Newsnight on the Rothamsted Wheat

Yesterday, Newsnight on BBC2 hosted a discussion about the genetically engineered possibly-aphid-repelling wheat underway at the Rothamsted Station in the UK. It featured John Pickett from Rothamsted, Tracey Brown from Sense About Science, Lawrence Woodward who is a former head of the Soil Association, and Jyoti Fernandes representing the protest group, Take the Flour Back. Have a watch while it is still up on YouTube:

Also, at the request of the protest group, the researchers arranged a public debate, moderated by George Monbiot for next week. In a stunning reversal, the protestors have declined to come, stating that they do not have the “capacity” to participate in the debate. (Insert wry comment here.) The Rothamsted site provides a timeline of their communications with the group.
After the coercive act of threatening to destroy this research and demanding a debate – and then saying that they don’t want to show up to the debate – Take the Flour Back is acting in bad faith. They seem to be aware of the implications of their actions, and have now expanded their website to prepare would-be wheat thrashers for the various legal consequences they might face. It is uncertain whether or not the threatened vandalism will still go ahead – or the debate for that matter – but perhaps there is still some hope for this whole situation.
At the same time, the petition not to destroy the research at Sense About Science is a hair’s breadth away from obtaining 5,000 signatures. Even actor Stephen Fry has signed it. There has been a lot of support for the research from the public, media, and other scientists as well. Will it be enough, or what else can be done?

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Written by Karl Haro von Mogel

Karl Haro von Mogel serves as BFI’s Director of Science and Media and as Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. He has a PhD in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics from UW-Madison with a minor in Life Sciences Communication. He is a Postdoctoral Scholar at UC Riverside and works on Citrus genetics.

45 comments

  1. Many farmers have signed the petition in favour of the research and have left their comments in support. Please check the petition link above to see their comments.

  2. This is terrific, in one sense: Jyoti Fernandes and Lawrence Woodward look insane in that interview. They interrupt, they wave their hands, they shout.
    These are people literally possessed by fear.

  3. The spring/winter wheat drama was ridiculous. You don’t get to pick which strain scientists have determined is right for their project.
    I am quite sure if they *had* chosen the common strain, the opposition would be shouting “OMG–they are using the common strain!1! Doomm!1”
    But I wish the moderator had challenged that farmer, saying: “So, if they used the strain you think they should have would you support the work?” Because the answer would have been “no” anyway, I’d bet £10 on that. Goalposts would have just moved.

  4. Sigh. So much talking over each other with little debate or discussion.
    The Sense About Science representative looked visibly annoyed after the introductory segment … Presumably because of some pretty awful exaggerations and misleading part. Plus, why did they show a tomato in one of the crop montages?!

  5. Did it occur to nobody that working with spring wheat reduces the probability of pollen spread? If the video is correct that 99% of British wheat is winter wheat, then the probability of pollen spreading genes to other wheat fields, already miniscule, is reduced by an additional 99%.

  6. The news has been taken up by Farmers Weekly (UK) though without adding detail: http://www.fwi.co.uk/Articles/20/05/2012/133011/GM-wheat-trial-vandalised.htm
    If the attack is verified, we’ll shortly discover several things. For instance, that UK scientists can’t learn from repeated experiments. Talk to the greens, the greens won’t learn. Give out the location of the field trial, the greens will attack it.
    How many field trials must British scientists conduct before concluding they result in green vandalism? Induction, people, how hard is that? Maybe it’s not covered in Science 101. Correlation isn’t causation, but it’s a clue, gosh.
    Maybe they actually understand things, and design field trial protocols that demonstrate validation through martyrdom.

  7. Anyone know if there’s a transcript anywhere? I don’t do videos, I’m a luddite in that respect.
    Also the Rothamsted website explains in detail why you would use a winter rather than a spring wheat, any complaints about this are just silly (if I recall it is both the established transformation protocol for winter wheat combined with not requiring vernalization (which adds pointless time to an experiment designed to prove a concept works) – extra points for thinking about it in terms of pollen spread though – I’d guess this is a pleasant happenstance though rather than planned)

  8. It would be hard to do a transcript–at some points 4 or 5 people are all trying to talk at the same time. The winter wheat discussion is around 14min if you want to just skip to that point.

  9. Why must the modern age insist I watch things!
    I shall just sit back and snipe on the commentary around the discussion without going to the primary source. (plus I do all my internetting @ work and therefore don’t actually have more than a couple minutes at a time to actually *do* anything – a whole video could well take me half a day to get through)

  10. I feel so bad for the scientists at Rothamsted. Here at Biofortified we get the same questions again and again and again which gets very tiresome but at least we’re not having to defend our own research from those who would destroy it.

  11. As I understand farnesene is found in, among other things, potatoes as well, yes? I would have liked to see them ask the opposition if they would hypothetically also be against naturally selecting for potatoes with higher farnesene levels, or doing the same with similar compounds in other crops. I also thought it was something that they were talking about biological pest control methods…what do they think this is? It almost sounded like they were just firing off as many of the standard talking points as possible and hoping some of them stuck. Too bad the debate was not moderated to allow full scale discussion & rebuttals to all that was said.

  12. I feel so bad for the scientists at Rothamsted.

    True, they are going above and beyond the call here, however I could not help but laugh at their responses. They’re so dang polite! Every reply starts with a “Thank you for your comments.” Even when faced with the knee jerking, Jeffry Smith parroting comments of Mayi_Ananda. Their self control is certainly an anomaly on the internets!

  13. Sounds like they’re talking like PR people, PR people tend to be polite because being likable appears to actually be a succesful way to change opinions, I may try it one day.
    (I won’t)

  14. You reckon wrong.
    You also appear to become incoherent about midway through your post

    a reasonable assumption being when chemical coded affirmative and when beneficial (and to the universe)

    did you just crank up a random word generator which has a penchant for adding new-agey sounding nonsense?

  15. That doesn’t make your comment make any sense. Perhaps you could elaborate? I think I have asked you before about your claims about “beneficial to the universe” – what does that mean? Enlighten us.

  16. Orphadeus, I know about quantum entanglement. I don’t know in what way it has anything to do with gene transfer. Or, for that matter, what it has to do with something being beneficial, or not. Can you clarify the connection you think is there?

  17. After reading your comment I looked at Orphadeus profile and found that he had a blog containing all sorts of nonsense. Here’s a sample:
    Speaking figuratively, Paul Daniels states that if there are 10 bunches of 7 bananas in a shop, and you buy none, it is 7 x 0 = 0.
    The bananas are still in the shop. 7 is existant. What you actually bought was 0 x 0.
    According to Paul Daniels, 7 x 0 = 0 reveals that 0 = 0/7 and 7 = 0/0, to which Babylon said, “You’re not allowed!”. Aside from nothing could not annihilate the 7, 0 = 0/7 is proved incorrect by 7 = 0/0.
    Wheras you can count how many times nothing goes into 7, it might be noted that 0/7 only arises in earthly arithmetic as a derivative of an error.
    7 x 0 = 7. It is reasonable that multiplication by nothing would have no effect. 7 x 0 = 7 goes to 7 = 7/0, which is logically correct, and 0 = 1.
    Take the original 0, absolute 0. There is 1.
    Leaving aside (I believe it is) whether 1 is a unit of energy; clearly
    0/1 = infinity

  18. People being so universally kind and patient with the anti-GM crowd makes it look like they are afraid. There have been many attempts to deny tenure to those favorable to GM crops, for instance, so the fear is not misplaced. Oh and I should mention that if you’re not nice to them they might destroy your field trial.
    Then there’s the ‘high road’ notion, that even though you will completely and utterly lose the debate in the press and with the public, everyone will still agree that you’re a very polite loser.
    Then there’s the ‘I’m a good person so please be nice’ approach, such as, ‘I’m an environmentalist too and I can prove it by saying I believe humans are destroying the planet with trace gases from their technologies so let’s sing Kumbaya together’.
    At the bottom of this is the ‘human nature is all different now and we’re civilized’ approach. Sorry, evolution doesn’t work that fast. There really still are Nazi Marxist Luddite Malthusians, it’s just that they all get a ‘neo-‘ prefix. Doesn’t make them really new, though, but be sure to add the prefix when referring to them in polite company.
    Failing to condemn the contemptible is not a virtue. It’s a failing.

  19. Charles,
    Mae Wan-Ho of ISIS knows all about how quantum entanglement and GMOs works. When you modify a gene, it changes the quantum natural chaotic harmonic vibrations of the DNA and makes them incompatible with the universe. It’s very difficult to understand, but quantum physics and chaos theory tend to be that way. It’s self-validating, actually.

  20. “When you modify a gene, it changes the quantum natural chaotic harmonic vibrations of the DNA and makes them incompatible with the universe.”
    Then what’s to worry about? DNA that’s incompatible with the universe can’t exist. Ergo, genes can’t be modified and GMOs don’t exist. I wish Mae Wan-Ho would explain this to all the anti-GMO folks, so we could all stop arguing!
    /sarcasm

  21. Orph, on May 24 I posted Orphadeus, I know about quantum entanglement. I don’t know in what way it has anything to do with gene transfer. Or, for that matter, what it has to do with something being beneficial, or not. Can you clarify the connection you think is there?. You ignored my polite inquiry. I went to your blog to try to figure out whether you were a serious thinker. I copied a bit from your blog which looks to me like nonsense. I still don’t know how you think quantum entanglement relates to biotechnology.

  22. Sorry Charles, I’d been on other threads until today. You do not know about quantum entanglement. The point I was making was to do with random. If things are not random at a quantum level, why should they become random at the molecular or cellular level?

  23. a reasonable assumption being when chemical coded affirmative and when beneficial (and to the universe), such as with the aphid:

    This isn’t a case of thinking or not thinking – what you have written here is unintelligible.
    It starts off well enough… “a reasonable assumption being when” but then becomes utter bafflegab “when chemical coded affirmative” – this means nothing. Not a bloody thing. All the hand wringing and special pleading to quantum entanglement don’t remotely bring it back into the world of the sensible. Becomes even more nonsensical as the piece concludes. Incoherent nonense it remains regardless of the amount of knowledge the reader has of quantum physics.

  24. This response does not explain any of your statements, and only leads to more confusion. Orphadeus, maybe instead of making cryptic comments, and responding with short quips that deny the intelligence of others, how about you explain exactly what you mean. You are not helping your case.

  25. If your belief about what is “beneficial” for the universe or not is based on the lack of randomness, then you run into the problem of how you can’t separate natural events and human activities on that basis. You also still run into the same ol’ is-ought problem. That is, if I understand anything about what you are saying…

  26. Orph, I’m baffled. You start with a “Sorry”, then you lapse into an aggressive statement: “You do not know about quantum entanglement.”
    Of course I know about quantum entanglement! Why on earth do you think I don’t?
    Drop the aggressive tone. Just tell us in a few sentences how quantum entanglement and transgenic technology are related.

  27. Orph, this is getting very far afield.
    “If things are not random at a quantum level, why should they become random at the molecular or cellular level?”
    First of all, lots of things are random at the quantum level. In the experiment you referenced, each of the measurements made has a random result. The deviation from what you would expect in classical physics is that the two measurements, individually random, are forced to have the same result. To make a classical analogy, if I flip two coins, they will each show either heads or tails randomly. But suppose they were somehow stuck together. They would then both randomly show heads, or both randomly show tails, but never would one show heads while the other show tails. I think you are mixing up the concept of randomness with the concept of independence.
    Second, randomness at the macro-level is a separate thing from randomness at the quantum level. Almost all of classical physics which shows non-random behavior is because the randomness of the quantum level is averaged out. For example, the famous two slit experiment. An individual photon goes through one slit or the other and ends up at a single point on the target, randomly with a well known probability distribution. But when millions of photons pass through the slits, they land on the screen with a completely predictable pattern.
    But you’ve assumed also that classical behavior that IS random is impossible unless the randomness is inherited from the quantum laws. Actually most of what we normally think of as random was familiar long before anyone ever heard of the quantum theory. The coin flip gives heads or tails apparently at random, but in reality it’s just that the physics of a coin flip are so complex and too sensitive to initial conditions for us to make a deterministic prediction.
    Orph, I don’t think you appreciate the subtlety of quantum physics, which is not anything to be ashamed of. But it has nothing to say about GMO technology. I’d be fascinated if you could prove me wrong.

  28. I’ve got a different take. I think theres some errors taught at Primary School. I think theres some very simple explanations for some seemingly complicated scientific puzzles.
    At a quantum level, there is no mass. Equations in the absence of mass are different. An example is 16 cars travelling at 50kph. Yes the cars may have mass, but the question as to how fast the cars are travelling is mass free.
    16 x 50 = 50
    Put another way: X = Y x Xes
    That may not be appropriately written, other than it is appropriate that people should be able to understand. There is quite a lot of evidence that fits. Other than money, I’m not sure why scientists seem to ignore such as simple explanation.
    I reckon at a quantum level, with X = Y x Xes, you have what some might describe as abstract maths. Personally I would describe it as God maths.
    I believe the Big Bang can be worked out by correcting the 1 times table.

  29. Perhaps you’d like to explain how having a carotenoid pigment that makes the aphids favorable to ladybugs benefits the aphids?
    …or how how this pigment benefits aphid parasitoid wasps?
    …or how this ‘benefits the universe’?

  30. The coin flip gives heads or tails apparently at random, but in reality it’s just that the physics of a coin flip are so complex and too sensitive to initial conditions for us to make a deterministic prediction.

    Congrats to Charles. You get an “A” today. Probability is just a measure of uncertainty.
    Sorry Orphy. You get an “F-“. I suggest you read some E.T. Jaynes to see why 99% of people misunderstand “quantum weirdness”.

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