GM debate: scientists and protesters aren’t polar opposites

posted in: Commentary | 63

Editor’s note: Republished with permission from The Birds, the Bees, and Feeding the World.

My excitement of today was to attend the anti-GM protest organised by Take the Flour Back, joining the group of bystanders wearing ‘Don’t Destroy Research’ badges. Take the Flour Back (I don’t get the name – apparently it’s something to do with Rage Against the Machine) objects to a trial of GM wheat, and they organised a day to do some ‘decontamination’. That’s vandalism to you and me.

The trial at Rothamsted Research is of genetically-modified wheat which contains an aphid-repelling gene normally found in peppermint plants. The aim is to reduce the use of pesticides.

Take the Flour Back say it is too risky to do the trial in the great outdoors. However, trials in the lab have been very promising and the necessary lab tests have been completed to ensure it is ready to test in the field.

Take the Flour Back claim that there is the danger insects will carry the pollen to other fields and contaminate them. However, wheat is not insect-pollinated. Wheat flowers fertilise themselves before they open. Excess pollen, which is heavy and lives for only a few hours, then falls to the ground around the plant. There are obviously strict regulations for anyone applying for a permit for a field trial, and birds and small mammals are kept out of the trial.

The protest today was very calm. Around 200 protestors turned up, many of them from a French organisation who seem to be generally into protests. A bus load of people came from Bristol.

I spent some time listening to their talks, which were of varying quality. There were some outrageous claims that Sense About Science (who I was with and who have been working with Rothamsted) was acting in the interests only of big businesses and had infiltrated the government. We wish.

A conventional farmer stood up and spoke, acknowledging he may be unpopular in a gathering of organic supporters. He claimed that we didn’t need GM because we have pesticides. To me, reducing the need for pesticides is one of the main potential benefits of GM. The widespread use of pesticides also shows that agriculture is already very linked to capitalism. I spoke to some lovely girls from Take the Flour Back and it emerged that they were really anti-capitalism and anti-corporations more than anti-GM. It seemed a shame that a scientific trial with the overall aim of improving food security, funded by publc money, is a target for these views. I agree it’s an issue, but let’s address these problems not trash trials.

The politics have been interesting to say the least. A few days ago Jenny Jones from The Green Party announced her support for Take the Flour Back, though whether she supported the ‘decontamination’ is a bit hazier. Within hours of the link announcing her support appearing on the Green website it was removed and has now reappeared in a modified form. I was extremely disappointed that a politician would support activism rather than rational debate, even if she does have concerns about GM. She sounds a little more rational in this piece in the Telegraph. The Lib Dem’s Evan Harris was there today supporting the scientists, and was kind enough to give me an anti-histamine when the hay fever started, though I should also thank Take the Flour Back for their delicious pizza.

One of the things that struck me, and indeed all the protestors I spoke to, was how much we have in common. I was pleased to be interviewed by a journalist near a Take the Flour Back banner saying ‘Biodiversity not big corporations’ and was able to say ‘that’s what I think too’. The difference was that I’m not too keen on conspiracy theories, and that I want to keep an open mind about solutions to the extreme challenge of sustainably feeding billions of people in a changing climate.

Scientists have given lots of answers to questions about the safety of the trial and the commercial practicalities – it’s worth a read. Or you can hear them on a podcast with The Pod Delusion. Sadly, last weekend an intruder damaged the trial, but he didn’t destroy it and he has since been arrested. Two arrests were also made at today’s protest but no damage was done.

Personally, I thank the protesters for bringing the debate back into public consciousness. However, I hope we can keep it closer to evidence and further away from ‘evil scientists versus hippy environmentalists’. Whatever you think about the future of GM crops, you can help keep the debate based on evidence and sign the Sense About Science petition asking Take the Flour Back not to destroy research.

I have a more detailed summary of coverage here, though judging by the cameras and notepads I saw today there’s a lot more coming. The question now is – will the trial last unscathed until September? Who knows, but I’ll keep you updated.

Conservation and the environment have been Rebecca Nesbit’s passions from when she was far too young to know what it all meant. She studied biology at University of Durham and in 2010 was awarded an ecology PhD. Rebecca did her research at Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire and spent her time chasing migrant butterflies – earning her the name “Butterfly Becky.” Rebecca now works as a PR consultant, and represents small companies with bright ideas in science and technology. She also blogs at The Birds, the Bees, and Feeding the World.

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Rebecca Nesbit is author of the popular science book 'Is that Fish in your Tomato?' which explores the fact and fiction of GM foods. She studied butterfly migration for her PhD, then worked for a start-up company training honeybees to detect explosives. She now works in science communication and her projects have ranged from a citizen science flying ant survey to visiting universities around the world with Nobel Laureates. In her spare time she writes fiction - she has published a novel, and her many short stories can be found at