GM Free Cymru

Rothamsted Retrospect: Media poisoned by GM vitriol

With respect to the Guardian's ongoing -- one might even say obsessive-- campaign in support of GM crops in general and the Rothamsted GM wheat trial in particular, at last somebody with the courage to say it like it is. Below we copy a great article from Lawrence Woodward. We agree with every word of it. It has been an enlightening -- if depressing -- experience to see how the UK and global media have simply regurgitated the Rothamsted and Sense About Science press releases which have portrayed the GM wheat protestors as vandals and Luddites, driven by emotion if not hysteria, and with no respect for science. The right-wing media and the farming press were clearly carefully briefed by SAS, and concentrated on the "Don't Destroy Research" campaign which was heavily promoted on the Rothamsted and SAS web sites and also through the extensive use of social media. Not a single journalist, as far as we are aware, took the instigators of this campaign to task for asking people to vote for a generalist proposition which was then entirely inappropriately applied to the specific matter of the Rothamsted GM wheat trial. The "reasonable and open" GM scientists from Rothamsted were in our view both unscientific and unethical in boasting that more than 4,000 people had signed a petition supporting the trial when they had done nothing of the sort -- they had in fact voted for research in general to be allowed to proceed without being damaged or destroyed. That was both disingenuous and devious.

The media campaign around the time of the GM wheat trial protests was so shallow as to be embarrassing. As Lawrence Woodward points out in his short piece below, not one of the journalists properly examined the scientific justification for the GM wheat trial -- they seem simply to have accepted that since it was being proposed and run by scientists, that was all perfectly all right. The "Take Back the Flour" protestors made a number of considered points relating to the scientific deficiencies of the trial, but the media were so intent upon portraying them as hysterical and emotional vandals that they gave hardly any coverage to the points they were making. That was typical of the irresponsible bias that ran through the reportage of the trials and the protests. Not one mainstream journalist, as far as we could see, made the point that the GM wheat trial has little scientific justification, and that it was given funding and consent for political rather than scientific reasons. Everybody knows that the UK government -- and the research funding organizations -- want at least one GM trial to be under way in 2012-2014 as a signal to the US administration and the WTO that GM work is ongoing in this country, and as a signal to the small and beleaguered GM research community that somebody out there wants them to battle on, in spite of public antipathy and even animosity.

The final element in this story, as covered with due bias in the media, was the "plea" from the scientists, led by John Pickett, for an open scientific debate with the protestors at which all of the scientific pros and cons might be aired. The media were led by the noses to accept that this "offer" was entirely reasonable -- and indeed they were highly critical of the protestors when they refused to walk into a trap which had been carefully prepared for them. Quite reasonably, the "Take Back the Flour" protestors explained that they did not want a technical debate on terms dictated by GM scientific zealots, since their protests were based on social, environmental and economic considerations as well as on scientific ones. Instead of accepting the logic of this position, the media simply reiterated the argument that this standoff was between rational and reasonable scientists on the one hand and woolly and emotional green hooligans on the other. If nothing else, the media love their stereotypes........

Not one of the reporters who covered this story mentioned the deep irony centred on the person of Dr John Pickett, the leader of the GM wheat trial research team. He was the one pleading most vociferously for the protestors to desist from destroying his research, in the full knowledge that the security measures in place (at taxpayers expense) were such that destruction was well nigh impossible. And he was one of the scientists who played a leading role in the destruction of the Rowett Institute GM safety research project in 1999, following the discovery by Arpad Pusztai and his colleagues that rats which consumed GM potatoes suffered health damage. Dr Pickett's shady past was drawn to the attention of the media, but not one of them chose to bring it to the attention of the public.............

This has been a singularly unedifying episode in which supine reporters have made no attempt whatsoever to get to grips with the real issues highlighted by the protestors, and in which quite senior journalists have done a grave disservice to the GM debate by simply repeating and elaborating on the aggressive vilification of a small band of citizens who, when all is said and done, have broken no laws. Furthermore, they actually represent the views of the majority of the British population.


Lawrence Woodward, GM Education UK, date 1st June 2012

The Guardian carried an article by James Randerson on the 30th May entitled „The GM debate is growing up" saying that those people protesting against the Rothamsted GM wheat trial seemed to be "fanatical" whilst the scientists were full of "reason and openness". It also highlighted the efforts of The Science Media Centre -- failing to mention that this authoritatively sounding body is little more than an industry lobbying agency.

I was sufficiently appalled by the article to risk the insult infested Guardian comment thread to post the following response:

James Randerson talks about the "reason and openness of the scientists". I can accept media smart but "open" is another matter; mesmerising is nearer the mark because journalists seem to have been hypnotised into a state where they have been incapable of asking any penetrating questions and ignoring the inconsistencies in the Rothamsted statements.

There have been a couple of versions of what the trial is about; discrepancies between early statements about the interest and engagement from industry and later ones saying that it has no industry focus at all; a lack of clarity about the characteristics and provenance of the genes and the trial protocols; and a string of different stories about why Spring Wheat (a crop where aphids are a relatively minor problem) -- all of which raise questions.

Running these inconsistencies to ground may be beyond the time or capacity of today's media but highlighting that Rothamsted hasn't had its story straight and investigating why not must surely be within the capability of at least one journalist -- even if such are unlikely to be employed by The Guardian.

Important public interest questions relating to the direction of taxpayer funded research and the relationship of publicly funded institutions with intellectual property, patents and commercialisation through multi-national corporations are raised by this trial but have not been asked or pressed by any journalist.

I am not being "anti-capitalist" here but simply pointing out that in the new world of the "knowledge based bio-economy" publicly funded institutions like Rothamsted are encouraged by the government to commercialise knowledge (including intellectual property and patents) along the US model and a close working relationship with industry is part of it. Of course Rothamsted and the UK's other GM research institutions are doing that. They have a director with an appropriate track record -- and it is naive for anyone (but supine journalists) to take reassurances that this research has nothing to do with that approach at face value.

Exploiting opportunities in the "bio-economy" is now seen as an important part of the overall economy and there is not necessarily anything wrong with it but there are important questions -- and not just technical ones -- to be asked and answered in an open and transparent way about how that is pursued and particularly so with GM technology which (like it or not) is an issue that concerns many people. The media has a crucial role here but in this case it has been led nose first by the Science Media Centre lobbyists and too wrapped up in "protester bashing" to investigate what is really behind this research and the context in which it has been funded and structured.

James Randerson is correct to say that this trial has "cast the whole GM debate in a new light". It has exposed too many journalists as unquestioning, supine and not fit for purpose.