Tone It Down

I have respect for Professor Tullio Regge, both as a man and as a scientist, and follow his opinions with great interest. But I find it unfair and slightly over the top when he constantly refers to environmentalists as though they were some sort of millenarian sect, unable to see the benefits of science and powerful enough to block scientific progress. After all, the reason for disagreement is whether different types of agriculture can coexist—whether, that is, small farmers should be free to choose organic or conventional agriculture and not be jeopardized by nearby GM crops which could contaminate or ‘compromise’ organic crops growing locally. I would add that, as a consumer, I have every right to choose not to eat transgenic products—and without being labelled a useful idiot. I feel likewise that militant action, destroying crops and ranting about ‘Frankenstein foods’ are unhelpful and counterproductive. Still, it cannot be denied that the agrifood system can use us as guinea pigs and that, in our role as omnivorous consumers, we are bewildered by intrusive publicity. We need to be helped by science—sometimes it protects our interests but sometimes it doesn’t.

I am saying all this because it wasn’t Yorkshire farmers who thought up the idea of producing feed from animal carcasses. And when I stated on these pages that not so long ago some university departments in Italy were studying how to recycle urea for use as cattle feed, nobody contradicted me. Our omnivorous homo sapiens contains a good dose of homo demens, and we must make every effort to claim our right to have proper food information, to find out about technologies used and the basic principles of nutritional science. If everyone learned to assume the responsibility for their own health, we wouldn’t rely so unthinkingly on scientists and nutritionists. But through logical discussion we can gain wisdom.

Coming back to the issue of GMOs, even though the recently published research findings of the British Royal Society—fairly critical—are being treated in Italy like election results, where everyone has won and scientific data can be used to support diametrically opposed points of view, it is clear that the real split on this issue is within the scientific community. So the supposed daggers-drawn Manichean conflict between scientists and environmentalists is nonsense. It has become a ridiculous partisan game where people feel they can only win through mockery and derision. Things are a lot more complex. There are many other matters to be considered in this issue—questions involving economics, ethical values, work culture, conservation and sharing of resources. There is much discussion about world hunger and models of development; there are discussions whether it is really economically viable to embark on massive use of GM crops in our agricultural system. Perhaps we can only find ways to resolve these issues by calmly addressing the complexity of the problem.

I say ‘calmly’ because it is by examining scientific research that we can hope to find a realistic way of finding a solution where current options can be made compatible. I do not think rapid decisions are advisable or necessary. In this context I remember a great article my friend Enzo Bianchi wrote in these pages during the stifling heat of August. He referred to four Monferrato maxims, expressions of a peasant wisdom that has moulded generations of Piedmontese. One of them said “Esageruma nenta!” (Let’s not overdo it). Ie, don’t too arrogant and to keep your feet on the ground. Where I come from in the Langa-Roero area of Piedmont, whenever my flights of fancy led me to be somewhat self-important and overstate an argument, the words of advice were “Pijla pi basa”, (Tone it down). This comment has an immediate effect: it brings me down to earth. It has the effect of a pin pricking a balloon. Well, on this question of GMOs I think we should all “Pjela pi basa”. Perhaps that way we would all understand each other better.

First printed in La Stampa on November 9 2003

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