1.GM Wheat Journalists Unquestioning and Supine
2.A Scientist's Response to Rothamsted
1.GM Wheat Journalists Unquestioning and Supine
The Guardian carried an article by James Randerson on the 30th May entitled "The GM debate is growing up" saying that those people protesting against the Rothamsted GM wheat trial seemed to be "fanatical" whilst the scientists were full of "reason and openness". It also highlighted the efforts of The Science Media Centre failing to mention that this authoritatively sounding body is little more than an industry lobbying agency.
I was sufficiently appalled by the article to risk the insult infested Guardian comment thread to post the following response:
James Randerson talks about the "reason and openness of the scientists". I can accept media smart but "open" is another matter; mesmerising is nearer the mark because journalists seem to have been hypnotised into a state where they have been incapable of asking any penetrating questions and ignoring the inconsistencies in the Rothamsted statements.
There have been a couple of versions of what the trial is about; discrepancies between early statements about the interest and engagement from industry and later ones saying that it has no industry focus at all; a lack of clarity about the characteristics and provenance of the genes and the trial protocols; and a string of different stories about why Spring Wheat – a crop where aphids are a relatively minor problem – all of which raise questions.
Running these inconsistencies to ground may be beyond the time or capacity of today's media but highlighting that Rothamsted hasn't had its story straight and investigating why not must surely be within the capability of at least one journalist – even if they are unlikely to be employed by The Guardian.
Important public interest questions relating to the direction of taxpayer funded research and the relationship of publicly funded institutions with intellectual property, patents and commercialisation through multi-national corporations are raised by this trial but have not been asked or pressed by any journalist.
I am not being "anti-capitalist" here but simply pointing out that in the new world of the "knowledge based bio-economy" publicly funded institutions like Rothamsted are encouraged by the government to commercialise knowledge (including intellectual property and patents) along the US model and a close working relationship with industry is part of it. Of course Rothamsted and the UK's other GM research institutions are doing that – they have a director with an appropriate track record – and it is naive for anyone (but supine of journalists) to take reassurances that this research has nothing to do with that approach at face value.
Exploiting opportunities in the "bio-economy" is now seen as an important part of the overall economy and there is not necessarily anything wrong with it but there are important questions – and not just technical ones - to be asked and answered in an open and transparent way about how that is pursued and particularly so with GM technology which – like it or not – is an issue that concerns many people. The media has a crucial role here but in this case it has been led nose first by the Science Media Centre lobbyists and too wrapped up in “protester bashing” to investigate what is really behind this research and the context in which it has been funded and structured.
James Randerson is correct to say that this trial has "cast the whole GM debate in a new light". It has exposed too many journalists as unquestioning, supine and not fit for purpose.
2.A Scientist's Response to Rothamsted
The Rothamsted question and answer page on their wheat trial allows for comments and questions to which they will respond, here one blogger, 'Strawthatch', gets his opinions off his chest!
I have just read Professor Pickett’s open letter (April 27th, 2012) on the Rothamstead Research Centre’s website in response to criticism made by "Take the Flour Back" regarding trials of GM wheat (http://www.rothamsted.ac.uk)
I think his attempt to claim the moral high ground by suggesting that GM scientists are the 'real' environmentalists in this story is laughable – but this is probably based on typical narrow-mindedness rather than a conspiracy fomented by agribusiness. Plant breeders and their allies routinely cast themselves as heroes, struggling in their laboratories with genetic issues far too complex for most mortals to grasp, in order to produce new and improved wonder crops to feed the starving masses of the world. They are given Nobel prizes for their humanitarian work – for the work itself, and not its social and economic impacts on succeeding generations.
You may well have devoted your lives to this sort of research, Prof. Pickett, just as others have devoted their lives to the fight for justice and democracy, and the right to feed our children food that is natural and healthy. You have no right to force the results of research that you may personally believe is so important onto society. You claim to want to develop agriculture that seeks to work "with nature rather than against it," but I am not convinced that this is what motivates your work. I think it has more to do with the fact that almost all of the research in plant science today is funded by large agribusiness corporations. There is a revolving door between agribusiness research laboratories and DEFRA, and anyone who has worked in academia knows that you need to focus your research on profitable areas such as biotechnology in order to bring in the next research grant and keep one's department solvent.
The public is not so stupid or gullible as you think. In fact, many of us are fellow scientists and do not accept that your narrow, corporate-dependent approach will ‘save the world’, produce nutritious crops to end starvation and malnutrition, or lead to a more ecological way of farming. Quite the opposite. Ecology is about communities of organisms interacting and evolving to form stable, decentralized, systems. Ecological farming is about manipulating communities of plants in order to create semi-natural ecosystems that produce as much food as possible for humans. Stability in natural ecosystems depends on diversity, both at the genetic and species level. Truly ecological farming must start with genetic diversity. A genetically diverse population of wheat will be hardier, and more likely to survive poor growing conditions and rapid climate change, than a genetically uniform variety that has 1) been bred to respond to nitrogen and will perform poorly without it, 2) has a shallow root system which makes it susceptible to drought, 3) is too short stemmed to out-compete weeds and therefore needs to be sprayed with herbicides to perform well, and 4) runs a greater is more easily damaged by disease because of its genetic uniformity, and so needs to be sprayed regularly with fungicides.
It is true that all crop plants have been genetically altered to serve humanity’s needs, but you are being deliberately misleading by claiming that all modern crop plants have already been genetically modified. Wheat plants do not normally mate with mint plants, or acquire novel genes that have been created in the laboratory. Genetic modification involves the wholesale transfer of novel genes into a different species, and is completely different from ‘normal’ plant breeding – which raditionally involved creating new varieties by selecting for desirable traits from within a genetically diverse population, and over the last century by deliberately cross-pollinating varieties and in some cases very closely related species to create novel diversity. It is not natural for strawberries to have fish genes inserted into them to make them frost hardy, or for wheat plants to produce (E)-β-farnesene. These quantum changes in the genetic arrangement of species could have unpredictable effects if genes that code for these traits escaped into nature, and could have a direct effect on the humans and animals that eat the new crops into which they’ve been inserted. The arrogance of
science has produced both wonders and disasters, but altering the genetic sequence of life and creating hybrid organisms is a Pandora’s box that we should probably not open.
Protesting to stop these so-called scientific advances is the best way of raising the cost of the research so that the corporations who fund it give up and move on to more profitable activities. They have already convinced their friends in government to pay the PR tab for massaging society into accepting GM technology, and to fund the basic research that subsidizes the private corporations who go on to develop new GM varieties and collect the profits. The agribusiness model has had a century to feed the world, but has not produced the goods. In the UK we have, at any time, only a few weeks of food in reserve to feed the nation in time of crisis – which is frightening given the economic situation we are in, rising oil prices and the rate of climate change.
In the meantime, research into truly sustainable ways of improving the yield and nutritional qualities of our crops are being starved of funds. Revolutionaries do not last long in university departments because they do not bring in research grants, whereas conservative academics collect both funds and lofty titles – and the psychological reinforcement they receive for climbing to dizzying career heights convinces them that what they personally believe must also be best for society. The research that is needed to adopt, adapt and create new systems of food production to feed the UK, and the world, in a truly sustainable way will not generate high profits for agribusiness and their government friends. Research into organic farming and permaculture, and ‘evolutionary plant breeding’ which seeks to create high-yielding, genetically-diverse populations of crops that are adapted to low input growing conditions – fight for crumbs from a banqueting table that is stuffed with scientists in the pay of agribusiness. This alternative research will continue to be done privately by disaffected farmers, small holders, gardeners and plant breeders who reject the centralized, biotech solution to the world’s problems, and have not been taken in by agribusiness and its scientific window dressers.
Professor Pickett claims that Rothamstead has hosted "the longest-running environmental experiment in the world". I think this comment demonstrates the super-confidence of the scientists that run this and many other institutions. Rothamsted's research clearly laid the foundations for the chemical evolution in farming in the UK in the last century, and this led to a massive increase in the yield of crops – but we are now having to pick up the environmental pieces of this unsustainable episode in human history. The origins and spread of farming systems in general –not Rothamsted’s experiments – is the longest-running environmental experiment in the world. And the results of this 10,000 year experiment are now becoming very clear: if we don’t find a more genuinely sustainable way of feeding our nations quickly we are doomed on a global scale. We must abandon our intensive, nitrate dependent, Green Revolution/GM approach to farming and embrace food producing systems that encourage diversity and produce reasonable, and reliable, quantities of healthy food in a sustainable way. Organic farming may not feed the world overnight, but it could easily feed the UK within a generation if the massive funding currently funneled into biotechnology and GM research was instead used to encourage a sustainable farming revolution, and research into alternative farming and plant breeding approaches.
I am not anti-science or anti-research, but I am against the arrogance of plant breeders who claim that their work is all about ending starvation and malnutrition - when it is clearly linked to the money-making goals of their corporate sponsors. Many of them are so completely imbedded in the corporate-scientific-government world that they can no longer distinguish between what is good for society and what is good for agribusiness.
So, Professor Pickett, I don’t think you are not going to ‘green’ modern cereal farming by simply adding a new gene to a genetically-uniform, dwarf wheat variety so that it is less susceptible to aphids. Your approach may work within the narrow market-driven parameters of UK in 2012, but it is completely inappropriate in the developing world which can’t afford the other chemicals your new wheat depends on – except, of course, where your agribusiness allies have replaced traditional farming systems with our western agribusiness model. The research you are doing is window dressing designed to convince the public that GM is a benign, and essential technology that we should all embrace if we cared about feeding the world and saving the planet. You are trying to introduce what you hope is a small step forward in a highly unsustainable system that is goose-stepping over societies and ecosystems around the world in response to corporate greed.
So please don't claim that you have created your GM wheat to 'save the world'. I don't believe it.