1. On patents: cheers for the link, you’ve seen that me and Sue think much the same thing. As it says there, Prof Pickett has specifically said the seed “will not be patented and it will not be owned by any private companies”.

    Saying that “companies are very interested and they are keeping a watching brief as they always do in all research” doesn’t contradict that: companies are also always interested in other publicly produced products, whether open source software, government data etc.

    Personally, I’d very much like to see Rothamsted held to that, and to further develop a specific policy on ‘open source’ seed production. But they have, at least, been completely explicit about not patenting. Also, though: does patent law warrant the direct action? If patent law is the problem, why not target patent lawyer firms? The crop is a convenient but irrelevant symbol.

    ‘Silver bullet’: some might be making that argument, but not Rothamsted: “whether this is a problem of politics, production or distribution is a complex issue, but as scientists we must responsibly explore all technologies at our disposal to help counteract this ‘perfect storm’.” Again, I’m going to take what they say on good faith – that section in the Q&A dovetails well with precisely the kind of thing the IAASTD report talks about. I fully agree with the IAASTD’s take on biotech (here’s the quote and link at my blog):

    “A problem-oriented approach to biotechnology research and development (R&D) would focus investment on local priorities identified through participatory and transparent processes, and favor multifunctional solutions to local problems. These processes require new kinds of support for the public to critically engage in assessments of the technical, social, political, cultural, gender, legal, environmental and economic impacts of modern biotechnology. Biotechnologies should be used to maintain local expertise and germplasm so that the capacity for further research resides within the local community. Such R&D would put much needed emphasis onto participatory breeding projects and agroecology.”

    The Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change report came out in March saying we need a “safe operating space that provides adequate nutrition for everyone without crossing critical environmental thresholds”. Again, agreed. GM is one tool among many others that should include how we socially construct research and production.

    I personally believe you can’t pre-empt what tech we’re going to need, and (as Prof Witcombe’s work shows) there’s plenty of scope for opening up and democratising all this tech.

    On Sense about Science: as I’ve mentioned on twitter, many of the most vocal people supporting Rothamsted are either scientists themselves or, in my case, my partner’s a plant scientist and I’ve researched food production geography a fair amount. We are not taking everything on face value and, in my case at least, I don’t think I’m belittling the vital issues. It’s simple enough: if someone was threatening to march into my partner’s lab and destroy it based on an ill-informed set of ideas, we would both be horrified and dismayed – especially if all attempts to engage seem to just bounce off.

    I’ve seen the SaS accusations too. I have my own list of questions from all this too, one of them being, “have the geekmob been manipulated – Theoden to a shadowy network’s Wormtongue? Have we been played like a cheap pianola, to quote Douglas from Cabin Pressure?” I don’t think so, but I’m interested in how all this came about. The linky-networky-shadowy-control stuff I find highly dubious but, the same as you, I’m open to learning more.

    “Being wrong about the science doesn’t equate to being anti-science.” Exactly. To quote Ben Goldacre: “People make mistakes. What distinguishes you from the morons is what you do when the mistakes get pointed out.”

    The twitter point is interesting, but it does miss the point slightly: Taketheflourback had a mass of people willing to engage with them in a venue of their choosing. They have not done so. I don’t think you can fairly interpret their silence and others’ verbosity as evidence that twitter is destroying reasoned debate. Time will tell, I suppose, when we see what happens tomorrow…

    The contamination issue is complicated by what people think is at issue. I still see quotes (e.g. the Ecologist) worrying that “if Rothamsted manages to contaminate the UK’s wheat supply…” AFAIK, that’s a ridiculous thing to say. Where does the ecologist think the wheat supply comes from? It isn’t like the water supply.

    Wheat is not aggressive: it’s very happy with the symbiosis it’s developed with humans. It’s, genetically, got a very good thing going. It likes being a kept plant. (Michael Pollan was very good on this). Of the many types of wheat grown in the UK already, none spread – much as other farm crops don’t. I wonder if some people forget that and think GM crops are somehow going to be like Himalayan Balsam? Notice in that case, ecological damage was caused by some 19th century idiot deliberately introducing a species with ‘splendid invasiveness’.

    So, AFAIK, the risk we’re talking about is pollinating a tiny percent of another wheat cultivar, and that then entering the food chain. It looks to me there’s no nearby cultivar that could happen with – but if one or two plants crossed, that’s what we’d have. There’s zero risk of the ecologist’s ‘contaminating the UK’s supply’ in the way they’re suggesting. I mean, how could that happen?

    In comparison to related issues of contamination and safety (from e.g. pesticides) it looks to me like a non-story. But as usual, it’d be good to find out more.

    26th May 2012
    • Tom Chance said:

      Thanks for this, all extremely interesting. I don’t really have the time to reply point-by-point, but I think I remain inclined towards thinking the experiment’s risks have been controlled to the point that the precautionary principle demands (gosh, how wishy washy!)

      I think lots of positive things can come from the debate that this protest kicked off, not least more public understanding of the science and continued debate.

      P.S. I really like the Simon Lewis quote, I would go so far as to say it’s the moral duty of any human being to strive for their work to be for the 99%, not the 1%.

      28th May 2012
  2. punkscience said:

    This is outstanding work. Thanking you.

    27th May 2012
  3. Bob Arthur said:

    Well now here weare getting somewhere. There are certainly valid points here that should be debated. Alas, Take the Flour Back are seemingly committed to action without debate.

    I believe the strength of feeling against their intentions comes not from an inherent support for Rothamsted’s work, but from the morally bankrupt threats of TTFB to unilaterally impose their beliefs, completely bypassing due process.

    So long as the Green Party promotes such action, they have no place on the moral highground.

    27th May 2012
    • Andy said:

      “So long as the Green Party promotes such action, they have no place on the moral high ground”

      The Green Party doesn’t ‘promote’ anything other than a sensible policy of a moratorium on release into the ‘wild’ of GMO until the science on contamination, horizontal transfer etc is settled to a point where it can be declared either safe or unsafe to proceed. Moving to an ‘in the wild’ trial without public consultation is just as arrogant as the TTFB action by your logic, is it not?

      That there is marked difference in the utterances of Director of Rothampsted (‘no risk’ of cross pollination to TVs cameras, ‘some risk’ to newspapers) indicates that that particular issue is far from resolved. In real life GM crop growers aren’t going to ‘grow out of sync’ their crop just in case it buggers up their neighbours’ crop if they don’t.

      Maybe the answer is that Rothampsted is 100% liable for the complete public removal and incineration of any ‘contaminated’ crop found adjacent to their centre and are placed under a duty to compensate for said removal at full market crop value then pertaining. That they would have to do that at all would certainly answer the vexed ‘drift’ question.

      On the other hand, wilful misinterpretation of a badly worded Press Release [since clarified with a further release by Jenny Jones] is not really going to enhance debate…

      27th May 2012
    • Vince said:

      > “Take the Flour Back are seemingly committed to action without debate.”

      It was the GMO scientists at Rothamsted who planted GMO crops in the open air without debate.

      If they were genuinely interested in debating the issue and progressing once they had secured public support, it would have happened *before* they planted in open air.

      But that is not what these GMO scientists (backed up by the radical ‘Sense About Sscience’ PR agency) were interested in. They chose a cynical tactic of planting first, knowing people would oppose this and then calling anyone who did so, “anti-science”.

      The GMO lobby must be opening champagne at the moment given how many people they have fooled with this tactic.

      29th May 2012
  4. A related, thoughtful piece by Steve Easterbrook. His outline of ethics/risk assessment is, for me, the most important. if we can have confidence that system is working, I don’t see that TTFB have a leg to stand on. Unfortunately, I think they’re beyond being able to engage with that – see the issue instead as a simple case of (as Monbiot put it) “modern government could be interpreted as a device for projecting corporate power.”

    27th May 2012
  5. protoshimbun said:

    Many interesting points.

    It’s unfortunate that you’ve used the phrase “perhaps any risk is too great?” – a classic argument against all experimentation, of course. Life is risky; progress is scary. Dan Olner argues persuasively that the risk of contamination is genuinely very small and the consequences very unlikely to be dramatic.

    You also make a very odd characterisation of the Green Party’s position. We live in a democracy under the rule of law. Nobody gets to just “prevent things going ahead”, by physical intimidation, obstruction or violence, because they “have concerns”. If the Green Party wants to stop any or all research into modified crops it can lobby parliament or bring a legal challenge. This is not an emergency, it’s part of a long-term process that’s been openly discussed and examined at every stage.

    I’m not a scientist and have no fixed view on GM, except that stigmatising a whole area of research with a simplistic label and organising “protests” at research sites as if the assessment of risk was an ideological issue doesn’t seem to me to be pro-science. It seems to be pro-ignorance.

    27th May 2012
    • Tom Chance said:

      Are you familiar with the precautionary principle? It’s not universally accepted as an axiom of scientific research, of course, but in this case I think it’s fair to argue that the benefits of the research are so small that the risks outweigh them and it shouldn’t go ahead.

      I’ve still not made my mind up, but that would be the gist of why you’re wrong to think that because one might worry about “any risk” in this case one must be against all research with risks.

      I should also point out that it isn’t the Green Party’s position that this research should be stopped. It is the view of one politician who has chosen to join the protest. But the party does recognise the role of non-violent direct action in achieving political change, there aren’t many political movements that haven’t used it extensively when they feel the Parliamentary or judicial avenues have been exhausted, aren’t open to them, or have been corrupted.

      28th May 2012
  6. Simon Bishop said:

    Whilst I don’t know the difference between them, and therefore make no claim as to whether your point is correct or not, I note that the three examples you give of contamination are of rice, not wheat. Wheat, as the Rothamsted literature states, is not wind or insect pollinated nor does it hybridize with other crop species, hence the need for only a 20m buffer zone.

    27th May 2012
    • Tom Chance said:

      Rice is also self-pollinated, the pollen lasts about five minutes and there are no known insect pollinators. Or so a quick browse of the web tells me, the non-biologist.

      How do you know a 20m buffer zone is adequate?

      28th May 2012
      • Simon Bishop said:

        The theory then is that being self-pollinating and unable to hybridize, and with heavy pollen that cannot be carried by the wind, a 10m buffer of a different crop acts as a permanent barrier. If any pollen is indeed picked up by the wind it will not travel far and settle within the barley, which it cannot fertilize, so it will die. There is then a layer of non GM wheat that can, by remote chance, be fertilized, but this will be destroyed before it, too, sends out pollen. What you then have is a further 20m boundary of completely different plants (not crops) that cannot hybridize with wheat at all. If any pollen gets this far, which is now extremely unlikely, it will die. Everything within this buffer zone will be destroyed anyway at the end of the trial.

        In theory no protective barriers are needed at all, because the trial, by its own protective genetic methods (or rather, the protective methods generated by wheat itself, not the GM element), is self-contained. The 30-35m exclusion zone is to comply with regulations and to allay fears. The difference between wheat and rice, a quick browse of the web tells me, is that dry rice pollen is light and is carried by the wind and could be carried by insects (though as you state, none are known, but this does not preclude the possibility), so these methods would be futile if the experiment were using rice.

        It is, of course, a lot of theory, and that is the real debate. But based on what is known these protective efforts have been introduced to minimize what are still unlikely possibilities.

        28th May 2012
  7. “The Green Party is fine with research, but in the case of this particular open air trial Jenny – and many others – think they have reasonable evidence that it is unsafe and so think it better to stop it going ahead than to sit back and wait to see if the disaster of contamination takes place.”

    At best they (think they) have evidence of some risk of contamination. But even assuming that there is some non-negligible risk of ‘contamination’, what evidence or other rational grounds are there for describing it as a risk of ‘disaster’?

    27th May 2012
  8. I fully agree that there are many issues surrounding biotechnology that can’t be addressed by science (industrialization, capitalism, monocultures, patents, and a number of other issues). Scientists should consider these as part of the broader landscape in which their research may eventually be released, and should address them in conversations. It is good that activists bring up these issues for public debate.

    There are three problems with this, though.

    1) Scientists working on biotechnology aren’t lawyers or policy makers. They don’t have the expertise and background information needed to really talk about these things. The best they can do is express their opinions on these subjects – and many do. This doesn’t seem to be enough to satisfy activists, who usually aren’t lawyers or policy makers either, who don’t have the expertise or background to understand the ramifications any particular suggestion. How can we have solid discussions about the social/economic/etc issues surrounding biotechnology when the two groups involved in the discussion have little knowledge in the area and little ability to change overarching structures of our society? I think we need to bring the discussion back down to a more manageable, more meaningful level. Let’s talk about how a given technology (such as aphid repellent wheat) may be used in different ways, and how scientists and activists can help steer technology so it is used in ways that are generally acceptable to both sides.

    2) Activists hoping to change (or destroy) biotechnology aren’t scientists. As I mentioned previously, there are many issues surrounding biotechnology that aren’t really problems with the science at all. Activists could research these issues, develop solid stances, and discuss those issues with scientists and policy makers, but most don’t. Instead, they find one paper or news article that “proves GMOs are dangerous”, create a story around that either misinformation or deliberate lies, and keep repeating that misinformation no matter what. Scientists are forced on the defensive, having to keep debunking the misinformation, so they don’t have time or energy left to discuss all of the other issues. Everyone, including scientists and activists need to be honest and careful about their words. For useful discussion to happen, scientists can not say things like “zero risk” and activists can not keep spreading the misinformation. We need to focus on the reality before us and not cloud the issues with bad information and smear tactics.

    3) There’s no middle ground. In the US, we’ve had a long history of compromise in our two party system. Each party has a general stance on any given issue but has been willing to come together to find solutions to problems that at least somewhat satisfy both parties. Recently, however, that process has broken down. Instead of both sides moving toward the middle, one side refuses to move and the other side keeps giving in, resulting in a hefty imbalance of political power and in zero compromises. The same is happening here. The scientists are willing to talk about the issues, open to discussion, and potentially willing to change the way they do their work (copyleft, additional borders for field experiments, using plants that produce sterile pollen, etc, etc). The activists want zero GMOs, the end. I don’t see any effort on the part of the activists to suggest compromise or even to educate themselves enough to get to the point where they can suggest intelligent useful compromises. Instead, they make threats to destroy research and refuse to engage in discussion.

    Where do we move from here? We all must make an effort to be honest, focus on the issues, and remain open minded. If we don’t do that, what’s the point of discussion?

    27th May 2012
    • Tom Chance said:

      Thanks for this. I think you go wrong in lumping everyone together into “activists” and “scientists” groupings. For example, many of the people involved with writing the Green Party’s policy on GM are scientists as well as activists. While some anti-GM activists undoubtedly peddle a lot of rubbish about the science, cherry picking from studies to try and support their case, many others don’t. The same applies in reverse – many scientists are engaged with the political process.

      So you’ll find in the UK that there are some scientists – as demonstrated by some of the Twitter activity – who are totally unwilling to discuss non-scientific aspects of GMOs. I had one man repeatedly, rudely attacking me and Jenny and dismissing any other issue – such as Sense About Science’s background – as irrelevant. You’ll find the same with some activists, who are as set in their ways as the Tea Party faithful.

      You’ll also find many people – perhaps we two are examples – who are open to discussion.

      One other point: I think you’ve not taken on board the point about contamination. Whether it is scientifically illiterate or a valid concern, the fact that an experiment might not be self-contained changes things in a big way. It means that a group of scientists are pressing ahead with an experiment in an area of science that the overwhelming majority of their fellow citizens don’t want to see commercialised, in spite of those risks. You have to accept that those scientists are opening themselves up to a different kind of debate, one that will have many who won’t accept that they can get on with the experiment and see how it turns out.

      Thanks anyway for your comment, and the others on this blog, that strike a much more humane and open-minded tone than much of the heat on Twitter.

      28th May 2012
      • Vince said:

        > ” I think you go wrong in lumping everyone together into “activists” and “scientists” groupings.”

        This is the tactic pushed strongly by the GMO lobby and picked up by the few who support them.

        The better distinction might be that “the debate is between GMO corporation employees and scientists with vested interest, versus the majority of the planet”.

        Re. the precautionary principle, which is evidently sneered at by the pro-GMO faction: even if we could prove every GMO crop currently on the market was 100% ‘safe’ in every way, that tells us nothing about the next organism created by Monsanto’s chemists.

        Does anyone believe that Monsanto will choose your health over their profits?

        29th May 2012
  9. Vince said:

    > “Twitter is a blessing and a curse”

    Very true. Monsanto could not buy better PR representation than what Mark Lynas has provided for free. Well, I assume he’s doing it for free.

    Like the author, I started doing some digging on ‘Sense About Science’ because I was highly suspicious of how hard they were pushing the GMO lobby message. I found the following:



    The evidence is damning. ‘Sense About Science’ is an extreme rightwing PR agency masquerading as a friendly, non-profit science advocacy group. It is part of the radical rightwing ‘LM Movement’ that views genetic modification of plants and humans as essential for human advancement and it views environmentalists as “Nazis”.

    Then there are the scientists working for Rothamsted Research:



    Both aggressively involved with GMO and strong ties to the GMO corporations. And, far from being a ‘humble scientist’, Molony drives around in a Porsche with private ‘GMO’ number plates!

    The Rothamsted ‘incident’ has been a staged and carefully managed propaganda event to drive a GMO wedge in to British agriculture and to discredit the green / environmentalist movement.

    29th May 2012
  10. […] good read is this blog post from Tom – I disagree with some parts, but that only makes things more interesting. Tom […]

    30th May 2012
  11. D.B.Cooper said:

    The contrast between the Green Party approach to the science of AGW and that to GM is car-crash-look-through-your-fingers horrific.

    The default position on AGW is that it’s real cos scientists say so, and if you disagree you’re wrong, but when the large majority of scientists are in favour of GM, they just don’t understand. Mmmm.

    Stick to homeopathy and 9/11 conspiracy motions

    30th May 2012
    • Tom Chance said:

      That’s a terribly simplistic, reductive way of looking at two very complicated subjects. If you step back and consider that the level of agreement among scientists is far from the only or most important factor, you might do better.

      A more relevant comparison, for a start, would be between AGW and food security, and then between geoengineering as a technological solution to AGW and GMOs as a technological solution to food security.

      Show me a motion that passed a recent Green Party conference on homeopathy or 9/11 conspiracy theories and I’ll take your comment to be more than a smug, reductive smear.

      30th May 2012
  12. D.B.Cooper said:

    The party almost passed a 9/11 conspiracy motion a few years ago. Shockingly retarded.

    This fool (http://martindeane.wordpress.com/2011/09/08/size-matters/) from Hull GP recently met with your future leader Adrian Ramsey who must be aware of the man’s views . He’s in your party.

    As for being reductive and simple, it’s a blog and you’re not a scientist. Sorry. I’m not going to try to appear as if I can prove anything – as many internet commentators think they can do – with a few hyperlinks to stuff that supports my position. If you want science read the relevant plant science journals, not ranty internet links and non-peer-referenced bollocks on websites. However, there might be some mileage in addressing the comparative trials issue and the like surrounding GM and companies like Syngenta, Monsanto etc.

    Ben Goldacre, quoted above somewhere and perhaps largely sympathetic to green ideas, sees it thus:



    If Ben sees it like that, then maybe you really should have a rethink?


    30th May 2012
    • Tom Chance said:

      Oh, I see. So it is fine for you to post unsubstantiated allegations peppered with rude jibes. But it’s not OK for me to post links to reputable news sources to suggest that there have been serious allegations of contamination with farmers’ livelihoods affected where the risk had been downplayed. Apparently for the latter, even though it isn’t a scientific statement, requires peer reviewed journal articles.

      Sorry, back to Go, don’t collect, start again.

      For those interested, I checked up on this 9/11 claim. It was a paragraph in an emergency motion on the American Government’s response Hurricane Katrina brought to the 2005 conference by a member, as is their democratic right in our party. The offending paragraph was amended out, before the amended motion was overwhelmingly defeated. The motion came to the floor because a conspiracy group held a workshop at the conference, something we’re ok with because we’re open to debate rather than shouting people down because they did a different degree at university. To allege that the party “almost passed a 9/11 conspiracy motion” is clearly a mendacious smear.

      Also debated at that conference were scheduled motions on agriculture, health, climate change, eco-taxes, local communities and planning, human rights, intellectual property, open source software and electoral reform, together with workshops on a host of other subjects from the EU through “shoot to kill” policies to Somalia’s warlord problem.

      Such is your apparent determination to brand the party a bunch of wingnuts that you then – shock horror – tell me a member with barmy views has met our deputy leader. Adrian regularly tours local parties to support them.

      As for Ben Goldacre’s tweets, I quite agree with them.

      31st May 2012
  13. D.B.Cooper said:

    From Private Eye
    Green conspiracy theories are used to explain not only the 7/7 Islamist attacks but also 9/11. Martin Deane, Green candidate in Hull, announced: “Having clocked up a few hundred hours now looking at evidence on the internet, I believe at the very least there is culpable US government complicity in the events of 9/11.”

    The Hull Green Party’s website links to 9/11 “truth” reports that blame the attacks on the CIA and, of course, Mossad. Deane campaigned with fellow activist Justin Walker to get his party to demand a reinvestigation into the 9/11 attacks. The motion was defeated – but by the less than crushing margin of two votes.

    I note from the Hull Party website that Mr Deane is in the controversially titled band Dyslexic Kid,presumably lacking the wit to name themselves Dylsexic Kid or similar. I’m sure he thinks Mossad trail him round Hull. Those pesky jews.

    31st May 2012
    • Tom Chance said:

      Can you provide any references to back these various claims up?

      If not, if you continue to pick out isolated individuals, defeated motions and other straw men to try and characterise an entire party comprised of many thousands of members and hundreds of elected representatives as being “shockingly retarded” then you can crawl back under your troll bridge and I’ll ignore you.

      Just for example, I searched both the Hull and the Yorkshire & the Humber party web sites using Google and got no results with “9/11” or “truth” in. I’ve come across these reports before, but the links appear to have been excised from the web sites.

      The only reference I can find to the Katrina motion being defeated by two votes is on an archive.org-retrieved report from a “truther” (here) which contradicts a report by Justin Walker himself (here), and both contradict the official record.

      Every party has its nuts, and by being so open, democratic and small the Green Party has been exposed as having tolerated and even elected too many of them in our forty year history. As my previous response illustrated, those nuts in no way represent the mainstream of the party or its principal interests. The same is true of all parties, for example: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/34bf248c-fef2-11e0-9b2f-00144feabdc0.html

      Incidentally – and this probably makes me a conspiracy theorist – I do wonder when somebody posts with a likely pseudonym and with an email address that bears a resemblance to the name of somebody who has shown themselves to be an aggressive bully uninterested in open debate on Twitter, much as you are doing here on my blog.

      31st May 2012
  14. Hi Tom , nice to see something written by an open mind on this issue.

    The problem is that you can’t pick and choose your science to support your politics, and that’s what the Green Party appears to be doing. I’m a firm believer and practitioner of NVDA but NVDA is for when debate has failed you can’t really claim that’s the case whilst saying you’re not going to reply to more tweets – which is exactly what Jenny Jones did in the Telegraph blog . She’s a high profile legislator taking part in an event that was intended to destroy scientific research. That’s not very savvy – if the trial had been trashed her stance would have made easy meat for journalists.

    The Green Party, indeed the entire Environmental Movement really needs to bone up on this. The world population is heading towards 10 billion, a billion go to bed hungry, and 11k children die each day of hunger. I’m not sure that all those people would reject GM food.

    2nd June 2012
    • Tom Chance said:

      So that Hull Green Party web page links to his personal blog, which contains posts with some 9/11 conspiracy stuff. You said:

      “The Hull Green Party’s website links to 9/11 “truth” reports that blame the attacks on the CIA and, of course, Mossad.”

      Not quite the same thing, and really not what you were trying to imply, eh?

      10th June 2012

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