Friday, 25 May 2012

Row rages over anti-GM activists' plan to vandalise crop research

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A flyer for the Take The Flour Back protest
This Sunday, 27 May, anti-GM food activists will descend on Rothamsted Park in Harpenden, Hertfordshire to protest against a wheat crop trial being carried out on land belonging to the nearby Rothamsted Research centre.

The protest, entitled Take The Flour Back, will begin with a picnic, but once they have eaten, the activists will take the event in a far more controversial direction, walking from Rothamsted Park to the trial site in order to engage in something they are terming "decontamination". Browsing the campaign's website, it's not exactly clear what the protesters mean by this, but reading between the lines there can be little doubt as to what this will entail: the protesters plan on destroying the GM crop, or in their words, "clean it up".

Unsurprisingly, Take the Flour Back has provoked a fierce backlash from the scientific community, which has condemned plans to vandalise a piece of research. The scientists working on the Rothamsted project, which involves growing wheat that has been genetically modified to release a pheromone used by aphids to warn each other of danger, produced a video calling on activists to abandon their "decontamination" plans, while numerous science journalists and communicators have attacked the reasoning behind the campaign.



The row over Take The Flour Back is emblematic of the uneasy relationship between the green movement, which is often hostile to technologies such as GM and nuclear power, and supporters of scientific research who view such technologies as potential solutions to the world's environmental problems. This conflict was thrown into sharp relief yesterday, when the Green Party's candidate in the recent London mayoral election, Jenny Jones, announced that she would be attending the protest in Harpenden on Sunday.

For those who would like to see a scientifically-literate Green Party acquire a louder voice in British politics, this was disappointing news. The excellent Daily Telegraph blogger Tom Chivers, who voted for Jones in mayoral election, wrote a post entitled "Don't vote Green until they drop the anti-science zealotry", arguing that no one who cares about scientific research should feel comfortable supporting the party in light of its stance on Take The Flour Back:
"[T]his is an experiment. It is an attempt to find out more about how the world works, and it may allow us to feed more human beings. Agricultural technology, as led by the father of the Green Revolution Norman Borlaug, is credited with saving a billion lives last century, and GM is just another aspect of that. How can a serious political party back acts of vandalism against scientific research? Until Jenny Jones and the rest of the Green Party drops this awful, damaging, stupid behaviour, no serious environmentalist should be able to vote for them."
In a reply on Chivers' blog, Jones was keen to point out that she would only be attending the Take The Flour Back picnic, and not taking part in "decontamination", but she stopped short of condemning the planned action, and appeared to suggest that, while she doesn't support it, vandalising the crop might be morally justifiable:
"The rumours are wrong; I'll be at the picnic on Sunday, not destroying the crop. I shall voice my opposition to research into GM crops that I think is a bad, possibly dangerous use of public money. I strongly support non-violent direct action and disown damage to property, but there's sometimes a conflict; in damaging military jets in an attempt to sabotage an unjust war, or breaking windows in the name of women's' suffrage, direct action has a complicated and distinguished place in our democratic history. And I do understand the depth of despair and the desperation that protesters feel. But they must face the legal consequences of their actions, and think deeply about the ethics of their actions – like lots of things in life it's more complicated than some of my critics seem to want to admit."
In her post, Jones says she supports more research into GM, but argues that the Rothamsted trial carries too great a risk of contaminating non-GM crops. Yet Professor John Pickett, who works on the trial, has written that this is highly unlikely, pointing out that "wheat is 99 per cent self-pollinating":
"[I]s cross-pollination possible? Yes, as scientists we work on the principle that anything is possible. Is it likely? No. What’s more, even if it did happen, the actual chances of this GM wheat successfully establishing itself in the wild are extremely low, since wheat is uncompetitive with other plants."
While there's nothing wrong with adopting a cautious attitude to new technologies, the hostility of some greens towards GM carries the risk of undermining an area of scientific research that has the potential to help address some of the environmental problems they are most concerned about. For more on this, I highly recommend reading the latest blog post by Mark Henderson, author of The Geek Manifesto: Why Science Matters, in which he's reproduced the chapter from his book on GM and green opposition. It's a helpful guide to the current scientific thinking on GM, and serves to illustrate why the green movement ought to be allied, and not in conflict, with the scientific community.
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