On Sunday I donned my ‘Don’t Destroy Research’ badge and joined Sense About Science at the Take the Flour Back protest. Take the Flour Back had pledged to ‘decontaminate’ a GM crop trial at Rothamsted Research by entering the field and destroying the crop. Our aim was to show support for the scientists who had worked hard to protect their trial and to be on hand to answer questions.
Since the GM debate of a decade ago led to strong anti-GM feelings in Europe, we were keen to learn from those mistakes. It’s clear that we need to show we are willing to engage with people who have differing views to us, but also make sure any miss-information being put out is corrected and, ultimately, ensure this valuable research can go ahead. It’s tough to get the balance between providing factual information and giving the impression that we only want to hear other points of view so we can dismiss them.
The organisations involved in supporting the trial have both been praised and criticised for their approach. Rothamsted’s communication strategy involved a video with a personal plea from scientists to Take the Flour Back, asking them to take part in a debate not to destroy the work. Sense About Science ran highly-successful online Q and A sessions with scientists. On the day press were invited to the field trial and Rothamsted scientists were on hand to answer journalist questions.
The day passed peacefully, and I found it extremely valuable to be there. I spoke to some protesters who were very interesting and keen to hear what I had to say. Minds may not have been changed, but I am confident they went away knowing that we are people passionate about food security and who share many of their concerns.
Where should the debate go from here? It’s a tough one, but one thing I learnt is that the protesters I spoke to had some valid concerns, and some questions I wasn’t able to answer. They weren’t about the science of GM, which seemed to be a scape-goat, but about corporate control.
The fact that the experiment has been designed so the risk of cross-pollination is remote is not something the scientists are, quite rightly, not willing to budge on. In my opinion, we need to find common ground and discuss the grey areas. How do we ensure this publically-funded technology acts for the public good?
It was great hear the supportive views of local people who came to talk to us, and I hope more people will be keen to make their views heard. This is a debate which won’t go away, and I would love to hear your views and ideas on how it is managed.
Rebecca Nesbit, Press Officer, Society of Biology
For background information and the Society of Biology’s position, visit our website.