let's talk farm animals

When environmentalism and science face off

By Lisa McLean, Agricultural writer

Destruction of GMO crops (also called genetically modified organisms) is a common form of protest, particularly in the EU where public acceptance of biotechnology is low. Activists dress in their best white garb and face masks to make the most of a photo opportunity while they wade into fields and haul out healthy plants by their roots.

This month, some activists in Europe are threatening to destroy another GMO field, but the owners of the field in question argue its plants have the potential to drastically alter the environmental impact of growing staple food crops worldwide. The situation raises important questions about what it will take for the environmental movement to find its way past common scare tactics and endorse new tools for environmental sustainability.

GMO crop vandalism

GMOs are a product of biotechnology, a difficult scientific process that creates a plant with new traits by moving a specific gene from one organism, and putting it into another. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency likens biotechnology to a complex “cut and paste” procedure.

In the case of the plants in question, the scientists have essentially pasted a synthetically-produced gene that offers natural insect resistance into a wheat plant. The plants are growing at UK-based Rothamsted Research, the world’s longest-running agricultural research station. If allowed to live, the plants could offer vital built-in resistance to two common crop-destroying insects, essentially eliminating the need for pesticides. And, since the research is funded by government money, results would be publicly available, not patented or owned by any one corporation.

A group of environmental activists operating collectively under the name “Take the Flour Back” is planning a day of action to destroy the crop. The threat has prompted the scientists involved to issue a video plea and an open letter to their opposition, urging them to reconsider their plans. They appeal to the protesters as environmentalists, and ask them to consider the potential environmental benefits if the research trials prove successful. They’re asking the protesters to come to the facility with an open mind on May 27, and be prepared to discuss and learn more about the potential value of the crop involved, rather than destroy it.

Too often, the environmental movement – which is comprised of some of the most progressive individuals in society – is guilty of a “back to basics” attitude that eschews scientific advancements including biotechnology. Such attitudes do a disservice to agricultural workers worldwide, and are a hindrance to efforts to feed the growing population with fewer resources.

If a shrinking number of farmers are expected to feed a growing number of people in the coming years, then we must equip them with the tools to make it happen. It’s time for the environmental movement to have real dialogue with the scientists who have dedicated their careers to developing such tools, and to find ways to build up, rather than destroy years of research and environmental commitment that are essential for safe and secure food supply.

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Posted by FFC on May 14th, 2012 :: Filed under Activism,Crops,Environment,Innovation and technology,Research
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