I recently wrote about why Uganda does not need GMOs and the potential dangers that they could impose on the country. I received feedback from scientists of high standing. Some of their feedback was quite informative about the technical science of GMOs, and yet there was also a lot of it that was indicative of the lack of initiative to contextualize scientific innovation into the risks-opportunities universe of the country.
I will highlight the dangers of the latter category, as a consolidated response to those that reached out to me.
Failure or refusal to realize the impact of the activities of one sector or unit on other sectors within an entity to which the said sector belongs is called the silo mentality. It is a common phrase in risk management and other management disciplines.
It is dangerous because it implies that as experts pursue their objectives, they disregard the fact that their activities can create other problems for which their expertise does not have solutions.
The result of this is that such experts may generate challenges which professionals in other fields have to solve. In some instances, the new problems created may demand more resources to regularize, than the initial problem for which solutions were being sought by the first set of experts.
Therefore, present-day projects are commonly undertaken along with analyses of their impact on the overall risk profiles of entities to which they are focused. Guidance on this is offered by the International Organization for Standardization’s ISO 56002:2019. Such standards are not mandatory but advisable.
Some responders advised that matters of science should be left to scientists and offered other related counsel that pointed to the fact that some of the scientists perceive positions taken against theirs on the subject of GMOs to be motivated by ignorance. They ignore the fact that the subject extends beyond laboratory activities.
For example, it should be deduced by a scientist that after his or her work is done in the laboratory and farmers have to start buying seed from agricultural biotechnology companies, prices will not be determined by his extra work in the laboratory. Forces of demand and supply will set in, along with politics.
This scientist should read current global trends in trade and see that the global trade system is threatened by a breakdown of rules and an onset of trade wars. He or she should then be able to judge that the innovation they are pursuing is prone to a lot of non-scientific factors as the fact it is likely that the said trade wars may invade the seed supply chain in future and put their country at risk of huge manipulation.
Food distress is already a global problem, and coupled with increasing geo-political tensions, trends of brazen trade wars and current threats to diplomatic decorum, control over food is a potential lethal weapon that can be deployed with devastating effects against resource-weak nations. Adopting terminator technology is, for example, a sure way to open doors to this kind of risk.
The scientist needs to appreciate that when their laboratory work is accomplished, leaders will forever deal with the consequences both in the current dispensation and in future. It should be appreciated that possibly the scientist’s output will set a stage for future negotiations with powerful seed producers and suppliers on behalf of the country and that the scientist will no longer be involved at this stage.
The GMO scientist should realize that if any of their genetic modifications to crops results in adverse health side effects, the laboratory rigor will then largely shift from their station to medical researchers. At this point, resources will then be needed to fund medical research and before solutions are arrived at, people will possibly be dying.
If there are consequences of their work on the environment for any reason, they will have transferred a lot of responsibility to environmental scientists.
In all the above cases, national administration personnel will shoulder responsibility for rectifying problems and providing solutions for problems which could have been envisaged in the first place and addressed proactively.
Adopting a narrow focus on the science of GMOs will however not permit a holistic view of the potential dangers of the relevant innovation, to be weighed against the benefits objectively.
It will not even allow room for considering alternative solutions such as improved agronomic practices and irrigation. It is akin to a constricted, one-way street in which there is no opportunity to turn back without breaking down adjacent structures. Scientists should avoid it.
Raymond is a Chartered Risk Analyst and risk management consultant