Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Rothamsted GM Wheat Trial: What can social science tell us?

By Joyce Tait

The debate over genetically modified food is not a new one. Most recently, Rothamsted Research – the research institution attempting to grow wheat designed to be resistant to aphids and, thus, require less insecticide – has drawn the ire of environmental activists and protestors. 

The controversy over Rothamsted’s GM wheat trial came to a head this past Sunday when anti-GM members of the Take Back the Flour group attempted to “decontaminate” the field, but were prevented by police from invading the site and destroying the crop.

These events are not surprising, and are just the latest in a series of direct actions that stretch back at least 15 years. Over this period, no GM crop trial in the UK has survived the attentions of activist groups.

In light of continued actions against so-called ‘Frankenfood’, what can the social sciences tell us about what is going on here?

It has been clear from the beginning of this conflict that, for many of the opponents of GM crops, the issue is ideological. Meaning, they are not necessarily concerned about the risks to people or the environment, but will oppose GM crops in any form and in any location.

The following are some of the characteristics that help to identify ideologically-motivated opposition:
  • It is organised nationally or internationally – people will travel long distances to support fellow ideologues.
  • It is very difficult to resolve:
    • information is treated as propaganda;
    • compensation is seen as bribery;
    • negotiation is seen as betrayal.
  • Giving concessions leads to escalation of demands.
Cass Sunstein, in his book Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide, has written about this process more generally - describing how extremism becomes  reinforced over time and how difficult it is to change minds by reasoned arguments.

This has certainly been the case in the UK, where fifteen years of reasoned argument has led to little or no change in the anti-GM position, although there has been a reduction in public support for this position.

However, what does seem to be changing is the response of civil society to the threats of the activists. The response from citizens across the board in support of Rothamsted Research has been very encouraging. And, this is the first time that effective police protection has been given to a site under threat.

It should be said, that the first casualty in any ideological-oriented debate is the quality of the evidence used. In the Rothamsted case, there is no evidence to back up the claims made by the protesters to support their actions. Indeed, their efforts to destroy the trial may arise from a concern that it would show GM wheat to be beneficial in terms of food production and its environmental impact, thus undermining their arguments.

There are similarities here with the McCarthy led ‘witch hunt’ in the United States, and Arthur Miller, writing about his play The Crucible, has described the sense of liberation experienced when eschewing the role of evidence in decision-making, writing: “It was as though the absence of real evidence was a release from the burdens of this world; [….] Evidence, in contrast, is effort; leaping to conclusions is a wonderful pleasure…”

So, what’s next in the debate around genetically-modified food? Leave us a comment below. 

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