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Fringe science

An "academic" called Tom Wakeford is given space in the Guardian today to sound off about the food crisis. This being the Guardian, Dr Wakeford is, of course, quite howling mad and seizes his opportunity to prove it in spectacular fashion.

Dr Wakeford is "Director of Co-Inquiry of PEALS" which, for the unenlightened, stands for Policy, Ethics And Life Sciences. It appears to be a research institution of some kind, although quite what it is for and what, if anything, its staff do is not entirely clear from its website. My guess would be that it keeps a few eggheads off the dole queue.

Dr W is also director of the Durham-Newcastle Beacon for Public Engagement, which is

a major new initiative to make universities more welcoming and accessible, and to deepen the social impact and relevance of their work. 

If it's social impact you're after, I'd recommend doing something that people actually want. While I'm sure that Dr Wakeford's Prajateerpu, power and knowledge: The politics of participatory action research in development. Part 2. Analysis, reflections and implications is a profound publication, and probably a page-turner to boot, I'm not sure it's actually providing something that is ever going to have much social impact. Regrettably, we'll probably never know, as the link Dr W provides to the article is now pointing at a dead web domain. This does kind of prove my point though.

Anyway, enough of the good doctor himself, what about his ideas for saving the world? Well, first up, biotechnology is a no-no. According to our man, an international body called the IAASTD have recently said that

data on some GM crops indicate highly variable yield gains in some places and declines in others.

Now he's actually been a naughty boy and "improved" the quote slightly for public consumption. The actual report is here:

For example, data based on some years and some GM crops indicate highly variable 10-33% yield gains in some places and yield declines in others. 

Which doesn't give quite the same impression, does it? Some years, and some crops aren't too good. Sounds like ordinary crops to me. Regardless, he would seem to want us to believe that farmers are moving over to GM all round the world, in the face of uncertain or even falling yields, which when you think about it, is rather amazing. Unfortunately he doesn't tell us why he believes something so unlikely.

He goes on to quote a charity's comments on the same report. According to Dr W, Practical Action (for whom he has written articles in the past) says:

 [T]he report rightly concludes that small-scale farmers and ecological methods provide the way forward to avert the current food crisis.

And again, this is odd, because I can't find anything like this in the report itself. In the part about food security, the IAASTD says this: 

Policy options for addressing food security include developing high-value and under-utilized crops in rain fed areas; increasing the full range of agricultural exports and imports, including organic and fair trade products; reducing transaction costs for small-scale producers; strengthening local markets; food safety nets; promoting agro-insurance; and improving food safety and quality. 

Which is nothing like what Dr W says it says. Perhaps this is a case of Chinese whispers? Even then, if Dr W believes that small-scale farms and organic produce is going to feed the world (and perhaps fuel it too) then it's another startling argument to make; one that would seem to put Dr W well and truly in the category of "swivel-eyed lunatic".

But let's return to Dr W's arguments. He sets about giving a good slapping to anyone who might disagree with him. Arguments that GM crops will feed the world are "preposterous", apparently. (Having read his earlier comments, one can't help but get the feeling that when a madman tells you your ideas are crazy, you're probably on the right track.) A few figures to back his case up might have convinced some of the naysayers, but hey, I'm just a humble blogger and Dr W represents the full academic majesty of the University of Newcastle, so perhaps little details like accuracy and evidence are old fashioned social constructs and can be dispensed with by the illuminati.

His other target is a group called Sense about Science, which is apparently a "deficit fringe group". I'm not sure what that means, but I don't think it's meant to be nice. Dr W thinks that the Funding Councils shouldn't have supported such nonsense. I'm sure he's right. The money would surely have been much better spent on making universities "more welcoming and accessible" via Dr W's Beacon for Public Engagement. (Perhaps they could let the public into the student bars?) Actually, Sense about Science appears to be doing something similar to what Dr W is doing with his Beacon, but they seem to have reached different conclusions on the wisdom of GM. In fact I wonder if Dr W's article is just an exercise in Beacon-waving for the benefit of the Funding Councils - "fund me, not them!".

But anyway, who do you think is the fringe here? The panel of scientists? Or the man who doesn't check his sources, and who thinks that organic farms and smallholdings are the way forward for agriculture? 

Hard call, isn't it? 

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Reader Comments (1)

Our old friends at the BBC run with this stuff all the time particularly on the World Service. In the piece linked below about India, we get the usual cancer scares, reducing yields but my favourite line is:

"None had heard of organic farming."

What the reporter doesn't seem to understand is that Indians call organic farming subsistence farming. Something which they are trying to get away from.
May 1, 2008 at 8:55 AM | Unregistered CommenterKit

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