The only debate we’re likely to get

Since the Take the Flour Back activists found themselves unable to find two or three speakers for a formal, lengthy debate the only real visible dialogue between anti-GM activists and Rothamsted has been this episode of Newsnight.

There are so many things that make me sad about this debate: not least that every time either Prof. John Pickett or Dr. Tracey Brown speaks they are shouted over by Jyoti Fernandes. Even in the opening comments, nobody jumps on Jyoti when she says that she thinks GM is ‘really dangerous’, but she won’t even allow Prof. Pickett to finish his opening spiel. She immediately challenges him on what he means by sustainable, and even before he’s finished answering her question she interrupts him again!

Since they didn’t get a chance to answer some of the questions, or meet some of the challenges I’m going to put my two pence in here:

“But there’s biological ways, by holistic ecosystem managing, you can attract beneficial insects…”
This is true: Integrated Pest Management is a well funded area of ecological research for which Adkisson and Smith won the 1997 World Food Prize (as said up by Father of the Green Revolution, Norman Borlaug). It not new, nor neglected technology. It is also not perfect. Biological control is hard to maintain in an open system, because when a natural predator has de-pested your crop it will leave to find new food. IPM only works if you allow a low level of infestation. It’s also fairly intensive (because it requires lots of monitoring), which makes it expensive.

“We don’t believe that the process of vetting the trial, and licensing the trial has been adequate.”
This keeps being thrown out there, and I’m never really sure what it’s supposed to mean. Science in the UK isn’t done by gentleman scientists at their own whimsy. It is funded by very competitive grants. The legislation surrounding GM experiments is stringent. The research wouldn’t be being done were it not a) worthwhile and b) safe from contamination.

This trial … is on a crop that doesn’t suffer from aphid problems…”
This is about whether the trial was done on winter wheat (which we grow a lot of in the UK), or spring wheat (where aphids are less of a problem).
‘Transformation’ (the scientific word for putting a foreign gene into an organism) is pretty hard to do.  You know how before we test drugs on humans we test them on mice, because they are a simple ‘model’? Cadenza (the variety used in the trial) is a wheat model that hasn’t been grown as an elite variety (to make your daily bread) for a few years now. But it’s a good starting point for this kind of work, because scientists have good success rates with transforming it, and because it can be grown as both a winter and a spring wheat. The GM Cadenza wheat would never be a ‘finished product’ that farmers started sowing instead of the varieties that they currently plant.

“The GM research needs to be done in controlled environments.”
Dr Brown started to make this point, but yet again, this is an example of somebody using emotive language to cloud this issue here. There is a huge exclusion zone around the Rothamsted field, and the crop being grown is self-pollinating. It isn’t pollinated by bees or the wind. The pollen cannot pollinate other crops in nearby fields. Years’ of experiments have been done in a glasshouse: now we need outdoor trials to see if this technology actually works. But for an outdoor space, this couldn’t be much more controlled!

What generally got to me about this whole segment was how much of it was about personal feelings rather than evidence.

For me, this was the kicker: In response to ‘What gives you the right to decide this research should not go ahead?’ Fernandes had a mini rant about GM agriculture and intensification of agriculture (during which she was not interrupted.)

  • GM agriculture in the US is centred around pesticide-resistant crops.
  • The social implications of GM agriculture (whatever they may be) are not an excuse to vandalise research. They may (or may not) be a reason to protest widescale growing of seeds, if they ever become available.
  • Policy should be dictated by evidence, not anecdotes.
  • GM and intensification may appear together, but they are not in any way intrinsically linked. It’s a whole other debate!

I have to say that overall I’m pretty disappointed with this. Bearing in mind TtFB’s refusal to enter into a full scale debate, this was an opportunity for some important discussions, and instead it was mainly point scoring and irrelevant asides from Fernandes.

One response to “The only debate we’re likely to get

  1. Thanks for the interesting and spot-on analysis. I feel exactly the same way.

    Have you seen the Greenpeace article that cites Professor Pickett’s research in support of Kenyan farmers ? The science and its’ application approach the sublime. Also, check out the book “Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out of Africa” (also Europe, sadly, as you have blogged) and/or the related podcast

    There seems to be an urgent need for science departments to set up some journalism courses, and get more media-savvy (though the Rothamsted scientists have been dignified and restrained). It would also help if the media dropped the outdated Newsnight format for ‘debate’, which gives equal weight and time to the well-informed and the aggressively ignorant.

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