Science: Food for thought

It's too easy to blame the scientist, says Lewis Wolpert

IN THE current discussion - or should that be hysteria - over genetically modified foods, reference is repeatedly made to BSE. A common claim is that it is a clear case of scientists being either dishonest, secretive, or at best incompetent. Indeed, Stephen Byers, the Minister in charge of the Department of Trade and Industry, went so far as to say that it was important to restore public confidence in scientists because of their behaviour over BSE.

I thought it a bizarre claim without foundation, but to find out what lessons might in fact be learned from BSE in relation to "Frankenstein foods", I talked to Professor Sir John Pattison, the doctor and scientist who chaired the key committee on the dangers of BSE to our health.

What, I asked him, was the basis for the claim that scientists had behaved badly and what evidence was there that they actually had? He explained that when the new variant CJD (Creutzfeld Jacob Disease) problem was first presented to the Government, there were only about 10 people in the world who had thought carefully about it or even knew anything about it. Were it not for scientists, no one would have known there were any dangers at all. He knew of no evidence of any scientist saying it was safe for cattle to be fed food containing the remains of cattle.

He also emphasised an important feature BSE and GM foods may have in common - the long incubation period for any disease consequences to become apparent. "By the time you realise you are in trouble, you are in deep trouble."

Good science requires peer review which, in its broadest sense, is the free exchange of ideas, data and materials. This might be more difficult for those doing research in a Government establishment. The quality of any science which has important implications on public health and thereby Government policy is of the greatest importance.

The BSE problem comes, in part, from the fact that one cannot have an intensive dairy industry without feeding the cattle protein concentrate and the use of an animal source for this protein is used throughout the world and can be traced back for more than 100 years. Pattison surmised that the problem was that those scientists who were knowledgeable about the health risks were not the same as those scientists who were thinking about animal nutrition and that the connection was not made that would signal a possible problem with a long established practice.

On the Today programme, Stephen Dorrell, the Health minister of the time, when asked if he would let his daughter eat beef said it was not for him but for the scientists to decide. I was outraged as it seemed that it was exactly that sort of issue that politicians were elected to make decisions about, making assessment of the risks having taken advice from those with special technical knowledge.

"Safe", interpreted as "zero risk", Pattison regards as an unhelpful word, for nothing is without risk. In the end, the issue is one of trust - in the public mind politicians rate low, below scientists who are themselves below doctors, and at the top are consumer associations. For the consumer, making a satisfactory choice requires trust or knowledge. But that depends on everyone sticking to the rules on quality control and full disclosure of what is in the food; the government must ensure that these rules are rigorously followed. As with the licensing of medicines, each new GM food must be considered individually. The main lesson to be learned is that openness is all.

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

    Italy vs England player ratings

    Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
    Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

    Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat