Last week, research scientists sent an open letter to a group of activists called “Take the Flour Back” imploring them not to damage and destroy a field in Hertfordshire during a day of “planned action” at the end of May. The field is part of Rothamsted Research’s study into a genetically modified wheat which, it is hoped, will be highly resistant to aphids. A crop, which if successful, could eradicate the need for pesticide use.
Which is a good thing right? Well clearly not according to some.
We’ve been tinkering with the science of genetics for thousands of years, it’s almost as old as agriculture itself. Wheat, the most widely grown crop on the planet, is already a hybrid of many different species. Commercially grown modern wheat, untended, wouldn’t even survive in the wild; human beings have changed it beyond what would ever appear naturally. The grains are a lot bigger than undomesticated varieties and it has a real issue with seed dispersal, an impotence which has been cultivated through years of selective breeding: so it’s easier and more worthwhile to harvest. We’ve also bred in “dwarfing” which means the stalk is shorter, so the energy of the plant can be more usefully diverted to the production of seed. Trying to grow it in the wild would be the agricultural equivalent of releasing a sausage dog into the wilderness and expecting it to survive. All the aspects that make the dog desirable to us – in this case resembling a tiny-legged-sausage-with-a-face, would be exactly the things that would give it no chance. It is as far from a wolf as it’s possible to be – because that’s how we want it. But to most of us it’s not a dangerous abomination, it’s just a sausage dog.
So what has inspired such promises of violence towards a field of GM wheat? After all, since the late 90‘s when the widespread commercial use of GM crops started in the US, there has never been a single proven case of anyone ever having suffered ill effects through their consumption. All those millions and millions of people and nobody’s grown another head or a third armpit. Presumably because extensive trials, like the one under threat in Hertfordshire, are carried out to ensure the product is safe. GM Crops undergo a far more rigorous process of regulation than their non-GM equivalents and have since the very beginning.
“Take the flour back”, have suggested the threat of contamination, but that doesn’t really ring true. The safety measures in place for this particular trial are impressive to say the least: the crop will be surrounded by inert fields far beyond the dispersal range of the wheat’s pollen, making the threat of contamination as effectively close to zero as it is possible to get.
It’s difficult to understand the mindset of a group, whose concerns regarding GM include the fact that not enough research is being done, destroying that very same research. Protesters often cite the dangers of corporate oligarchy – control and profit, as a reason against GM crops, and whilst this is a very valid reason for scrutiny and where my own concerns normally lay, it doesn’t apply here either: the end-product, if successful, will not become a patented biocrop only available to the highest bidder. Despite all the doom-mongering, Rothamsted Research is not a malevolent multinational, hushing up mutants in it’s basement, it’s a group of well respected scientists whose aim is to improve on what we have and share it with the world. Their ultimate aim is a crop whose yield, resistance to drought, nutritional value, shelf-life and cost to grow could help end starvation in the Third World.
When I hear people say that we don’t know the results of long term use, that we’ve only been using GM crops for 20 years, I think to myself – that is considerably longer than millions of Africans are currently living. With around 15 million children dying of hunger every year, destroying this important work is destroying a manifesto whose ideals would wipe out famine.
In keeping with the subject of mutation, the word “activist” is one whose meaning has perhaps mutated as much as the crops some seek to destroy. In this instance though it is a moniker that seems destined to ring true. Rather than the admirable mission of concerned citizens, activist is now the “go-to” word to describe any campaigners associated with some degree of violence or destruction. I’ve felt for as long as I can remember that this is exactly the wrong thing, as a protester, to do. As soon as you become a crusader with the mindset of a terrorist, then you sacrifice, not your ability to be noticed, but your ability to be taken seriously, it dilutes the purity of your message. The role of a protester is to engage sympathy through peaceful actions, to shine a light on inequalities or dangers and thereby expand your audience. Once this has been achieved you voice valid points to that audience - be they the community, the government or the world.
You raise your voice, not your fist.