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25/12/2014

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Resolving the GM stand-off

Michael Brooks has a suggestion.

In May, protestors concerned about genetically modified foods threatened to destroy an experiment at the governmental institute, Rothamsted Research. The researchers were growing wheat modified to carry a gene that makes the plants emit an aphid alarm signal; it’s a clever idea that might keep aphids away from the crop. The protestors, from a group known as Take The Flour Back, had announced they were planning to pull up the plants in order to protect the environment from possible cross-pollination.

Michael Brooks has a suggestion.

In May, protestors concerned about genetically modified foods threatened to destroy an experiment at the governmental institute, Rothamsted Research. The researchers were growing wheat modified to carry a gene that makes the plants emit an aphid alarm signal; it’s a clever idea that might keep aphids away from the crop. The protestors, from a group known as Take The Flour Back, had announced they were planning to pull up the plants in order to protect the environment from possible cross-pollination.

The scientists countered that the risk of cross-pollination was minimal, and that the research was necessary for progress in food production.
In the end, protestors didn’t manage to cross police lines. But, though the day was ultimately uneventful, the whole saga made it clear that genetic modification still makes passions run high.

Image of science

We should try to avoid a repeat of the confrontation that happened over Rothamsted. Television news bulletins showing science that has to be done behind towering steel fences, requires the services of a private security firm and calls on the police for protection feels like a big step backwards. Such bulletins are reminiscent of the worst days of protests against the use of animals in experiments. The difference is – and this might be painful for those GM researchers to acknowledge – animal experiments have broad public support, while GM research does not.

Public doubtful

According to a 2011 Ipsos MORI poll, 90 per cent of people in the UK accept the need for animal experiments for medical purposes as long as there is no unnecessary suffering and no alternative. However, in the UK, only 35 per cent of people think GM food is something worth pursuing; 45 per cent think it is not something to be encouraged.

Whatever the issues for feeding people in developing countries, that means there will be considerable public sympathy for those attempting to halt GM research. Public trust of scientists has been hard-won over the last half-century; it would be a shame if that were eroded by GM research that attempted to move forward without first getting the public onside.

Dislike natural

If we are going to start a proper dialogue, it is important for the scientists first to acknowledge that a dislike of genetic modification is an entirely natural phenomenon. Humans have an instinctive reaction against modifications to nature. This is almost certainly a side-effect of evolutionary processes that kept us safe from the harm rotting foodstuffs can do us. Whatever the root, it takes real cognitive effort to accept that modifying natural organisms isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Scientists working at the forefront of human-animal chimera research face a similar problem, but are perhaps more aware of it than GM researchers have been. In July last year, the UK’s Academy of Medical Sciences issued a report on the field that made it clear that even the scientists feel uncomfortable with some innovations coming over the horizon. Having an animal’s brain work too much like a human’s would be a problem, for example. So would doing anything that might give an animal human sperm or egg and thus open up the possibility of truly chimeral offspring. The possibility that a created creature might display any recognisably human-like feature is also a no-no.

Limits first

It’s refreshing to hear scientists talk about imposing limits on themselves, rather than talking up the wonderful things their research might achieve if they were only left alone to get on with it. Similarly, scientists working in GM could talk first about the fact that there should be some limits in place, and then invite people to the debate about where those limits should be. Then we might find the volatile issue of GM can finally move forward.

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Dr Michael Brooks
Dr Michael Brooks is an author, journalist and broadcaster. His latest book is The secret anarchy of science (Profile Books, 2012)
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Test Test's picture
Very interesting!
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