Why Take The Flour Back are wrong and I’m leaving the Green Party

A group calling themselves Take The Flour Back are opposed to Genetically Modified wheat. Their plan is to visit Rothamsted Park on the 27th of May 2012 and destroy the GM crops being grown as part of the experiment described here:

“Scientists from Rothamsted Research are conducting a controlled experiment to test wheat, genetically modified to repel greenfly and blackfly, which could help reduce pesticide use and promote sustainable agriculture in the future.”

Scientists from Rothamsted Research recorded this video in an effort to open dialogue with the protesters.

You can read a written message from the scientsts here: Rothamsted Appeal Letter [PDF file]

Misinformation

The protest group make a few assertions in favour of their vandalism:

Rothamsted have planted a new GM wheat trial designed to repel aphids. It contains genes for antibiotic-resistance and an artificial gene ‘most similar to a cow’.

Rothamsted deny that they have used any genetic material from cows.  In fact, the odour is produced by a protein called (E)-β-farnesene which is also produced by hundreds of other plants including plants which we consume, such as Hops. Rothamsted state: “To suggest that we have used a ‘cow gene’ and that our wheat is somehow part-cow betrays a misunderstanding which may serve to confuse people or scare them but has no basis in scientific reality.”

There is no market for GM wheat anywhere in the world.

This isn’t true. Plenty of GM products are sold and consumed, although some of that is through abusive behaviour by large US businesses. That is a different problem to address. Perhaps they mean that people are generally opposed to GM food, but whether true or not that should not stop experiments that could have far-reaching benefits. People should be allowed to make their own choice. I fully support the idea that any product sold which contains GM ingredients should be labelled to allow people to choose.

This experiment is tax-payer funded, but Rothamsted hope to sell any patent it generates to an agro-chemical company.

Rothsted completely refute this:

Our work is publically funded, we have pledged that our results will not be patented and will not be
owned by any private company – if our wheat proves to be beneficial we want it to be available to
farmers around the world at minimum cost.

Take The Flour Back continue:

La Via Campesina, the world’s largest organisation of peasant farmers, believe GM is increasing world hunger. They have called for support resisting GM crops, and the control over agriculture that biotech gives to corporations.

I wonder how this organisation can support this statement. I do not believe that GM crops increase world hunger, but I do know that large companies are abusing patents to force the purchase of GM seeds in many cases. This is a problem with those companies and not with GM products.

‘Take the Flour Back’ will be a nice day out in the country, with picnics, music from Seize the Day and a decontamination. It’s for anyone who feels able to publically help remove this threat and those who want to show their support for them.

Wrong. That should read:

Take the Flour Back’ will be a nice day out in the country, with picnics, music from Seize the Day and vandalism and destruction of scientific experiments before the evidence can be gathered by people who fear what they do not understand.

A news story on the Green Party website also added:

The trial is happening in the open air, meaning that when it starts to flower it can cross contaminate other wheat crops and wild grasses. This is a real threat.

However this is false. The wheat used for this experiment is self-pollinating and the flower fertilises itself rather than dispersing pollen through the air to another plant. The seeds are too heavy to disperse in the wind and the plant has no adaptations to facilitate insect pollination. Even so, the researchers have taken precautions against contamination:

The GM plots will be separated from the edge of the trial by 10 meters of barley (or space) plus a 3 metre ‘pollen barrier’ of wheat that helps to contain pollen from the GM plants within the trial site. All these plants are treated as though they are GM and harvested /destroyed at the end of the trial. There will be no cereals grown for 20 metres outside the boundary of the site and no wild relatives of wheat that can cross with our cultivated variety exist in the vicinity.
Couch grass species, distant relatives of wheat will be controlled in a 20 metre wide area around the trial site to avoid any slight possibility of cross-pollination.

The right to protest

I am completely in favour of a right to free speech and the right to protest, even with people that I do not agree with. However, I am horrified at the idea of destroying scientific research. To make good policy we need knowledge, we need evidence. We obtain evidence through research. To destroy this research before we have any results is like setting fire to a library. Risk assessments have been carried out, precautions have been taken, consultations were carried out. Even if those who object did not engage at that time surely if there were a danger then they could attempt to stop things now through legal processes which will make a decision based on evidence. I think the protesters have probably not done so because the evidence is not on their side.

Why I am leaving the Green Party

I have explained why I oppose Take The Flour Back, but I am also resigning my membership of The Green Party over this issue. London Assembly Member and former candidate for London Mayor Jenny Jones tweeted on the 10th of May:

https://twitter.com/GreenJennyJones/status/200465542736396289

This was followed up with a news story on the Green Party website which repeated some of the false statements made by Take The Flour Back and announced that Jenny Jones would attend the protest.

I believe this represents support from the Green Party for vandalism and the destruction of scientific experiments. One of the reasons that I took a long time to join the Green Party after betrayal by the Liberal Democrats in 2010 was the anti-science attitude that I saw with their policies supporting homeopathy and reacting against many things out of fear and contrary to evidence. Indeed, the Green Party knew that this was a problem and recently made an effort to make their policies evidence based. I joined about three months ago when I thought that things had changed but this fiasco over GM experiments has left me feeling that I cannot trust the party. Perhaps I have given the Greens less of a chance than I did the LibDems but after one betrayal I am not waiting around for another.

I no longer feel that I can trust political parties. Manifesto pledges mean nothing. Promises seem to lead to the exact opposite behaviour. Politicians happily lie and mislead the public as to their true intentions. I’ve learnt my lesson. I sent in my resignation to the Green Party a few minutes ago and I will no longer support any political party.

There is a campaign by Sense About Science and a you can sign the petition asking people not to destroy research.

Further Reading

Take the flour back

Rothamsted Research

Rothamsted Wheat Trial: Second generation GM technology to emulate natural plant defence mechanisms

I wish to thank my wife and scientific adviser, Karen Sumpter (@missnfranchised)

Author: Latentexistence

The world is broken and I can't fix it because I am broken. I can, however, rant about it all and this is where I do that when I can get my thoughts together. Most of the time you'll find my words on Twitter rather than here though. I sometimes write for Where's The Benefit too.

39 thoughts on “Why Take The Flour Back are wrong and I’m leaving the Green Party”

  1. Very disappointing – I too quit the LibDems (the final straw for me being the health bill) and briefly thought about the Greens, but remain unconvinced by the actions of what is best described as their anti-intellectual wing. I can’t find a political home that is principled rather than opportunistic, concerned with the environment and social justice, responsible, rational and evidence-based. So it looks like I’ll be an independent too.

  2. With you 100% with regards to being pro-science and anti-vandalism, but disagree with your conclusion. It’s times like these when we need to step up our political engagement – rather than leaving, why not work within the party (ideally Greens, Lib Dems if you prefer) to promote understanding?

    I appreciate that leaving can be a form of protest. In the grand scheme of things though, you have to ask who best represents your opinions on a broad range of issues. Put another way, who has acted in a way that annoys you most often? Personally, I can lists a whole load of objections to voting Labour (wars, human rights, academies) and Lib Dem (tuition fees and all the other coalition crap). But science is still really the only arena where I’ve felt that the Greens don’t represent me.

    Party politics is a rubbish system, but it’s the one we’re stuck with and you need to be in it to get things done.

    tl;dr Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

  3.  I’m intrigued – how heavy are the seeds if they can’t be spread by wind? I mean, we’ve all seen strong gusts of wind throw around Coke cans, branches, etc so if these seeds can’t be spread by the wind, they must be very heavy indeed.

    1.  Of course they can be spread by the wind if it’s strong enough.  The point however is that the seeds do not naturally disperse this way and so are incredibly unlikely (infinitesimally so) to find and cross-pollinate with another plant.  This is the kind of science that primary school children up and down the country learn and understand.   Imagine your wind-blown Coke can falling out of a recycling bin specifically for Coke cans, being blown about for a bit and then utterly by chance being blown back into an entirely different recycling bin specifically for Coke cans.  It’s less likely than that.

    2. Actually it’s harder for the wind to move an object smaller than a couple of millimetres in size than it is something much larger. It’s because of the way air slows down near a surface, and the area of the object being related to how much force it experiences. 

  4. Interesting article. The difficulty with GM technology does not perhaps lie with the science itself but the difficulties stated such as abusive and unethical business practices. As a species we are quite clearly polluting our environment more efficiently than we can clear up after ourselves, herein lies people’s frustration and opposition to another possible threat.
    I would be interested to know more about the implications of anti-biotic resistance in the food chain and how insects will be deterred by a 12ft fence.

    1. The main cause of antibiotic resistance is overprescribing of antibiotics, allegedly  in hospitals – no doubt we shall soon see Greens ‘decontaminating’ hospitals by burning them down.  

    2.  Not relevant but just as a point of information … carrot flies can’t clear a 6 inch wall!

  5. I came here to say more or less what Thomas Wright said. Why did you join the Green party if you agreed with *everything* they stood for. What’s the point? You may as well just donate to them and let them get on with standing for what you support. What’s happening now seems like exactly the reason you would join them, to take moments like this and fight to change the party.

    None of the other political parties have memberships that hold completely uniform views. They are coalitions of many views, each fighting to be the dominant one (often quite publicly). If you quit the Greens then that is one less voice supporting your views (which, for the record, are the the right ones). Not every other member of the party supports this protest and if you quit, you give the other people who oppose it less supporting voices in the party.

    1. I can’t speak for the OP, but I can say this…

      It’s not about differing views, it’s about prevailing patterns of repugnant behavior, which appear to be the norm across the board, regardless of the party.

      To me, then, the answer would seem to be to dump them all. And, if you’re feeling really ambitious, start a new one… or maybe some sort of meta-party upholding a certain code of conduct that members of any party could join?

      1. That is exactly it. It was the appearance of an anti-science attitude as the norm in the Green Party which prevented me from joining for a long time. I joined after the party specifically addressed this issue but I am very worried now that although the manifesto may have changed, the mindset has not. Evidence based policy has become an essential feature of my politics.

  6. I will join the Green Party for this. We should not allow trials of this kind until we have the framework to prevent the unethical practices you decry, and until the company can prove a 3 metre “barrier” of normal wheat will protect other farmers from cross-contamination.

  7. I think you’re making a big mistake. Ignoring my cynicism about the possibility of any profit making company giving up their intellectual rights in the interests of world peace, there is no such thing as an exclusively self-pollinating plant. Any plant that uses sexual reproduction will ‘try’ to be pollinated by another plant of its species in preference to self-pollination, even if it is capable of it. It’s about a general tendency for nature to attempt to widen its gene pool if it can.

    As for the seeds being too heavy to be distributed by the wind that is not the issue; the pollen certainly is and that’s where the danger lies.

    GM companies’ claims of ‘far reaching benefits’ for the developing world etc also ring hollow. There is not an infinite capacity to increase yields just from selection of the plants, the quality of land and the soil can act as a brake on that too. It’s propaganda designed to neutralise opposition to companies getting developing world farmers over an economically dependent barrel. To state that this is down to the abusive behaviour of companies and nothing to do with the technology is nonsense, the two are intertwined. GM companies are producing this technology for the simple reason of increasing profits, not for the good of mankind.

    So opposition to GM crops isn’t some hippy anti-science nonsense, it is science led with added concern of the wider socio-economic effects. Skeptics should challenge anti-science ideologies but that doesn’t mean that social concerns and morals must be ignored. People in white coats have hidden agendas too.

  8. Great post.  I’m also a Green Party member because they’re the only party serious about tacking inequality and social justice.  But the attitude to science is appalling, and I’m considering leaving as well.  I thought I’d have a quick look at current party policy, as I thought a lot of the anti-science idiocy had gone. 

    Oddly, reading the S&T policy, I don’t see how today’s statements are compatible with a policy commitment to the Haldane Principle and there’s nothing in there whatsoever about preventing research – still less about supporting or actively or passively condoning its destruction. 

    http://policy.greenparty.org.uk/st

  9. What people need to understand is GM means genetically modified.  I can modify a seed in thousands of different ways.  That means each seed strain will not be the same as any other strain. They should be considered on an individual basis, not as a group. Would we ban prescription drugs, destroy chemists’ shops on the basis of the effects of thalidamide when pregnant women were once given it?  Of course not. 

    I am not convinced the use of GM technology will solve our global problems.  Nor am I convinced consumer choice is enough – labels won’t  carry warnings about the level of farmer suicides, farmer debts, in another part of the world.  Many many blogs and papers have been written about the terrible impact of companies taking patents out on DNA.  The effects were predictable right from the start.  That, however is an issue with patent law, not the seeds themselves.

    We need to take a scientific view of these gentically modified crops.  We must also take into consideration their long term economic impact on societies who are *sold* them. We must also take a long term view on the effects these seeds may have on the ecosystem.  Science is the tool we use to test the value of the crop to our food systems and our environment. 

    Society again has a role to play to here.  If we refuse to publicly fund work for scientists to do, if we allow laws for these tech companies to be shredded, we leave scientists with little choice but to work for these companies if they want a decent home and food on the table. Create a better society and their talents won’t be wasted on min wage jobs, or working on unsound scientific projects.  It really is about more than consumer choice, it’s about public choices.

    The equivalent of burning books nor the waste of great minds, talent, indeed, is no way for civilisation to proceed.

  10. Why do ‘third parties’ love false facts and conspiracy theories to the point of eating their own? 

  11. Hello there.  I’ve read this as it’s been retweeted a lot, and as such alot of people must have read it.
    So I feel compelled to make the point – you are leaving the Greens as you feel you can’t trust them, and also no other political party.  Is it not possible therefore to wonder if a government funded research project might possibly be bending the truth when they say they will NEVER sell their findings?  We live in a world where many think it’s acceptable to gamble on basic food prices for their own personal gain… stranger things have happened.  This is not just pro and anti science.  Science does not exist outside of human nature, capitalism, lobbying…

    If anyone is interested in stopping banks speculating on food prices – a real solution to world poverty NOW – you could go to this event… or read more on the WDM site.

    http://www.wdm.org.uk/events/people-versus-banks

  12. The biggest concern is that the “protestors” will destroy some of the experimental plots on the site which have been going since Edwardian times, and which are impossible to replace or replicate and of immense importance to understanding the environmental effects of cultivation over very long periods of time. It is most unlikely that Rothampstead would be doing any new trials which jeopardized these, and there’s no comparing this trial with things like Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” soya, which only had to do the things it was designed to do in order to be a bad thing.

  13. I agree with you, good post.

    I didn’t like the big companies that were involved in early GM for profit where they paired particular weed killer resistant crops with the weed killers to go with them. I think this particular research is far more valid, a lot more worthwhile and less risky.

    My late father became director of the old MAFF Plant Pathology Laboratory at Hatching Green (next door to Rothamsted but now unfortunately defunct like many of the brilliant government science research labs) just as Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” was published in the early ’60s.  At that time we were spraying massive amounts of pesticides, fungicides and herbicides over just about everything without a care in the world.  There were chemical residues in many foodstuffs and also in the food chain of wild animals, birds etc. I remember my father giving my mother instructions to peel the first couple of millimetres off all the root vegetables!  It took a lot to get all these dangerous chemicals either banned or heavily controlled.

    This enlightened research that Rothamsted are carrying out should be allowed to continue to prove if it will be worthwhile. People should realise that growing very large fields of a single crop isn’t “natural” anyway and that those crops have been selectively bred over millennia from plants like wild grasses.

  14. I read your blog from time to time and some things you say I am in total agreement of however on this occasion I would highly recommend that you do some further research into Codex Alimentarius and Monsanto. I can’t remember who said it, but Kissinger rings a bell and it was words to the effect of “Whoever controls the oil controls the nations – whoever controls the food controls the world”. Natural seeds cannot be patented and therefore are non profitable, however modified seeds can be and as we are now in a position where 4 international corporations are well on their way to pretty much owning the global seed supply…….can you see where I’m going with this? Not forgetting the Terminator seed technology which means that seeds cannot be saved and will only bear fruit for one year. Even heirloom seed companies are gradually being brought up by Monsanto. People know that smoking is bad for you….cigarettes have approx 3000 chemicals added to them – or something like that – our “normal” foods contain approx 14000 chemicals, hmmmm. And the modified stuff – well bees are dying on a mass scale which is directly attributed to genetic mods in nature and the pesticides – Round Up, owned by Monsanto is particularly toxic, and what happens when there are no bees to carry out pollination? We’ve now got “super weeds” that are resistant to the usual toxic sprays (pesticides). I would highly recommend watching a documentary on youtube called The Pharmacratic Inquisition which would offer further explanation and a different perspective.

  15. For the record here’s Green Party (England and Wales) Policy, which is rather more measured than Jenny Jones’ personal views:

    Policies
    FA720 The Green Party supports a moratorium on the use of GMOs in all agricultural systems including production of human food and animal feed and on importation of GM food or feed. (See AR413, CC254, EU489 and ST364) 
    FA721 We define GM food as any:
    (a) that is genetically modified or includes ingredients from genetically modified crops; or
    (b) that is from genetically modified animals; or
    (c) that is from animals that have been fed genetically modified feed.
    So long as any such food is available in this country, it must be labelled as containing genetically modified ingredients or coming from genetically modified sources. 
    FA722 The Green Party will establish and uphold the rights of consumers, farmers and local authorities to choose GM-free food and to establish GM-free zones. We will legislate for a strict liability regime which makes biotech (GM seed) companies and GM food producers fully liable for any losses through contamination or harm caused to the environment or human health. (See ST364) 
    FA723 We will apply the precautionary principle and place strict conditions on research using genetic engineering to ensure that GMOs do not escape, pollinate other plants or cause other damage. (See ST363)Patents on Genes and Living OrganismsST360 The Green Party is opposed to the patenting of genes and living organisms for the following reasons:1.Patents may make access to genetic resources more difficult and in some cases block that access altogether. Research and development can be hindered, and in many cases the resulting costs are disproportionately high. These problems are of particular relevance to health services and medical research, but their consequences can also be seen in agriculture and plant breeding.2.Living organisms are not the same as human technical inventions and it is unethical to afford patent rights on them to an individual or company. (See also AG613, EC1015, IP353 ).Genetic EngineeringST361 The Green Party accepts that certain uses of genetic engineering may be benign and may lead to enhanced quality of life, but believes that the release of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) into the environment potentially poses substantial risks to biodiversity, human health and animal welfare and that there is currently insufficient research to quantify risks. In addition, genetic engineering of animals can cause significant suffering.ST362 Control of research and the use of genetic engineering by a few multinational companies threatens the autonomy of farmers and health services and makes profit an underlying motive for the use of GMOs.ST363 We believe that:1. The precautionary principle must be applied to research using genetic engineering.2. Research should be genuinely in the interests of humanity.3. Animal welfare and biodiversity must be protected in research (See also AG623, AR408, AR412 ).

  16. I am perturbed that one of TTFB’s protestors stated to a reporter that “all sectors of British society has rejected GM”.
    Well, not this one, so clearly, either the statistical analysis of the data on which that statement is based is flawed, or their data collection has been insufficient. I’d really like to see it presented in a formal way, detailing sampling techniques and analysis ha ha ha.
    I’d also like to see some evidence that the bucolic idyll they claim to defend actually ever existed.
    We’ve had GM for a very long time. We all learned about Mendel in school. If you want to go back further than that, look in the Old Testament for Jacob and his sheep – whatever your religious standpoint, it can’t be disputed that it was written a good while back.

    There isn’t enough scorn in the world i’m afraid…………..

    I wonder how TBTF and the Green Party feel about similarly misleading statements from those who deny global warming.

    Mr Thomas Wright – I couldn’t agree with you more more. Play the game. You won’t win, but you can shout your head off when you know someone else is cheating.

  17. Intrigued by the comment “we’ve had GM for a long time”?

    In which case why are biotech companies claiming that GM is a radical new technology that which enables things to be done which can’t be achieved by conventional plant breeding?

    You really can’t have it both ways…

    I’m also mildly amused by references to the Bible. If anything GM represents an attempt at ‘Intelligent Design’ – compared to the evolutionary approach which underpins conventional plant breeding. The theoretical limitations of the former are probably the reason that conventional plant breeding has consistently been out-performing GM for the past few decades, and why GM hasn’t really lived up to its hype.I’m glad this experiment wasn’t disrupted this weekend incidentally, and hope that the scientists will be allowed to get on with their work.

    1. Conventional plant breeding rely on identifying plants with mutations that made them taller, more fruitful, or more resistant to insects/cold/drought.  Breeders could then selectively cross these mutant strains in order that as many beneficial traits are combined into a single crop.  

      Modern techniques simply allow breeders to identify the underlying genes and mutations which lead to these beneficial traits and introduce them directly rather than rely on chance happenings.

      They really are not all that different, and the belief that conventional plant breeding is somehow a ‘natural’ process in comparison to GM is far from the truth.

      1. As an ecologist I can tell you as an absolute certainty that even ‘natural’ plants can be a menace if they are released into new environments, as the billions of dollars a year that are lost to introduced pests and diseases is testimony. Many of these plants (and animals) were confidently released on the basis of the certain economic benefits they would bring. As a result most countries have legislation and quarantine arrangements to stop the introduction of new species. Why should we be less cautious in our approach to exotic organisms of GM origin which are foodplants, than exotic species from other countries? Green Party policy is positive about lab research on GMO’s, but on the basis of a long history of unintended and negative consequences of releasing organisms into the wild, and the potential difficulty of putting the jack back in the box once you’ve done so, is more than a little sceptical of field trials.

        My personal point of view is that everything has to be based on a case by case basis, and a thorough risk assessment undertaken before proceeding. On balance I support the scientists at Rothamstead in this case, and would far rather see research conducted by public bodies for the common good than by private companies solely motivated by profit.
        On one point of fact – the scientist in charge of this trial has himself said that there is a risk of cross-fertilization with Couch Grass Elymus repens and he even gave a figure for this – 1% – although what he based that on I don’t know. So it’s not true to say the trial is zero-risk, and despite the factlet that wheat is self-pollinated, presumably that doesn’t prevent it releasing enough pollen to make cross-fertilization a quantifiable risk.

      2. Conventional plant breeding is all about developing desirable traits, and that’s about selecting genes which in combination deliver these. Although there may be some genes which can be directly linked to a desirable trait in a simplistic fashion, in the vast majority of cases whole suites of genes are involved in desirable traits such as ‘grain size’ or ‘tallness’. The idea that there is a gene for ‘tallness’ for example, is a complete nonsense and betrays an ignorance of how evolution works. Many if not all genes are pleiotropic – in other words one gene can have more than one phenotypic effect, and not all of these may be desirable. As a simplistic example genes that promote the trait of pest resistance may do so by also developing traits which make the plant inedible or toxic. The way that conventional plant breeders since the dawn of time have created the food plants we have today is by emulating the process of mass trial and error which is evolution, rather than by studying Gregor Mendel. Aircraft designers today use evolutionary algorithms to produce wings and propellers rather than using a direct approach based from what we know of the laws of fluid dynamics. It’s clearly possible to splice in a gene here and there, and if you’re not too ambitious a plant will carry on much as before along with your novel trait, if it’s not to costly to the plant. However more ambitious claims to make plants ‘drought resistant’ will require modifications across the entire physiology of the plant – and the surer and faster route to doing that is to use the conventional technique of emulating evolution. I have nothing against the development of GMO’s in principle, and if we have a tool, hell why not use it – but I think that there are some fundamental reasons why the technology isn’t quite living up to expectations. Designing stuff as complex as living organisms isn’t quite as easy as Intelligent Design/Creationists or uncritical fans of ‘Genetic Engineering’ seem to think – evolution holds all the trump cards whether selection is natural or artificial.

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