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"HULK SMASH GM" - mixing angry Greens with bad science


It's said that much of the controversy surrounding genetically-modified crops stems from the fact that 'GMO' is 'OMG' backwards. Arguments on display here were of a similar standard. Ducking under a sign ("But what will the aphids eat?"), the first speaker I saw was a farmer, held up as evidence that farmers don't want GM crops (aside from obviously the 16-odd million who grow them). He patiently explained to the hardline environmentalists that he didn't need GM technology for pest resistance because, "I've got a wide selection of pesticides I can use," while a palm-shaped bruise formed on my nose.

Talk of 'Frankenfoods' was rife, though as Storm animator DC Turner pointed out on Twitter, "'Frankenfood' cracks me up - Frankenstein's monster was unfairly demonised; hounded by an ignorant, torch-wielding mob."

Other speakers invoked vast conspiracies to rationalize the inexplicable support for GM research in the scientific and political establishment. Why would scientists agree on something if the BBSRC, research institutions, corporations and politicians weren't all somehow working in cahoots? Sense About Science came in for specific criticism for their "Weird libertarian Frank Furedi agenda," and were apparently orchestrating the global reptilian conspiracy to make our food unfit for mammals and insects.

As The Geek Manifesto author Mark Henderson pointed out, "The whole question of being pro- or anti-GM food is in many ways a bad one. The better question is what crop, with what modification, for what purpose, made by whom?" There are plenty of legitimate concerns among the public about biotechnology: as I walked away with The Pod Delusion's James O'Malley, we agreed that when it came to control of the food chain, GM patents and many other issues, geeks, scientists, and protestors were not that far apart.

Indeed, the irony is that public trials like those at Rothamsted are vital to challenge some of the claims made by companies like Monsanto about the success of their research. Trashing them is a perverse act that raises costs, making it harder for public research to thrive, and driving the technology further into corporate hands.

Most of the protestors weren't there to represent the public though, or to address legitimate concerns. Nor did they want to listen to any scientists: an attempt by researcher Jules Bristow to ask for a right of reply was met with "we've heard it all before," after which she was loudly shushed. (After I'd left apparently a few people came over for a more constructive chat, but they seem to have been very much in the minority.) Debate was unwelcome for the most part, scientists were just another part of the conspiracy, and placards took absolute positions like "Nature does it better" - try telling that to plague victims, or anyone with wisdom teeth.

Several people have suggested that we shouldn't describe these protests as 'anti-science'. In a moment of supreme unintentional irony, Jack Stilgoe remarked that the term is unhelpful, writing that the only person he met who fit the label was someone who: "thought that all of human progress since the invention of agriculture was a massive collective error." At Rothamsted we listened to speakers explaining how modern agriculture caused cancer, while the crowd egged them on.