Protests in the Park


Some excellent posts have already been written on today's events by Rebecca Nesbit and Sillypunk, but I thought I'd add my own impressions now that my brain has cooled down enough to string a semi-coherent sentence together.

It was rather surreal to walk into Rothamsted Park around eleven thirty on a brilliantly sunny day to see chestnut trees in bloom, families walking dogs and a massive police presence.  Members of both the anti-gm protest and the pro-research counterprotest had already arrived and assembled in their separate camps at the back of the park, and after a slightly confused few minutes during which I attempted to join the wrong group I found the counterprotest and started putting a few faces to Twitter handles.

Police horses looking cool in sunglasses
Both groups quickly did their best to live up to their stereotypes, with the anti-gm protestors singing folksongs and members of the pro-research group huddling in the shade to be better able to see their lcd screens and swapping tips on extending phone battery life.  It quickly became apparent though that we were so far apart that any dialogue between groups would have to be conducted by semaphore so in dribs and drabs we wandered over to the anti-gm protest to hear what the speakers had to say.

Although after the media briefing Rothamsted scientists had originally planned to talk to Take the flour back in the park, with their refusal to rule out destructive measures it was considered best for them to stay behind the police line and for protestors to be escorted to them in small groups.  Sadly there didn't seem to be much interest in discussions with them, an attitude I encountered myself when I asked for a right of reply to the speeches which contained some misinterpretations (the trial was asserted to be useless because it was carried out in spring wheat wheareas winter wheat which is more widely grown in the UK, and I would have likeld the opportunity to explain that it was only a proof of concept trial, rather than a trial of the final variety) and some outright misunderstandings (the incorrect statement that the wheat contains a gene from cows, the claim that gm crops were directly responsible for the suicides of thousands of farmers in India).  I was told in no uncertain terms by the chap directing the speakers that they didn't want to listen because they'd already heard everything I would have to say in the media.  I found this a rather depressing attitude - so many of the speakers were repeating completely unverifiable or downright untrue claims and I thought it was sad that they weren't willing to consider the evidence for and against these claims.  I know I keep linking to this blog post but it's an excellent discussion of the perceptual filters that colour our view of the world - surely the only way to become aware of and evaluate the distorting effect of these filters is to be willing to consider the evidence for and against your poistion?

I have to admit that by this point I was feeling rather dispirited, and as nothing much seemed to be happening at this point I went off in search of lunch (the biggest winner of the day was probably the Harpenden Farmers' Market, which was doing a roaring trade to members of both groups) with a couple of other protestors.  This proved to be a slight tactical miscalculation as just as we got back to the park the anti-gm group flocked towards the Rothamsted fence, forcing us geeks, already weakened by exposure to sunlight, to break into a run.

Anti-gm protestors assemble by the fence.
Things did look tense for a few moments, and several protestors split off from the main group and raced towards what they thought were gaps in the police line.  However there were easily more police present than protestors in both camps together and they were quickly apprehended and turned away.  There was a moment's confusion when I mistook the person organising a sitdown protest on Twitter for a member of the pro-research camp and tried to encourage our group to join in, and further confusion when Take the flour back mistook me for a supporter, but after that excitement things calmed down and the remainder of the protest was peaceful with no further attempts to enter the site.

Protestors attempting to enter the site are turned away by police

We then initiated our own sit down, chow down protest and ate our lunch and it was at that point that things started to get interesting.  Until that point all our attempts at initiating dialogue had been rebuffed, but at this point people started coming up to us to talk.  One woman was extremely angry and delivered a lecture on how transgenes could contaminate the soil and the rain before storming away, followed by her tweenage son who clearly wished he was somewhere else, but we did speak to a fair number of people interested in genuine conversations about their concerns and in finding common ground.  Discussions with a group of Permaculture students from Bristol were particularly fascinating, and certainly helped me to get a better understanding of peoples' concerns.

What I think I took away from this was that there are three main strands of concerns about genetic modification:
  1. The idea that genomes are sacrosanct and any movement of genes between organisms is unacceptable meddling with nature.  As a scientist familiar with natural examples of gene transfer between organisms this isn't a position I can agree with, indeed I consider it to be amazing evidence of how connected all organisms are, but I can understand that it is an article of faith for some people and, like religious faith, not really amenable to change by debate.
  2. Concerns over the safety of gm crops, both to the environment and to human health. This is an area where I really feel we can challenge misinformation, as these claims are verifiable by empirical evidence rather than personal belief.  The challenge is to ensure the evidence isn't disbelieved because of concerns about the biases or hidden agenda of the person presenting it, but by being open and honest throughout the process I hope we can combat these impressions.
  3. Concerns about the application and commercialisation of gm crops.  Although my opinion of the necessity of the fundamental research hasn't changed, one positive consequence of these discussions is that I've learned a lot about the issues involved in this.  To my mind this is an argument for campaigning to ensure that legislation catches up with the technology that has run ahead, rather than for slowing the technology down, but it certainly has made me think harder about how scientific advances are likely to be implemented, rather than simply how they occur.
One thing I am certain of though is that the openness with which Rothamsted has conducted this discussion has helped, by making those people who were curious enough to question feel they could approach us for a dialogue. Long may the conversation continue.  Only not tonight please, I'm knackered.