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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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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