As the head of a British start-up science business I have found myself deeply concerned by the reaction to the Rothamsted GM wheat trial in Harpenden, Hertfordshire. I quite firmly believe that as a society, and for the British science industry specifically, we have reached a moment of truth.
If you haven't been following this, on Sunday 27 May a demonstration was held by anti GM activists at the Rothamsted trial site, where a small patch of GM wheat is being tested. This test is authorised by UK regulators and is fully legal. The test patch is well within a much larger field of other crops that will be destroyed at the end of the trial, obviating any danger of wind drift. Rothamsted scientists have worked for years to pioneer this crop that emanates an odour repellent to aphids, an insect pest. Effectively, this GM solution -- which will be in the public domain -- replaces the use of broad-spectrum insecticide.
Rothamsted scientists have repeatedly called for dialog with their opponents, apparently to no avail. Rothamsted's scientists were auspiciously not invited by the demonstrators. Thankfully the lunch guests, who were expected to destroy the crop if they could gain access, chose not to confront a comprehensive police presence invoked because the local council obtained a trespass ban.
At Oxitec we are pioneering the development of GM insects to combat Dengue fever, other insect-borne diseases and a host of agricultural insect pests, so I am only too familiar with this vigorous debate. I believe the debate should be public and we should have a detailed analysis of the technique's efficacy and scientific credentials.
But it should never resort to threatening criminal activity. Because the media has become complicit in a campaign to polarise the GM debate, perhaps unwittingly newspapers and TV have given a platform, and tacit approval, to groups who wished to cause criminal damage to the trial site. In the past, media has similarly publicized criminal damage to animal testing facilities. This tacitly legitimizes this form of violent protest.
As a result we are witness to extreme polarity in the public space about the use of new scientific approaches instead of reasoned discussion and debate. This, I believe, is a problem that is endemic in developed countries around the world. An instinctive or ingrained fear of a new or unknown technology prevents us from zooming out and looking at the bigger picture. Our fear of the technology distracts from the need to tackle global problems, such as hunger and disease, and how GM could be used responsibly to solve them.
However, as we have seen so much before fear and the threat of criminal acts have replaced a balanced discussion and legal discourse here in the UK.
I for one am relieved that tyranny did not rule the day on Sunday. However, an increasing lack of reasoned public discourse on the responsible development and use of GM technologies will undoubtedly damage the world class scientific research that takes place here in the UK and the potential to grow a new world class industry.
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