It is no secret that I have found much to disagree with in the way the SNP has governed Scotland. Police centralisation, knee-jerk and wasteful approaches to healthcare and education and the “named persons” scheme had, up until recently, been at the very bottom of my estimation of their time in government.
That was until the news broke that they intend to ban the growing of GM crops in Scotland.
According to the World Food Programme, there are an estimated 795 million people who struggle through each day without enough food, as if reinforcement of the horror of this statistic were at all required. That is approximately one out of every nine people on Earth. Anyone with a shred of human decency and solidarity will recoil upon hearing these statistics, and rightfully so.
However, if there is even the slimmest silver lining to be found anywhere it is that the number of starving people is now lower than any time in history and, thanks to recent advances in science, the number continues to be reduced. The progress has been slow and incremental but, like all human progress, it is relentless. The more we have been able to control the nature of crops and other foodstuffs, the more people we have been able to rescue from starvation. Scientific progress leads to more people being supported by the food supply and, subsequently, more potential innovators to further increase complexity. The Malthusian trap, it seems, is being busted all over the world.
This is why I find the decision of the SNP to ban “Genetically Modified” crops from being grown in Scotland so utterly abhorrent – it is the epitome of the ‘first world problem’. We live in a part of the world that, due to years of agricultural advancement, we have very nearly eliminated starvation. Through selective breeding and genetic modification we have created food surpluses where there were deficits. We now have enough to feed ourselves and there is something of a ‘Marie Antoinette’ complex about being so fussy about food when we know that 795 million people do not have enough to eat. We are the family complaining about how our steak is overdone while the urchin stares in through the window. It is very easy to complain when you are not the one struggling to feed themselves.
On a broader level, I believe that in making this decision the SNP are doing our proud Scottish history of rigorous scientific endeavour a disservice. We are the land of Alexander Fleming, James Watt, John Napier and the creators of Dolly The Sheep. Adopting a position that Scottish Tory MSP Murdo Fraser correctly identifies as putting superstition ahead of science, the SNP have left an indelible stain on our record as a pro-science country. This is particularly damning when you think of Scotland’s privileged position in terms of research and academic clout but then again the SNP did not recognise this during the referendum, so perhaps it isn’t as surprising as it is disappointing. It is still worth noting that the Scottish Government will still permit laboratory research involving genetically modified crops, but this only makes their policy look insincere rather than doing them any favours in terms of credibility.
Many people hear the phrase “genetically modified food” and instantly recoil. There are many reasons this could be the case: the absurd fetishisation of “natural/organic” produce in order to sell gullible people more expensive tomatoes, the prevailing mistrust of science (because y’know, it’s quite hard and is generally for clever people) and our collective tendency toward rather tragic nostalgia are all possible factors. However, these people ought to keep in mind the true legacy of genetic modification. For example, the work of Norman Borlaug (who ought to be far more famous than he is) has legitimately saved millions of lives by improving the sturdiness of crops meaning that they can be grown in increasingly harsh circumstances through genetic modification. He is as close to a secular saint as is possible and has done more for humanity than the SNP Scottish Government has ever done or could ever hope to do.
It is difficult to take the defence of this policy, offered by Scottish environment secretary Richard Lochhead, seriously. His claims of a lack of demand (assuming he is using the term in a technically correct way) are spurious and his insipid claim that allowing genetically modified crops to be grown in Scotland would be contrary to the Scottish Government’s “clean and green” approach are utterly unsubstantiated. By implying that genetically modified crops are not “clean and green”, Mr Lochhead does a disservice to the work of men like Norman Borlaug, his predecessors and successors, to Scottish science, to Scottish agriculture and the high office to which he has been appointed. Any science teacher would fail him.
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