Category Archives: Environmentalism

A quick round up

It’s been a busy few days, and in the meantime lots of other people (who may be more articulate than I am right now) have done some great coverage of the Take the Flour Back protest, and GM stuff in general. I kinda want to get out of my little Rothamsted loop and talk about something else, so here are some links to articles and blog pieces I enjoyed.

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Someone is WRONG on the internet (More on GM…)

This is me this lunch time:

Faced with a day of experiments that don’t require poking every 15 minutes, an inability to order anything due to some delightful fluke of our ordering system, no teaching commitments because my undergrads had their exam this morning, and no social engagements, you might expect that I would be spending a peaceful half hour sat on a polystyrene box outside my office enjoying the sun. (That’s not actually a joke… photos to follow).

Sadly, not.

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More Q & A from Rothamsted

Sense about Science have published another interesting Q & A session with the Rothamsted scientists about GM in general and their experiment in particular.

You can read it all here.

And in related news a man has been charged with criminal damage (having vandalised the Rothamsted test plots).

When debate and petitions aren’t enough

For the last month or so, I’ve been blogging on and off about the GM wheat research at Rothamsted and the reactions to this by a group called Take the Flour Back. The group have been planning a ‘decontamination’ event for next weekend, at which they and their supporters will uproot the crop, thereby destroying many years of hard work and some really valuable research. I’ve mentioned the researchers’ open letter; and the Sense about Science petition, as well as some of the reasons why I think TtFB are just plain wrong.

The Rothamsted scientists did their darndest to communicate with these activists, in the hope that they could allay some fears and generate some useful dialogue. After several attempts to contact them and arrange a proper public adjudicated debate, TtFB declined to join in with this, and so the only debate that has really happened was via Newsnight.

More on that here.

Sadly yesterday somebody decided that waiting for a proper debate, or the published article in the Guardian just wasn’t an option, and decided to vandalise the trial a week ahead of the planned ‘decontamination’ date. I’m beginning to lose all faith that these activists will listen to any evidence, no matter how calmly and co-operatively it is presented.

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:

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More on Rothamsted and TtFB

I really will write about something other than GMO field trials soon, but I’m having a fail lab day, and this is really irritating me.

Beyond Pesticides Daily have published an article today referencing the whole Rothamsted / TtFB debate. I think the pop science I read, the more I notice examples of bad journalism and sloppy editing, and writing a biased piece. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m sure that whatever I write will be influenced by my own feelings on the subject, but I hope that I can at least keep straight facts and opinions and experts vs lay people.

The piece starts of with at least a semblance of impartiality:

In what is being presented as “a clear risk to British farming,” protesters in the United Kingdom have organized a campaign to protest field sites being used to test a new strain of genetically modified (GM) wheat. The industry developing the GM wheat is asking the campaigners not to ruin their experimental plots, but the group, ‘Take the Flour Back,’ has vowed to “decontaminate” the site unless the research is halted.

And then any hint of ‘allegedly’ or ‘reportedly’ disappears, and it becomes pretty clear which side BPD’s bread is buttered on.

a new strain of GM wheat which has the potential to contaminate surrounding fields

Really? Have they read about the level of precaution taken in planning this experiment? It is really hard to get wheat to do anything other than self fertilise. On the off chance that a wheat plant manages to expose its anthers before self-fertilising, and another individual manages to expose its stigma, Rothamsted have been very clear about the margin between the experimental plot and any other wheat fields, and have planned an exclusion zone, from which all the material will be destroyed, just to be on the safe side.

There is serious doubt that the aphid alarm pheromone as found in this GM crop would even work. Other scientists have raised concerns that if aphids get habituated and insufficient predators are available, this may increase the aphid burden on the wheat and thus potentially increasing the need for pesticides and chemical spraying against aphids.

Interesting that in an article with so many links this isn’t even referenced or attributed. I have a few questions about this. 1. How can aphids become habituated to a chemical that they make themselves? It’s like suggesting that we might become habituated to serotonin or insulin and start ignoring it. 2. Who are these scientists, and where have they been making these claims? 3. Why would there be fewer predators than their current are? Ladybird larvae are attracted by E-beta-farnesene. If anything, there will be more of them, not fewer.

Then we get onto quotations:

One activist, Welch [sic] farmer Gerald Miles, is leading the calls against “irresponsible” and “negligent” GM crop research. Mr. Miles stated, “The wheat is being injected with genes from a cow, antibiotic genes and peppermint genes in order to detract aphids from the crops. This is totally irresponsible on many levels. Firstly, it is totally negligent to conduct an open air trial where there is a significant risk of cross contamination with other wheat crops in the area and the wider country.”

Once again, we have the fallacious claim that there is a significant risk of cross contamination. More frustratingly, from my point of view, Mr Miles is presented as being some kind of expert. He’s an organic farmer, and as far as I can tell from his blog presence, his expertise in the field of science goes about as far as copying and pasting things from organicconsumers.org

GM wheat, like other GM crops, can cause serious environmental damage, including the development of resistant weeds, contamination of non-GM crops and organic farms and the unknown impacts of human health.

How?!!?

You know what makes me so angry about this? I’m not even sure we should be growing or eating GM wheat. But what I am sure about, is that activists shouldn’t have to spread disinformation and lies in order to convince the general public that this research is a bad idea.

You know what I’m eating today? A salad, with lentils. And I’m drinking some ginger beer. And I GUARANTEE you that tomorrow there will be no trace of lentil DNA or ginger DNA in my genome. Because my cells do not MAGICALLY start taking up the DNA of whatever I’ve eaten and incorporating it into my own DNA.

And what is with all the talk about super weeds?!?! Even if there was convincing evidence that gene transfer was responsible for weeds becoming resistant to glyphosate (which there isn’t) then that would still have precisely zero to do wheat that is modified to produce a pheromone.

</rant>