NOTE: For more about the protest on 27 May:

The inside story on the GM wheat trial debate

Jonathan Matthews, The Ecologist, 25 May 2012

*Despite intense media coverage and protests over the GM wheat trial at Rothamsted Jonathan Matthews asks whether we are being given the full facts

If the organisers of this weekend's Take the Flour Back protest against the genetically modified wheat trial at Rothamsted in Hertfordshire were hoping for a bit of publicity ahead of the event, they won't have been disappointed.

The protesters threat to 'decontaminate' the trial, if they got the chance, followed by an organic farmer's solo effort to cut off the heads of some of the GM wheat plants last weekend, has triggered a wave of media hysteria.

'People will starve to death because of anti-GM zealotry,' screamed a headline in the Daily Telegraph, while a piece in The Times called on the Government to stand up to 'anarchy and vandalism' and those whose only mandate is 'hatred of science.'

Professor Maurice Moloney the director of Rothamsted Research, who are running the trial told The Observer he feared we could be entering a new dark age, while the NFU’s president, Peter Kendall, used a speech to MPs at the House of Commons to liken GM activists to Nazis: 'This is criminal, and must be dealt with as such. It's worse than that. It is the wilful imposition of ignorance, directly comparable to Nazi book-burning in the 1930s.'

This storm of condemnation has been carefully crafted. As a reporter for Farmers Weekly noted, Kendall's 'Nazi' attack was no off-the-cuff remark during a heated speech but was carefully pre-planned so much so that the NFU press-released it in advance. And when the head of Rothamsted’s GM wheat team, Prof. John Pickett, appeared in a Newsnight debate, he was flanked by Tracey Brown, the media-savvy head of the lobby group Sense About Science which has been at the heart of the PR campaign.

It is Sense About Science who kicked off the high profile 'Don't Destroy Research' campaign with a highly emotional appeal from the Rothamsted researchers on YouTube linked to an online petition calling on the protesters not to damage the trial. The campaign claimed the moral high ground, emphasizing that the trial involved public science without any commercial connections and that the GM wheat would not be patented.

Sense About Science’s campaign has generated not just hundreds of column inches in the mainstream media but significant social media interest as well, including celebrity support from Stephen Fry who tweeted, 'The latest assault on what remains of Castle Enlightenment: please support Sense About Science.'

But before getting carried away by lurid images of Castle Enlightenment under siege from bomb and razor wielding Nazis hell bent on mass starvation, it’s worth taking a glance below the surface of the 'Don't Destroy Research' campaign and its claims to the moral high ground.

The Managing Director of Sense About Science is part of the notorious LM (Living Marxism) network who eulogise technologies like genetic engineering and reproductive cloning and are extremely hostile to environmentalists whom they brand as Nazis. Internal memos in the Tobacco Documents Library also show that prior to Sense About Science, Tracey Brown approached BAT Industries (British American Tobacco) offering to help them undermine the litigation launched against tobacco companies by people harmed by smoking. No industry has done more than Big Tobacco to manipulate, halt, undermine, and otherwise discredit scientific research.

The head of Rothamsted’s GM wheat team also has a dubious record when it comes to defending research. Prof. Pickett was a key player in the campaign to stop the publication of Arpad Pusztai's research on GM potatoes.

There's nothing wrong, of course, about arguing over the merits of a piece of research – that’s what science is all about. But when Pickett claimed in a national newspaper that Pusztai's research shouldn't be published by The Lancet because it had failed peer review that was simply untrue. A majority of the peer reviewers supported publication. The other reasons Pickett gave for claiming the research was unpublishable can also be shown to be false.

It is also hard to square the claims of the GM wheat being free of patents and commercial interests with what Prof. Pickett told Farmers Weekly about how companies were 'very interested' and were 'keeping a watching brief' and that' it could be that we generate very good intellectual property for commercial development in the interests of the UK and European agriculture and business.'

During the Newsnight debate, Prof. Pickett claimed the wheat trial had a public mandate because of its approval by the public funding body for the biological sciences, the BBSRC, which has backed the trial to the tune of one million pounds. But the BBSRC has a long history of alignment with industry, with a director of the GM giant Syngenta sitting on their council along with a consultant for Dow Agro Science.

Maurice Moloney's GMO Porsche

And this industry alignment is prefectly illustrated by Rothamsted itself, which partners up with corporations like Bayer, Syngenta and Dupont and has an Institute Director who not only drives a Porsche with a GMO number plate but has a c.v. to match. It is Maurice Moloney’s GM research that lies behind Monsanto’s GM oilseed rape. He is the inventor of more than 300 patents and prior to Rothamsted, he also successfully launched his own GM company in Canada – SemBioSys Genetics Inc., in which Dow Agro Science were investors. This was flagged up by the BBSRC when they appointed Moloney in a press release praising his 'effective translation of research into successful business activity.'

But Moloney's company seems to be going belly up, having recently sought voluntary delisting from the Toronto Stock Exchange. And if the BBSRC were hoping Moloney would bring his SemBioSys touch to British agriculture, this could indeed happen if Rothamsted manages to contaminate the UK's wheat supply. Rothamsted say this won't happen because wheat is self pollinating and the pollen is short lived. But the same is predominantly true of rice and that didn’t stop US rice becoming extensively GM contaminated, triggering a massive market loss, as a result of GM rice trials.

And it's not just GM critics who are raising concerns about the Rothamsted trial. Guy Smith, himself a former GM trial farmer as well as a long-time member of the biotech industry lobby group CropGen, recently declared that the wheat trial is not just a massive waste of public money but little short of insane: 'Take the latest Rothamsted work looking at GM insect-resistant wheat... the main question I have is why are we spending a large chunk of our finite R&D budget on a crop no one wants to buy? Even in the USA, GM wheat has stalled because of consumer resistance. Can anyone think of another example of money being spent on the development of a crop that has no market prospects? What's next, research on apples that taste of herring?... It is as if the R&D committee got drunk before the meeting.'

As a wheat grower Smith is, of course, part of the very constituency whose interests Rothamsted claim to be serving. But with Moloney in charge it is very clear whose interests they are most likely to serve. The agricultural writer Graham Harvey sees the Porshe driving GMO man as, 'in the business of privatising nature and bringing the world's food supply under the control of large corporations. The parallels with the global banking system with its reckless trading of complex derivatives is alarming”¦ we're baffled that such a narrow technical specialist should have been put in charge of research into securing our food supply.'

Under Moloney’s leadership, says Harvey, the Rothamsted scientists seem content to gamble our food security on an unproven and potentially unstable technology. For Harvey, the current tide of indignation over the Take the Flour Back protest is in reality part of a cynical agribusiness campaign to get this unnecessary technology accepted in Britain.

Jonathan Matthews is the founder and director of GMWatch –