Greens must get better at communicating our support for science
The Green Party is more pro-science than any other party. Party policy commits 1% of GDP to public funding for science research. Whilst Labour, Lib Dems and Tories increasingly demand that researchers demonstrate the immediate commercial viability of their work, Greens argue that we should fund science for its own sake, because discovery is key to civilisation.
Even on areas where we once were a little wobbly, various conference motions in recent years mean we can now be proud of our polices. We’ve ended our bizarre opposition to stem cell research. Whilst Labour, Tories and Lib Dems have been happy to allow the NHS to keep funding homeopathy, Green policy says that the NHS should only fund medicine which has a clear scientific evidence base for its efficacy.
I say all of this because Green Party AM Jenny Jones recently caused yet more controversy by supporting activists taking action against GM trial crops, and some of the science lobby have jumped back on the attack – Greens are anti-science, they say – this proves it once more.
For many of us in the party, this accusation is maddening. It is true that there are some Green members wedded to old hippy views of scientific research – people who believe in homeopathy or acupuncture. But this strand is not unique to the Green Party – the main Parliamentary advocate of the quack cure corporate lobby is David Tredinnick, a Tory.
I joined the Green Party in 2001 because I had been weaned on science. As a child, it was terrifying to read reports of the amassing evidence of dangerous climate change, resource depletion, planetary destruction. It was an editorial in New Scientist which persuaded me to oppose nuclear power – on the grounds of cost, waste disposal, and depleting uranium reserves. Today, I read Ben Goldacre, am a massive fan of space exploration and recently hand painted a tardigrade T-shirt. I see ‘alternative medicine’ as an interesting case study in the zenith of post-modern capitalism. You get the picture. I am typical of my generation in the party – and many Young Greens were as quick to slam Jenny Jones as were Telegraph columnists or skeptics.
In a context in which other parties are rapidly driving a steak through the enlightenment notion that research is good in itself, it is laughable to accuse the Greens of being the anti-science party. But we do need to get better as a party – both at communicating what we think, and, sometimes, at distancing ourselves from our members who disagree with our policies.
The recent Jenny Jones incident is a classic example of this. You don’t have to be anti-science to be opposed to GM crops. Any Ben Goldacre fan knows how little we can trust large corporations with medicine. Similarly, we can’t trust them with food.
Look at farmers movements across the Global South and you find millions who stand against GM not because they see it as “frankenfood”, but because they see it as an attempt to privatise seed. They see it as the enclosure of yet another commons – where everyone once had the right to use whatever seeds they could find, companies are now creating crops which they can patent, and enforce their legal rights over. It doesn’t matter if the first stage of such crop research is public – as with medical research, privatised patents are built on the back of public data. If, like these farmers movements, you see the battle against this corporate takeover of food as key to the survival of much of humanity, then it is reasonable to want to fight it every step of the way.
This battle is crucial. As Amartia Sen and others have repeatedly pointed out, famine doesn’t happen because we don’t produce enough food. It happens because of a failure to distribute food. During the famous “do they know it’s Christmas” famine, Ethiopia’s farms produced a surplus of food. During the potato famine, Ireland exported grain to the UK whilst its people starved. Today, we produce more than enough to feed the world. People starve not because of crop failures, but because of market failures. By introducing monopoly suppliers on whom farmers are likely to start to depend, GM makes things worse, not better.
You don’t need to be anti-science to want to fight against specific research into the development of a new type of bomber which you know will be used to kill people. Similarly, you don’t need to be anti-science to want to fight every step of the way against the development of seeds which you believe will be used as a tool to coax control of food from farmers: the comparison may sound harsh, but in a world which produces more food than it needs but in which one in seven don’t get enough, ownership of seeds is as much a matter of life and death as is ownership of hawk jets.
So we should fight GM crops in solidarity with the farmers movements of the global south. We shouldn’t sacrifice this fight for PR reasons. But it is useful to remember that Greens have a reputation for being anti-science. In order to shake this reputation, we need more than the right policy. We need to work hard on communication. If prominent party members are going to support protests against crop trials, we need to be clear why: we stand against the corporate control of our food system. This is a part of that fight.
More importantly, actions speak louder than words. No matter what we say, supporting people who are protesting against any research looks “anti-sciencey”. So, perhaps it’s time to think hard not just about what our pro-science policies are, but about what we are doing about them. Anyone up for occupying BiS in support of the Haldane Principle?