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Battle of the wheatfield

Rational discussion of genetically modified crops is beyond us

New Statesman
An ultralight helicopter hovers above a field where Greenpeace activists wrote the message 'NO GMO'. Photograph: Getty Images.

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.