Has the GM backlash blighted British botany?

October 20, 2000

The debate over genetically modified crops has had a big impact - but what has it meant for plant scientists? In a THES survey, Steve Farrar polled the experts' opinions.

It is a time of unparalleled excitement for those scientists who are at last starting to get to grips with the fundamental genetics of plants. Yet it is also a time when some of them talk of sabotaged experiments, cancelled projects and an apparently better future on the other side of the Atlantic.

During the debate on genetically modified crops, the plant scientists - whether involved with GM or not - have often been overlooked, misquoted or reviled.

The THES survey of many of the UK's leading experts gives them a voice. A large majority of the plant scientists who responded to the survey - 73 per cent - worked or expected to work with GM plants, many using them as a tool for the study of biology rather than for crop production. A sizeable minority thought it unlikely they would ever use the technology.

More than half of those who work or expected to work with GM plants said the anti-GM campaign had not influenced their work. Of those who found it had, some said the influence had been positive, making them more circumspect. "It has forced scientists to be more searching in their analysis of gene constructs inserted into plants and to consider risks more thoroughly," said one.

But many said it had made life harder. European Union funding was now difficult to obtain for GM plant research and many commercial sponsors had been scared off by the prospect of being publicly linked to the technology. Among abandoned projects were virus-resistant potatoes, nematode-resistant crops, sentinel plants to monitor field conditions and a GM virus to trace sources of pollution.

A number of scientists were worried about being targeted by protesters. One said his car had been vandalised after a public meeting and several reported threats. "The animal rights people include a faction that is clearly willing to use violence - no doubt the same sort of deranged personalities will associate with the anti-GM campaign," said one.

Almost half the respondents said the anti-GM campaign had made a career in plant science less attractive, although a majority of those who expected to work only with conventional varieties disagreed, with several arguing that the controversy added to its attraction.

Some talked of falling undergraduate enrolment at a number of universities, although at Oxford it had apparently risen. Many complained that a career in the field had never been an attractive proposition.

David Cooke, a project leader at the Institute of Arable Crops Research, Long Ashton, said: "Many graduates are unwilling to enter plant research, irrespective of the nature of the scientific work being done or offered, because there is no career structure, a lack of job security and relatively low pay."

Most - 62 per cent overall - felt the debate on GM had not yet proved useful and that meaningful dialogue between scientists and the public was virtually non-existent. The non-GM scientists were more optimistic - 41 per cent thought it had, on balance, been a good thing.

Gerhard Kerstiens, senior research fellow at Lancaster University, said:

"The current, open and more or less informed discussion in the population at large would not have happened without a clearly stated argument, combined with direct action publicity stunts, that is unambiguously opposed to that of the main players who have to defend their financial interests."

A great many blamed the media for peddling scare stories. One said: "The press have let the public down by sensationalising these issues rather than providing facts and objective criticism."

Nevertheless, there was wide recognition that scientists lacked the skills to communicate with the public via the media.

Jurgen Denecke, senior lecturer at Leeds University, said: "The scientists who have represented us on television did not manage to make their voices heard in an understandable manner, while extremists/activists shouted understandable propaganda. This has to change, otherwise it will be necessary for me and many others to move to a country where science is not a crime."

Others felt scientists had to shoulder much of the blame for being too dogmatic and often too arrogant to explain their work to the public.

Multinational corporations such as Monsanto were attacked by a number of scientists for aggressively pushing GM foods that had no benefit to the consumer, purely in pursuit of profit. Environmental campaigners also came in for much criticism for selective and misleading use of scientific research.

A huge majority believed the anti-GM campaign had made the climate more hostile to science in general, although many remarked that it merely fuelled pre-existing antipathy.

Tom Harwood, lecturer in horticulture at Reading University, said: "It seems the campaign is making scientists more hostile and less respectful of the general public."

Almost a quarter of the GM plant scientists, including some of the leading figures in the field, said anti-GM feeling had made them consider moving abroad to what they thought would be a less hostile environment. One said:

"There is no future here while science is hijacked for political and commercial reasons."

Likewise, 38 per cent of the GM scientists said they recommended that promising young scientists pursue their work abroad, for at least a few years, although in many cases this advice was offered, at least in part, because of the scientific opportunity, better funding and broader horizons this could offer.

Harry Smith, professor of botany at Leicester University, said: "I try to persuade those few I encourage to do research to go the States for a couple of years - the anti-GM campaign reinforces that. But there is also a growing distrust of GM in the States. The US public is being infected by the British disease."

The dissatisfaction felt by a large number of scientists working with GM plants was also illustrated by the 43 per cent who said the anti-GM climate meant that if they were starting their careers again they would move abroad or choose a different discipline.

One said: "If I were younger, the dust of Europe wouldn't touch my feet. I find the (anti-GM) attitude so offensive and anti-intellectual, anti-science and anti-elitist, that I will be taking early retirement to remove myself from contact with such badly informed, bigoted and ignorant groups."

Another said: "It is hard enough to find time for research and the funding to support it in UK universities without the fear of plant-growing facilities being trashed."

A third said: "Destruction of field trials is not far removed from the burning of books."

Despite this, most scientists said they had every intention of remaining in the UK. Some believed the technology would ultimately be accepted and that the risk was handing the initiative in the field to American scientists. Others did not believe the triumph of GM was a foregone conclusion.

The overwhelming majority believed the last government's mishandling of the BSE crisis had significantly contributed to the UK anti-GM climate. "It contributed to the public view that scientists are a tool of government and that our work is not objective and generally cannot be trusted," said one.

Andy Cuming, senior lecturer in genetics at Leeds University, said: "The worst support for GM is to have a 'government spokesman' telling the public that it is perfectly safe."

Very few scientists, just 7 per cent overall, felt the present government's response to the anti-GM campaign had made the situation better. Many more, 40 per cent, felt its actions had made things worse and 44 per cent did not feel it had had any impact.

Some pinpointed the government's GM crop field trials as particularly damaging because they sought to draw sweeping conclusions about safety from a limited number of specific GM plants, as well as claiming that a buffer zone tens of metres in size was sufficient to prevent contamination of nearby fields, when viable pollen can be transported by the wind for many kilometres.

A common complaint was the damage done by an apparent U-turn in official support for the technology. Colin Lazarus, a researcher at Bristol University, said: "The government tends to put popularity at the top of its agenda and has done little to support the rational case for GM. It seemed to start out in support, but did not have the courage to maintain its convictions in the face of hostility."

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY...

Alan Rayner, reader in applied plant sciences, Bath University

"The debate may have alerted the public to the restricted vision and erroneous presuppositions of analytical science and alerted scientists to the fact that their assertions based on these presuppositions are not necessarily going to be believed. But I suspect the attitude of most scientists continues to be that the problem is one of presentation to people who don't understand science, rather than being indicative of deep difficulties inherent in their over-simplified approach to predicting the potentially complex long-term behaviour of dynamic systems and an inability to see the larger picture."

Mark Tester, head of the plant stress biology group at Cambridge University:

"I would be happy to see the first generation of GM crops sink, if it means the technology can be used in the longer term for other applications. I think it has such important uses for developing countries in the future that I am willing to do anything I can to try to ensure this possibility remains. I am scared that because of the self-centred concerns of rich westerners, who do not need the technology, we will not be able to deploy its power to enable those less wealthy than ourselves to use it for their survival and improvement."

Sue Brandt, research fellow in botany, Reading University:

"I find myself in the curious position of being pleased about the public hysteria - although it is misplaced, it may be the only way to bring pressure to bear on the government to act more responsibly and, in turn, to put pressure on the biotech companies. GM technology has many potential benefits - but it has the potential to bring about more serious ecological damage than all the problems brought about by the use of pesticides over the past 60 years."

Colin Lazarus, researcher at Bristol University:

"I don't really believe most people have a view on GM or anything else. The supermarkets have never sold as much beef as when - at the height of the BSE crisis - they slashed its price. People act primarily in their own economic interests. Their 'opinions' are those of the media, and I can't envisage newspaper sales rocketing on the basis of 'GM foods no worse than conventional produce' as a banner headline. The marketing of the first genetically modified products was a fiasco. What is needed is a clear price differential between GM and the rest. The public will forget its fears when confronted with cheaper food."

Harry Smith, professor of botany, Leicester University:

"As yet, the anti-GM lobby has not tried to stop us using transgenic technology in pure research. But I can foresee a day when the campaigners may become so successful in their current goals that they will. As can be seen from the evolution versus creation crisis in some southern US states, once an irrational minority gets its way, it can cause real havoc."

GM plant scientist and former member of Greenpeace (anonymous):

"Environmental considerations were a major reason for getting involved in plant genetic research. In the 1990s, environmental groups were arguing that where possible, renewable resources should be used. For raw materials, this ultimately means plants - whether for biodegradable plastics, new fabrics or oil/alcho fuels. I believe many of the protests have been orchestrated to promote support for the protest organisations rather than on sound environmental grounds. An organisation the size of Greenpeace must win a high-profile campaign at least every 18 months in order to maintain 'brand awareness'."


THE IMPACT OF THE GM DEBATE ON PLANT SCIENCES

Scientists who use or expect to use GM
73% (90)

1. Has the anti-GM campaign influenced your own research plans?
Yes: 43% (39)
No: 57% (51)

2. Do you think the anti-GM campaign is making a career in plant sciences less attractive?
Yes: 52% (47)
No: 37% (33)

3. Do you think the anti-GM campaign is making the national climate more hostile to science in general?
Yes: 86% (77)
No: 10% (9)

4. Has it ultimately prompted a useful debate and hence better dialogue between scientists and the public?
Yes: 32% (29)
No: 64% (58)

5. Has anti-GM feeling made you consider moving to a nation such as the US, where there is less hostility?
Yes: 24% (22)
No: 73% (66)

6. Does the national climate make you more likely to advise a young, promising plant scientist to pursue their research abroad?
Yes: 38% (34)
No: 58% (52)

7. If you were starting yourscientific career now, would the anti-GM campaign make you consider either pursuing research outside plant science or look to work abroad?
Yes: 43% (39)
No: 51% (46)

8. Do you believe the government's handling of the BSE crisis made a significant contribution to the UK's anti-GM climate?
Yes: 88% (79)
No: 8% (7)

9. Do you believe the government's response to the anti-GM campaign has made the situation better or worse?
Better: 6% (6)
Worse: 36% (32)
No impact: 47% (42)

Scientists who do not use or expect to use GM

1. Has the anti-GM campaign influenced your own research plans?
Yes: 3% (1)
No: 97% (33)

2. Do you think the anti-GM campaign is making a career in plant sciences less attractive?
Yes: 38% (13)
No: 59% (20)

3. Do you think the anti-GM campaign is making the national climate more hostile to sciencein general?
Yes: 76% (26)
No: 24% (8)

4. Has it ultimately prompted a useful debate and hence better dialogue between scientists and the public?
Yes: 41% (14)
No: 56% (19)

5. Has anti-GM feeling made you consider moving to a nation such as the US, where there is less hostility?
Yes: 6% (2)
No: 94% (32)

6. Does the national climate make you more likely to advise a young, promising plant scientist to pursue their research abroad?
Yes: 18% (6)
No: 82% (28)

7. If you were starting your scientific career now, would the anti-GM campaign make you consider either pursuing research outside plant science or look to work abroad?
Yes: 15% (5)
No: 85% (29)

8. Do you believe the government's handling of the BSE crisis made a significant contribution to the UK's anti-GM climate?
Yes: 94% (32)
No: 3% (1)

9. Do you believe the government's response to the anti-GM campaign has made the situation better or worse?
Better: 8% (3)
Worse: 53% (18)
No impact: 35% (12)

Academic departments with a 4 rating or above in the last research assessment exercise were selected, and a total of 375 scientists, from group leaders to institute directors, were contacted. Thirty-one universities and public-funded research institutes were involved. Just under a third of those contacted - 124 - choose to record their opinions. The percentages include uncertain or blank responses to individual questions.

 

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