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Pathfinders: Wheat on Trial

The whole GM debate has reared its ugly hydra heads again, after a recent showdown at a field near Harpenden where researchers faced protesters across the massed ranks of Hertfordshire Constabulary in order to decide the fate of a field of experimental aphid-busting GM wheat. The protesters had announced their intention of ‘decontaminating’ the field, i.e. launching a guerrilla raid to pull up the crop. Dismayed, the boffins called in the Plod. The crop was then trampled underfoot anyway by a stampede of press reporters smelling a good story.

Both sides have websites detailing their arguments, and both sides claim to be using evidence-based reasoning. So who’s right? On the one hand the protestors can point to large-scale popular opposition to ‘untested’ GM technology, not just in the UK but across Europe, which fact alone may lend their guerrilla strategy somewhat more legitimacy than it would otherwise have. But whether this opposition is informed or simply knee-jerk is a moot question. The scientists can point to large-scale GM use in America and China, with no major disasters reported.

A quick and dirty summation of the arguments goes something like this. Pro: engineering crop species to give off an aphid repellent will reduce the use of harmful pesticides by farmers. In fact recent research coming out of China suggests it will even reduce pesticide use in neighbouring crops, as pest predators proliferate and gobble up every last bug (New Scientist, 16 June). Con: it might do so in the short term, but there is no scientific consensus for this. In the longer term it is just as likely to create more pests, or new pests, or super-pests through resistance. Pro: this is independent, non-profit research conducted properly and in the best interests of knowledge and human wellbeing. Con: maybe, but the big agro-chemical companies are waiting in the wings, ready to make huge profits, and they are the ones really calling the tune. Pro: how can we test new strains when you go around pulling up crops and then complaining that our new strains are untested? Con: you can test them all you want, just do it indoors and out of harm’s way. Pro: you don’t have the right to pull up crops unilaterally. Con: you don’t have the right to plant them either. Pro: you say you want a public debate, but you turned one down when we offered it. Con: you only gave us seven days to get the speakers! We want a debate, but not entirely on your terms. Pro: humans have always genetically engineered plant species – it’s how the Neolithic revolution got started. Con: selective crop breeding is not at all the same thing as direct gene manipulation, and it’s disingenuous to pretend it is. Anyway past risks don’t automatically justify future risks. Pro: GM technology could be a huge boon for the future of human food supplies. Just what are you so afraid of? Con: that depends. What have you got?

Considering what else is going on in the world right now, this little dispute seems like something of a sideshow. As the rest of this issue of the Socialist Standard makes plain, socialists are interested in science and the scientific method, so to us destroying research feels rather akin to book-burning, even if it is just a publicity stunt. If GM technology works, and it seems to, we’ll need to use it in socialism. The protestors might have a point about the corporations who are standing by ready to invest, and whose interests can be expected to trump those of the general population, but this is a political objection not a scientific one.

In fact the whole dispute is best understood as a political rather than a scientific argument. The fear that ‘something might get out’ into the environment is vague at best. Even if other local plant  species began to acquire aphid-repellent properties by horizontal gene transfer, it doesn’t seem likely that this would result in a wholesale collapse of the food chain, and it hasn’t happened anywhere else. As for the resistance problem and the possible creation of super-aphids, we face that anyway with conventional pesticides or indeed any conceivable anti-pest strategy. That’s the problem with evolution, and we’re not about to find a permanent get-out clause for that.

What the protestors really seem to dislike is the idea that some faceless bureaucrat from DEFRA can foist something onto them without their agreement. This is not really about the science, it’s about local people wanting to preserve the agreeable fiction that they are the ones in control of their own environment. As with anti-road lobbies and all manner of other Nimby single-issues, the gut objection to being put upon is not felt to be enough to persuade others, so it is tricked out in scientific fancy dress and rolled out for public consumption in the press. Wherever a government project is set up, the locality immediately produces a plethora of self-taught architects, wind-energy enthusiasts, road transport analysts, climatologists, radiation-related disease specialists and, as here, farmyard genetic engineers. If the UK really had this level of latent expertise in every shire and every village, China and the USA would quail in terror and the annual Nobel ceremony would be held in Tunbridge Wells.

Not that local objectors to government projects are necessarily wrong in feeling put upon. They are being put upon. But so are we all, every day, when we have the capitalist system foisted on us, a system which takes but does not give, which shouts but does not listen, and which elevates a fat, greedy micro-class to indolent luxury while we slave and rot in their service. That is the real problem, compared to which local disputes about GM wheat are just chaff.