Science: Food for thought

It's too easy to blame the scientist, says Lewis Wolpert
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The Independent Culture
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.