Sticking up for scientific research

The green plonkers intent on destroying research into aphid-resistant wheat crops view mankind as a blight on nature.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

Aphids are not exactly man’s best friend. Whether you’re a gardener or a farmer, these little sap-sucking buggers can almost single-handedly destroy a plant or a crop. And if they don’t manage it by themselves, the fungal viruses their sugary ‘honeydew’ secretions invite can usually finish the job. We, as a species, have not taken this lying down, however. And over the years, we have had some success in developing insecticides that have helped to combat this literal blight on horticulture and agriculture.

But there might be another, more effective way to get rid of aphids. A group of scientists at Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire is currently trying to genetically modify wheat so that – and this sounds incredible – it will produce a pheromone called E-beta-farnesene. For those, like me, who have gained their knowledge of pheromones almost entirely from Lynx deodorant adverts, this particular one is emitted by aphids when they are threatened. So, when they smell it, they fly away. Not only that, when the insects that like to eat aphids – ladybirds, for instance – get a whiff, they will head over to said crop in the hope of some lunch.

All of which sounds potentially fantastic. Farmers will no longer have to lay waste to infested or infected wheat crops, and we in turn will figuratively reap the benefits of a resilient, less costly agricultural product.

Yet, with every potential scientific advance, especially one that involves genetic modification – or ‘messing with nature’ as the environmental zealot would have it – there is often a small group of underemployed, stunt-loving and trust-funded activists all too keen to don a naff costume and put a stop to it. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, when fears over the consequences of genetic modification were at their height, such campaigners – often sporting anti-contamination boiler suits – could be found raiding and destroying test crop sites. So it is, once again, with the aphid-repelling wheat crops.

Take the Flour Back, the campaign that aims to launch an assault on the Rothamsted research, is everything you would expect from a group of self-appointed guardians of big momma nature. Blathering on about ‘wind pollination’, and the possibility of GM wheat crops ‘leaking into the food chain’, Take the Flour Back sees potential risks everywhere. And as the what-ifs proliferate in the group’s fear-rotten minds, so it believes that not experimenting, not testing, indeed, not risking anything, is the only way forward. At the heart of their vision of social stasis is, of course, a particularly downbeat view of humanity as a kind of imposition on the environment. So if, from man’s perspective, aphids are a blight on plants, from nature’s perspective – which, after all, is the one adopted by Take the Flour Back – man is a blight on the planet. Little wonder that in its excruciatingly wacky call for direct action on the 27 May, the group cites as its central task, ‘decontamination’. That is how GM-pursuing humans are viewed – as ‘contaminators’.

Thankfully, there is welcome opposition to the plans of Take the Flour Back, in the form of a widely supported petition. And that should be enough to see off the prats nonsensically trying to take the flour back.

Yet, there is a problem with these skirmishes between environmental fearmongers and assorted scientific researchers. The terms of the debate are just too narrow and too fetishised. Being pro-science, here, serves as a marker of one’s rightness, one’s membership of the correct social constituency. It is simply enough, it seems, to paint the opposition as anti-science, as irrational – which they probably are – for the argument to be won. So, in the imperatival terms of Rothamsted Research’s

This battle over who is the most sciencey makes a fetish, an idol if you like, of the science. What is lacking is an idea of what, or more accurately who, science is for. That is, despite the seemingly magical invocations of ‘reason’ or ‘science’, there is no broader social and political narrative in which scientific activity is given meaning and, importantly, validation. For an Enlightenment great like John Locke, there was such a narrative. That is, reasoned inquiry was entwined with the broader idea of man realising his God-given ‘Dominion’ over nature, the ‘Liberty to Use [its creatures]’ for our own ends. Again, in those heirs to the Enlightenment, Marx and Engels, it was into the grand story of our ‘mastery over nature… [which] widens man’s horizon’ that ‘the mighty advances of natural science in the present century’ were inserted. Scientific research was not simply justified on the grounds of its status as science, but insofar as it benefited us, by ever increasing our mastery over the natural world.

And it is precisely this sense of a grander project, with humanity smack bang at its centre, that is absent in the arguments over the GM wheat crops. Little wonder that Rothamsted Research’s defence is so, well, defensive. For in its eagerness to declare common ground with ‘environmentalists’, declaring that its research works ‘with nature, rather than against it’, those for whom the research ought to be for – namely us – remain as denigrated by the supposedly pro-science side as by those painted as anti-science.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics Politics


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