Green groups and scientists in battle amid sun, cheese and folk music

News article published on Nature News Blog on 28 May, 2012.

Say what you will about the scientific literacy of protesters against genetically modified (GM) crops, they certainly put on a good picnic.

Amid a mini-heatwave in the United Kingdom, some 200 activists with anti-GM campaign group Take the Flour Back descended upon the well-to-do town of Harpenden on the outskirts of London on Sunday with the intention of ‘decontaminating’ — or tearing up — fields of GM wheat. The grain, being tested by the local, publicly funded Rothamsted Researchagricultural institute, gives off an odour to repel aphids. The researchers use a synthetic form of a gene that encodes a protein that happens to be similar to one found in cows, and so the protesters say that Rothamsted is producing some unnatural cow–wheat monster that they had planned to uproot.

The action had been widely debated in much of theBritish press and on blogs as researchers feared the beginnings of a revival of the anti-GM activism of the 1990s and early 2000s that saw hundreds of campaigners destroy GM crops throughout Europe. Take the Flour Back’s plans have become the focus of a rancourous debate in these same newspapers between green groups and a growing movement of self-proclaimed geeks out to promote evidence-based policy and expose pseudoscience, who announced online that they would mount a counter-protest.

In the end, a heavy police presence prevented Take the Flour Back from entering the Rothamsted fields. The group decided to march up to the edge of the fields instead, although Anonymous, the online community of hackers, did mount a successful distributed denial-of-service attack on the Rothamsted website overnight, shutting it down for 12 hours.

But in the shade of a welcoming tree under the blaze of the sun on Harpenden Common, far from any rumble between the ‘hippies’ and the ‘nerds’, the protesters provided free organic bread, lashings of incredibly creamy Stilton, homemade chutney, smoked British Camembert and a refreshing chilled mint-and-pea soup to folks from both sides. If you ignored some of the wilder conspiratorial claims and blatantly incorrect assertions, you would have to say that it turned into a rather glorious day in the park.

To read the rest of the article, visit the Nature website.

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