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 they 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 of 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.

Lawrence Woodward

June 2012