Researchers Meet Protesters in TV Debate

Whither wheat? Debate over U.K. research into genetically modified wheat ended up on a BBC news program.

U.S. Department of Agriculture

The fate of an experimental field of genetically modified wheat in the United Kingdom is still unclear after a televised debate between researchers in charge of the field trial and activists opposed to GM crops. The researchers, led by John Pickett of Rothamsted Research in Harpenden, issued a public appeal to the activists earlier this month asking them to call off their planned destruction of the field on 27 May.

The activists responded, saying they would welcome the chance to debate “on neutral ground, with a neutral chairperson, for an open exchange of opinions and concerns.” Both sides agreed to participate in a roundtable on the BBC’s Newsnight program last night. (Readers in the U.K. can see the program here.)

Jyoti Fernandes of Take the Flour Back, the group that threatened to destroy the GM wheat, said on the program that she considered such research “really dangerous” and urged the scientists to “look at the wider social and cultural implications of GM agriculture. … GM protesters have been saying for over a decade that we don’t want government research to be focused on GM technology when there are other solutions on the table that we could be researching, and nobody’s listening.”

Pickett argued that the research was all about finding more sustainable ways of producing food: “We’re using GM only experimentally at the moment, and it’s not going into the food chain and it’s not part of a commercial development.”

Lawrence Woodward of the pressure group Citizens Concerned About GM argued that “GM research really needs to be done in controlled environments. When you take it out into the field, it raises bigger problems, bigger risks, and these need to be assessed properly.” Tracey Brown of the group Sense About Science countered that “We are talking about a controlled environment in the sense that this research is going on in an experimental setting.”

The often heated debate soon veered toward the threatened direct action against the crop and each side’s willingness, or not, to debate the issues. Asked whether her group still intended to destroy the crop, Fernandes said: “I’d like to decide on the day if that’s an appropriate action.” She was later asked what right she had to decide that such research should not go ahead. “I have a lot of experience, and I feel very passionately about it. I’m a farmer. My family has a farm in Iowa, and I’ve directly seen the impact of GM agriculture.”

Pickett and his colleagues had also arranged to hold a longer discussion in London next week, moderated by George Monbiot, a columnist and blogger for the Guardian newspaper. The group declined that invitation, saying that as a small group of volunteers they didn’t “have the capacity to give such an event the time and effort it deserves.”

On Newsnight, Pickett challenged Fernandes: “You don’t seem to want to go ahead with the debate with us. … We think the debate should precede you trying to destroy the experiment, if that’s what you’re going to do.” To which Fernandes replied: “If we hadn’t threatened it, you wouldn’t have asked us.” Whether next week’s debate will take place remains far from clear.