The Rothamsted GM Wheat Story

The picture above comes from anti-GM protests in the UK in 1999. More than 10 years later there are still anti-GM protests, but it seems like the political landscape has changed. Over the past month a large controversial protest called “Take The Flour Back” has been making headlines with its goal of destroying an open-field experiment of aphid resistant BT-Wheat, developed by scientists at Rothamsted Research. What made this event special however is the way the scientists reacted to the threat of years worth of work being destroyed – and it may have been a turning point for these discussions.

In the past anti-GM protesters have always fallen back on the mantra that GM is evil because it is being controlled by large faceless corporations with no ethics. While their concerns are in part justified, they are (in my opinion) usually also terribly overstated. However the Rothamsted wheat trial was not being conducted by a faceless corporation – it was being conducted by publicly payed research scientists, who were very distressed to hear of the plans against them. They responded by posting to youtube a public appeal for reason, in which they talked about their research.

They also went out of their way to engage the media and attempt to explain the science behind their work properly. Including proper publishing public information pages.

It seems like this appeal made an impact, as suddenly the issue wasn’t as black and white as the protestors had made it out to be. When the time came for the protest the turn out was low, and a police presence was thankfully there to prevent any crop destruction. It seems this impassioned science communication really did come through – the public just isn’t as irrationally against GM as it once was.

This has sparked some to remark that the GM debate is growing up – that the population is more willing to listen to science than it once was. Of course one cannot help but think of a clear counter example to this argument in the form of widespread climate science deniers. So far it seems like public understanding of GM is on a trend opposite to that of climate science – but how long can it last? Really it seems to come down to whether the voice of science and reason can be understood and appreciated by the public.

These events do give hope of this possibility though. I think the key here is passion. Scientists are people too, GM isn’t done by giant evil corporations – its done by real people, who genuinely want to make the world a better place. If scientists can show this to the public than we may be on the right path.


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