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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Obama's Hiroshima visit is a wake up call on the risks of nuclear weapons

The president's historic visit must lead to fresh efforts to rid our world of destructive missiles and safeguard our futures.

We now know more than ever the dangers of an accidental or deliberate detonation of a nuclear weapon. We also realise that there can be no adequate humanitarian response to such a nightmare scenario.

Malfunctions, mishaps, false alarms and misinterpreted information have nearly led to the intentional or accidental detonation of nuclear weapons on numerous occasions since 1945, according to testimonies by experts and former nuclear force officers. In the past two years alone, the organisation Global Zero has documented scores of “military incidents” involving nuclear weapon states and their allies, alongside the increasing risks stemming from cyberattacks.

Put this together with recent insight into the appalling long-term health impact of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki explosions themselves, and the sheer human cost of any future nuclear bomb blast, and you have a truly alarming picture.

We were in Hiroshima and Nagasaki last year, speaking to survivors, or hibakusha, as they are known. More than 70 years on, their lives, and the lives of countless people in Japan, are still overshadowed by these two watershed events in the history of modern warfare.

After the detonations, Red Cross staff struggled in unimaginable conditions to relieve the suffering caused by the atomic blasts. With hospitals reduced to rubble and ash and medical supplies contaminated, the provision of even basic health care was well nigh impossible.

But the nightmare is far from over even today.

Doctors at the Japanese Red Cross Society hospitals in Hiroshima and Nagasaki say that some two-thirds of the deaths among elderly hibakusha are from probably radiation-related cancers. And aside from the physical symptoms, the psychological trauma is still ever present.

No-one who visits Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Museum, or who sees the continued suffering of thousands of elderly survivors, can be in any doubt of the catastrophic and irreversible effects of nuclear weapons. Nor could they in good conscience argue that these weapons somehow act as guarantors of global security or protectors of humanity as a whole.

Of course, the bombs in the arsenals of nuclear-armed States today are far more powerful and destructive. And modern research only makes the case against them stronger. Studies suggest that the use of nuclear weapons now even on a limited scale, would have disastrous and long-lasting consequences on human health, the environment, the climate, food production and socioeconomic development.

Health problems would span generations, with children of survivors facing significant risks from the genetic damage inflicted on their parents.

Seventy years after the dawn of the "nuclear age", there may be no effective or feasible means of assisting a substantial portion of survivors in the immediate wake of a nuclear detonation.

And make no mistake. The devastation of a future bomb will show no respect for national borders. It is likely to ravage societies far beyond its intended target country. Which makes the continued existence of nuclear weapons and the risk that entails a global concern.

Faced with these conclusions, you might imagine the international community would pull back from the brink of potential tragedy and take steps to eradicate these weapons.

Sadly, last year’s review conference of the Treaty of the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which had the opportunity to advance disarmament, failed to do so.

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has called on States to negotiate an international agreement to prohibit the use of and completely eliminate nuclear weapons within a binding timetable. We reiterate that call today. The political will to rid the world of this menace must urgently be found.

Until the last nuclear weapon is eliminated, there are essential steps which nuclear States can and must take now to diminish the danger of another Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

It is imperative that these States and their allies reduce the role of nuclear weapons in their military plans, doctrines and policies and cut the number of nuclear warheads on high alert status. The current modernization and proliferation of nuclear arsenals is leading us towards potential catastrophe.

The horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the human suffering inflicted still holds powerful lessons. President Obama’s landmark visit on Friday will surely be a powerful reminder of the terrible destruction that nuclear weapons wreak.

We must act on this reminder.

To truly pay homage to those whose lives were lost or irrevocably altered by the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, President Obama’s visit must galvanize the international community to move without delay towards a world free of nuclear weapons.

The fact that these weapons have not been used over the past 70 years does not guarantee a risk-free future for our children. Only the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons can do that.

Peter Maurer is President of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Tadateru Konoe is President of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and of the Japanese Red Cross Society.