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.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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