After Rothamsted protest, have anti-GM activists lost argument?
Scientific community launches strong fightback after long-dormant campaign against genetically modified crops flares back into life
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."