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GM crop debate: where to go from here?

Posted by on June 1, 2012

Rothamsted GM protest - Take the Flour Back, debate on genetically modified cropsOn 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.

18 Responses to GM crop debate: where to go from here?

  1. Andrew Maeer

    I personally don’t think the public should be told much information regarding what is going on with GM crops, assuming the protesters were just the general public. With enough experimentation and testing, with the correct safety precautions and fail-safes, it will benefit everybody in the end. There would be no concern for cross pollination from GM crops to naturally occurring crops. I think we should have more GM crop experiments going on, even with animals that we yield from too, so that we can improve what we get from crops and animals and improve our lifestyle. With the mass farming that goes on with some of the produce in shops, the fruit and vegetables for sale are containing less and less nutrients we require! If we can use GM crops to fix this problem then it will benefit the whole of mankind! I could write pages and pages about why I think people should not protest against genetic engineering and why it would benefit us but I shall leave it at that. If this does seem biased, it’s because I do aspire to become a genetic engineer one day as it interests me greatly and want to make a difference using it!

  2. Dee Rawsthorne

    OK in for a penny in for a pound. We have to stop debating. Strip the debate to its bare bones, find common areas of agreement/acceptance/concerns and build from there. Dissect the opposing arguments and in some way get acknowledgment of where the understanding of the science is wrong and stop regurgitation of discredited claims and counter claims which prevents us from moving on. Meet part way in accepting mistakes have been made but in the main it’s for the public good and in some cases may, and has been the only solution, and is greener than the organic movement. If people want to farm organically and are prepared to pay more for food then that’s up to them, there is room for both, but don’t deny the majority, of cheaper equally nutritious food or food with enhanced nutirents which may help some populations. Idealism is a wonderful thing but not in the real world.

    • Rebecca Nesbit

      Thank you Dee. That’s something I’m aware of – that any cosy ideals I may have may be a luxury of the fact I never have to go hungry.

      I agree that accepting mistakes have been made is important, and that just becuase there have been mistakes it doesn’t mean we can’t move beyond them. We can’t be held accountable for Monsanto’s actions, but we need to show how we will act differently.

  3. Mary M

    Where do we go? Yeah. Good question.

    I keep trying to understand how we can find these “common ground” areas that are supposed to exist. But when the loudest voices just say “no” to anything–how can you get there?

    In conversations, sometimes I’m presented with the horrors of RoundUp. So I say ok–you hate herbicides. Are you also opposed to conventional breeding for herbicide resistance (like Clearfield)? I am met with dead silence. Well, is it herbicide resistance or not?

    Another frequent topic is pollen: I also ask if they are ok with the GMO banana that resists disease, that won’t rely on pollen but will propagate by clones/cuttings. Again, dead silence.

    I try this: are you opposed to the bean developed by the Brazilian public sector? It’s a culturally important food, will reduce pesticides, and help small farmers. Would you really withhold this from them? No answer.

    What I don’t understand: there’s not a single tool or strategy that I’d withhold from organic proponents. I might say that they are bad ideas and provide the reasons (for example, homeopathic treatment of animals). But I wouldn’t legally obstruct or damage anything they want to do. I can’t even conceive of that.

    I don’t think they are coming to the discussion in good faith, and I’m not sure how to get over that.

    • Rebecca Nesbit

      Thanks for the comment and for the ideas of points to make to anyone who wants to discuss the science.

      It is so rare to enter a discussion where someone is willing to change their mind, but maybe we need to move away from trying to have discussions not with the extremists but with people who have logical objections/ questions who are willing to listen to the answer. But how do we find these people? It should be 90% of the population as few people are determined either way.

      As far as common ground is concerned: do you have any concerns about GM at all?

      • Mary M

        I have no concerns that haven’t already been met by existing protocols or regulatory agencies. I support continued evaluation of each project, updating protocols when need be, and agency review before broader distribution of plants. I support rules for refuge areas and things like that.

        Actually–that’s not entirely the case. Sometimes I joke about biohacking THC plants in my basement. But I’m not really serious about that (probably). That said, there is about to be DIY opportunity for people to do some things that could be questionable and unwise. I don’t know that I’d stop that–but I would want regulations around that too.

        On patents: I am not opposed to patents. I think it’s fine for this Floyd guy to have patents on the fruits he works hard to develop: I am very interested to see what happens with the first RR soybean comes off patent (soon).

        I know that others don’t feel that way–but I don’t see it any different that the computer companies enforcing patents, yet I wouldn’t stop people from using their smart phones.

        • Rebecca Nesbit

          Interesting points. I agree that patents aren’t intrinsically wrong and that it is strange that gm should be seen as so different to other industries.

          My various concerns include (and they are simply that – I am very willing to believe that they will be disproved):

          Dee has very rightly pointed out that different people can make different choices; if some people want organic food then that is fine. There are plenty of examples where GM material has been found where it wasn’t planted. Environmentally this may not be a problem, but might we be removing the choice of some people to not eat gm food. (Though if I accept that does it count as those who have chosen organic preventing those who have accepted GM from the food they want?)

          Patents do have the potential to prevent GM benefits being shared – it is very interesting that golden rice hasn’t benefited people in the way it was intended to. How do we deal with this? I think golden rice shows that current regulations do affect whether we see the benefits of the technology.

          How will we ensure that GM doesn’t increase gaps between rich and poor – with farmers who can’t afford the seed seeing lower yields, and the local price of grain potentially dropping as other yields increase, and agri-businesses gaining power?

          • Dee Rawsthorne

            Deregulate GM and don’t treat it any differently than any other form of plant breeding, precision breeding, but first the science has to be understood, and this is where it is public understanding and then engagement. Many of the publics I talk to don’t know what GM is but have made a decision based on Daily Mail headlines and misinformation. Once we have talked through the science, they often say – so what’s the problem with it?

            • Rebecca Nesbit

              I agree with that we need to overcome this artificial complete divide between GM and other crop improvement techniques.

              How do we separate out the scientific from social/political debate so anyone with social concerns doesn’t end up objecting to the science?

            • Kevin Folta

              Very nice Dee. Certainly we need more sophisticated regulation. The current system keeps out the little guy. If they want to topple BigAg, then let in Li’l Ag, PublicAg and everyone in between. Heck, you can’t even do a transgenic trial out of the greenhouse without a mountain of red tape.

          • Mary M

            I don’t object to testing of the end products if that is a concern for people. Just like I support Kosher labels: if a group want to monitor the supply chain and test the end products, and provide a “certified GM free” label, go ahead.

            But also like Kosher, because it’s not my philosophical issue, I don’t feel the need to pay for that system.

            On golden rice: are you suggesting that it’s not being used yet because of the patents? That’s not my understanding of the situation.

            I am also in huge support of more academic and non-profit work on plant science. If these projects were well funded it would alleviate a lot of food insecurity and increase farmer safety.

            • Rebecca Nesbit

              The difference with Kosher and GM free is that you could get a situation where contamination ensures that farmers are unable to label their produce GM free.

              Golden rice – it has something to do with it but I can’t remember the ins and outs – I’ll get back to you on that one.

              • Mary M

                Well, in the US, my understanding is that if your organic crop is affected by something that makes it not sellable as organic (including accidental pesticide drift, for example) there is a mechanism to claim damages. The product can still be sold as conventional, and the price differential that the farmer would have obtained for the organic premium can be provided. I’m fine with that too–it’s a type of co-existence that’s been worked out for multiple scenarios, and it seems the same to me:


                It may be different elsewhere.

            • Rebecca Nesbit

              OK, golden rice. I got this from Food Fray by Liza Weasel (2009):

              “Thirty two companies owned over 70 patents on the various lab techniques and procedures that Potrykus and his team had used in making golden rice.”

              AstraZeneca offered to negotiate a patent deal that would allow free access to poor farmers.

              Government regulatory policies have also been a problem.

        • Kevin Folta

          More on Patents: Patents are not just issued on GM plants. New cultivars are protected all the time. Try propagating and selling any germplasm from private or public breeding programs! There will be a knock on the door. Some patents on certain crops even limit its use in breeding (you can’t use pollen, etc). Except for seed varieties that are off-patent, you cannot commercially distribute these products.

  4. Anastasia

    It definitely does seem that the real issue at the root of the “GMO debate” is corporate control of the food supply. The subject is so complex that people definitely use the science as a scapegoat.

    I too feel a bit apprehensive about things for the public good being in the hands of corporations. Schools, police, and fire fighting are all public organizations for the public good. In a lot of ways, I think medicine should be the same way.

    Food is a lot more complicated. On the one hand, food is a necessary public good. We all need to eat to live – surely a more basic need than even safety, fire control, or education. However, food is so much more than sustenance. Food is also something to be bought and sold just like any other good such as clothes or books. How can we separate out the public good aspect and the commercial aspect? I don’t know if we can.

    Perhaps we can better compare food to energy. Energy has a public and a private aspect too. Government funds are used for research and successful projects are handed over (with varying degrees of control) to private entities to develop into a useful product. Another example that might apply is moon-landing-era NASA, where private and public entities worked together in research and development. Is it the government’s job to be a seed company? Or for that matter, is it the government’s job to do ag research at all? I personally think we need that independent research both in biotech traits and other areas, but that the government shouldn’t spend money on developing a product for sale.

    All that said, who is the “enemy” here? Is it the scientist who develops new traits (through GM or other methods)? Or the company that grows the seed to sell to farmers? Is it the farmers, the middlemen that buy the crops to sell to processors, the processors, the packagers, the marketers, or the grocery stores?

    I don’t really understand the focus on the start of the chain here. Seed is not the horse, it’s the cart being pulled around where ever consumer demand says it should go. If we need lots of cheap feed to produce lots of cheap meat, then we get high yielding commodity seed and animal genetics that produce huge and relatively taste-less muscles in a system with few players and little diversity. It’s hard, very hard, to turn the cart around, but it can be done if people’s demand changes. If people want interesting, flavorful, nutrition-packed fruits, vegetables, and animal products, then that need will be filled. Forward thinking people can help move it along by producing these products and getting people interested (which is exactly what we see happening in nice markets across the world). The current system will have to either adapt or go extinct – but just like evolution it doesn’t happen overnight!

    All of that said, I’m assuming that we need to work within the current system. If people just want to overthrow the system, I give up. I’m a scientist, not a revolutionary, and I need to get back to work.

    • Rebecca Nesbit

      Those are interesting comparisons with other industries. When I think about it almost everything has a public good aspect as well as a commercial one. I am very much of the mindset of working with what we’ve got (potentially sometimes in too much of a resigned kind of way), and I suspect this may be a way I differ to an ‘anti’. No GM/ chemicals/ big business sounds like a day dream given our starting point and our population.

      I’m not keen on privatisation of the NHS, but generally I think we need to keep capitalism but work out better ways of it supporting the public good. GM could be a case study on how, if we think very very carefully…