23 May 2012

UK GM Wheat War: Not Really About Science

In the UK there is a battle brewing over a scientific trial involving genetically modified wheat. Last weekend a protester attempted to vandalize the trial, and a larger civil action is expected on May 27.  The ongoing battle, and its close cousin in the climate wars, tell us something about what can happen to science when it becomes the central battleground over politics and technology. Unfortunately, the scientific community itself has contributed to such tactics.

Plant scientists at Rothamsted Research, a complex of buildings and fields in Hertfordshire, UK, that prides itself on being the longest-running agricultural research station in the world, have spent years preparing for their latest experiment — which will attempt to prove the usefulness of a genetically modified (GM) wheat that emits an aphid alarm pheromone, potentially reducing aphid infestation.

Yet instead of looking forward to watching their crop grow, the Rothamsted scientists are nervously counting the days until 27 May, when protesters against GM crops have promised to turn up in force and destroy the experimental plots.

The protest group, it must be acknowledged, has a great name — Take the Flour Back. And it no doubt believes that it has the sympathy of the public. The reputation of GM crops and food in Britain, and in much of mainland Europe, has yet to recover from the battering it took in the late 1990s. In Germany, the routine destruction of crops by protesters has meant that scientists there simply don't bother to conduct GM experiments any more.

The Rothamsted scientists have also attempted to win over the public, with a media campaign that explains what they are trying to do and why. After the protesters announced their plans to “decontaminate” the research site, the scientists tried to engage with their opponents, and pleaded with them to “reconsider before it is too late, and before years of work to which we have devoted our lives are destroyed forever”. The researchers say that in this case they are the true environmentalists. The modified crop, if it works, would lower the demand for environmentally damaging insecticides.
It would be a mistake to conclude that the protesters are in some way anti-science or fearful that the genetically modified crops might fail to work as advertised (though surely some protesters do have these views). Their main concern is that the crops will perform exactly as advertised, and lead to further gains in agricultural productivity.

It is not science that they fear, but the implications of scientific advances for economic and political outcomes. The organization leading the UK protests calls itself Take the Flour Back, and clearly explains its rationale as follows:
Our current political system chooses to deal with world hunger through the model of “food security”, arguing that there is not enough food to go around and that we need techno-fixes to solve this. This approach ignores the fact that there is a global food surplus – many people just can’t afford to buy food. This problem is being amplified by land grabs- communities that used to grow food for themselves are being forced out of their ancestral homes, often by corporations expanding cash crop production.

The industrial food system throws away (in the journey from farms to traders, food processors and supermarkets), between a third and a half of all the food that it produces – enough to feed the world’s hungry six times over. (2)

Free trade policies imposed by the International Monetary Fund make it much harder for governments to protect small and family farmers from big multinationals. With the expansion of free-market capitalism, agricultural systems in many countries in the global south have become focused on producing cash crops for export to rich western nations. At the same time, their markets have been opened to food imports, including imports from US and EU companies at less than the cost of production. US farmers benefit from billions of dollars in subsidies which make up as much as 40% of US net farm income. This means they can afford to export their crops at well below production cost. (3) This is ruining the livelihoods of small farmers in the global south.
This is not the statement of a group concerned primarily with the potential unanticipated risks of GM crops to the environment or people, but rather, it is the manifesto of a group concerned that GM crops will perform exactly as intended.

Like many issues where science and politics intersect, those opposed to the productivity gains made possible by agricultural innovation have sought to use science as a basis for realizing political ends. A primary strategy in such efforts is typically to argue that the science compels a particular political outcome.  In the case of GM crops, opponents of the technology (mainly in Europe) have argued that the techniques are unproven or risky. However, such tactics have not succeeded. So the next step beyond waging a political battle over science is now direct action against the technology of concern.

This situation is of course in many respects parallel to the climate debate. Efforts to compel emissions reductions through invocations that science compels certain political outcomes have borne little fruit, so some activists have taken it upon themselves to directly attack the technologies at the focus of their concern.

One difference between the climate wars and the GM wars is that some prominent scientists are participating in the direct action against technology (such as James Hansen and IPCC contributor Marc Jaccard). Another important difference is that in the case of GM crops, it is research itself being targeted, and the scientific community objects.

One argument invoked by scientists in support of GM technology is that the world needs more food. But the world needs more energy too. In condoning direct attacks on energy technologies, the scientific community may have opened the door to tactics that it does not much like when they are applied closer to home.


  1. Framing the question in terms of world needs ("the world has plenty of food") while ignoring the fact that millions of farmers need to be more productive and earn more income is glossing over important issue. Crop technology is not only food, but also an economic likelihood for families.

  2. -1-David Tribe

    Agreed ... Such debates over productivity have a rich history (dare I say it? even back to the Luddites, who voiced similar complaints and are today used to suggest an anti-technology attitude when the reality was far more complicated).


  3. This prompted a fuller response, bouncing off some other thoughts about scientific literacy and the political compass. Do you think it matters that taketheflourback are wrong on many basic scientific points, and won't enter into debate, whereas James Hansen has thought things through quite a bit?

  4. Whatever this particular quote says, the anti-GM forces in Europe and in this country certainly are anti-science. Any time you get comments on the topic on the internet, the most common complaint is that GM foods aren't safe to eat. And in this case, while they don't say the science won't work, they are certainly against what scientists see as advancement. They use the term frankenfoods quite appropriately for their beliefs - they see GM foods a 'science gone mad.' The villagers with their pitchforks and torches at the end of the Frankenstein movie were not 'pro-science.'

  5. -3-Dan Olner

    Thanks, I don't think your summary accurately reflects my argument -- of course the protesters are against GM technology.

    But no, from the standpoint of political action it doesn't matter much one way or the other whether TTFB or Hansen is more scientifically correct, or whether one has "thought through" an issue.

    Why not? Because you can't get an ought from an is. You just can't.

  6. The anti-GM sentiment in Europe has always puzzled me, and I've seen it first hand living there and in my own relatives. I think it derives from a strain of atavism that runs through a lot of different European cultures, combined with the innate human fear of contamination. Americans presumably share the latter, but we don't really have the same Wagner/Blake/JJ Rousseau myth of a pure state of nature. Nature here was tamed within recent memory; Europe did it long long ago, and doesn't have the same memory of the wilderness that preceded it.

    I shared a lab in Germany with a physics doctoral student who was convinced his roll-your-own cigarettes, made of 'organic' tobacco, would not give him cancer, because the danger was from the additives in commercial tobacco, not the benzpyrenes, etc., produced from incomplete combustion of natural plant material.

    If there's this level of irrationality among scientists, what hope does the lay public have?

  7. I don't think I understand: "It would be a mistake to conclude that the protesters are in some way anti-science..."

    What is anti-science then? If you are working to interfere with taxpayer funded academic research--by active destruction or legal mischief or whatever means--because of your ideology, that is anti-science to me.

    Can you define what you define as "anti-science"?

    They use a lot of rhetoric that attempts to attract people from other areas. It cracks me up when they claim to worry about export markets or Monsanto's stock price. But I would argue that the foundation of their opposition is to the science of plant modification for many of these folks. If it was really about export markets or Monsanto they wouldn't be aiming at academics.

  8. I think anti-science is too specific. These folks are anti-logic. In fact, I think they have formed a conclusion (industry, capitalism is bad) and have created a silly argument to rationalize their actions.

    They say that the problem isn't producing enough food, but the ability of many to buy said food. That's fairly accurate, though I'm sure I'd disagree with them about the particulars.

    But their solution isn't to make those poor people richer or further reduce the cost of food. Their solution is to make it more expensive and less efficient. Their arguments should not be taken seriously. At best, they are foolishly mistaken. At worst, maliciously misanthropic.

  9. Seems to me that it is long past time for a serious examination of the extent to which these holier-than-thou activist organizations have extended their respective spheres of influence (both attempted and achieved) to the point that they are having detrimental effects on society and its governance.

    They may (or may not) be "anti-science", but from everything I've seen, they are definitely anti-democratic.

    To a great extent, I think the fault lies with the UN, which over the years has increased its alliance with - and reliance on - NGOs. See, for example, http://hro001.wordpress.com/2012/03/10/introducing-the-uns-jolly-green-sustainable-hockey-stick/

    as well as Donna Laframboise's analysis of the text of WWF's latest do-as-we-say paper:


    Clearly, these activist organizations are getting too big for their britches. Maybe, it's time to rein them in!

  10. There are three parts of the food equation- 1. grow food efficiently, 2. store the harvested food without significant losses between farm and plate (spoilage, insects etc.)and 3. ensure the food is safe to eat. The "anti-science" food movement cut its teeth attacking irradiation- a proven answer to parts 2 and 3 of the equation.
    If one thinks science prevails-- try to find an irradiated food product in Europe thats not limited to seasonings or herbs.

  11. I have a theory about why European and American attitudes are different about GMO. It may apply to environmentalism as well. In America religious belief is still very strong. In western Europe its been in decline for a long time. Humans may be hardwired to have a belief system. So if its not conventional religion, it's a secular substitute. POPULAR environmentalism has a lot of these elements: dogma, irrational beliefs, a deity Gaia, Prophets e.g. Al Gore and you can even by indulgences-carbon offsets :)

  12. Mike McHenry- I think Howard Becker's "Studies in Social Deviancy" expressed it well and importantly in broader terms:

    “Just as radical political movements turn into organized political parties and lusty evangelical sects become staid religious denominations, the final outcome of the moral crusade is a police force. To understand, therefore, how the rules creating a new class of outsiders are applied to particular people, we must understand the motives and interests of police, the rule enforcers. … The enforcer, then, may not be interested in the content of the rule as such, but only in the fact that the existence of the rule provides him with a job, a profession, and a raison d’être.”

    A group does not need a badge to operate as a police force- just the ability to wield force. An example would be destroying research crops.

  13. Yeah skeptics have been actively wrecking climate science labs and experiments and getting press support for it for decades now. Of course the two are equivalent. Not.

  14. Agree with Mike @11. Predisposition toward belief systems shouldn't be underestimated. Having conceptually embraced secularism, Europeans found the alluring apparent certainty of "scientific fact" irresistible.

    State anything as "scientifically proven" in Europe and, no matter how pseudo-scientific it might be, you instantly have a congregation. Arguably something of a land-grab of gullible but well-meaning pseudo-intellectual support for slightly-soft climate science, all a little too tempting to resist exploiting.

    As for the US vs Europe, attitudes towards processed or modified foods differ at a very fundamental level. One only has to compare a "wholesome" piece of Blue Stilton or Roquefort cheese to that square of yellow in a Big Mac or, for that matter, anything that comes out of Wisconsin!...

    For a long time, in the UK, the media has been on the case of "E numbers" in food, campaigning hard against additives and preservatives. GM is an extension, and the media in the UK is inevitably similarly distrusting.

  15. Hi Rodger

    I have heard that much of Europe's aversion to GMO's from the US and crops from countries that still use DDT is related to protection of Europe's agricultural sector.

    In other words, it's not a science based policy, but instead a backdoor way to support and protect European farmers.

    Is this true?

  16. Anti-science, anti-logic, and anti-democratic all fit, as does the notion of religious extremists, a particularly astute observation. The anti-GMO folks are almost as violent as the animal rights extremists but not nearly as resourceful as demonstrated by the Animal Rights Militia’s disinterring the body of a grandmother to convince a family farm to stop providing guinea pigs for research. The lads used this gig to send a warning to the directors of a research firm: The company you work for is working with Huntingdon Life Sciences. This is a disgusting and cowardly act. You have a choice. You can walk away from those sick monsters or you can personally face the consequences of your decision. Not only you but your family is a target. Sever your links with HLS within two weeks or get ready for your life and the lives of those you love to become a living hell. Shrewd marketing, no?

    GMO researchers will likely follow their animal research brethren to the US where the climate is somewhat less hostile, but still challenging. They will be able to protect their property more diligently as an animal rights group found when they disrupted a hunt club’s pigeon shoot but suffered one casualty when their drone-mounted video cam got shot down. That should not have been unexpected, especially in South Carolina.

    If I seem a bit strident, it’s only because I became a target of animal rights supporters after a column I wrote about animal rightists’ wrongs and the kidnapped grandma was published in 2005. Fortunately the harassing callers were not best-of-breed and thought that blocking Caller ID would protect them, but fortunately law enforcement and telcos cooperate when threats are made.


  18. #15

    The average farm size in the EU-27 is 34 acres. The average farm size in the US us 418 acres.

    Locally grown, all natural, organic etc etc are relatively effective marketing tools that favor smaller farms.

  19. 11 - There is still a very strong pioneer/man-against-nature undercurrent in American culture. Whereas Europeans largely subdued their wilderness centuries, if not millenia ago, Americans are only a century or two removed from the settlement of their own frontier (Native Americans not withstanding).

    Even now, our population density is very low compared to Europe and the average person has much greater proximity to wilderness (it's notable that attitudes tend to track Europe more in high density regions).

  20. I'm confused. This group has publicly announced its intent to destroy property on a specific date, surely they've heard from the police?

    Everyone is capable of being "anti-science" even scientists. You'd be hard pressed to find an actual group that explicitly says "Scientific method?! BOOOOOOO!!!!!". Environmentalists, like all humans are emotional dogs with rational tails and thus are selective with the application of reason.

    That said, these particular environmentalists are what are sometimes referred to in psychology circles as 'Stupid A%#holes'.

  21. 20 - I'm confused. This group has publicly announced its intent to destroy property on a specific date, surely they've heard from the police?

    Does it not depend on what law enforcement’s attitude and priority are? If those in the LE hierarchy consider this a political matter, they may choose to do nothing at all except collect and analyze evidence after a crime has been committed.

    Those intent on destroying the crops have probably gamed their actions and announcements quite carefully, recognizing the limitations facing the property owners. In the UK, any private protection force would have to be defensive in nature and unarmed, without benefit of even tear gas or pepper spray. Without force multipliers a large number of defenders would needed because they could only be equipped with personal shields and whatever barriers can be erected in the time available before the “protest.” Without a cordon of police equipped with the full range of defensive tools, the owners may as well turn the crops into carbon now rather than wait until the protestors appear.

    An inability to conduct one’s business safely and secure one’s property prompts enterprises to move across national borders. The protestors will very likely succeed in shutting down this and other trials in the UK.

    Thank goodness Norman Borlaug never had to put up with such nonsense. Otherwise he’d not have saved billions of lives, no?

  22. How is this different from the anti-stem cell research crowd? Weren't they called anti-science?

  23. #22 - By “the anti-stem cell research crowd” I take it you are referring to the mostly conservative folks who objected to government funding of embryonic stem cells. They were by no means anti-science but characterized their objection as a moral issue: the destruction of human life for research should not be government funded. Their point was that backers of embryonic stem cell research should rely on private funding. One could call it a “pro-life” viewpoint along the lines of the Hyde Amendment.

    They did not object to federal funding of non-embryonic, or “adult” stem cell research.

  24. #23 - which was my point. They were portrayed as anti-science at the time by those who disagreed with them.