Date Added to website 6th September 2015
Muffy Calder and the unquestioned BBC narrative on GMOs
BBC R 4 Inside Science
13 August 2015
On 13th August, BBC R4 broadcast an interview with Prof Muffy Calder on the "Inside Science" programme. The interviewer was Dr Adam Rutherford, and the peg for the interview was the recently announced Scottish Government ban on the cultivation of GMOs. Why did the BBC choose Muffy Calder for this? After all, she is a Professor of Computing Science who knows virtually nothing about GMOs (this was apparent in the interview). But she used to be the Scottish Government's Chief Scientific Adviser; and she was clearly chosen to reinforce the view, on the part of the programme editor and the interviewer, that the Scottish ban on GMOs was unscientific. That is interesting in itself. Why did they not choose Dr Helen Wallace, Prof Vyvyan Howard, Prof Malcolm Hooper, or Dr Michael Antoniou for the interview, any one of whom would have been a far more reliable expert witness? The answer is that none of them would have given the BBC the answers it wanted.
So where has the unquestioned BBC narrative on GMOs come from? It has a long and disgraceful history, with many complaints of pro-GMO bias within the organization culminating in a recent Horizon "investigatory" programme which was nothing short of an extended GMO propaganda exercise. Partly, the BBC attitude is driven by politics, since all of the Westminster governments over the past 20 years have sought, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, to promote the pro-GMO agenda and to convince the general public that GMOs are needed to feed the world, that they they are inherently safe (even if their own evidence shows otherwise) and that UK farmers should be growing them (even if there is no consumer demand). That essential silliness is of course also promoted by the GMO industry through political lobbying, by shady outfits like the Science Media Centre through its "media releases" and secret briefings, and by a small but vociferous scientific community of plant breeders who work in laboratories such as those at Rothamsted and the John Innes Centre. Somehow, the leaders of those laboratories have managed to perpetrate the myth that GMO science is precise, accurate and worthy of high status. So loud men in white lab coats have managed to convince politicians of all colours that theirs is a glitzy and promising technology in which they have to invest on a continuing basis. The potential for harm to health and the environment is hardly ever mentioned. In that context the BBC simply plays it safe on GMOs, taking a stance which is low-risk in the sense that it avoids conflict with the likes of ex-Minister Owen Paterson! And we can be sure that key BBC programme makers are also heavily lobbied by the biotechnology industry and its acolytes.
So the prevailing BBC narrative is this: GMO science is essentially pure, reliable and correct, and GMOs are themselves harmless, which means that anybody who questions GMO crops and foods in any way must be scientifically illiterate and must be driven by ideology, politics or emotion. Perfectly simple. Any BBC programme maker who sticks to this narrative will get his commission when he makes his pitch, and will stay on the right side of the senior editors and the BBC top brass. Is that what should be happening within a public service broadcaster driven by a desire to dig deep in its investigations, and to unearth the truth? That's another matter entirely.
Inaccuracy and bias were apparent from the moment that the presenter, Dr Adam Rutherford, opened his mouth. He claimed that the EU had relaxed controls to give member states more autonomy to grow a range of approved GM crops "including maize, cotton, soybeans and a few others." That is completely false. The EU has only one approved GMO crop for cultivation-- the maize called MON810 -- which is in any case quite unsuitable for Scottish conditions. So there is not a single approved GMO that could currently be grown in Scotland. That was not a good start, for a programme that prides itself on its accuracy and impartiality..........
Muffy Calder began by sounding aggrieved that she was never asked about GMO crops and foods in her time -- up to December 2014. But what expertise might she have been able to bring to bear in discussions of Scottish policy on GMOs? Not a lot, on the evidence of this interview. She thought Anne Glover had been asked about GMOs when she was Chief Sci Adviser before 2012. ( It's fairly clear to us that the Scottish Government did not think much of her advice, and went its own way on the basis of scientific advice obtained from others..........)
In the interview with Adam Rutherford there were lots of leading questions, arising from the unquestioned BBC narrative as defined above. In response to one such question, she explained that the Precautionary Principle was invoked in bringing in the ban -- so the Government must have assumed that the risks were greater than the benefits, if GMOs should be grown in Scotland. She was right in that -- but then she accused the Scottish Government of taking a non-scientific and idealogical stance, and criticised it for failing to appreciate the risks of NOT doing something. She suggested that Scotland could lose out as other countries pressed ahead with new traits in future GMO developments. That of course is nonsense. Then she said that the Scottish Minister Richard Lochhead had cited public antipathy and lack of public demand for GMOs. She was at least quite right in that...
Next, Rutherford asked another leading question -- wasn't it a bit strange that there was no public consultation? She agreed -- of course -- and suggested that was very unusual. And there had been no request for scientific expert advice either........... GM, she said, is simply another plant breeding technique; you cannot give a blanket ban on a technique, since you have to consider individual traits. So therefore the ban brought in by the Government is not science-based. She totally failed to appreciate that in EU law, GMOs are deemed to be different; the regulations make it clear that this is simply not just another plant breeding technique. She also assumed -- like Jonathan Jones in his comments on the SMC site -- that this is a crude blanket ban which is not thought through. The reality, we trust, is that the Scottish Government is certainly not that stupid; it will have careful plans for seeking derogation on 8 named GMOs, having decided that each one of those presents unacceptable risks to the environment and public health.
On being asked what advice she would have given to the Scottish Government if she had been asked, she said she would have brought in advice from "experts" in GMO crops and foods, and also experts in dialogue (!!), presumably to educate the ignorant public and the Ministers in the Scottish Govt about the wonders of GMOs.
Rutherford suggested that this ban simply reinforces a long-standing policy - so there is nothing new. Muffy Calder reiterated that there is nothing wrong with GMOs, on the basis of vast amounts of evidence collected over a very long time. She is clearly -- like Anne Glover -- in a state of denial about the negative effects of GMOs on health and the environment. All in all, she came over as incredibly badly informed. But from the point of view of the BBC she fitted the bill perfectly well -- once again, a worthy professorial expert has sung a familiar tune from the right hymn sheet.