New Green Party leader on GM and Rothamsted

Robert Wilson and Mark Lynas picked up on a Pod Delusion interview with the new leader of the Green Party, Natalie Bennett. James O'Malley spoke to her about GM and the Rothamsted trial (that me and Sue responded to at the time with this open letter). Natalie’s response is troubling, for reasons I’ll discuss below – and not just her position on GM. Many of the usual tropes appear (some of which me and Sue targetted in the open letter), especially regarding corporate control. I’ve transcribed the key bits here with the time location for the mp3. Discussion after the transciption. She notes to start with that:

The Green Party doesn't whip. We allow divergent views and if something does come up I don't agree on, I just need to say, my personal view is that but the party line is that and the party has no problem with it.

But of course, she’s the leader of the party now and so her views on this stuff do matter – not least for my own choice at the ballot box. I’ve voted for the Greens in the past, but with recent events over Rothamsted? This interview as it stands, I think, rules me out of voting for them again – though there’s `dialogue’ mentioned, perhaps that could change. Somehow I doubt that, but we’ll see.

Anyway – James gets straight into the Take the Flour Back protest. Natalie’s first thoughts (14'):

My first degree is agricultural science, so that's where I come to from this. I think that GM crops and the release of GM crops into the environment is the wrong way to go because the fact is GM crops as currently instituted represent a further expansion of industrial agriculture, enormous scale corporate agriculture that's just utterly the wrong direction to be going in, in terms of the future of farming that we need.

I have a particular obsession with soils, and we're utterly trashing the planet's soils. Soils are absolutely critical and essential and we barely understand what's going on with them. We can't replace them easily, and huge industrial scale agriculture that's just ploughing across the landscape in huge fields that relies on a very small handful of seed companies who don't allow farmers to save their own seeds - it's entirely the wrong model of agriculture. So GM for me is tied up with an entirely wrong model of agriculture and is entirely the wrong way to go. // And there are safety concerns in terms of the risk factors - what you could be releasing without really understanding what you're doing.

Asked about the Rothamsted trial in specific (15'30''), James points out that you can oppose corporate control of the food system and support GM. Natalie skipped straight past that:

The nature of that experiment was, you were letting loose something into the environment. There'd been experiments in greenhouses that no-one had a problem with, but it's a genie that once you let it out of the bottle, it's out there. I know the scientists were claiming there was a very very tiny chance of cross-contamination, but actually there were some other figures produced from different peer-reviewed papers published in journals that said the figures were a considerable order of magnitude higher than they were saying. And there simply wasn't the evidence that this was necessary or pointing us in a direction that was useful.

Asked the specific question (16'15''): "would you align yourself with Take the Flour Back? If they had succeeded in smashing the experiment up, do you think they were doing the right thing?"


Nice and clear. James also read out an email question from ‘a Rothamsted scientist’ specifically for her (16'25''):

Agriculture uses land, energy and other natural resources. With increasing demand for food and other agricultural products, its environmental impact will increase. To avoid this, improved crops that give better yield using fewer resources like pesticides, fertiliser and water can help. How can the Greens and GM science folks find a way to dialogue so that a case-by-case applications of GM could be evaluated for environmental benefits?

Natalie's answer:

I'd certainly be very happy to talk to them and I think I've got the foundation so that we can talk the same language, and I'm always happy to talk to scientists and people of good will who are coming from a place where they want to solve the sort of problems he's talking about. What I'd say is, plant breeding is terribly important, but there's also issues of the way you manage the land, the way you ensure you haven't got soil erosion - huge numbers of issues that simply aren't being tackled. And that focus simply on plant breeding comes from a very strong commercial focus.

So. The first thing that leapt out at me was her getting straight in there with her scientific credentials: coming at from an agri science background, she claims to be not just your average crop-trashing reactionary. It also gives her, she says, a common scientific language to talk to Rothamsted with. On Rothamsted’s arguments about contamination (e.g. in their Q&A), she references “some other figures produced from different peer-reviewed papers published in journals that said the figures were a considerable order of magnitude higher than they were saying". That’s something to follow up: no-one expects actual references in an interview, but I wonder what she’s talking about? At any rate, again, she’s keen to present herself as an agricultural scientist who accepts the validity of peer review. I wonder where these papers will turn out to be directly relevant to the Rothamsted trial, or the same contamination arguments you can see on Take the Flour Back’s own website? (Also, I wonder how many orders of magnitude she has in mind?)

Specific question for Natalie then: what peer-reviewed papers are you referring to when you claim Rothamsted are wrong about the contamination risk by `orders of magnitude?’

This illustrates a point that climate 'skepticism' also shows very clearly: you'll rarely hear people say, "I think x, but there's absolutely no scientific basis for it. I just happen to think that." Science is like motherhood and apple pie in that respect. But doing as Natalie has done here - say "I am scientifically literate" - doesn't make you scientifically literate. She clearly thinks its important, getting straight in there with "I have a science background, so..." But how does she do on her substantive science knowledge? And, actually, can we prise the science from the politics on this one? I'd argue yes, but...

There’s also a murky confusion here that was present in a reply I got from Caroline Lucas too (haven’t checked if I can use any of that publicly yet): there are x, y problems with GM or the corporate food system ; therefore I support trashing the experiment. It’s weak and unreasonable. I’ve said before, I fully support the need for direct action, but – as with James Hansen (and notice that wasn’t even destructive of property) – you need to be putting a helluva lot more work into your reasoning than any of the Rothamsted attackers or attack-supporters have mustered. It’s perhaps what I find most annoying about Green Party members supporting the destruction of the crop: you’re making arguments about problems with the global food system. How did you get from there to “let’s trash their experiment?" (This was roughly Caroline Lucas’ take as well: here are x,y arguments about the food system. Also, direct action has a valid place in a democratic society. None of which I disagree with.)

The key argument, though, is one that many of us have headbutted repeatedly: “GM for me is tied up with an entirely wrong model of agriculture and is entirely the wrong way to go." Her whole argument pivots on that – but is it true? The point me and Sue made says no – any more than computer code is tied up with entirely the wrong model of computing. Obviously, code is dominated by corporate players – we live in a largely capitalist world. Does that mean we should attack all coders, open source as well? The coding I’m doing at the moment is to help understand the economic impact of energy cost changes. Am I microsoft? Am I Apple? No. Obviously. This isn’t a difficult point, is it?

Equally, does the existence of Monsanto mean we should attack all GM? Right now, Natalie appears to say, unequivocally, “yes". She has, however, said she’ll talk to Rothamsted and other scientists, and that’s something I’d love to see happen. Take The Flour Back notoriously refused to openly debate the scientists. If the Green Party takes a different approach, perhaps something will come of it. We all have a network of ideas and unquestioned assumptions and they don’t change if they’re not challenged. Ben Goldacre nailed this one perfectly (and of course this applies to me as much as anyone else):

People make mistakes. What distinguishes you from the morons is what you do when the mistakes get pointed out.

She attacks the focus on plant breeding also: it ‘comes from a very strong commercial focus’ that, she believes, neglects other agricultural issues. My first thought on hearing that was: ‘as if good yields were only a capitalist concern’. There are, of course, complex issues of access to food and the way in which scale and profit-making may effect the structure of food production – but we need to remember how many mouths there are to feed, and that the need for scale isn’t going away. I think the approach people like Natalie want is what economic geographers would call `Jacobs externalities’ – a rather bland and mathematical description of the fact that certain kinds of localised production networks can produce more than the sum of their parts. That is true, they can. But they’re not the only way to be more productive, and Jane Jacobs fully recognised the vital role that standard, boring economies of scale can play. It’s an interesting abstract question whether those different kinds of scale outcomes must be at odds with each other – I would argue not. But at any rate, this ‘small is beautiful, big is evil’ heuristic is not going to help us understand how to progress.

The same applies to GM and many, many other things we need to try and keep our minds open about. So much has to change, and so rapidly, our body politic needs to be developing a much stronger ability to properly assess all options. We don’t seem to be showing much sign of doing that – possibly the reverse, in fact. Trite arguments about corporations and “GM is further expansion of enormous scale corporate agriculture that's just utterly the wrong direction to be going in" = major fail. We need to start by understanding GM as one technology among many, including (some links here) the history of mutagenesis and the way we’ve historically introduced plant species into different ecosystems. (Some more of my starting questions here, the first two being the most relevant; no closer to answering them, perhaps.)

Just to finish, Natalie does categorically say (following all the Jeremy Hunt kerfuffle) that homeopathy is 'a scientific nonsense' that only ever works because of the placebo effect. However, she then goes on to say that, actually, that effect gives it a place in publicly funded medicine, if all other approaches haven't worked and someone might actually benefit if that person "believes in it and trusts in it and, because of the placebo effect, it works... psychology is part of medicine".

Which is actually close to Jeremy Hunt's own take (see the link above): if you're focused on patient outcomes and - as she says, you've ruled out all other serious medical conditions with known effective treatments - a placebo might give you value for money. Interestingly, I'm having difficulty finding a flaw with that. Also, it implies that people saying “Jeremy Hunt believes in magic water" are wrong – at least going by his ‘patient centring is the point’ argument. To deny someone an approach that might help them because you want to wrestle their comforting illusions off them and cuff them round the ear might make you feel intellectually superior. But if that leaves them medically worse off, what's actually been achieved?

The answer might be - as James goes on to say in the podcast - that you've reinforced the message that evidence doesn't matter in health outcomes. But of course the evidence also shows this placebo approach can work for some, so it isn't quite as clear cut as that. It's annoyingly murky, not sure what to think.

However! To end on an emphatic note: dialogue between Green Party / anti-GM / scientists = yes, let’s see that happen please. And someone please record the outcome. It needs to be ongoing, not just debating-society point-scoring nonsense. The issues are hard, and changing one’s own assumptions is not always an easy or speedy process.

Rothamsted and GM linkinz

Spent far too much of today obsessively staring at tweetdeck when I should either a) have been doing work or b) have actually gone to the Rothamsted protest. Arse. Some good ol' fashioned productivity-boosting helped.

Massive police presence kept the crop safe. I very much doubt that will stop a few from going back later on and having a go. Anyway, a bunch of links from the last few days (using lovely html export from my new favourite online tool,

Questions from Rothamsted

A Feynman quote, via Robert Wilson: 'The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.'

This weekend's protest at Rothamsted has reduced a labyrinthine issue to a single outcome: trashed, or not trashed? In our house, we're clear that GM itself is a technology like any other. Fire can cook food, keep you warm or burn your house down. Every single tech we've discovered since has followed much the same pattern. The critical factor is us. (update via Robert: "Related Feynman anecdote. A buddhist monk said to him 'the keys to the gates of heaven also open the gates of hell'.")

But that Feynman quote makes me want to spend a little time picking apart my own assumptions. Rather than actually, you know, do that, I thought I'd just get the questions down while they're sloshing about.

  • Is lab-and-field-trial based plant science too centralised to provide the adaptive outcomes our food systems we'll need in the next fifty years? (I'll get on to that one first, going back to the whole 'adaptive landscape' thing and bouncing off the IAASTD's take on biotech.)
  • Is GM technology in any way a unique risk, comparing to other plant tech (that, for decades, has included some pretty brutal radiative and chemical genome-mashing to introduce variation). Is that a plus-point for GM or just an indictment of all industrial plant science? (And impact-wise, don't forget to compare to more basic plant-based stupidity displayed way-back when. 'Splendid invasiveness' indeed - unlike any wheat cultivar I've heard of thus far.)
  • Are the crop-trashers actually right to claim - as Jenny Jones intimates - that you can't extract plant science from the corporate system? ("This research project at Rothamsted may be publishing its work openly, but we can't escape the fact that it is part of a wider approach to agriculture that is no use to poor farmers and to our future food security until we deal with the commercial problems.") Or as Simon Lewis puts it, 'Perhaps it's important to ask of scientific experiments: is this the science of the 1%. Or the 99%'. Relatedly, what private agri-companies and organisations are doing especially good things, and what marks them out?
  • Lastly: have the geekmob been manipulated - Theoden to a shadowy - network's - Wormtongue? Have we been played like a cheap pianola, to quote Douglas from Cabin Pressure? Unsurprisingly, I currently think 'no'. This looks like verdict by innuendo. But there's a bigger problem: how to think about, and deal with, networks of influence? The net is perfect for producing webs of insinuation from connections, many often the product of single 'enthusiasts'. But then, it's a networked world. How the bejeesus can science and policy function in that miasma? It is also much more personal, though: in situations where a choice has to be made, maybe we don't make the right one. Feynman is right for science as for anything else; gotta do our best to make sure we're not fooling ourselves. But how? Is lack of dialogue between sides over Rothamsted more apparent than real? Is it just the world we live in now: self-reinforcing ghettoes? If ways are found to move this conversation forward between currently opposed groups, perhaps something positive will come from all this. A reason to engage the Green Party, not withdraw?

Open letter to don't destroy research

Dear Taketheflourback,

We’ve decided Microsoft’s corporate control over the computer world has gone too far. So we’re coming to destroy your computers with a baseball bat. You’re using open source software, you say? No matter: you’re still using computers, and Microsoft make software for computers.

That’s your own logic for proposing to destroy the Rothamsted wheat trial on 27th May. You – and every single letter of support you have on your website – have woefully muddled GM technology with corporate control of the food system. They are not the same thing – any more than all computers are built by Microsoft.

GM has been turned into a symbol of corporate power. But this fails to distinguish between a technology (like programming code) and its use and control (like Microsoft versus Ubuntu). What should you do if you want to challenge Microsoft? What millions of others do: create and support open source code, and even open source manufacturing.

If you want ‘open source’, publicly owned plant science, you should support publicly funded projects like Rothamsted's – not destroy them. Rothamsted have said: the resulting crop “will not be patented and it will not be owned by any private companies”.

While you are organising this attack, global agribusiness is carrying on regardless, able to patent both GM and non-GM varieties alike. Control of our food system has indeed become dangerously centralised. Many scientists and researchers agree there is too much private control and that the nature of the global patent system stifles innovation. University departments are under pressure to seek patents - this is not something restricted to plant science. If you have an issue with this, fight against it. But this planned protest is going to achieve exactly the opposite of what you claim to want.

By attacking a publicly funded trial, all you will do is push the research further into private hands, making it less likely this vital work will lead to public benefit.

GM is one technology among many that build on our knowledge of genetics. These are used in plant labs around the world - and they all have the potential to benefit society. To take just two examples, people like Professor John Witcombe are pursuing new participatory breeding techniques in Asia. Marker-assisted selection is being used to create varieties that meet the needs of growers and their communities. A project at Leeds University is working to produce nematode-resistant strains of plant, which would be donated to African plant scientists. Over 50% of African banana yields are lost to nematodes. Their first crop was destroyed by anti-GM protestors.

Rothamsted are working on Aphid resistance. This is an issue of global importance: currently India, China and others use Endosulfan, a highly toxic chemical banned in the West, and hopefully heading towards a global ban. GM is one technology among many - including agro-ecological methods - that may help get us to a pesticide-free future.

Your website makes many claims about the uselessness of GM - but we can’t know what will succeed without trying. Predicting the failure of an experiment is clearly no basis for destroying it. This brand of selectivity and unwillingness to listen exists elsewhere – among so-called 'climate skeptics'. You are making it seem like the same level of ignorance exists in the environmental movement. Is that what you want?

You claim you are carrying out this action to prevent ‘contamination’. The likelihood of any genetic material from the experiment getting out into the wider ecosystem is vanishingly small. Wheat plants pollinate themselves. Their pollen is heavy and cannot carry far on the wind. Traditional varieties of wheat grown in the UK - over 40 of them - stay stable even without the kinds of stringent controls Rothamsted have put in place. The experiment has several buffer zones around it, one of conventional wheat to capture any stray pollen and a further buffer zone of 20 meters (nearly a swimming pool’s length) around the crop will also be kept free of any plants that could (theoretically) cross with wheat. Is this not enough?

Rothamsted have done everything in their power to meet you half way. You asked for debate – they organised and paid for a room, and George Monbiot agreed to chair. Yet – despite having time to appear on Newsnight, as well as organise the protest itself – you apparently don’t have the ‘capacity’ to attend.

It looks a lot like you’re unwilling to back down. Sadly, someone has already taken your website’s advice and carried out their own attack. But one last time: please reconsider. Do not destroy this experiment, and tell other people to stay away. Join in a debate about the future of our food system. Fight for public research: for open access to results, code and scientific discoveries. Help work out how plant scientists, UK growers and organisations like the Transition movement can work together to find new, innovative ways to develop and produce food.

The challenges we face staying within our planetary boundaries are colossal, and we should be working together to meet them. R. Buckminster Fuller said: 'you never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.'

Help build a new model – don’t destroy.

Dan Olner
Dr. Susannah Bird

Thanks for all the suggestions, either in comments on the draft or via Twitter.

An appeal from Rothamsted Research: don't destroy our crop research!

An appeal from scientists at the publicly funded Rothamsted Research and a petition.

These people are proposing to destroy a GM crop in the UK at the end of this month. As with Greenpeace's destruction of an Australian GM crop last year, this is a travesty, and damaging to the integrity of the UK's environmental movement. They're planning this action based on the flimsiest of unchecked facts - including the 'cow gene' theme of their website.

The scientists in question (see the video) have made clear they're happy to talk to them. The protestors have responded with: "We are really pleased they want to engage in a discussion. But we know that talking to them is not going to change their minds. They've declared their position because they have already put the plants in the ground." Uh huh.

Here's more on Rothamsted Research and their climate/sustainability aims.

This also supports a pet theory of mine: scientific ignorance is spread across the political spectrum. Climate denialism may be more right-wing, but that's got nothing to do with rightwingers being generally less scientifically literate, despite what various daft analyses have recently been (massively counterproductively) saying. (Hey! How best to alienate a whole chunk of the political compass!) Many instinctive free-market supporters will back GM the same way these GM-attackers instinctively buy in to climate change, without necessarily comprehending the science: their worldview provides shortcut heuristics.

My partner works on biofuels, and is about to start on a project looking at enzymes in composting and whether they can be isolated/put to use in speeding/increasing efficiency of the digestion process. There are so many fantastic scientists working hard to get us through the next 50/100 years - how can we get through to people like 'taketheflourback' that they're being counterproductive?

A one-para summary of my own view of GM: just another crop optimisation tool, no different to what potato farmers in the Andes were doing thousands of years ago. But like any tool, depends on who's using it for what. We need to support *public* funding of crop projects like this (and encourage effective private investment of benefit to all end-users) not confuse "GM" with "Monsanto".

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