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2011 articles

Researcher sacked, others threatened over GM protest

on .

NOTE: These two pieces from the Flemish newspaper, De Morgen, give the lie to the claims made following the protest last weekend in Wetteren, in Belgium, that the destruction of a GM potato trial represents an unjustifiable attack on independent science. What emerges strongly from both pieces is a clear sense of powerful political and financial interests underlying this technology, in Wetteren just as much as St. Louis, and the way in which "independent science" is being remorselessly shaped by such interests in the field of biotechnology.

The "translations" below were done by us with the help of Google translate, so are very far from authoritative. We hope they capture something of the spirit of these two important pieces, but they're likely to be pretty inexact. Any corrections welcome.  

For more on what happened last weekend see:
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1.Why we protested on Sunday in Wetteren
De Morgen, 3 June 1911

In this open letter to their colleagues, a group of researchers from Wetteren, working at various academic institutions, explain why they sided with the activists. 

Save science, not biotech

The application of genetic engineering is strongly intertwined with its global political and economic context. Scientists can not and must not be blind to it.  

Dear Colleagues

We were there on Sunday in Wetteren. First there was a rally under the slogan "Save our science." This was followed by an action against the field trial involving genetically engineered potatoes. 

You scientists took part in the march. We scientists stood on the side of the protesters. We explain as scholars and activists why we find it justified to oppose the field trial. 

...The threat of punitive sanctions and the criminalization of activists distracts attention from the real questions raised by the action. 

We have great respect for others' research. The right to protest must be weighed against that respect. But technology is not neutral. The world would have been different if there had been more protests by scientists against the nuclear weapons and many [toxic] pesticides that have been developed.

As scientists, we are driven by, among other things, curiosity and a quest for truth. As activists by indignation at injustice. These two are complementary. The search for truth helps to understand the causes of injustice. The indignation can lead us to decide which research topics are prioritized. We are convinced that you have similar motivations, even though we were [on different sides in] Wetteren. How can that be?

We do not doubt your good intentions. We also agree on various issues. The introduction of GMOs into the biosphere is an ecological experiment, which requires prudence and the honouring of the precautionary principle. Also,  independent research is to be valued. 

We also recognize the universal right to life, and, consequently the right to food, and consider in this light hunger and malnutrition as a violation of human rights. We may share the outrage when we hear of fields with genetically engineered Roundup Ready soy being sprayed with pesticides from aircraft while people work in them; and about the illegal destruction of the Amazon for the same soybean fields. Probably we also agree about the detrimental role that a handful of large multinational companies are playing with their growing appetite to control food and seed markets. Or do we not now agree?

Reckless

...We disagree about how far the principles of prudence and precaution should go. The experts of the Biosafety Board, which had to judge the field trial, found no consensus on this issue. Regardless of the field trial, we find the widespread introduction of GMOs into the biosphere reckless: it is an irreversible experiment with the whole planet as guinea pigs. Who here has ever been involved in this decision? With what legitimacy?

We will not agree about how independent the research is in Wetteren. Funding sources are a major restriction on scientists deciding what research is needed, useful and relevant. The Flemish government has selected biotechnology as one of the priorities of scientific research. It is thereby mainly driven by the conviction that this is good for the Flemish economy. With the same motivation, companies are willing to contribute: more profit is in the offing. 

We ask ourselves: how can you insist that you do "independent" research, especially when you get funding for research that serves the economy? Is the most valuable knowledge then knowledge that is marketable? How much room is there to ask questions which are important for society but not directly for a profit-driven economy? This is where the most fundamental threat to academic freedom arises. The intimate collaboration of scientists with actors who do not seek knowledge but profits threatens the independence and credibility of all science.

The money that is invested in research into biotechnology, is also not available for other research – for organic farming, for example; or for sustainable energy; or for investigating the decline of biodiversity; or the plight of farmers in the South and the role in it of multinationals; or for the possible effects of climate change...

The scale of agriculture

Biotechnology fits within the current, large-scale industrial agriculture model that is environmentally unsustainable and socially unacceptable. It is ecologically unsustainable because it is first of all dependent on fossil fuels and it also has a heavy impact on the environment. It is socially unacceptable because it leaves unresolved the problem of world hunger – on the contrary, it is structurally related [to that problem].

The focus on biotechnology reflects a lack of analysis of the global food problem. In his latest report to the UN, Olivier de Schutter found agro-ecology is a productive, sustainable and socially just alternative. He points to a lack of political and financial support for further scientific development. Yet he says: "Agroecology is the science of the future." The scientific-technological-industrial complex has a different choice. This is illustrated by the sign next to the trial which, regardless of the outcome of the trial, claims that here "the potato of the future is growing"...

Our main dispute is probably around the role and responsibility of the individual scientist or the research institute in relation to what is ignored, and can go wrong with GMOs. The application of genetic engineering is strongly intertwined with the global political and economic context. We believe that a scientist should not be blind to that. In that context, the field trial is an important cog in the model of industrial food production and monopoly.

Where are the experts?

Several researchers involved in the investigation have indicated no statements can be made on the political and economic context as it is not where their area of ”‹”‹expertise lies. It is of course the case that the individual scientist can not know everything. But that within the whole consortium that performs the trial, no such experts can be found, is pretty sad. 

Where are the experts in the political economy of GMOs? And the experts in sustainable agriculture? The agricultural experts? The experts in agriculture and biodiversity? The science and democracy experts, the sociologists and moral philosophers of agriculture? Why are they not included in the debate? Was there no money to fund such research? Do only technical and scientific arguments have validity and value? Was there too much pressure to go 'forward' quickly? Even if that science has nothing to say about the current model of industrial food production?

Ladies and gentlemen. At least the question of the merit of the field trial and the response to it, is now feeding a number of pertinent public debates. The debates on the independence of scientific research, academic freedom and social responsibility are, in our opinion, out in the open.

Tom Cox, civil engineer, doctor of sciences, a researcher at the CEME, Olivier Beauchard, biologist, researcher at the UA, Omar Jabary Salamanca, geographer, researcher at Ghent University, Fabien, Doctor of Science, researcher at the UA; Anneleen Kenis, master in sustainable development and human ecology, a researcher at KU Leuven, Matthew Lawrence, Doctor of Philosophy, a researcher at KU Leuven, Kim Naudts, biologist, researcher at the UA, Kaatje Segers, PhD in Bio-Engineering , researcher at the University College Ghent, Johnny Teuchies, biologist, researcher at the UA, Barbara Van Dyck, bio-engineer, doctor of economics, a researcher at KU Leuven, David Duchan, Doctor of Bioscience Engineering, researcher at Ghent University
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2.Order
Bart Eeckhout, Head of News
De Morgen, 4 June 2011

Apparently, the potato battle has deeply shaken the established order. That shock is perhaps heightened by the realization that the attack [on the field trial] not only involved anarchists and environmentalists but also researchers – "our own people", so to speak. Retribution quickly followed: at KU Leuven [the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven], the spokeswoman for the "siege of Wetteren" was fired on the spot. Also at other universities, severe penalties have been threatened against those who do not comply.

No, it was not wise to use force against a potato field. Knocking down a fence is still tolerated in resisting an international summit, but not against a field trial, a symbol of "defenceless science". That the "field liberators" have shot themselves in the foot, emerges strongly from the debate their actions has relaunched. Never before have their opponents had such a chance to make their argument.

And yet there's something wrong about the violent reaction to this incident. Not 24 hours after the event, the head of the Flemish Government, Kris Peeters, trampled along the field as if it were a flood disaster zone. Peeters was able to report that the protesters would be prosecuted for conspiracy. This is a rather large violation of the separation of [executive and judicial] powers, for it is not the policy of the prosecutors. It conjures unsavoury memories of the time when Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt ordered the arrest of Abou Jahjah.

Protesters being prosecuted for conspiracy raises fundamental questions about our democracy. If that is to be the rule from now on, we will experience crazy consequences in this land of demonstrators. We are already looking forward to the next demonstration where farmers block junctions with their tractors, will the farm minister sue them for conspiracy, will the costs of any economic damage be passed on to the farmers?

Or will there only be brutal repression in Flanders in those areas falling outside the consensus? With their tough sanctions, universities seem to illustrate what the protesters denounced last week with too much zeal. There are apparently many interests and lots of money (corporate and government) hidden behind biotechnology in Flanders. And those who express loud opposition are promptly expelled from the circle.