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GM debate: scientists and protesters aren’t polar opposites

by Rebecca Nesbit 

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 Machines) objects to a trial of GM wheat, and they organised a day to do some ‘decontamination’. That’s vandalism to you and me.

Take the Flour Back

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 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.

Rebecca Nesit and Police horses

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.

15 comments to GM debate: scientists and protesters aren’t polar opposites

  • I quoted a bit of your post at GMO Pundit blog, with links back. Hope you don’t mind. Loved your post.

  • Thanks for the post from the event. Anti-GM folks are always surprised to hear that public (and most private) scientists like me are a lot like them. We vote the same, share the same environmental concerns (at least those that are science-based), share the same concern about social issues, worker safety and feeding people. We also agree mostly on views about BigAg. It departs because we scientists demand EVIDENCE, not just opinions and websites, before reacting against Big Ag, science or scientists. It also is sad that as soon as we attempt to educate them, they scream that we are dupes of BigAg and not worth engaging. It is sad, because I’m with them on so many issues, and I may be on this one too eventually. BUT, it will take real evidence to change my mind, and until that happens I see the tremendous current environmental positives and long-term potential of GM crops. Thanks for a lovely report.

  • Thanks for the post from the event. Anti-GM folks are always surprised to hear that public (and most private) scientists like me are a lot like them. We vote the same, share the same environmental concerns (at least those that are science-based), share the same concern about social issues, worker safety and feeding people. We also agree mostly on views about BigAg. It departs because we scientists demand EVIDENCE, not just opinions and websites, before reacting against Big Ag, science or scientists. It also is sad that as soon as we attempt to educate them, they scream that we are dupes of BigAg and not worth engaging. It is sad, because I’m with them on so many issues, and I may be on this one too eventually. BUT, it will take real evidence to change my mind, and until that happens I see the tremendous current environmental positives and long-term potential of GM crops. Thanks for a lovely report.

    I also disagree that this is a debate. A debate discusses the merits of two sides. There is science, and a fantasy side here.

  • vall

    Hi, thanks for a positive, solutions orientated piece. It is indeed very illuminating to hear both sides and to see that there is a surprising amount of overlap of opinion. I am a dedicated environmentalist myself but I think many of these protesters are really ignorant of the details or practicalities of these situations. It makes no sense to wave anti-capitalist banners after getting to the protest on a fossil fuel run bus(manufactured by a capitalist company) and eating pizza (capitalist agriculture -tomatoes, onions, wheat, and sold by definitely capitalist Tesco). Im pretty sure the pens used to write on placards are from a capitalist company too! Capitalism is not there for the hell of it, it is there because we want to be able to afford clothes, homes, food, everything. An environmentalist said that improving the environment is not aboout blaming, because frankly, we are all (yes even those who recycle) part of the problem. Sure there are better ways to do things, so lets focus on finding solutions rather than balming.

  • The naïveté of the anti-GM folks always amazes me. Call me old-fashioned, but I think that if someone objects that loudly to the status quo, he or she is obliged to present a credible proposal for fixing it, especially when the question is how to feed the world. Saying “let’s farm organically” isn’t a credible proposal; if six billion people showed up on organic farming’s doorstep tomorrow morning demanding to be fed, it wouldn’t go well. GM crops aren’t the only answer, just one technology that can help move our vast global agricultural system a little bit closer to sustainability. Opposing them in favor of an unworkable organic dream is a de facto endorsement of the status quo, which is the only real alternative.

    The GM crop debate also distracts us from a much bigger issue, which is the obscene system of price supports and trade protections that continues to distort global agriculture. Developed countries pay billions of dollars to get their farmers to produce too much of the wrong kinds of crops, and to do it inefficiently. This is why a typical American’s kitchen garbage disposal eats better than much of the world’s population. In that context, haggling over exactly which genes are “natural” for a particular plant to have is straining at gnats.

  • Rebecca Nesbit

    Thank you everyone for your comments and support. The closer I feel to identifying why we are in this situation the closer I feel to thinking of ways to smoothe out the problem.

    Vall (i?) I should give Take the Flour Back credit for sourcing their pizza from (also capilalist) organic farmers…

  • DavidC

    @Rebecca Nesbit

    > “…you do have to be anti-science to support Take the Flour Back.” (from http://brightgreenscotland.org/index.php/2012/06/greens-must-get-better-at-communicating-our-support-for-science/)

    Really? Let’s see how sciencey you are – from your blog:

    > “…birds and small mammals are kept out of the trial.”

    Here’s the fence: http://www.indymedia.org.uk/images/2012/05/495583.jpg

    That will keep out ostriches, penguins, and very large mammals. It will not keep out any flying bird, nor field mice and voles. Therefore the GM trial is not secure and contamination of surrounding crops and wild species is possible. Contrary to the soothing reassurances of this GM propaganda exercise, it is entirely possible for GM wheat to ‘infect’ non-GM plants: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0029730

    So, your attempt to smear anyone who agrees with the aims of TtFB as being “anti-science” falls flat very quickly when we see that you are writing obvious nonsense in defense of the GM trial.

    > “There were some outrageous claims that Sense About Science … was acting in the interests only of big businesses…”

    There’s nothing “outrageous” about the evidence. It is damning. Here’s another article that makes it very clear: http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/1392831/the_inside_story_on_the_gm_wheat_trial_debate.html

    Your blog post looks suspiciously like the kind of pro-GM apologetics and propaganda that ‘Sense About Science’ are clearly pushing. In fact, I just looked at your bio which says you studied at Rothamsted and now work as a PR agent. Hmmmm.

  • Rebecca Nesbit

    Actually, the fence is not the way birds are being kept out (which goes without saying given that birds can fly). They are scared away.

    Please talk about the science and not conspiracy theories about Sense About Science, who I can assure you have the best intentions and not hidden agendas.

  • DavidC

    How are the birds scared away? Constant explosions?! That would be wonderful for local residents and the environment.

    Short of that, it is entirely possible a bird could land on the GM crops and then fly off to contaminate some non-GM crops. You can add all kinds of insects to potential ‘carriers’ – and they will likely not be scared away by a few bangs or a scarecrow.

    I’m sorry, but “I can assure you” does not refute the documented fact of what and who ‘Sense About Science’ is nor their history of trying to smear anyone who opposes GMO agriculture as “extremists” and “terrorists”. You need to refute the evidence – not just assert that it’s false or doesn’t exist by using the lazy tactic of throwing around the “conspiracy theory” jibe. There is a conspiracy but it’s not a ‘theory’ (non-scientific sense). It has clear and documented evidence.

    ‘Sense About Science’ is an extreme rightwing PR agency, part of a network of extreme rightwing groups with some very worrying agendas. Also, SAS has very selective ‘sense’ about science – e.g. see their support of global warming denial. http://www.lobbywatch.org/lm_george_monbiot.html

    http://www.powerbase.info/index.php/Sense_About_Science

  • Rebecca Nesbit

    Birds are excluded by bird kites, gas guns and tape.

    As far as insects landing on the crop – as most pollination occurs internally it is protected from being transmitted to the environment. If any excess pollen is released by the plant it is only viable for a very short period of time.

    Your ecologist link is to an article no longer there I’m afraid, but I know the article you are referring to and I don’t think who individual employees have worked for in the past is of any relevance to the science.

    On the note of targeting individuals. Definitely anyone who has ever worked for Rothamsted is evil and right wing (what some of them work on bees, butterflies, biodiversity – there must be an ulterior motive, they want to kill the insects!) and PR people are manipulative and make you believe what you want them to (what, some of them work for rather less than the going rate supporting social enterprises and pre-profit start-ups, no, it’s not true – they just want you to believe that too…)

    Please, no more dissing people, have the freedom of thought to analyse any evidence instead.

  • Rebecca Nesbit

    For anyone who wants to understand what Sense About Science is and what its motivations are can I reccomend this blog post
    http://www.senseaboutscience.org/blog.php/36/where-sense-about-science-comes-from

    Some key points:

    Less than 1% of their turnover is from commercial sources – most is from learned societies and science education organisations etc.

    Tracey Brown, managing director of SAS, was a member of Living Marxism 15 years ago, but her interests have moved on, though she is pleased it taught her to stand up for what she believes in.

    Sense About Science has been accused of being a neolibertarian group. Tracey had to ask someone what it meant when Take the Flour Back first made the claim. I just had to google it (and I’m not sure I’m any the wiser, but I found out enough to know that SAS isn’t one)

  • DavidC

    > “Birds are excluded by bird kites, gas guns and tape.”

    Hopefully. Not guaranteed. Nor small mammals.

    Re. all the other assurances re. insects, etc. – you are just repeating the Sense About Science + Rothamsted message. It’s not convincing – we know there has already been contamination from GM wheat to non-GM plants. That’s why qualifiers must always be added – “highly unlikely”, “very small chance”, etc.

    > “Definitely anyone who has ever worked for Rothamsted is evil and right wing”

    Who wrote that? Other than you.

    The history of the players involved is important and reveals conflicts of interest and a clear bias towards corporate GMO motivated by profit. Who knew ‘humble scientists’ drove Porsches with private plates?!

    The Ecologist article is available at http://www.gmwatch.org/latest-listing/1-news-items/13945-the-inside-story-on-the-gm-wheat-trial-debate

    > “Tracey Brown, managing director of SAS, was a member of Living Marxism 15 years ago, but her interests have moved on, though she is pleased it taught her to stand up for what she believes in.”

    I find it curious that you believe you can speak so intimately for another person.

    > “have the freedom of thought to analyse any evidence instead.”

    I have – hence all the links I have provided to credible third party sources. You, on the other hand, link to a blog post from ‘Sense About Science’ to prove that ‘Sense About Science’ is totally legit!

  • Rebecca Nesbit

    Goodness, what we see as credible sources is a whole new (and interesting) topic. I think it could be had more constructively elsewhere though

  • Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wished to mention that I’ve truly enjoyed surfing around your blog posts. In any case I will be subscribing for your feed and I’m hoping you write again very soon!

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

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