London (17.6.12) – In month of May GM was all over the UK media.

Never before has the country witnessed such a flurry of GM activity and never before has so much of it been sympathetic. The number of column-inches devoted to the events in and around Harpenden, a pleasant town some twenty miles north of the centre of London and home of Rothamsted Research, was quite extraordinary.

The focus of all this activity was the annoucement that GM-wheat trials were to take place at Rothamsted (1) and the subsequent reaction of those who objected, grouped under a new name “Take Back the Flour”, who announced their intention of “decontaminating” (2) the site, a euphamism for violent destruction by vandalism. That presented the scientists with a security problem: how best to defend their trial. Although the trial plots were surrounded by a high fence, they could not afford an army of defenders, on duty round the clock until the trial was concluded; anything less might not be effective. They decided to go public and issue an appeal (3) to the protestors in the form of a letter (4) and a video (3). (Sense about Science also ran a petition which collected more than 6,000 signatures [5]) The response did not appear to be too hopeful: "We are really pleased they want to engage in a discussion. But we know that talking to them is not going to change their minds. They've declared their position because they have already put the plants in the ground."

There was a break-in on the morning of May 20th: a man was charged with criminal damage and bailed to appear before magistrates on July 13th. Rothamsted commented that “The intruder, described as an ‘Old Etonian’ and an ‘organic’ farmer (6), caused significant, random property damage, but failed to disrupt the experiment in this attack” (2). Later there was a cyber attack which took down the Rothamsted website for a few hours; the BBC (7) rather curiously reported the incident under “science” not “crime”, curious because the intruder appears to have contributed nothing to the advancement or understanding of science but has added his mite to the annals of crime. Most of the national newspapers and broadcasting organisations carried the story; none expressed much sympathy for the accused.

That takes us to the major event, the demonstration planned at Rothamsted by Take Back the Flour for May 27th; this was to be the day of the decontamination. The protestors duly turned up, about 200 thought the BBC (8) but not thousands in number (including, it was reported, many children), on a warm and sunny Sunday afternoon. The anti-protestors were also there, apparently in smaller numbers; again the BBC estimated only twelve: “Neither side exactly achieved mass-mobilisation”.

The demonstrators failed in their decontamination: the police stood in their way (9). "In the past, kids, grannies, and everyone in between has decontaminated GM trial sites together," Take the Flour Back's Kate Bell said. "Here at the beginning of a new resistance to this obsolete technology, we see GM hidden behind a fortress.” One woman protestor had adorned herself with the word "biodiversity" in body paint. A young man with a banner started up a siren but a police officer pointed out that this would alarm the horses so he agreed not to use it. It was that kind of event - no scuffles, no violence. And so, as the BBC correspondent noted, the GM trial survived. The security plan triumphed. At least for that day. The challenge will be to maintain this level of protection in the weeks and months ahead. Indeed it will.

The event was, of course, national, local and even international news. As well as the BBC, both ITV (10) and Sky News (11) carried reports as did all the quality national papers in the daily or Sunday editions (12 – 17), some of the tabloids (18, 19), one or two regional titles (20), a couple of the local newspapers (21, 22) and a number of specialist weeklies (23, 24). Interestingly, especially in view of earlier attitudes of some of the media, the reporting was very balanced: of these 16 reports only three were perhaps less than neutral, two against the demonstrators with one showing on balance some sympathy for their views and motivation.

The editorials and op-eds. were another matter. We logged 22 of them between May 21st and June 1st (and there were probably some we missed), 16 of them in the national and major regional press and some specialist publications (25 – 46). Their tones are clear from their headlines: “Witless GM vandalism”, “GM vandals are shutting down scientific debate”, “Righteous activists are a threat to us all”, The GM scientists' risky strategy that won public support”, “Opponents of this crop trial are blind to the food crisis”, “This experiment in food technology has to continue”, “Scientists insist GM wheat is safe as protesters vow to tear up crop” , “We mustn’t let GM vandals get away with it “ and “Threats to destroy GM crops amount to vandalism in the service of superstition”. What is interesting that of those 22 editorials, 18 were distinctly favourable to GM with four against, all from sources traditionally opposed or doubtful. (Indeed, the only unfavourable article in the national dailies was one by Jenny Jones of the small UK Green Party who said she would turn up at the demonstraion, to be accused of backing the "decontamination" of GM research crops at Rothamsted” (27) and was offered a right of reply (28) in which she rehearsed some of the old arguments.)

How different all this was from the heady days of ten years ago when the headlines were almost uniformly anti-GM: “The Prime Monster” (when Tony Blair dared to say a good word about GM) (Daily Mirror [16.02.99]), “The mad forces of genetic darkness” (Sunday Times [21.02.99]), “Can ‘Frankenstein’ foods harm your unborn baby?” (Daily Mail [30.01.99]), “Charles: my fears over the safety of GM foods” (Daily Mail [1.06.99]), “Scientists warn of GM crops link to meningitis” (Daily Mail [16.04.99]) and “Human genes in GM food” (The Express [15.02.99]). Perhaps The Guardian was right to suggest that the GM debate is growing up (36).

Two weeks later and it is still rumbling on – and not only in the UK. Writing in the Toronto Globe and Mail, Doug Sanders noted that “Sunday’s rural standoff could have been a scene from those days (of the long-dormant anti-biotechnology movement, a force that ripped across Europe and North America a decade ago, driven by consumer alarm at stories about tomatoes containing salmon genes and other such horrors), when cries of “Frankenfoods” led to mass protests against genetic engineering and provoked the European Union to impose a ban on GM crops and a moratorium on imports. But it wasn’t. In the past decade, almost everything in the world of food and crop science has changed. Genetically modified food has gone from dark corporate plot to progressive rallying cry, and those Harpenden protesters were shocked to find that they are no longer a popular cause (47). Mark Lynas, “a former GM crop vandal” as he desribes himself, vouched for the fact that Take the Flour Back is entirely misguided. Its opposition to biotechnology is ideological: no amount of scientific evidence can shake its near-religious conviction that anything GM must be intrinsically evil (48). As he wrote: he should know; he was himself apparently once like that.

The Guardian in their editorial of June 1st (49) observed that “Certainly, the nature of the debate has changed. The context is different, the arguments more nuanced and the scientists much, much smarter. The GM wheat trial could hardly be more beguiling: the crop had been modified to release an alarm pheromone, an odour undetectable to humans that deterred aphids, reducing the need for pesticides. No Frankenfoods here….. In another intelligent move, it was all publicised back in March by the scientists, who appealed to protesters to engage in the arguments (which they do, up to a point, on the Guardian website). GM crops have been commonplace in many parts of the world for more than a decade. On a broader front, the rise of religious fundamentalism has boosted the status of science. And last year food prices spiked, causing a faint echo in Europe of the recurring food security crises in the global south.”
And the Director of Rothamsted Research offered his thanks “for the amazing, spontaneous outpouring of support for safeguarding their research on aphid repellent wheat. As you all know, this project represented years of painstaking discovery research and the careers of a number of dedicated scientists. The idea that a self-appointed group would decide to destroy this was unconscionable and the researchers felt that they had to reach out to reasonable people for support. No-one expected such enthusiastic and heartfelt support, but it had a number of very positive effects” (50).

So began the summer in the peaceful land of Hertfordshire; how might it continue?

Sources

1. David Shukman (6.4.12). Anti-insect wheat trials launched. BBC News (http://bbc.in/GXnU8M)

2. Paul Rincon (21.5.12). GM wheat trial at Rothamsted vandalised. BBC News(http://bbc.in/KKDd1I)

3. Ian Sample (1.5.12). Anti-GM activists urged not to trash wheat field. The Guardian; (http://bit.ly/IFAMOU)

4. J.A Pickett et al. (27.4.12). Dear Take the Flour Back. Rothamsted Research (http://bit.ly/Iycnhc)

5. Petition and comments. Sense about Science (no date) (http://bit.ly/JBSpQE)

6. Nick Collins (21.5.12). Old Etonian charged over GM trial break-in. Daily Telegraph (http://bit.ly/KtlYzQ)

7. GM crop institute's website targeted. BBC News (28.5.12) (http://bbc.in/KWAhTm)

8. David Shukman (27.5.12). GM trial survives - but 'war' goes on. BBC News (http://bbc.in/LunLpJ)

9. Anti-GM wheat protest halted by police. BBC News (27.5.12) (http://bbc.in/KEqBLK)

10. Crop circus at Hertfordshire farm. ITV News (27.5.12) (http://itv.co/Lu8IfG)

11. Lisa Dowd (27.5.12). Flour power: protest against GM wheat crop. Sky News (http://bit.ly/KuD2bK)

12. Chris Cook (27.5.12). Police foil move to destroy modified wheat. Financial Times (http://on.ft.com/MnuV34)

13. Shiv Malik (27.5.12). Anti-GM protesters kept from tearing up wheat crop by police. The Guardian (http://bit.ly/MPKmQh)

14. Leo Hickman (22.5.12). GM crops: protesters go back to the battlefields. The Guardian (http://bit.ly/KbrIS2)

15. Steve Connor. Heavy police presence thwarts anti-GM protest. The Independent (http://ind.pn/JFymyV)

16. Tom Whipple (27.5.12). Protesters gather at field in threat to tear up GM-modified wheat crop. The Times (http://thetim.es/KUYU2L)

17. Scientists insist GM wheat is safe as protesters vow to tear up crop. Sunday Telegraph; (27.5.12) (http://bit.ly/KGhv0X)

18. Kate Cunningham (28.5.12). Police repel anti-GM protest. Daily Express (http://bit.ly/KlIv27http://bit.ly/KlIv27)

19. Luke Salkeid (27.5.12). Police block hundreds of protesters during demo at site growing experimental GM wheat crop. Daily Mail (http://bit.ly/MsrPXC)

20. Police guard GM wheat field as protesters threaten action. Western Morning News (28.5.2012) (http://bit.ly/MRn0gZ)

21. Nathalie Dearman (27.5.12). Rothamsted update: Protest remains peaceful. Herts Advertiser (http://bit.ly/LriaE8)

22. Zoe Forsey (27.5.12). Hundreds of protesters demonstrate against GM trials at Rothamsted Research. St. Albans Review (http://bit.ly/K4PG4W)

23. Philip Case (28.5.12). VIDEO: Anti-GM wheat protest thwarted by police. Farmers Weekly (http://bit.ly/L1Folj)

24. Leigh Phillips (28.5.12). Green groups and scientists in battle amid sun, cheese and folk music. Nature News Blog (http://bit.ly/KWF7vT)

25. Witless GM vandalism. Daily Telegraph (21.5.12) (http://bit.ly/KK3ehD)

26. John Pickett (22.5.12). GM vandals are shutting down scientific debate. Daily Telegraph (http://bit.ly/MCZe6Y)

27. Tom Chivers (24.5.12). Don't vote Green until they drop the anti-science zealotry. Daily Telegraph (http://bit.ly/KhM0cp)

28. Tom Chivers (25.5.12). Guest post: The Green Party's Jenny Jones respond. Daily Telegraph (http://bit.ly/MyRgJn)

29. Jonathon Matthews (12.5.12). The inside story on the GM wheat trial debate. The Ecologist (http://bit.ly/KRCYFK)

30. Farm leader slams ‘Nazi’ crop trashers. Farmers Weekly (21.5.2012) (http://bit.ly/K4dmmh)

31. Michael Skapinker (30.5.12). Righteous activists are a threat to us all. Financial Times (http://on.ft.com/MYHDaY)

32. Editorial. GM foods: science and society. The Guardian (1.6.12) (http://bit.ly/L4byag)

33. Sunny Hundal (25.5.12). Though Greens sometimes get their science wrong, they're better than most. The Guardian (http://bit.ly/MC9N7F)

34. Jon Butterworth (26.5.12). Am I a geek? Do I fetishise evidence? Will I ever vote Green again? Have I read the right books? The Guardian (http://bit.ly/LlsFbW)

35. Sample, Ian (27.5.12). The GM scientists' risky strategy that won public support. The Guardian (http://bit.ly/KwAzOq)

36. James Randerson (30.5.12). The GM debate is growing up: Scientists on YouTube, Frankenfood out of the headlines: Rothamsted looks like a turning point. The Guardian (http://bit.ly/KU8h16)

37. Jones, Jenny (30.5.12). Why the GM wheat trials at Rothamsted give me pause for thought. Huffington Post (http://huff.to/LAelh9)

38. Michael McCarthy (27.5.12). Feeding a hungry world – or meddling with laws of nature? The Independent (http://ind.pn/JvZYGz)

39. Steve Connor (27.5.12). Opponents of this crop trial are blind to the food crisis. The Independent on Sunday (http://ind.pn/KwagrQ)

40. Michael Brooks (28.5.12). Lessons from Rothamsted: Nine takeaways from yesterday's protest for the GM scientists and their supporters. New Statesman (http://bit.ly/Jp9utN)

41. Editorial: This experiment in food technology has to continue. The Observer (27.5.12) (http://bit.ly/KDVz6w)

42. Andrew Arbuckle (29.5.12). World needs GM crops argues Prof Sir John Beddington. The Scotsman (http://bit.ly/LDpJn8)

43. Scientists insist GM wheat is safe as protesters vow to tear up crop. Scientists have reacted with scorn as protesters gather near a scientific research centre where a genetically modified wheat crop is being grown. Sunday Telegraph (27.5.12) (http://bit.ly/KGhv0X)

44. Nick Cohen (27.5.12). Take the mickey back. The Spectator (http://bit.ly/MwFdKh)

45. Colin Blakemore (23.5.12). We mustn’t let GM vandals get away with it. The Times (http://thetim.es/JEOS5U)

46. Editorial. Against the grain; Threats to destroy GM crops amount to vandalism in the service of superstition. The Times (28.5.12) (http://thetim.es/JGHFmS)

47. Doug Saunders (2.6.12). 'Frankenfoods' have moved on. When will opponents? Globe and Mail (http://bit.ly/N6G3To)

48. Mark Lynas (3.6.12). True greens know GM is the answer. Sunday Times (http://thetim.es/LZPT3R)

49. GM foods: science and society. The Guardian (1.6.12) (http://bit.ly/L4byag)

50. Moloney , Maurice (8.6.12). A message of thanks from Rothamstead Research. Butterflies and Wheels (http://bit.ly/KqNQao)


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  Summer begins in Hertfordshire: the Rothamsted affair