Battle of the wheatfield

Rational discussion of genetically modified crops is beyond us

Let me say from the outset, I think the experiment at Rothamsted should go ahead without interference from campaigners opposed to the genetic modification of crops. But I doubt it will.

The experiment looks at whether wheat could repel aphids by expressing genes that give off a “panic” pheromone that aphids use to warn of danger. These genes, which have been synthesised from chemicals in a lab, have been woven into the wheat’s genome.

It’s a brilliant strategy, well worth trying. If it works, you wouldn’t need to spray this wheat with insecticides. However, this very sensible experiment is under attack.
 
Anti-GM campaigners have announced they will arrive en masse to destroy the experiment on May 27th. The scientists have released a video pleading with the protestors not to trample years of their work. It’s unlikely to have any traction, though. This isn’t personal; it’s simply that GM scientists have not yet earned the right to do their research uncontested.
 
In many people’s minds, science is still scary – especially when it tinkers with nature. Watch this one-minute of video about Rachel Carson’s call for a ban on DDT in 1963, and see if the scientist doesn’t make you shiver a little bit.
 
This is still the tone many people hear when they hear scientists talking. People are, in general, all in favour of the products of science. But they also know there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Advances and comforts come at a cost – and people want to know what the cost might be before they give unqualified support to a programme of research.
 
That leaves scientists with two choices. They either try to win a battle for hearts and minds before they press ahead with experiments – those who mix human and animal biology are engaged with this right now. The alternative is to ignore public concerns, raise private funding and do semi-secret experiments, then present the public with a fait accompli that they like – such as Louise Brown, the world’s first test tube baby.
 
It seems to be too late for GM researchers to do either. The battle for hearts and minds is already lost: there is a pervasive belief that, without extreme caution, genetic modifications are likely to spread beyond experimental boundaries and might have unintended adverse effects on natural ecosystems. And Monsanto scuppered any future acceptance of the private route by their early attempts to create themselves a lucrative market at the expense of farmers in the developing world.
 
We have never managed to hold a properly informed public discussion about genetically modified organisms, and thanks to the subject’s history, that discussion might now be impossible. Which means extremist anti-GM groups will continue to thwart even the most laudable scientific efforts while the public shrugs and wonders if that isn’t the best thing for everyone in the long run.
An ultralight helicopter hovers above a field where Greenpeace activists wrote the message 'NO GMO'. Photograph: 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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Laid in America: how two YouTubers made a mainstream sex-comedy for children

Caspar Lee and KSI's new movie is officially rated 15, but digital downloading means their young audiences have easy access. 

It’s not that expectations are high when it comes to YouTube movies. Despite being released by Universal Studios, vloggers Caspar Lee and KSI’s latest feature film Laid In America always looked set to be cheap and cheerful rather than a cultural blockbuster. It’s just that the opening scene of the movie – in which KSI humps a blow-up sex doll doggy style while forcing its head down on Caspar Lee’s crotch, before ejaculating into his own boxers – jars a little when you consider the relative age of the pair’s fan bases.

Caspar Lee is a 22-year-old South African YouTuber whose prank videos and vlogs have earnt him 6.79 million subscribers. KSI – real name Olajide Olatunji – is a year older and has double the influence, with 14.64 million people subscribed to his video gaming channel. Although YouTube doesn’t allow the public to see the demographics of any particular YouTuber’s audience, videos of Olatunji and Lee’s meet-and-greets with fans reveal that the former is idolised by teenage boys and the latter beloved of pre-teen and teenage girls. Search “Caspar Lee book review” on YouTube and the first non-branded result shows a very young girl waxing lyrical about the star.

KSI and a 13-year-old fan, via kalabza1973

Despite Laid in America’s Red Band trailer and raunchy premise – of two English students in America desperately trying to lose their virginity, à la American pie – it seems the filmmakers, Bad Weather Films and The Fun Group, are aware of the pair’s audiences. The movie premieres tonight at the O2 in London and is then available for digital download only. This isn’t a reflection on the limited influence of YouTubers – whose transformation of the publishing industry alone shows they could easily sell out cinemas – but a savvy business decision that allows children to watch a film that has been rated 15 by the British Board of Film Classification. Rather than trying to sneak into a cinema, kids can affectively undo 104 years of film classification history with just a few clicks.

It’s not that it’s particularly shocking that 12-year-olds can easily watch this gross-out comedy complete with the requisite sex party, dwarf in a cage, plethora of swear words, and obligatory “That… was… awesome!”. No, the most offensive thing about the film (aside from KSI’s abysmal acting) isn’t the sex, it’s the sexism.

“Tabitha is a complete BLOB,” says Duncan (Olatunji) when Jack (Lee) asks why, if he’s so desperate to lose his virginity, he doesn’t sleep with the girl who keeps passing him love notes. “You know that girl that you’d never have sex with and then the night is coming to an end and you run out of options? … Basic Last Option Bae. BLOB.”

The credentials that make Tabitha a BLOB, appear to be – to the naked eye – that she is not tall, she is a normal weight, and she doesn’t wear concealer under her eyes. Heather Cowles, the actress who plays her, is in fact so attractive that you almost wish they’d gone down the old-fashioned fat-suit and fake-acne line. When a preteen girl who idolises YouTubers so much that she sets them as her profile picture watches them mock and deride what is essentially a normal looking girl, how will they feel?

Caspar Lee with fans at a book signing via Getty

There are a multitude of similar instances in the movie. “Did you get a chance to experience any American girls?” asks Jack and Duncan’s headmaster in one of the opening scenes of the film, as headmasters are wont to do. When the duo reveal they are both virgins, the principal acts shocked. “No girls? Not even fat girls?” he says.

None of this would be particularly damaging to the normal, adult audiences of similar Hollywood comedies. But YouTubers have an incredible influence over their fans, so much so that brands are willing to pay between £20,000 and £50,000 for them to recommend a single product in their videos. It seems a shame that this influence will be used to increase the insecurities of young girls and reinforce, yet again, that Sex Is Everything to young boys.

The attitudes to women in the film are beyond outdated. To begin with, Duncan and Jack need to “find hot girls” in order to be allowed into cool-kid Tucker Jones’ party. From this point on, women are a commodity. “The more money we appear to have, the hotter girls we’ll get,” says one of the stars – god, don’t ask me which – when the pair try out a dating app. Next we see them ride a Boober (like an Uber, but with two complimentary large-chested girls), leave a woman passed out in her lingerie after she hits her head, and be rewarded with sex for – and truly, romance is dying, dying, dead as I write this – telling a girl’s ex-boyfriend that she’s “not a bitch”.

But surely, surely, in 2016 this is all redeemed by a heartfelt message about how actually, losing your virginity and “getting” hot girls isn’t everything? No such luck. The ending of the film is basically softcore porn, though the final shot features Jack and Duncan riding a Segway shouting: “We go in your country and take your women!” They saw. They conquered. They came. 

It's not yet apparent whether the film will be a commercial success, though the pair think that if it is, other studios will also begin making download-only films. "I guess the studios will be like, 'Oh this worked, let's try this' and follow," KSI told the BBC. If this is the case, hopefully more consideration will be put into making movies with a positive message for YouTubers' young audiences. 

 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.