It’s been a scorching hot summer in the debate over genetically modified (GM) crops. As we reported last month, anti-technology activists have been in a collective hissy fit since an overwhelming tide of scientists and political leaders began to publicly acknowledge the potential of GM foods to feed the world’s starving masses. It certainly looks like the tables are starting to turn on anti-food-technology activists, and the scientific community is leading the way.
To recap, the anti-GM strategy so far has largely consisted of bemoaning corporate profits and hyping a fictional health hazard of eating GM foods (many of which, by the way, we’ve been consuming safely for well over a decade). Setting aside phony food scares and anarchist whining, however, there is another activist tactic that has finally sent scientists like UK Professor Howard Atkinson over the edge: the brutal destruction of biotech crop research.
Professor Howard Atkinson, of the University of Leeds, whose trial into genetically modified potatoes was vandalised in June, accused campaigners of being closed-minded zealots.
He told the BBC’s Farming Today programme: "I have great difficulty in seeing what the difference is between burning university books in 1933 and now trying to prevent new information finding its way into scientific journals to underpin policy development"
I think they are people who believe in what they are trying to do but I don’t think they are open to rational scientific debate."
Comparing the destruction of biotech crops to Nazi book-burnings made for some eye-catching headlines in today’s papers. But Atkinson’s point is absolutely on target. Because the location of biotech crop trials have been treated as a free speech issue, nearly every site in Britain since 2000 has been physically destroyed by activists. So as researchers like Atkinson are asking, at what point should we favor scientific progress over activists’ freedom to know where it takes place? (Especially when their aim is to destroy it — not to have a polite discussion with the neighbors.)
UC Berkeley researchers may be able to give us a hint. In an unsettling parallel, animal rights protesters have been fighting for access to researchers’ home addresses so they can exercise their freedom to “speak” with them. And by “speak,” they mean physically and verbally intimidate the families, neighbors, and child birthday party attendees of anyone whose reseach work involves animals. Even if their goal is to cure AIDS or cancer.
Genetic engineering has opened the door to the higher crop yields, obesity-curbing flour, and a staple crop that could provide a day’s worth of nutrition in a single meal — and that’s the low-hanging fruit, so to speak. If there’s a compelling reason to favor activists’ freedom to destroy biotech crops over the ability of future generations to enjoy healthier food (and more of it), we have yet to hear it.