The media debacle around the Rothamsted GM wheat picnic-protest

June 2012
Ears of wheat ripen in the July sunshine at Weston Patrick in Hampshire
Conventional non-gm wheat grown in Hampshire.
Photo by Anguskirk on Flickr
Wheat has been genetically transformed to produce chemicals which aphids use to warn each other they're under attack, and that it's time to get out. The signal can also alert their predators. See GM WHEAT IN THE UK - July 2011

Anyone following the news during May 2012 can't have missed the fact that there's a GM wheat trial in the ground in Hertfordshire, and that there has been a protest against its presence.

 The media storm was impressive: 
“People will starve to death because of anti-GM zealotry”; the government must stand up to the 'anarchy and vandalism' and 'hatred' of science''; the protesters' actions are not only criminal but a “willful imposition of ignorance, directly comparable to Nazi book-burning” and an “assault on what remains of Castle Enlightenment”. 
Who were these murderous, anarchic, vandalistic, science-hating, criminal, ignorant, Nazi, book-burning, unenlightened zealots? And, what did they actually do? 

Well, when the actual comments above were made, no action had yet been carried out. 


There was a lone organic farmer who wasn't part of the organised protest, who went in ahead of the main action to cut a few heads off the wheat. Presumably this was a symbolic gesture because it didn't inflict meaningful damage. 


The official protest was organised by Take the Flour Back, and consisted of a few hundred growers, bakers and families from across the UK plus contingents from France and Belgium. In the face of what they described as a “fortress” guarded by a wall of policemen (some on horseback) armed with a special trespass prohibition order, the protesters linked arms, approached as closely as physically possible, and sat down. 


They went on to enjoy a GM-free picnic, and listen to guest speakers from the national and international anti-GM arena in an atmosphere “akin to that of a village fete”. 


So, how did the media frenzy arise? 


It all seems to have started with the pro-GM lobby group, 'Sense About Science' (see below), teaming up with the government-funded scientists at the Rothamsted laboratories who are carrying out the GM research, the National Farmers Union (NFU), and the Royal Society. 


An open letter, a YouTube presentation and a petition were launched appealing to the protesters not to destroy the trial, and offering to meet with with Take the Flour Back to “show you our work and explain why we think it could benefit the environment in the future”. The NFU joined in with an impassioned speech in the House of Commons, and the president of the Royal Society chimed in with a statement on the need for “informed public debate on these (GM crop) issues, free from hype and fear”. 


Responding with an open letter of its own, Take the Flour Back indicated it would welcome the opportunity for public debate (but made it clear there was no intention of backing down). 


BBC TV duly hosted a debate featuring the head of Rothamsted's GM wheat team, Professor John Pickett (more below) flanked by Sense About Science head, Tracey Brown (see below), and two UK farmers who were resoundingly critical of the research. One of the farmers was a conventional wheat farmer who said: 
“Serious aphid infestations on spring wheat are infrequent, control costs are low and aphid outbreaks are often controlled naturally by predators. Why are we spending scarce agricultural funding on a trial whose aim is to repel aphids from spring wheat, which only accounts for 1% of the UK crop?  This crop won't help me to feed my family, let alone help farmers feed the world.” 
He also voiced his concerns about the risks posed by the GM wheat, which if it is grown on a commercial scale could displace the aphids onto other nearby crops. 


The second farmer was, embarrassingly for the pro- GM contingent, a former participant in GM trials and a member of the biotech lobby group CropGen, who raised similar questions, such as:
“Why are we spending a large chunk of our finite R&D budget on a crop no one wants to buy? Even in the the USA, GM wheat has stalled because of consumer resistance. Can anyone think of another example of money being spent on the development of a crop that has no market prospects? It's as if the R&D committee got drunk before the meeting.” 
The media flurry continued with a report that Rothamsted's website had been taken down by anonymous cyber-attackers on the Sunday night just after the protest, and was back up again by Monday morning. This article described the protest as an “attack”. 


What's going on here? 


A research establishment website being taken down on a Sunday and back up early the next day is hardly newsworthy. The protesters did not “attack” anything except their GM-free picnic basket. 


There's no escaping the feeling that the GM-protesters were thoroughly and excessively demonised before the event in a carefully orchestrated PR stunt, which also served to push the usual 'environmentally friendly', 'reduced agri-chemicals use', 'future generations' benefit' messages. 


It's clear that the GM crops actually being tested are valueless to UK farmers. 


As the two farmers asked, why is the GM wheat being developed at all? 


One likely explanation is that the GM wheat is a 'proof of concept' in both the scientific and political sense. The trials will not only test whether GM wheat can scare away aphids, but if successful can be used to soften up the GM-sceptical public, farmers and food sector, and break the GM log-jam. As the crops will never be grown, they'll stay “under the radar”. 


A further clue is suggested by a statement made by Prof. Pickett to Farmers' Weekly. Apparently companies were 'very interested' and were 'keeping a watching brief', and that 'it could be that we generate very good intellectual property for commercial development in the interests of the UK and European agriculture and business'. Perhaps the scientists have their eye on overseas markets for their GM wheat. 


Another reason for the desperate PR exercise may also be that the GM wheat project seems to be a flagship for the government's much-touted plans for a 'sustainably intensive' model of future agriculture. This oddly contradictory concept is now being challenged within its own ranks by the MPs of the influential Environment Audit Committee, who are also questioning the government's support for GM technology. 


As GM-free Cymru has pointed out, appeals to 'let the science be done' coming from the president of the Royal Society and Prof. Pickett are sheer hypocrisy. Both gents were part of the “rottweiler pack” which hounded Arpad Pusztai out of his laboratory in Aberdeen and slammed the door on virtually all GM-safety technique development for ever after. The Rothamsted open letter appealed to the protesters not to “destroy forever” the “years of work to which we have devoted our lives”. These same scientists weren't slow to destroy Pusztai's life work. However, the whiff here is decidedly close to Bursen-Marsteller's advice to Monsanto in the 1990s that if the company wanted GM food to be accepted it should “stir the emotions”. 


Sense About Science and Tracey Brown

“The Managing Director of Sense About Science is part of the notorious LM (Living Marxism) network who eulogise technologies like genetic engineering and reproductive cloning and are extremely hostile to environmentalists whom they brand as Nazis. Internal memos in the Tobacco Documents Library also show that prior to sense About Science, Tracey Brown approached BAT Industries (British American Tobacco) offering to help them undermine the litigation launched against tobacco companies by people harmed by smoking. No industry has done more than Big Tobacco to manipulate, halt, undermine, and otherwise discredit scientific research." The Ecologist, 25 May 2012


OUR COMMENT

Yes folks, a carefully prepared scheme to cast the GM-concerned public as the baddies while the scientists are down-trodden, misunderstood, unappreciated, goodies trying to save the world.

GM Freeze has resources to help you if you need advice on writing letters in response to media stories which you feel are imbalanced or inaccurate. The information there is updated as new issues arise. Check out http://www.gmfreeze.org/take-action/media-balance/

SOURCES:
  • Jonathan Matthews, The inside story on the GM wheat trial debate, The Ecologist, 25.05.12
  • Alistair Driver, 4,000 people back campaign to protect GM wheat trial, Farmers Guardian, 10.05.12
  • European activists link up to draw the line against GM, taketheflourback.org, 27.05.12
  • Shiv Malik, Anti-GM protesters kept from tearing up wheat crop by police, Guardian 27.05.12
  • Adam Vaughan, GM crop-trial website taken down by cyber-attack, Guardian 28.05.12
  • Open letter from GM-Free Cymru to Sir Paul Nurse (president of the Royal Society), 19.05.12
  • Seeds of doubt, www.gmeducation.org 26.05.12
  • Joanna Blythman, Vandals! No, not protesters trashing crops but the GM lobby still trying to force increasingly discredited Frankenstein Food down our throats, Daily Mail, 29.05.12
  • Farmer challenges GM wheat trial - Newsnight, Take the Flour Back Press Release, 16.05.12

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