimidate,' an environmental group is warning British scientists and biotech executives that they could be personally liable for damages caused by genetically modified (GM) crops. Friends of the Earth (FOE) chief Charles Secrett last month sent letters to officials at more than 30 companies, research centers, and universities, warning that they could be 'legally liable' for allergies or other problems caused by GM crops.

"But in a public response, one of FOE's targets last week said the threat is misdirected. Accusing the group of 'deep ignorance,' Donald O'Nions, administrative head of the John Innes Centre in Norwich, said that his institute does basic research, not plant development.

"Still, FOE believes that individual researchers 'should not be able to hide behind a corporate veil,' says Secrett. Whether FOE can make good on its threat, however, is in doubt. In general, European laws do not hold employees personally liable for damages caused by their companies."


by Bruce Sterling, Viridian Pope-Emperor

Dear Cool-Britannia Genetic-Intelligentsia:

About this saber-rattling threat you just received from those environmentalists. Let's have a candid chat about this matter, shall we? Trust me on this one: that was not a "crude attempt to intimidate." I would have to class that as an increasingly sophisticated attempt to intimidate.

Sure, sure, I know; you're up in the dreaming spires of Oxbridge. You're not down in the front line at the grocery, actually stuffing that GM food into patently uneasy British consumers. But your shelter from this controversy is a mere ivory tower, okay? It's not some kind of hard quantum vacuum that can permanently shelter you from public discontent.

This is a rather serious development. Let's think this through a bit.

Suppose that behind that "saber-rattling" you discovered an actual saber.

Let me give you a little sci-fi scenario here. Here's the pitch. The son of the sainted Diana == not the older boy, let's say it's the younger one, the kid who is slightly less photogenic == happens to be scoffing down some kind of delightful GM SoyMoo concoction, sometime next year. Unfortunately, he's one of the one hundredth of one hundredth of one percent who's violently allergic to genetically transferred Brazil nut proteins. The kid suddenly turns purple and falls over dead.

Okay? That scenario is a long shot, but accidents happen, as the late Diana might testify. Maybe it's a one in a million chance, but Britain has many millions of consumers. Granted, most British citizens are deservedly obscure, existing in blithe deep ignorance just like the average Kreutzfeld-Jakob victim == but some few Britons are royal celebrities who command catastrophic amounts of media attention.

Lots of people die every year choking on plum pits, so it's not like that GM product is inherently unfit for human consumption. We'll presume you've done your level best for public food safety, in all honesty and with great operational effectiveness. But given those conjectural circumstances, you're sunk anyway. If you somehow have the bad luck to poison a celebrity with GM food, no lecture on statistical probability can save you from savage and utter public-relations disaster.

What will happen to you, when-and-if a cause celebre like that hits the British tabloids? Would any amount of snooty blithering about "ignorant" activists save your bacon in that circumstance? No way. If that goes down, you're toast. You'll make the Shell Brent Spar scandal look like Vesta Tilley singing "Ta-Ra -Ra-Boom-de-Ay."

It's not like I'm gonna be there urging on a British lynch mob == hey, it's not even my continent == but it doesn't take political genius to figure the downside there. That is your risk. That risk is inherent in your political and social situation.

Poison some British celebrity (any major one would do, I daresay), and you'll be publicly crucified. Forget the FOE. It wouldn't some weekend-hobbyist bunch of furry New Age nitwits after you. The Tories would come and maim you. The scandal would probably bring down the government. The government would fall in flames, and the government would land on top of you while flaming, and scorch your financiers, and your employers, and everyone you know. Your own Mum would cross the street to avoid you.

Have a lingering look across the water. Did you see what happened to those harmless functionaries who allowed AIDS into the French blood banks? They went to prison. It wasn't the Friends of the Earth who broke your fellow Europeans on the rack over there. The whole French population was baying for their blood in unison.

Once upon a time I met Robert Gallo. You may have heard of him. He's a titan of Yankee biotech science, because he discovered the AIDS virus. Dr. Gallo and I were hanging out backstage at a television event, and you know what he was talking about? French political show trials, that's what.

You'd think that Dr. Gallo would be left alone in his lab, so that the good Dr. Gallo could continue saving the human race from the hideous AIDS plague. But no. Instead, Dr. Gallo was inside a blizzard of legal testimony. They keelhauled Gallo on the Concorde to France every other week. He didn't want to go, believe me. That had never been on his agenda. The US Justice Department made him go. Because of a European health scandal.

You think that can't happen to you, after it happened to Robert Gallo? Wake up.

Biotech is a big stinking deal. You can't pitch a technological revolution out of your car window, while you're tootling down to the Wimpy's. Changing the world that radically entails some serious risk! This activity isn't for gutless handwringers. If you don't consider yourself a serious hands-on player, you need a different line of work.

This is a genuine frontier. It's poorly regulated, poorly policed, socially unmetabolized, and full of the dazzling promise of big, big money. The badlands are very treacherous. The water may be tainted. The air is full of crude, hostile arrows from various cranky indigenes.
It's dangerous. It just plain is. A biotech revolution is not a dinner party.

You are exercising power and radically transforming people's lives. No one elected you, but that doesn't make you politically bulletproof. You're no safer than anybody else in these circumstances. Nor should you be. Imagining that you're somehow hermetically sealed from the consequences because you wear a white labcoat == this is absurd. Go tell Einstein how invulnerable you are to European politics. Go tell Trofim Lysenko.

Oh sure, it's funny now (for one thing, it's hilarious that the two principals in a genetically- modified crop row are named "secret" and "onions"). But the situation doesn't have to remain so amusing. If FOE gets enough funding, they'll have no trouble refining and sharpening their opposition-research techniques. You may publicly rejoice in their lame hippie ignorance now, but think this over: what happens to you when they get smarter? Laymen can read NATURE GENETICS, speculate on the Nobel, and tabulate the Most Frequently Cited, just like you do. With a few extra hours a week on the Internet, the FOE could put together a dossier on the biotech establishment that would make MI5 blush.

Don't imagine that the government's in your corner. Why would politicians risk defending you? After that ludicrous BSE debacle, they have sub-zero credibility in health issues.

When push comes to shove, any politician will cheerfully purge a scientist. Because it's dead easy. Let's take the bedrock of biological reality: evolution.
Have you seen any defense of evolution among American presidential candidates? No, you haven't. Is that "deep ignorance" at work among our many would-be American Chief Executives? No, friends, that isn't ignorance, that's political wisdom. What's at work there is the stark fact that scientists have no political clout. You can't fetch any votes. And while your corporate employers may have some campaign funds to offer, scientists themselves do not.

There are stormclouds all over your horizon. Legal harassment from Greens is one thing. But scientists already have enemies who specialize in illegal personal intimidation. The ALF, for instance.

You may have noticed that the Animal Liberation Front no longer bothers with the "corporate veil." Instead, they tend to "body-picket." Individual scientists find these hobbit-like characters peering in their windows, flinging gouts of blood, putting stink bombs in their mailboxes, leaving burning bags on the welcome mat. Is that your future, too? Could well be. Hope you're up for it.

The ALF is bad enough, but the animal rightists can't play to wounded British national sentiment the way the anti-GM people can. Even the Prince of Wales is a Luddite symp on this issue. The situation is volatile, because it's been pushed too far, too fast, into the face and gullets of a doubting and distrustful civil population. Now all of a sudden the Fear Uncertainty & Doubt is showing up on your plate. It's on the platter with a slice of lemon, staring up at you with its big, boiled, mutant eyes. Not too appetizing, is it? You're not helping matters much by feigning sublime detachment.

Now your enemies have become aware that you, as scientists, are the most vulnerable link in the food-chain of R&D. They know that if you will somehow abandon the industry, the "Frankenstein food" biz is over. They're aware of that reality == and, yet, somehow, you aren't. So whose ignorance is deeper and scarier? Theirs, or yours?

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