After Rothamsted protest, have anti-GM activists lost argument?

May 28, 2012

Scientific community launches strong fightback after long-dormant campaign against genetically modified crops flares back into life

Leon Neal

HUNDREDS of protesters against GM crops - including the Green Party's candidate for London mayor Jenny Jones - were prevented by a strong police presence from tearing up modified wheat yesterday at the Rothamsted research institute in Hertfordshire.

In the first major action for almost a decade, the centre was besieged after a collective of activists called Take the Flour Back pledged earlier this month to rip up a crop of aphid-resistant wheat at Rothamsted if the publicly funded scientists there went ahead with the test.

But unlike in 2003, when the public mood was sharply against 'Frankenfoods', the scientists behind such trials are fighting back against a more ambivalent backdrop of opinion. There has recently been a substantial swing from those 'concerned' about GM foods to the 'not concerned' camp.

Professor John Pickett, one of the scientists working at Rothamsted, wrote in The Daily Telegraph that the goal of his team was to promote "environmentally friendly agriculture" in "an attempt to create new strains that will have a lower environmental impact than traditional varieties".

"If Take the Flour Back destroys our experiment," he warns, "they will deny us knowledge that we will give freely to the public, to help us all make informed decisions in the future. I am not sure what gives these protesters the right to do this."

The spirit of the Enlightenment is "sorely lacking" in the anti-GM movement, Will Hutton agrees in The Observer. "The young scientists at Rothamsted are brave; they court a violent reaction from protesters who really believe that the integrity of nature is at stake. It is slightly fanciful, but they are directly in the great tradition [of Francis Bacon]."

Yesterday's scenes, thunders a Times leader, were those "of a typical English recreation: fruitless protest." The threat to rip up crops was "vandalism in the service of ignorance". The paper concludes that "the value of scientific research lies not only in practical benefits but in its ethos. Knowledge depends on inquiry. Scientists should be defended in pursuing it."

But Joanna Blythman defended the protests in The Independent saying they ought not to be denounced "in purple prose as science haters, 'Nazi book burners' and vandals". The Rothamsted trial is "needless and reckless", she insists. GM is not the panacea to the world's agricultural problems - indeed as the increasing rate of suicide among indebted Indian cotton growers shows, it is making things worse for many farmers.

"If Rothamsted presses on regardless," Blythman sums up, "it's no surprise if responsible citizens feel forced to take the only action left to them."

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Rothamsted scientists have mobilised an effective PR machine to win their case against Take the Flour Back. I went to the anti-GM protest to learn more about the concerns of people who clearly care what is happening to our food.Speakers included organic and non-organic farmers, several well-respected professionals who know their science backwards and others from around the world who gave first hand information on the disaster that can befall growers once GM food is embraced. More chemicals,not less.And there was praise for Rothamsted Research centre for good work done over the years. The protesters were fair, dignified and set out the facts clearly and with just conviction of their cause.
There have not been adequate health checks, there is a slight risk of contamination which could ruin the farming industry especially the organic and export trade, and little has been said of the anti-biotic gene marker Kannamycin (used to fight bacterial infections) and the synthetic gene similar to that of a cow which have been added to this spring wheat. Everyone has just talked about peppermint genes!
There has been no public consultation and back in 2003 the population at large said it did not want GM in this country. Yet Defra gave permission for this open air trial with all the attendant risks.
Take the Flour back have done a good job in alerting everyone to the possible dangers of GM. Our food should be as natural as possible so hands off our wheat Rothamsted.

it was good to see the protesters from all sides were peaceful, the police presence seemed very low key in the park. Thank goodness there was no violence. Seemed like a nice day for a peaful demo.

I was a spectator at the anti-GM protest. As a trained scientist I went to hear what the protesters had to say, their opinions and the science that was the foundation to their arguments. I was sadly disappointed by their interpretation of science. A much quoted grain of their truth ran along the lines that modern agriculture had directly related to 1 in 3 people getting cancer. This statement amongst many others had me laughing in incredulous disbelief. The statements regarding genes, contamination were wildly inaccurate and showed a massive misunderstanding.
Further the assertion on the protest groups press release that 400 people turned up in support strains how much faith we can place in their arguments. As an independent spectator I have to vouch with the police by saying there were barely 200 people.
From my reading the scientists have been excellent in trying to get their facts and the understanding across, they've just been let down by closed minded individuals.