Entomology, chemical ecology, evidence-based environmentalism and science in general. I like big bugs and I cannot lie.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Protests in the Park


Some excellent posts have already been written on today's events by Rebecca Nesbit and Sillypunk, but I thought I'd add my own impressions now that my brain has cooled down enough to string a semi-coherent sentence together.

It was rather surreal to walk into Rothamsted Park around eleven thirty on a brilliantly sunny day to see chestnut trees in bloom, families walking dogs and a massive police presence.  Members of both the anti-gm protest and the pro-research counterprotest had already arrived and assembled in their separate camps at the back of the park, and after a slightly confused few minutes during which I attempted to join the wrong group I found the counterprotest and started putting a few faces to Twitter handles.

Police horses looking cool in sunglasses
Both groups quickly did their best to live up to their stereotypes, with the anti-gm protestors singing folksongs and members of the pro-research group huddling in the shade to be better able to see their lcd screens and swapping tips on extending phone battery life.  It quickly became apparent though that we were so far apart that any dialogue between groups would have to be conducted by semaphore so in dribs and drabs we wandered over to the anti-gm protest to hear what the speakers had to say.

Although after the media briefing Rothamsted scientists had originally planned to talk to Take the flour back in the park, with their refusal to rule out destructive measures it was considered best for them to stay behind the police line and for protestors to be escorted to them in small groups.  Sadly there didn't seem to be much interest in discussions with them, an attitude I encountered myself when I asked for a right of reply to the speeches which contained some misinterpretations (the trial was asserted to be useless because it was carried out in spring wheat wheareas winter wheat which is more widely grown in the UK, and I would have likeld the opportunity to explain that it was only a proof of concept trial, rather than a trial of the final variety) and some outright misunderstandings (the incorrect statement that the wheat contains a gene from cows, the claim that gm crops were directly responsible for the suicides of thousands of farmers in India).  I was told in no uncertain terms by the chap directing the speakers that they didn't want to listen because they'd already heard everything I would have to say in the media.  I found this a rather depressing attitude - so many of the speakers were repeating completely unverifiable or downright untrue claims and I thought it was sad that they weren't willing to consider the evidence for and against these claims.  I know I keep linking to this blog post but it's an excellent discussion of the perceptual filters that colour our view of the world - surely the only way to become aware of and evaluate the distorting effect of these filters is to be willing to consider the evidence for and against your poistion?

I have to admit that by this point I was feeling rather dispirited, and as nothing much seemed to be happening at this point I went off in search of lunch (the biggest winner of the day was probably the Harpenden Farmers' Market, which was doing a roaring trade to members of both groups) with a couple of other protestors.  This proved to be a slight tactical miscalculation as just as we got back to the park the anti-gm group flocked towards the Rothamsted fence, forcing us geeks, already weakened by exposure to sunlight, to break into a run.

Anti-gm protestors assemble by the fence.
Things did look tense for a few moments, and several protestors split off from the main group and raced towards what they thought were gaps in the police line.  However there were easily more police present than protestors in both camps together and they were quickly apprehended and turned away.  There was a moment's confusion when I mistook the person organising a sitdown protest on Twitter for a member of the pro-research camp and tried to encourage our group to join in, and further confusion when Take the flour back mistook me for a supporter, but after that excitement things calmed down and the remainder of the protest was peaceful with no further attempts to enter the site.

Protestors attempting to enter the site are turned away by police

We then initiated our own sit down, chow down protest and ate our lunch and it was at that point that things started to get interesting.  Until that point all our attempts at initiating dialogue had been rebuffed, but at this point people started coming up to us to talk.  One woman was extremely angry and delivered a lecture on how transgenes could contaminate the soil and the rain before storming away, followed by her tweenage son who clearly wished he was somewhere else, but we did speak to a fair number of people interested in genuine conversations about their concerns and in finding common ground.  Discussions with a group of Permaculture students from Bristol were particularly fascinating, and certainly helped me to get a better understanding of peoples' concerns.

What I think I took away from this was that there are three main strands of concerns about genetic modification:
  1. The idea that genomes are sacrosanct and any movement of genes between organisms is unacceptable meddling with nature.  As a scientist familiar with natural examples of gene transfer between organisms this isn't a position I can agree with, indeed I consider it to be amazing evidence of how connected all organisms are, but I can understand that it is an article of faith for some people and, like religious faith, not really amenable to change by debate.
  2. Concerns over the safety of gm crops, both to the environment and to human health. This is an area where I really feel we can challenge misinformation, as these claims are verifiable by empirical evidence rather than personal belief.  The challenge is to ensure the evidence isn't disbelieved because of concerns about the biases or hidden agenda of the person presenting it, but by being open and honest throughout the process I hope we can combat these impressions.
  3. Concerns about the application and commercialisation of gm crops.  Although my opinion of the necessity of the fundamental research hasn't changed, one positive consequence of these discussions is that I've learned a lot about the issues involved in this.  To my mind this is an argument for campaigning to ensure that legislation catches up with the technology that has run ahead, rather than for slowing the technology down, but it certainly has made me think harder about how scientific advances are likely to be implemented, rather than simply how they occur.
One thing I am certain of though is that the openness with which Rothamsted has conducted this discussion has helped, by making those people who were curious enough to question feel they could approach us for a dialogue. Long may the conversation continue.  Only not tonight please, I'm knackered.

Friday, 25 May 2012

Guidelines for protest in Rothamsted park


A team of  Rothamsted scientists will be at Rothamsted Park, Harpenden AL5 2EF to answer questions from 11.30 on Sunday the 27th of May - do go and talk to them, they're nice people.

If you're coming from London, when you get off the train go out the station exit to the left of the direction you were travelling, then follow the hill down. There's a pub on the corner called the Harpenden Arms - turn left after that, cross at the crossing, cross the green then follow the road to the left.  The entrance to the park is just after the town hall/

It looks as though there will now be three protests happening in Rothamsted Park on Sunday the 27th of May - the anti-gm protest which aims to destroy the field trial, an alternative peaceful protest which wants to express oposition to genetic modification without vandalising the trial and a #geekmob counterprotest in support of the trial.  To the first group I would obviously say please don't, but I hope something positive can come out of this by offering an opportunity for dialogue between the second two groups if everyone follows these guidelines:

  • There aren't many trains into Harpenden, so you'll probably end up travelling with members of the other camp. This is a great opportunity for dialogue but please remember there'll be other passengers on the trains who just want to nurse their Saturday night hangovers in peace so please keep it calm.
  • By all means bring placards, banners, pixel poi and Arduino LED displays but keep the messages attacking points not people. "Down with this sort of thing" is good, "your muzzer was an amstere, and your fazzer smelled of elderbereees" is not helpful.
  • The same goes for engaging people in discussion - remember that the person you're talking to may not have the same grounding in the subject you do or access to the same information, but they're an intelligent person doing what they sincerely believe to be best for planet and people. As an entomologist I'm not so keen on the phrase "you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar" - vinegar will work perfectly well if you're after vinegar flies, and you catch most Musca sorbens with shit which doesn't make a very good cliche, but it is true that if someone is wrong you're more likely to change their mind through rational argument than by insulting their intelligence.
  • Listen. Let the other person explain their concerns.
  • If someone isn't extending you the same courtesy, walk away. You will not be able to have a productive discussion.
  • If things are getting heated, and you feel safe doing so, you can deescalate the situation by sitting down.
  • Do not attempt to physically prevent anyone from destroying crops. Not only might this lead to ugly confrontations, the more people there are on the site the harder it will be for the police to stop people intent on destroying the trial and the more likely it is that something important will be trampled accidentally.
  • Finally, and most importantly, PLEASE DON'T DESTROY THE TRIAL..

Thank you.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Flour to the people!

 This post is written as an individual and all opinions within it are my own.  It is not the opinion of Rothamsted Research.

Yesterday a man was charged after breaking in to one of Rothamsted Research's experimental plots, attempting to damage plants used in an ongoing trial of wheat genetically modified to produce aphid alarm pheromone, the chemical aphids produce to warn others of danger.  The arrogance of his actions are truly astounding - what possible mandate could a single individual believe they have to destroy six years of publicly funded research?  But he is not alone, his actions were presumably inspired by a protest group called Take the Flour Back  which is proposing to destroy the trial next Saturday.

In response researchers at Rothamsted have taken the unusual step of appealing directly to these activists, in an open letter from John Pickett in New Scientist and a video appeal from Gia Aradottir:

John Pickett also appeared on Newsnight last week, and was barely able to get a word in edgeways (from 22 minutes).

Speaking as someone with more than a passing interest of science communication the strategy Rothamsted are persuing is fascinating - this is the first time I've seen seen scientists trying to engage protestors over the  strong values that have led them to protest, rather than assuming that they'll change their minds if provided with more facts.  Perhaps as a result. the news coverage of this particular scientific issue has been excellent, with the Guardian for example providing a contrasting point of view from a qualified scientist rather than whichever contrarian the journalist has on speed dial.  Speaking as a scientist, the prospect that this group can simply propose to stroll up and destroy years of vital work is deeply worrying.

Wheat is a vital crop, estimated in 2007 to provide 530 calories per person per day.  Over 650 million metric tonnes of wheat were produced in 2010 on almost 217 million hectares of land.  As these mindboggling figures show, wheat cultivation is vital to our ability to feed the world's population, and likely to become more so as the population increases.  Almost two million hectares are devoted to wheat cultivation in the UK alone.  We typically think of aphids as a minor nuisance, a threat to our kitchen windowsill coriander and broad beans, if we think of them at all but these innocous looking insects are capable of reducing wheat yields by up to 33% under the right circumstances 1 .  In the UK cereal insect outbreaks are typically treated with insecticides such as HallmarkZeon  or Aphox.

The grain aphid Sitobion avenae, image from Rothamsted Research
The need to provide food for an ever expanding world population in an increasingly unpredictable climate, whilst reducing the environmental damage caused by current industrial farming techniques, is something that Rothamsted scientist are just as concerend about as the environmental protestors planning on disrupting their work.  Indeed this trial, like so much of Rothamsted's other work, aims to provide practical tools to address these issues.  No one is denying that the current system of food distribution is thoroughly inequitable, that the fact that famines and "Man Vs Food" can exist on the same planet is obscene, that women desperately need access to the contraceptives they want to protect their health and plan their families or that we need urgent action on the greenhouse emissions making the climate less hospitable for agriculture year by year, but none of this will happen overnight.  In the short term we need new technologies, to feed more people from the same or even less land using fewer energy intensive and potentially environmentally damaging inputs like pesticides.  That is where this wheat comes in.

The wheat in this trial produces aphid alarm pheromone, an airborne signal which aphids use to alert others to danger. This deters other aphids from landing close by and may attract natural predators by informing them that there are injured aphids nearby which will make an easy meal.  This signalling system was "hacked" by plants in the mint family millenia ago, allowing them to naturally produce their own version of the pheromone which tricks aphids into thinking that they're a dangerous place to feed and so keeps them safe from predation.  The trial aims to see whether this protection can be introduced into wheat.

Aphids responding to alarm pheromone

There does seem to be quite a lot of misinformation out there about this trial - firstly, the wheat does not contain a cow gene.  What it contains is a synthetic promoter which has some sequence similarity to a cow promoter, which is not in fact the Laughing Cow's theatrical agent: a promoter is a short DNA sequence in front of a gene which tells the organism which circumstances to make the gene product under - at night say, or only in leaves.  If the gene product is a birthday cake, the gene could be theought of as the recipe for the cake and the promoter would be your diary with a list of bakeworthy friends' birthdays, telling you when to make the cake.  The cake in this case is the protein producing aphid alarm pheromone, the gene or recipe comes from a mint plant and the promoter had to be different from any promoters in the wheat already so the researchers could be sure it wouldn't be accidentally turned on in the wrong circumstances.  It's basically the equivalent of a lot of random Filofax pages which were bound together by the researchers into something which happened to ressemble the diary of a sentient cow who knew how to bake birthday cakes and owned a Filofax.  I'll stop there before I disappear up my own analogy, but you get the picture.

A number of measures have been taken to ensure that this wheat cannot escape into the wider environment. The variety of wheat selected for the trial is self pollinating, and the plot is surrounded by a buffer zone of barley, with which the wheat cannot cross-pollinate, far wider than the distance the heavy pollen can be blown ion the wind.  The fact that it is self pollinating also means that contrary to some concerns out there, pollinating insects like bees and butterflies are not exposed to gm pollen.

Concerns have also been raised about the possibility of apids evolving resistance to the alarm pheromone, citing the fact that insects evolve insecticide resistance.  This is extremely unlikely: not only have aphids been exposed to alarm pheromone produced by the mint family for millenia without deveoping resistance, but unlike the situation with insecticides evolving resistance to alarm pheromone would have significant costs to an aphid, making it less responsive to genuine alarm pheromone and hence at greater risk of becoming a tasty snack for passing ladybirds already chomping on its sisters.

Wheat fields, image from Rothamsted Research
A lot has also been made of the fact that this is spring wheat, not winter wheat which is more widely cultivated in the UK.  Somehow the fact that this is a preliminary trial doesn't seem to have been explained - this test in spring wheat is only to find out whether the modified plants do indeed suffer less aphid damage.  If this is inedeed the case the technology could be used in other varieties.

That's not to say there are no legitimate concerns about gm technology.  With antibiotic resistance on the rise the use of antibiotic resistance genes as markers is being phased out.  I presume an antibiotic resistance gene was used in this trial because it has been running for so long that it was started before alternatives became available but I have to admit that I don't know the reasoning behind this for certain.  However, as I noted above this is a preliminary trial to test whether the principle works, rather than the finished agricultural product - if this wheat were to be developed further I'm sure a different marker system would be used.  While the risks of horizontal gene transfer of antibiotic resistance genes into bacteria from this trial are not zero, they are negligible when compared with the large scale routine use of antibiotics in the meat industry.

You would be hard pressed to find anyone to argue that anything Monsanto has done is beneficial, but just because a technology has been used for profit with little concern for the environment doesn't mean the technology is inherently bad - a gun and a teaspoon are both made by metalwork but that does not mean they're used for the same thing2. The patenting of gene variants assosciated with breast cancer was recently overturned, but the fact that this particular technology was inappropriately commercialised doesn't invalidate the entire practice of genetic tests for disease.

Wheat field, image from Rothamsted Research
In the interests of full disclosure I should start be saying that I am a Phd student at Rothamsted.  Part of my funding is provided through Rothamsted, although it will stop being provided through Rothamsted at the end of May when I come to the end of my PhD, at which point it will be provided by two blindness charities and most probably my ability to stack shelves in a grocery store.  My work is nothing to do with this wheat project, but the aspect that concerns insect olfaction is partially supervised by John Pickett.  I realise this leaves me open to suggestions that I'm biased because I'm too close to this research, but I'm sure a lot of the people supporting Take Back the Flour are commintted environmentalists with jobs dedicated to improving sustainability - by that logic should they not be allowed to hold opinions on environmental matters? My connection to Rothamsted allows me to know a little bit about the project and the participants; it means that I know both John Pickett and Gia Aradottir, and know that they are fundamentally decent people who are not doing this out of malice or for personal profit. John Pickett has an infectious laugh, plays the trumpet in a local jazz band and is the sort of person who can't bear to see a penniless student in a pub without a drink, a situation which he will always seek to remedy.  He also knows a truly terrifying amount about how insects react to odours. Gia is one of the most compassionate people out there - she supported me when I had depression and I honestly don't think I would still be doing this PhD if it hadn't been for her.  I don't know Toby Bruce very well, but whenever I run into him in the kitchen he always asks me how my writeup is going, and I always say fine and smile uneasily.  In short, they are perfectly pleasant human beings who don't wander about in labcoats bulging with wads of industrial cash, zapping corn dollies with lightning to make make Frankenflour whilst cackling maniaically.

It lives! It lives!

I realise that I'm also open to the charge of hypocrisy, as my coeliac disease means I can't eat this genetically modified wheat or indeed any other wheat.  If wheat were ever genetically modified to be gluten-free though, you can bet I'd eat it like a shot.

I'm a scientist but also consider myself an environmentalist.  I first heard about Take the Flour Back from the newsletter of the Low Impact Living Initiative, to which I subscribe.  I have the full crunchy-granola starter kit of Keep Cup, Mooncap and garden wormery, and most importantly I know which goes where.  I grow garden veg, worry about food miles, carry my purchases from the People's Supermarket home by public transport in my reusable Turtle Bag, and keep rotting kitchen scraps for composting in a tin labelled "biscuits" to trick the unwary.

Watching Newsnight was an odd experience for me because the Take the Flour Back speaker, Jyoti Fernanades, is in many ways living my dream - she has a mixed smallholding in Dorset which she farms sustainably and teaches courses on.  I've always harboured a secret dream of finding some land in the west country, building a cob or strawbale house, planting a forest garden and keeping bees and silkworms, maybe some livestock.  If I'd encountered her in other circumstances I'd probably have considered her a fellow traveller, so it was strange to hear her on television espousing views that I disagree with entirely.  I'm also rather disappointed that Transition Heathrow, who are doing great things on an abandoned market garden near where I live, are supporting this action.

I'm not saying this to ask for a cookie (although a cookie would be nice, especially if it was made out of the afforementioned gluten-free wheat) but to demonstrate that it's possible to both be a scientist and care about the environment.  In fact it's not just possibly, I'm guessing it's common.

I care because I'm a human - the natural world is an incredibly beautiful place and nothing can approach the pleasure of walking the same route every day for years and watching it change through the seasons, from the bleak grey of winter through the merest hint of green to a riot of hawthorne and elder, or the joy of locking eyes with a robin whilst gardening and feeling, just for a fraction of a second, a moment of connection, or the awe I felt seeing the Milky Way from Africa, free of light pollution for the first time.  I plan on spawning some day,  and I want my theoretical future children to be able to experience that same wonder.  But I also care as a scientist - awe is magnified by understanding.

I remember the first time I learned about the water cycle and the nitrogen cycle in primary school, realising how nothing is created or destroyed but that we are all part of a finite closed system.  I remember the first time I saw an insect under a microscope at secondary school (oddly ebough it was a housefly), being astounded by the precise construction of this tiny living thing, with all it hairs and protrusions and graceful curves.  I remember thinking "Wow, if a fly looks like that what must I look like under a microscope?" and being so disappointed when I put my own finger under and found it to be featureless, realising for the first time that humans were not the most amazing things out there. I remember learning about evolution, the amazement I felt on realising that this blind, directionless system had designed beings that fit their environment so perfectly, the profound sense of connection I felt to the rest of the natural world on realising that all of us, earthworms and frogs and dandelions and amoebae and me, were built from the same basic building blocks by the same biochemical pathways.  The natural world is more incredible than we can possibly imagine, and personally I feel that anything but a scientific appreciation of it sells it short.

I seem to have spent much of this post finding "-ist" words I can use to describe myself: scientist, environmentalist, ecologist.  First and foremost though I'm a humanist - we are the only creatures on this planet who can feel that awe and wonder at the natural world and that makes us special, each and every one of the seven billion plus of us.  If all of us are to be fed on a finite planet, and not just enough to survive but to thrive and to have the same opportunity I have to rejoice in all the glory of nature, then something has to give and I strongly believe that an evidence-based approach, considering all the technologies available to us, is the best way to ensure that as little has to give as possible.

Sustainability: Rothamsted's carbon-capture experiments, image from Rothamsted Research
In conclusion, supporters of Take the Flour Back must realise that the scientists conducting this experiement are ordinary people concerned about feeding an ever-growing population whilst reducing damage to our shared planet, just like they are. We need to keep talking and listening, building rather than destroying, because we're all on the same side here.

Sense About Science is running a campaign appealing to these activists not to destroy this vital research.  You can sign the petition here.

Oakley, J.N., S.D. Wratten, A.F.G. Dixon and N. Carter. 1988. The Biology of Cereal Aphids. Home Grown Cereals Authority. Research Report No. 10.
It has been pointed out to me that you could, in fact, stir your tea with a small gun.