Rothamsted: things I’ve learned, things I want to know

In 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 nine years. It’s been a tortuous few days for me. As a big fan of the Bad Science movement who was loosely involved with improving the Green Party’s science policy; as the author of the 2012 London manifesto on which Jenny Jones and others stood, and somebody who has put a lot of my life in the last four years into helping her achieve great things on the London Assembly and Southwark Council; and as somebody who slightly sits on the fence on the GM debate; I’ve found myself agreeing with all quarters.

On the eve of the protest I thought I’d put down a few more thoughts following the debate.

There is a lot of nonsense from all quarters (but it’s not the end of the world)

The Sense About Science petition really took off because Take The Flour Back appeared to carry a number of misleading or false scientific statements on their web site. For example, wheat isn’t wind pollinated, as they claim. It looked like an open and shut case of Bad Science, one that many anti-GM campaigners remain unwilling to accept or engage with.

Robert Wilson sent me a particularly egregious case of mendacious attacks on GM. This report, signed by major environmental organisations and hosted by Friends of the Earth, makes repeated mention of the tragic suicide rate amongst Indian farmers and the adoption, post 2001, of GM crops. Yet when the report was published in October 2011 there appears to be plenty of research showing that hypothesis has been debunked. It’s slapdash at best, irresponsible and appallingly disrespectful at worst, to repeat this theory if it is false, and is typical of the approach that too many anti-GM campaigners seem to take.

But then the Rothamsted researchers, ably assisted by a remarkable online campaign from Sense About Science, went too far in debunking that claim. One of their researchers (I think it was Prof. John Pickett) went onto BBC news to say there was “zero” risk of contamination. This contradicts his statement to the Telegraph that it is possible but unlikely. Their claim that wheat is only “1% self-pollinating” also looks suspect when you consider that this EU-funded public information web site states the risk is up to 9.7% depending on climate and the type of what. The researchers have certainly put in place safeguards. But perhaps any risk is too great?

Too often campaigners on any issue can be their own worst enemy.

The “pro science” tweeters have also been willfully naive and amazingly one-sided on a number of issues…

Contamination

Tom Chivers of the Telegraph quoted Prof. Pickett verbatim on the risk of contamination without once asking whether he is telling the full story. Tweeters haven’t stopped for breath to examine the protestors’ concerns about a 1% chance of contamination, or their claims that it has happened elsewhere. Their “safeguard” of crops planted around the site which they’ll destroy is only 20m wide.

You don’t have to dig very far to find cases of contamination where risks were downplayed (example one, two, three) and with very serious consequences for farmers whose livelihoods were threatened.

Maybe this small chance really is too big a risk to take? I’ve not reached a firm conclusion on this, but too much of the unhesitating support given to one group of scientists never really engaged with this question.

Patents

They have also failed to engage critically with the issue of patents. Yes, the researchers say this stage of research will be openly published patent-free. But in Farmers Weekly Prof. Pickett is quoted as saying that “companies are very interested and they are keeping a watching brief as they always do in all research”, that “this is of global, great significance and it could be that we generate very good intellectual property for commercial development in the interests of the UK and European agriculture and business”. Rothamsted are in the business of licensing patents.

My objections to biopatents are so strong that I do not see the value to humanity of any scientific research that is likely to be applied in the field in the form of patent-encumbered crops controlled by multinational corporations. I am always happy for scientists to do their thing, to probe questions of interest to them without reference to anyone else. But until we can invalidate patents on plants I would not give a penny of public money to research that is clearly leading to a commercial patent-encumbered product.

The silver bullet

There is a tendency among some people who care about science to believe technology is a silver bullet. Any cursory study of the history of technology will quickly unearth a more complicated picture. Just as anti-GM campaigners can overstep evidence when they suggest there is absolutely no need for GM anywhere, so it is daft to think GM is a silver bullet and essential to our future food security.

GreenFacts have an official summary of a major 2008 World Bank study, in which over 400 experts looked at options to secure our future food supplies. The full study was called the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development. It’s a very good place to start if you want to understand the place of GM.

They concluded should be part of the solution. But they also think that dealing with problems with patents, land ownership and many other issues need to be part of the picture.

Sense About Science

I feel I should withdraw my public statement of respect for Sense About Science. I have seen them do some good work in the past on libel reform, debunking the rubbish celebrities come out with about homeopathy, and so on. But the way in which they swiftly launched this campaign on behalf of the research project did seem a bit suspect.

I was pointed to this LobbyWatch page on their background and some startling allegations made in The Ecologist. It’s difficult to make sense of this, and to pick out slander from truth, but it is clear that they launched head first into a highly biased campaign without bothering to explore the science or the wider issues. Instead they just gave a platform to the scientists involved in the research project.

It’s a shame that the material posted on their web site has been accepted at face value by many who are highly critical of materials posted by the protestors.

Anti-science?

One of the most depressing charges made against the Green Party is as follows: Jenny Jones, a prominent Green politician, is going to a demonstration that will attempt to damage a scientific research project. Therefore the Green Party is anti-science.

This is just simplistic nonsense. If you are really against all forms of non-violent direction action that involve damage to property; if you really think allegedly dangerous or unethical scientific research should be able to proceed without any interference from politicians or the public; then you may think Jenny are “anti-science” in a limited sense.

But Jenny hasn’t gone around destroying the many other GM research projects in the UK. 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.

Another possible charge is that in reprinting scientifically inaccurate statements, the party is anti-science. But that’s equally daft. It just shows the party hasn’t got sufficient processes to weed out these statements, and perhaps subscribes to some ideas that it needs to drop. Being wrong about the science doesn’t equate to being anti-science.

The Green Party, like any loose association of likeminded people, is bound to accommodate a wide variety of views. When journalists dug up scientifically inaccurate material in our policy documents a few years ago, we took steps to address that. No doubt this recent debate will reverberate through conferences and policy discussions for the next year or two. Like all political parties with strong principles and beliefs that overlap with areas of scientific controversy, we have a complicated relationship with scientific evidence. That isn’t going to change, not for us or any other political party.

Twitter is a blessing and a curse

There is no way the pro-Rothamsted campaign would have taken off without blogs and Twitter. It was quite startling to watch. It’s a fantastic thing that a niche group of people can mobilise and gain the attention of politicians, mainstream media and their targets online. Cyclists have fully mastered this in recent years, and scientists aren’t far behind (though in their aggressive and shouty tactics many scientists are managing to achieve very little if they want to persuade people of their case).

But just as tweeters dug up and circulated interesting evidence, so allegations and misleading representations swirled around at lightning speed. Reasoned debate became almost completely impossible as the numbers of pro-Rothamsted tweeters overwhelmed the few who joined Jenny in trying to defend the protest.

Sometimes there’s no substitute for a slower, more calm debate.

Two questions I have

In all my reading and debate, two remaining questions are going round and round in my mind:

1. Why can’t GM researchers adopt a kind of “copyleft for patents”?

Dan Olner and Susannah Bird penned a very interesting open letter on the patent issue making exactly the comparison I had in mind. In the world of software, programmers who didn’t like the way that corporations were shutting people out from sharing and modifying their software created a parallel universe. They wrote copyright licenses that said “you can do what you want with this so long as you share any derived versions under the same terms”.

Richard Stallman, the original author of such a license, is a bit of a hero of mine. I’ve exclusively used free software shared under these “copyleft” terms for over ten years.

Maybe GM researchers could try a similar trick? Rather than publishing research without patents, leaving corporations to snap it up for their own nefarious ends, how about patenting your work and releasing it under a copyleft license? This would enable fellow scientists, farmers and others to freely use the work, and it would force corporations to play under the same public good terms if they wanted to use it.

2. Can anyone resolve the contamination issue?

My problem here is again my lack of expertise and background knowledge. There are many cases of GM crop contamination from around the world. Some were clearly irrelevant to this case, for example I came across a case where a farmer failed to remove GM crops before planting a new crop in the same field. Others may be irrelevant, for example the cases of rice contamination may hinge on a biological trait that wheat doesn’t share. But maybe some of the cases are relevant, and it is possible that this GM wheat trial could contaminate nearby fields.

Oh, great lazyweb, help me out?

In conclusion

I could go on, but it’s sunny outside and I don’t want this story to swallow up my weekend.

As Sunny Hundal wrote on The Guardian web site,

Every political party has to weigh up a range of interests that sometimes conflict with each other… The challenge for scientists isn’t to merely focus on what the evidence says. It is also to convince the public that their suggested course of action is the right one, even when the public is sceptical for perfectly valid reasons.

It’s fantastic that the protest has stirred up so much debate. I only hope that everyone who took an interest really takes the time to consider all the arguments before slamming politicians as “disgusting”, tearing up their party membership in outrage, writing all GM scientists off as corporate stooges or thinking campaigners are always the good guys.