GM trial survives - but 'war' goes on

Protesting mother and child The day was more about chants than chainsaws

The demonstrators gathered in a park beside the research centre, a good-natured throng sheltering from the scorching sun beneath a tree, enjoying spirited singing and delicious organic bread.

Speech after speech denounced GM as a tool of multinationals, a mechanism that would not benefit the poor, and science gone wrong.

Children played in the margins, people stretched out on the grass and the numbers slowly swelled. There are always arguments about turnout for these events: my colleagues and I reckon "about 200" is fair.

A short distance away, a group of pro-GM supporters clustered in another patch of shade. This was a counter-movement by the group Sense About Science. Appeals had gone out to show a pro-science presence. Again, trying to be fair, their number: about a dozen. Neither side exactly achieved mass-mobilisation.

One idea had been for the pro-science team to link hands to keep the antis at bay but the Rothamsted scientists had feared that might lead to trouble so the plan was dropped. Instead the group offered interviews to support the case for GM - and ice-creams, which were welcome on a sweltering day.

The big moment came when the speeches ended and the long-awaited march began. Linking arms and singing, the campaigners advanced towards the police line.

They were never going to get through. The leaders of the action, Take the Flour Back, had acknowledged that in advance. The security presence was too overwhelming.

The march reached the police and got no further. Any dreams of reaching the plot of GM wheat were dashed so the protestors sat down and chanted "No GM" instead.

One woman protestor had adorned herself with the word "biodiversity" in body paint. A young man with a banner started up a siren but a police officer pointed out that this would alarm the horses so he agreed not to use it. It was that kind of event - no scuffles, no violence.

And the GM trial survived. The security plan triumphed. At least for today. The challenge will be to maintain this level of protection in the weeks and months ahead.

One key test is which arguments gain ground with the public. It was consumer fears that led the supermarkets to declare themselves GM-free. Now the debate has moved on. Will the worries of the 90s continue now?

The scientists have learned to be as upfront and open as possible. That will make life harder for the campaigners.

Today marked a tactical victory for GM. But this is a war.

David Shukman Article written by David Shukman David Shukman Science editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 122.

    Indeed. Natural selection is purely tactical, with no long term aim.. It can only climb an existing slope in the fitness landscape, with no possibility of going briefly downhill to reach a higher summit.
    Artificial selection can operate strategically, aiming towards long term achievement, even through short term decreases in functionality.

  • rate this

    Comment number 121.

    #112 shane

    Machine evolution is moving roughly 1 billion times faster than natural evolution. Natural evolution also has a critical weakness - it depends on random selection & mutation so ordered evolution is much much faster. Random evolution can only hill-climb where ordered evolution can use intelligence to make diametric leaps.
    The difference between the two is almost beyond comparison.

  • rate this

    Comment number 120.

    118 Entropic man - If you're looking for hypocrisy about insulin, look no further than the vice president of PETA; she uses insulin developed from animal testing because she "Needs her life to help end the suffering of animals" despite their organisation sending death threats to animal testers!

    119 shane - I'm sorry, but that's clearly nonsense. Back it up if you can, but I'm not optimistic...

  • rate this

    Comment number 119.

    Drunken Hobo, Skeletal remain of pre agricultural, and examples of untouched hunter gatherer societies tend to indicate they live/d just as long as we do nowadays, and were in fact much much healthier than we are in our society.

    Enthropic-30% more yield means less of other lifeforms. The planet can only sustain so much bio matter. We are turning everythign on the planet into man and mans food.

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    With most "human" insulin now produced by genetically modified bacteria, I wonder how may diabetic GM protesters would refuse it in favour of pig or beef insulin taken from killed animals.
    Would they even realise its GM origins?

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    110 shane - Considering we're living twice as long as we were just 100 years ago, I'd say definitely yes, of course mankind's knowledge is better. Why would GM be any different to vaccines, medicine, crop hybridisation, power generation, computers... the list goes on!

    I am a full advocate of population control, but sadly at the moment people are starving, and it's not right to let them just die.

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.

    I wonder, how would GM protesters react if Rothampstead produced a black wheat with a 30% greater yield?

  • rate this

    Comment number 115.

    Agreed. Perfect adaptation tends to appear after long selection in a stable environment, and is indeed vulnerable to change, eg there are Antarctic seabed animals which prosper at 1C and die at 3C.
    Good enough is for unstable environments, in which wide tolerance is a survival advantage.
    Green bacteria evolved to avoid competing with purple bacteria and got stuck with an inefficient system.

  • rate this

    Comment number 114.

    @113Entropic, 'perfect' is the worse case scenario, 'good enough' is what is needed.
    Evolution would never happen with 'perfect', life would grind to a halt and fall down an extinction path the first moment of change.
    'Good enough' allows evolution to play its part,and life keeps going. The problem is we look at things subjectively for our benefit only,Aphids are not bad in the larger picture

  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    #110 shane

    Best guess is that purple bacteria came first, with a simple photosystem absorbing green light.
    Other photosynthetic bacteria coming later evolved a photosystem using the blue and red ends of the spectrum. This photosystem later became part of green plants.
    It was too complex to modify again, hence the inefficiency.
    Evolution usually produces "good enough" not "perfect".

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    current system: approx 4,500,000,000 years old
    mankinds GM experiment: approx 30 years old
    'total' agriculture practiced: approx 10,000 years old
    Population boom started : approx 10,000 years ago.

    I know where id put my money for which one stands the test of time

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    Since the 1950's, there have been a great many advancements in agricultural technology including herbicides, insecticides, high yielding crops, and fertilizers. In that time period the world population has doubled. Yet, still millions go hungry. Developments in agricultural technology such as GM is not and never will be the answer to world hunger.

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    so Entropic, you are saying mankinds few decades of knowledge in this area is better than a system that has stood the test of time for billions of years since the dawn of life.
    More crops&less aphids= MORE people&people food = less of everything else.
    Agriculture created this population, check biological laws re-food availbility,anthropology&history.
    Agriculture is the problem not the solution.

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    I'm confused by the protestors in the picture, presumably they are suggesting that Ladybirds which eat aphids will suffer as a result of GM detering aphids from attacking wheat? Unlike insectocides this wheat doesn't kill ladybirds & aphids, and both go somewhere else. Therefore there is less of a problem. They want major crop damage, to the detriment of everything other than aphids & ladybirds?

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    #106 Robert Lucien

    Work on transgenic pigs intended for xenotransplantation is already under way.

    As for moral imperatives, should other animals die for our health? Pig insulin was used before GM bacteria produced human insulin.

    Would a muslim accept a pig transplant?

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.


    Extra succinate production would lead to extra carbodydrate and greater yields.
    The plants would have black, not green, leaves.
    They would also need extra CO2.
    Can anyone suggest a way of increasing the amount of CO2 in the air?

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    #104 Entropic man
    A few years ago in my SF work, I worked out way to get around that old saw about not genetically engineering humans. Use the DNA of say fish and plants and manipulate it and put it together until it just happens to look identical to human - yea human like clones with nice genetically neutral healthy organs ready for implantation, and no nasty moral imperatives.

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    #100 Gort2012
    "GM can't make chlorophyll more efficient."

    There's a thought. The main inefficiency of plant photosystems is their inability to absorb light from the middle of the spectrum. This is why they reflect or transmit green light.
    Inserting the genes for the photosystem of non-sulphur purple bacteria might generate extra hydrogen from unused green light, boosting the Calvin Cycle.

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    #100 Gort2012
    "some religions would regard the jellyfish DNA as making a wheat product an animal product."

    You share a number of genes with wheat; cytochrome-c for example. Does this make you a vegetable?

    GM is a plant breeding tool, allowing the process to be done in years, rather than decades. It is not a panacea.

    Don't make unrealistic claims for it, good or bad.

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    #101 cont
    Holes -
    New chemical in crop and so will make it into human food - probably harmless, but we often don't know for years.
    It would push aphids hard to adapt, which they will.
    Putting the resistance in the crop is structurally putting it in the wrong place, it turns it into a single vector system and such always have a tendency to fail.
    It still has the patented/ restricted crops problem.


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