Lessons from Rothamsted

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

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.

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

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At The Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science By Surprise.

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For a mayor who will help make Londoners healthier, vote for Tessa Jowell

The surgeon, former Labour health minister and chairman of the London Health Commission, Ara Darzi, backs Tessa Jowell to be Labour's candidate for London mayor.

London’s mayor matters. As the world’s preeminent city, London possesses an enormous wealth of assets: energetic and enterprising people, successful businesses, a strong public sector, good infrastructure and more parks and green spaces than any other capital city.

Yet these aren’t put to work to promote the health of Londoners. Indeed, quite the opposite: right now, London faces a public health emergency.

More than a million Londoners still smoke tobacco, with 67 children lighting up for the first time every day. London’s air quality is silently killing us. We have the dirtiest air in Europe, causing more than 4,000 premature deaths every year.

Nearly four million Londoners are obese or overweight – and just 13% of us walk or cycle to school or work, despite half of us living close enough to do so. All Londoners should be ashamed that we have the highest rate of childhood obesity of any major global city.

It’s often been said that we don’t value our health until we lose it. As a cancer surgeon, I am certain that is true. And I know that London can do better. 

For that reason, twice in the past decade, I’ve led movements of Londoners working together to improve health and to improve the NHS. Healthcare for London gave our prescription for a better NHS in the capital. And Better Health for London showed how Londoners could be helped to better health, as well as better healthcare.

In my time championing health in London, I’ve never met a politician more committed to doing the right thing for Londoners’ health than Tessa Jowell. That’s why I’m backing her as Labour’s choice for mayor. We need a mayor who will deliver real change, and Tessa will be that mayor.  

When she invited me to discuss Better Health for London, she had the courage to commit to doing what is right, no matter how hard the politics. Above all, she wanted to know how many lives would be saved or improved, and what she could do to help.

In Tessa, I see extraordinary passion, boundless energy and unwavering determination to help others.

For all Londoners, the healthiest choice isn’t always easy and isn’t always obvious. Every day, we make hundreds of choices that affect our health – how we get to and from school or work, what we choose to eat, how we spend our free time.

As mayor, Tessa Jowell will help Londoners by making each of those individual decisions that bit easier. And in that difference is everything: making small changes individually will make a huge difference collectively.  

Tessa is committed to helping London’s children in their early years – just as she did in government by delivering Sure Start. Tessa will tackle London’s childhood obesity epidemic by getting children moving just as she did with the Olympics. Tessa will make London a walking city – helping all of us to healthier lifestyles.

And yes, she’s got the guts to make our parks and public places smoke free, helping adults to choose to stop smoking and preventing children from starting.   

The real test of leadership is not to dream up great ideas or make grand speeches. It is to build coalitions to make change happen. It is to deliver real improvements to daily life. Only Tessa has the track record of delivery – from the Olympics to Sure Start.   

Like many in our capital, I am a Londoner by choice. I am here because I believe that London is the greatest city in the world – and is bursting with potential to be even greater.

The Labour party now has a crucial choice to make. London needs Labour to choose Tessa, to give Londoners the chance to choose better health.