GM debate cut down by threats and abuse

October 24, 2003

Plant scientists using the technology of genetic modification are being driven out of the UK by increasingly vicious protests. Anna Fazackerley talks to some of them

Plant scientists are questioning whether to continue to engage in the genetic modification debate in the face of growing levels of physical and mental intimidation.

Monsanto, the world's largest GM seed company, became the latest biotechnology company to abandon the UK last week. The US firm confirmed it would close its European cereal business headquarters, which is based in Cambridgeshire, for purely strategic reasons.

But many scientists believe that the increasingly violent anti-GM lobby did nothing to persuade Monsanto to stay and that the hardcore tactics of protesters are affecting the UK's ability to sustain biotechnology research in areas such as GM.

Tony Trewavas, professor of applied biochemistry at the University of Edinburgh, told The THES : "There has been so much agitation that anyone with any sense has simply left the country."

Professor Trewavas is one of a number of scientists in this field who are regularly singled out on anti-GM websites, such as the Norfolk Genetic Information Network. He has devoted considerable time to the GM debate but is now keen to take more of a backseat.

He said the intimidation by anti-GM lobbyists was mirroring animal-rights activism, and he urged the government to intervene to protect researchers.

"I receive a lot of letters in the post, usually insults saying I don't know what I'm talking about. I get verbal threats, but you can never be sure they don't mean anything," he said.

The desire to step out of the limelight has become common among researchers working on GM.

Gary Foster, professor in molecular plant pathology at the University of Bristol, said: "The feeling of most scientists is that few want to stick their head above the parapet and express their views because of how well the anti-GM movement is organised."

Michael Wilson, chief executive of Horticulture Research International, which is soon to merge with the University of Warwick, told The THES that he was frequently greeted with abuse from "a baying mob" of anti-GM activists when he spoke about the issues in public.

He said: "I gave a speech at the World Development Forum last week and it was like wrestling with snakes in jelly. I spent the night sleeplessly wondering whether I could have said things better, but it is difficult."

Professor Wilson, whose name and address were recently published by The Daily Mail in an article condemning pro-GM scientists, has received a string of personal threats over the past five years. The worst of these was in 1998, when he had to call the bomb squad out to his house.

"Being a researcher in this area is becoming very depressing. Exciting research is being vilified, and we are faced with inaccuracy, lies and ignorance. It just grinds you down," he said.

Chris Leaver, head of plant sciences at the University of Oxford, warned that the UK was no longer a comfortable place to pursue research in his field.

Professor Leaver has recently gone ex-directory in a bid to stop abusive telephone calls and faxes about GM.

"I'm not particularly pro or anti-GM, but I believe it is a technology we have to evaluate with research, discussion and debate," he said.

Anti-GM lobbyists have also attacked the Royal Society, despite its protestations that it is not on one side or the other. A spokesperson for the society said: "The media has played a role, but also the anti-GM campaigners have tried to portray us as pro-GM and even in the pocket of industry. That is simply not true."

As well as personal threats, scientists are facing a steep decline in research funding in this area. Researchers say they are able to win some grants for fundamental blue-skies research, but they are finding it almost impossible to obtain funding for applied research.

John Gatehouse, who conducts research on plant-insect interactions at the University of Durham, said: "The industry has gone. British biotechnology is dead in the water."

Last week's news from Monsanto was a further blow to the University of Cambridge, which had links with the company and is already losing three staff from its plant sciences department.

Mark Tester, senior lecturer in plant science at Cambridge, is moving to the Waite Institute in Adelaide, Australia, because he feels he cannot further his research career in the current UK climate. He explained his current basic plant research was well funded, but there was no chance of doing the really exciting applied work, relating his research to crops.

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