This is a slightly edited version of a response sent by Jonathan Matthews of GM Watch to BBC Radio 4's Farming Today programme.
Dear Farming Today
I was very concerned by your story about the Derbyshire farmer who has apparently dropped out of a GM crop trial because of "threats".
Obviously, if someone threatened him that's entirely reprehensible and should be a matter for the police. But from your report it wasn't apparent whether the police were even involved, and what had actually happened seemed to be completely vague, despite which your report went on to detail the condemnations issued by a number of scientists and to discuss whether this made it more likely grid references would be withheld for GM crop trial locations in future.
Surely what we need to do first is actually get at the facts. I say that because there is evidence of a recurrent public relations strategy adopted by some corporations and their PR people and supporters in the scientific community, to demonise those opposed to GM crops as a means of undermining public sympathy and inhibiting protest.
That may sound far fetched but speak to the Guardian columnist George Monbiot about what he discovered when he looked into a similar claim involving a farmer in East Hoathly, East Sussex. As you'll see from his article, not only did the claims of intimidation not stack up, but there was much to suggest that the biotech industry was actually orchestrating them. (Manipulating the Facts in the GM Debate, The Guardian, April 5 2001) http://www.commondreams.org/views01/0405-08.htm
In that case it was possible to check out what was being claimed because the farmer's identity was known and there were public statements by the farmer as to what had occurred. In the case of the Derbyshire farmer you're faced with a more difficult challenge because of the lack of information. That vagueness in itself, though, should trigger journalistic caution.
The Guardian piece is not the only evidence that we need to tread warily. A few years back I came across the website of The Center For Food and Agricultural Research. The website made repeated links between groups critical of GM crops and violence and it contained the following:
"Greenpeace UK director Lord Peter Melchett pulled out and trampled GM crops on several British trial farm sites where Greenpeace activists commandeered the farmers tractors, crashed through fences and chased his family when they tried to stop them."
This is, of course, a total fiction and as I found out when I investigated further it wasn't all that was fictional about this site. The website gave no address or location for the Center For Food and Agricultural Research, nor were there any named staff or contact details. But its domain registration showed the site had been registered by an employee of an Internet PR firm working for Monsanto.
This was just one example of a whole range of underhand PR attacks which our research showed Monsanto was involved in, as was eventually reported on by the BBC, New Scientist and papers on both sides of the Atlantic.
It's also worth talking to Guy Cook, Professor in Language and Education at the Open University (OU) and author of Genetically Modified Language, a book which critically analyses the war of words over GM crops. Cook shows how GM supporting scientists often fail to examine critically portrayals of GM opponents, happily assuming the worst about them in a completely unscientific fashion.
Some scientists go further. Cook shows, for example, how Lord May used a presidential address to the Royal Society to link opponents of GM by association with anti-Western fanatics, like the Taliban, who are prepared to achieve their ends through violence and terror.
This should not in any way reduce our concern for the Derbyshire farmer, if he was intimidated. That, as I said, should be a matter for the police. But there is a need for such vague allegations, particularly where they may be being circulated by interested parties, to be investigated before we start condemning environmental groups and talking about whether this means GM trials need to be run at secret locations.