Say what you will about the scientific literacy of protesters against genetically modified (GM) crops, they certainly put on a good picnic.
Amid a mini-heatwave in the United Kingdom, some 200 activists with anti-GM campaign group Take the Flour Back descended upon the well-to-do town of Harpenden on the outskirts of London on Sunday with the intention of ‘decontaminating’ — or tearing up — fields of GM wheat. The grain, being tested by the local, publicly funded Rothamsted Research agricultural institute, gives off an odour to repel aphids. The researchers use a synthetic form of a gene that encodes a protein that happens to be similar to one found in cows, and so the protesters say that Rothamsted is producing some unnatural cow–wheat monster that they had planned to uproot.
The action had been widely debated in much of the British press and on blogs as researchers feared the beginnings of a revival of the anti-GM activism of the 1990s and early 2000s that saw hundreds of campaigners destroy GM crops throughout Europe. Take the Flour Back’s plans have become the focus of a rancourous debate in these same newspapers between green groups and a growing movement of self-proclaimed geeks out to promote evidence-based policy and expose pseudoscience, who announced online that they would mount a counter-protest.
In the end, a heavy police presence prevented Take the Flour Back from entering the Rothamsted fields. The group decided to march up to the edge of the fields instead, although Anonymous, the online community of hackers, did mount a successful distributed denial-of-service attack on the Rothamsted website overnight, shutting it down for 12 hours.
But in the shade of a welcoming tree under the blaze of the sun on Harpenden Common, far from any rumble between the ‘hippies’ and the ‘nerds’, the protesters provided free organic bread, lashings of incredibly creamy Stilton, homemade chutney, smoked British Camembert and a refreshing chilled mint-and-pea soup to folks from both sides. If you ignored some of the wilder conspiratorial claims and blatantly incorrect assertions, you would have to say that it turned into a rather glorious day in the park.
Among the few dozen ‘anti-anti-GM’ protesters from the science community were former Liberal Democrat science spokesman Evan Harris, ‘Lay Scientist’ blogger Martin Robbins, and the folks behind the sceptic podcast The Pod Delusion. A small troop of local school students who hope to study sciences at university (one declaring that she wanted to become a science journalist), like the rest of the crowd, wore white ‘Don’t Destroy Research’ badges. For their part, the protesters, who included Green Party London mayoralty candidate Jenny Jones, sported placards carrying slogans such as, “Cows on the grass, not cows in the grass” and T-shirts with the red ‘No’ symbol over a half-cow-half-bread-loaf creature. The geeks started off the day up a hill from the protesters, but soon descended to mingle among them, but as far as I could see, there were no bitter dust-ups.
Peter Wilkinson, a local retired bank manager and “amateur ornithologist” who was distracted mid-interview by the odd behaviour of a clattering of jackdaws (yes, that is the correct collective noun) felt that the activists should debate the issues rather than destroy the institute’s work: “This is not what we do in a democracy. Years ago, we democratically decided we won’t have capital punishment. Should supporters of capital punishment go around as vigilantes killing murderers and rapists? We can all have different views on the science, but there are proper channels through which you can pursue your arguments.”
The many speeches of the protesters focused largely on corporate malfeasance by agribusinesses, a position that many in the pro-science crowd said was a legitimate perspective and one that many of them could sympathize with, but pointed out that Rothamsted is no tentacular multinational, but a small, non-profit public-research body.
Síle Lane, campaigns manager with Sense About Science, one of the organizers of the counter-protest, said: “There is a very necessary debate to be had about how some businesses operate, but Rothamsted is the opposite of Monsanto. [I might have problems with Microsoft and Apple], but I’m not going to smash up their computers.”
Standing near banners that read ‘Common-sense about Science’, and ‘GM feeds big business, not hungry people’, Elise Walker of Take the Flour Back apologized for the lack of scientists they had hoped would be able to speak at their protest, saying that they had been waylaid by conferences they had to attend instead.
She said that Rothamsted is no group of earnest scientists interested only in their research and not making money out of their findings: “Rothamsted may claim to be non-profit, but is also about selling innovations to business. This is publicly funded research that will be handed over to corporations. The head of Rothamsted has 300 gene patents.”
Gathuru Mburu from the African Biodiversity Network based in Thika, Kenya, said that GM has been deployed to encourage monoculture plantations in the developing world and that control of food systems by corporations imposes a “second colonialization”. He said that there is enough food to feed the world already and new technologies will not deal with the structural problems of inequality of distribution. Some 15 French anti-GM activists had also travelled to the protest to support “the new struggle” in the United Kingdom.
The protesters were very sensitive to the way they had been cast as ‘anti-science’, but beyond the issue of corporate hanky-panky, many speakers did traduce GM’s alleged desecration of nature. Theo Simon, whom I hesitate to call the leader of this protest-without-leaders, but who could perhaps be called the compère or master of ceremonies and chief megaphone-wielder when the group marched up to the police, told the crowd: “I’d like to complement Sense About Science for their very good work slandering us as a group of anti-science nutters,” before going on to sing: “You meddle with life and evolution to generate your profits.”
Simon, who is also lead singer of folk group Seize the Day, went on to salute the Luddites — the nineteenth-century movement of English textile artisans known for their sabotage of mechanized looms — as courageous fighters who defended their way of life against, he said, unwanted technology and “enforced industrialization”.
“We stand proud as their descendents,” he sang into the microphone that converted his voice into an electrical signal that was then amplified employing power from a portable generator.
Back among the counter-protesters, Sense About Science pointed me in the direction of the regional Member of the European Parliament for the east of England, Stuart Agnew, who serves on the European Parliament’s committee of agriculture and rural development and is himself a farmer who participated in trials of GM sugar-beets a decade ago. He made a number of points about how the Rothamsted research could lead to a reduction in the use of pesticides, but then, winding up the interview, I asked him his political affiliation, to which he replied, “the UK Independence Party”, the conservative Eurosceptic group that also does not believe in anthropogenic global warming.
So I asked him whether he stood with his party on this issue. “Oh yes. We utterly refute man-made global-warming science,” he said. “It’s the vilification of carbon dioxide. Our policy is to undo all climate-change-led legislation.”
Without drawing a false equivalency — Agnew was probably not representative of all the counter-protesters, although another two I spoke to also expressed a level of climate scepticism — I was struck by the parallel scientific cherry-picking on display. If I had asked any of the GM protesters about climate change, I’m certain that to a man they would have backed the scientific consensus on this other green topic.
Although the weather, music and food made for an enjoyable Sunday afternoon, it was not a great day for an evidence-based approach to anything.