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The Impact of Activists on Pest Management and Crop Science

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The application of science has had enormous benefits for agriculture and human welfare in general. Without the focussed plant breeding efforts of Norman Borlaug and his co-workers, the green revolution would never have happened, and the apocalyptic visions of mass starvation prophesied by Paul Ehrlich and other neo-Malthusians in the 1960s and 1970s may well have come to pass. And yet there has been a concerted attack on the green revolution from the influential environmental and development lobby (FoE, GreenPeace and others), focussing on the higher input requirements and changes to traditional farming practices. For these single issue pressure groups, small scale, local application of 'traditional knowledge' is preferable to the application of the best available science.

More recently, it is genetic modification of plants that has become the b?te noire of the same movement. Activists point to the domination of a handful of multinational corporations while apparently forgetting that the unprecedentedly rapid uptake of this particular technology has been due to farmers making their free choice. Nevertheless, crop biotechnology is attacked on a range of grounds. Many of these are ostensibly scientific, although their basis is, at best, cherry-picked evidence, at worst simple scaremongering. The net result, however, has been that European farmers have been largely denied the choice to access a technology which, elsewhere, is delivering economic and environmental benefits on a significant scale. The influence of campaigning NGOs has extended to the crop protection sector more generally, with the recent introduction of the new EU Pesticides Regulation which places even more stringent requirements on the industry with little evidence of any safety improvements. In particular, acceptance criteria for new active ingredients (or re-approval of existing ones) is now hazard-based, rather than on the previous risk identification and management criteria. This is an essentially unscientific approach, since everything presents a hazard if misused or consumed in sufficient quantity. Countering the influence of well-organised and dedicated campaigners is not easy. They rely on emotion, publicity stunts and selective use of facts to get their message across. Businesses, meanwhile, necessarily adopt a more measured, rational approach, defending themselves on the basis of hard evidence. The problem is that the negative messages are already in people's minds and corrections have less impact. Ethical, research-based companies are left on the back foot. Politicians, despite the advice from independent scientists, are too often swayed by activist rhetoric and what they perceive to be public opinion. Companies can do little more, but until there is some organised counterweight to campaigning NGOs, willing to put the case for biotechnology positively to the media, opinion formers and politicians rather than simply reacting to attacks, innovation in the biological sciences will face more hurdles than are necessary.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2012-04-01

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