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Lessons from Rothamsted

Nine takeaways from yesterday's protest for the GM scientists and their supporters.

New Statesman
A "Take Back The Flour" protester in Harpenden, Hertfordshire on Sunday. Photo: Getty Images

Yesterday, police officers helped scientists defend a field of genetically modified wheat from anti-GM protestors. The wheat, planted in a field at the government-run Rothamsted research station, contains a gene that makes the plants emit an aphid alarm signal; the idea is that this will keep aphids away from the crop. Protestors from a group known as Take Back The Flour had announced they were planning to destroy the plants in order to protect the environment from cross-pollination by genetically modified organisms. The scientists countered that the risk of this happening was minimal, and that the research was necessary for progress in food production.

On the day, protestors didn’t manage to cross police lines. The crops are safe and the police are gone, but there are no winners. So what lessons might the scientists and their supporters learn?

1. Don’t ignore natural, evolved human values

Anti-GM protests are about visceral, emotional – and entirely natural – disgust reactions to tinkering with nature. It’s uncanny valley for plants. It’s like asking people to accept zombie waiters at restaurants: however  good the staff is, no one is going to be relaxed about it until at least the cheese course. You can’t get people to accept GM as a force for good until you have given them time to get used to the idea that mutant nature is not as unsettling as it might seem. But if we can get used to Tom Hanks in the Polar Express, there is hope we can accept GM crops.

2. Look what other scientists are doing

The nanotechnology people are aware of public concerns and are pressing forward, very slowly, with lots of consultation. So are the people who see medical potential in mixing human and animal genetics. We all need time to talk, you see. The only time you can come in all guns blazing in this kind of research is if you’ve got a killer solution. IVF was a good example: no one – not even the scientists – wanted it. Then Louise Brown was born, and everyone wanted it. Things can turn around: let’s look for the Louise Brown of GM crops. But scaring away a few aphids won’t cut it.

3. Stop griping that your opponents won’t take part in a “rational debate”

Science owns rational debate. Asking protestors to come and have a rational debate is like inviting them to “step down into this dark alley where my friends are waiting to greet you.” Instead, listen to their concerns in silence, then go away and discuss them. Ideally, BEFORE you plant the seeds.

4. Don’t name-call

Luddites. Anti-science. Vandals. Ignorant idiots . . . can you see how this isn’t helping?

5. Don’t cultivate a Geldof complex

Your crops are probably not going to change everything for Africa. Yes, there’s going to be a problem feeding 9 billion people. But the biggest threat is climate change. Maybe GM food will help, but it’s too soon to say. Science-based “solutions” like GM food and geoengineering the planet seem brilliant, but can be a distraction from dealing with the real problem. Let’s face it: equitable distribution of available resources would go a long way towards feeding those who are starving now.

6. Don’t pretend your experiment is the endgame

All the evidence suggests that genetic modification of food, like antibiotic treatment,  is like a chess match against a highly creative opponent. The scientific strategies look good for a while, but every move eventually gets countered by evolution. DDT, for instance, only worked for a short time in wiping out mosquito populations.

7. Think about what you’re doing for the public perception of science

If your experiment needs a steel fence and a police cordon, it just doesn’t look good. Sometimes, protection is necessary, as with the anti-vivisectionists, but that’s a whole step up in terms of emotive issues. To the casual observer, a field of wheat being protected by police officers just seems sinister.

8. Don’t expect a YouTube video to change anyone’s mind

Asking people not to destroy the crops because this represents years of work is not a great argument in circumstances where people don’t like your work. Imagine Colonel Gaddafi releasing a video protesting he had spent years building up his tyrannous regime, and you get the idea.

9. Don’t claim you have a public mandate just because some other scientists approved your grant proposal

You have a grant – that is all. The public have no idea what is being approved in their name. And that’s what we all need to talk about. Before this happens again.