The Rothamsted Wheat Trial (should Greens trash it?)

Genetically modified food is one of those subjects that’s not known for reasoned debate. The public and anti-campaigners are often spooked by the Frankenstein weirdness of splicing genes without really understanding the science. Scientists and proponents are often convinced of the science while hastily dismissing wider social, economic and environmental considerations.

As policy officer for the London region and author of our recent London elections manifesto it’s not a topic that I often cross paths with.

I’ve a personal interest as I spoke against GM at one of the national debate events organised in 2003. I was an undergraduate student at the time, and spoke at my university – Reading – against some eminent scientists. I’m pretty sure 99% of the science I drew on in my argument was probably junk. I remain persuaded by many of the wider arguments I deployed, but like too many campaigners I cobbled together a bunk of “science” I didn’t really understand to try and back up my point. I’m embarrassed thinking what the audience must have made of me!

The Rothamsted Wheat Trial has stirred my memory of this issue, as a group of anti-GM activists called Take the Flour Back are planning to trash (or “decontaminate”) this scientific research project.

It has also given me another personal interest, because Jenny Jones is going to join them. I greatly admire Jenny and have worked with her for years in the Green Party, both in my job and as an activist. She has taken lots of flak on Twitter from scientists and scientifically-minded people for joining in direct action to damage a scientific experiment.

So what should I think? This is my take as somebody who is very far from being an expert on the issue, in the hope that it might help fellow Greens in forming an opinion.

The experiment

What do I, somebody who never advanced past GCSE biology (with some A-Level maths and physics), know about GM research projects? Thankfully Sense About Science have done a great job in pulling together some analysis of the science, albeit with quite an obvious agenda.

The campaign group’s main worry appears to be that the plants will contaminate nearby fields. Their web site claims that “Wheat is wind-pollinated. In Canada similar experiments have leaked into the food-chain costing farmers millions in lost exports.”

But Sense About Science got the scientists involved to answer lots of questions on this issue. The campaigners’ claim appears to be junk, though it’s interesting to note that the scientists don’t say they can guarantee no seeds will be carried away by birds, nor that no wheat at all will cross-pollinate (they leave open a 1% chance, which in a field of wheat may not be negligible). So a claim by one scientists on today’s lunchtime news that there is “zero chance” of contamination is clearly wrong.

[Update: a colleague also sent me this page on an EU-funded public information web site, which suggests that - depending on the wheat's genotype and the local climate - the chance of cross-pollination could be anywhere between 1-9.7%, suggesting some of the scientists are misleading the public when they so categorically deny the chance of contamination.]

Another point is that the campaigners would presumably struggle to contain any risk of contamination from a bunch of untrained activists turning up to trash the crop, potentially carrying seeds and other plant material out from the trial area.

Green Party policy

Far from being anti-science, as some seem to think, the Green Party’s policy on science has really been quite strong for a number of years. Junk like homeopathy was excised a number of years ago, while in areas like climate change and drugs we have long been the only party to take an evidence-based approach.

On GM the policy is fairly sound. It says:

  • We accept that certain uses of genetic engineering may be benign, but are concerned about the level of research to quantify risks and about the level of corporate control over farmers and health services which this research generally feeds into;
  • We’re in favour of research going ahead;
  • The precautionary principle should be applied – basically that in the absence of consensus the burden of proof for showing it won’t be harmful falls on the researchers; without sufficient proof, nothing goes ahead because the suspected risk outweighs the suspected benefit;
  • Some points on animal welfare not relevant to wheat trials.

So the Green Party should be supporting this research project so long as the researchers can prove that the possible harms have been properly controlled.

The wider issues

Sense About Science also asked the scientists to respond to people’s wider concerns about commercialisation. The scientists also raised this at the end of the page about cross-pollination. Here, to my mind, the weaker arguments start to creep in. For example,

Question: What is the widest held misconception about GM research?

Answer: That it’s somehow all controlled by big multinational companies. Most GM research is done in universities or by independent institutes”

The thing is, while it’s important to defend the scientific method as a means of testing and falsifying hypotheses, or as a way of rigorously working through research programmes, or impartially developing a current scientific paradigm (take your pick), the scientists in the Q&A seem to take a wilfully naive view of commercial interests. Going back to my debate at Reading, their department was sponsored by Syngenta, as was Cambridge in the UK and Berkeley in the USA. Many academic scientists have patents themselves, have spun out their own companies and work closely with large agricorp like Monsanto and Syngenta.

Too often these links seem to close some scientists’ minds to the possibility that these companies might be psychopathic in their pathology, as Joel Bakan has convincingly argued (read the book). Research may not be controlled by multinational corporations, but it is definitely influenced in a way familiar to philosophers and sociologists of science who have long been aware of the bias and influence that can creep into the very human world of scientific research.

Or take this answer:

Question: Presumably GM crops will become commercially owned and create shareholder profits. What about the ethics of patenting life?

Answer: The seeds business is commercial; seed companies that are not go out of business. The patents apply not to “life” but to genes that have been discovered or changed to do something useful, or at least, something that farmers find helpful. Such genes include those for insect resistance, drought tolerance and those that facilitate weed control by herbicides.

Here the scientist totally falls to engage with the question, passing no comment on the ethics at all.

There is huge opposition to agricorp influence, particularly in the developing world (here’s one example) where patents and monocultures and driving poverty, inequality and food insecurity.

When I spoke at the national debate this was my main focus – until biopatents are made invalid by the World Intellectual Property Organisation and all signatory nations (which is Green Party policy); until farmers and governments are able to control their own agriculture free of multinational corporations; until the many other arms of corporate control are shackled, freeing peasant farmers and national governments to control their own policy agenda; and until research is primarily conducted in universities and research institutes free of any commercial influence; I will oppose the commercial applications of GM research.

Scientists can’t dodge these issues, and while scientific research is in no way to blame it would be better to see advocates of GM research engage with these concerns. It’s great that Sense About Science did, but I couldn’t help feeling disappointed with the scientists’ responses.

Summing up

It’s a matter of personal conscience whether it is morally right to engage in direct action to damage the research project. I’ve engaged in plenty of direct action myself and have no problem with people committing criminal damage so long as it is non-violent, they are prepared to face the legal consequences and have a genuine political or ethical reason for doing so.

Personally, subject to the contamination issues being cleared up I don’t think the action is justified. I’m not 100% convinced by the scientists’ responses to the contamination concerns, but it seems to me that if we cannot allow this research to go ahead then we really are adopting an anti-science position.

I remain a supporter of the European ban on the sale of GM foods for the reasons I gave above, but I am also a supporter of scientific research.

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6 thoughts on “The Rothamsted Wheat Trial (should Greens trash it?)

  1. penny kemp says:

    Why can’t the trial take place under cover where any contamination issues could be contained.

  2. A very thoughtful piece. Given your take on IP, you might be interested in an open letter me and my partner wrote to Taketheflourback. I think engaging with the green party, if there’s some chance of developing a better policy on all this, is a better response than deciding not to vote for them again.

  3. [...] the days since I wrote my first blog post on the Rothamsted GM wheat controversy I’ve spent more time reading up on GM than in the past [...]

  4. I do appreciate your admission that sometimes the opponents here are relying on junk. It’s important awareness (but of course not a surprise to those of us who understand the issues).

    On the wheat outcrossing; I don’t have time to look at the source for that, but there are a bunch of things to consider. What is that distance? What is the flowering time of adjacent wheat? Even if it did land, is it compatible enough to matter and actually pollenate? If these have already been counted in the expectations of the Rothamsted team (and I imagine they have been) the low end seems reasonable to me.

    One of the stranger claims in this debate was that it was spring and not the more common winter wheat. Well, in this case, that’s actually a feature. If most of the adjacent farmers are using another strain that flowers at a different time, it’s even less likely there are consequences.

    I have a family event I have to attend today but will try to look up the source info later to see what that really meant.

  5. I’m back. I can’t find the paper that had the 9.7%, it’s possible it’s old and I just don’t have access to it. But none of the other sources I see ever have anything that high. And as I said, it still matters how far, flowering time, etc, that was and I just can’t tell.

    But a more recent paper sees much less: http://www.springerlink.com/content/u460008430817610/ And the distances described here are well under the containment area of Rothamsted. And other work I saw showed that even if there was pollination, hybrids were very unlikely.

  6. [...] the days since I wrote my first blog post on the Rothamsted GM wheat controversy I’ve spent more time reading up on GM than in the past [...]

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