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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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