Science in Society Archive

Freeing Scotland from GM

The Scottish Highlands community has been opposing their local GM field trial near Munlochy for the past two years. A constant vigil was set up at the site, which now forms the focus of a movement to free Scotland from GM. Please send letters of support before 12 March 2002 to

A recent conference brought several of us from I-SIS to the community. Here are some highlights from each of us.

Mae-Wan Ho

A short scenic taxi-ride took Vivian Moses and myself, speakers on opposite sides of the GM divide, to Cawdor Castle, a grey forbidding-looking ancient monument reputed to be Macbeth’s castle. We avoided speaking to each other, with each of us perhaps wandering who was going to be murdered this time round.

As we got out of the taxi, two small barking dogs came to greet us, followed by a tall, strikingly handsome woman, Angelika to her friends, Lady Cawdor, or ‘The Dowager Countess Cawdor’ to the rest of the world. Before I could exchange more words with her, however, I was distracted by the most wondrous collection of colourful birds that suddenly swooped down on us. (I learned later from Vyvyan Howard, a keen bird-watcher as well as accomplished cellist, that they were chaffinches, coal tits and robins.)

The mystery was soon solved. Lady Cawdor, equally colourful in a house-jacket, scattered some bird-feed on the wall of the stone bridge that led up to the castle, and I was able to capture a photograph of some of the birds as they alighted for their daily feast.

I was shown to the Pink Room, mine for the next two days, with its sumptuous four-poster beds and tapestries depicting my favourite hero, Don Quixote. But I couldn’t keep still.

I was drawn irresistibly outside, where the liquid sunlight flooded the landscape. I strained my neck to gaze up at the tall, bare, sinuous trees, looking their most majestic and seductive in the golden light. I peered at the luscious covering of grey, brown and green lichens decorating the branches. I huddled close to the snowdrops that came out in profusion on the lawn, and took in the imbroglio of bird songs that filled the air.

Lady Cawdor told me she came to the Castle 20 years ago, when she converted all the farms to organic. She has eaten organic food all her life, and believes that is the way to health. When her dogs got ill, a special diet was all that was needed to restore them to health. Food and wine were indeed very good at the castle, as some of us were fortunate enough to discover over the next two days. I especially enjoyed the indigenous root vegetables from the Cawdor gardens.

Growing up in South Africa, Lady Cawdor enjoyed going out to the bushes as a child and developed an intense love affair with nature. She dotes on all animals. Her dogs, with fur the colour and texture of sand, simply adore her, and share her love of the woods, as was evident when we took them out on their daily walk.

When GM trials were planned near the castle, Lady Cawdor was most concerned. She managed to have two of the trials stopped, but not the remaining on Roskill Farm near Munlochy. "There are 85 organic farmers in the area", she told me. That was why she took the initiative to organise the public debate. The 350 seats were all sold out, and people had to be turned away.

During drinks that evening, I could not help overhearing Vivian Moses making rude references to the ‘protest industry’. So I said that compared to what the biotech industry paid its propagandists, the protestors were paid peanuts. He challenged me as to how I knew people like him weren’t paid peanuts. "If you were", I said, "then you must be a monkey".

After that, sparks did fly for most of the next day during the debate. Fortunately, however, we managed to part on friendly terms, when, the morning after, he visited the Vigil with us and redeemed himself by allowing us to photograph him accepting £5 bribe from Jacko for switching sides.

Lim Li Ching

The Munlochy Vigil has become a focus of local opposition to the GM crop trials and to genetic engineering in general. I spent the first night at the yurt across the road from the field where Aventis’ GM oilseed rape had been planted on Jamie Grant’s Roskill Farm.

It was the coldest night I have ever endured, although I was much assured by regulars that real cold was when Anthony Jackson’s beard froze and when the logs that kept the fire going were too frozen to be used. And while I could hear the resident mouse scrambling about, at least it did not try to make a nest in my hair, as it did with Nigel Mullan’s.

Anthony (a.k.a. Jacko), 29, a wood-cutter, and Nigel, 47, visual artist and sculptor, are two of the main ‘vigilantes’. Another core member is Gwyllim Barlow, forty-ish father of three and a biodynamic herb gardener. Other key members of the local community include Linda Martin, a lecturer at the University of the Highlands and Islands, and Chloe, 25, who holds jobs in wholefood firms.

From rags to riches, I was able to spend the next two nights at Cawdor Castle. On the eve of the conference, Lady Cawdor made an impassioned call for the immediate scrapping of GM crop trials in Scotland. She emphasised the need for adequate information on genetic engineering to be in the public domain.

"We have a very concerned public in the Highlands and the idea is that they should know exactly what the situation is," she said, "We are here to listen to the scientists and learn more".

Staying at the castle also gave me an opportunity to meet the other speakers of the conference, and especially Dr Arpad Pusztai, who conducted the first systematic food safety tests on GM potatoes and discovered that they caused organ and immune damage to young rats. Conversation at the castle was inevitably laced with lively debate on genetic engineering, as it was in the yurt.

The conference was attended by well over 300, which was a good indication of the high level of local concern. Professor Vivian Moses, from King’s College and Chairman of the CropGen Panel, a group of scientists funded by industry, kicked off by arguing for the benefits of genetic engineering in agriculture. His sweeping assertion that gene technology is merely a continuation of conventional breeding was questioned, as was his contention that GM foods are safe, which he alleged is borne out by ‘not one case of damage to health anywhere in the world’. One wonders how any scientist could make such a statement, knowing that there are no baseline or exposure data available, nor had there been any systematic monitoring.

Dr Mae-Wan Ho contested the central dogma of genetic determinism underpinning genetic engineering, which has been discredited and replaced by the ‘New Genetics’ of the fluid genome, where genes respond as part of the organism embedded in its ecological environment. She also highlighted that the new technologies have concentrated food production in the hands of corporations intent on profit. Exploding all the claims of the benefits of genetic engineering that Professor Moses had earlier detailed, she went on to explain why GM crops are inherently unstable due to their very design, and the consequent dangers of horizontal gene transfer and recombination.

The need for precaution was emphasised by Dr Vyvyan Howard of Liverpool University. He challenged the use of risk assessment as ‘proof’ that gene technology is safe and contested the notion of ‘substantial equivalence’, which only looks at the chemical composition and not biological effects such as allergenicity and toxicity. Dr Howard called for different regulatory procedures for pervasive technologies such as genetic engineering, including strict liability, temporary licensing, full transparency in assessment and application of the precautionary principle.

While Dr Bill MacFarlane-Smith of the Scottish Crop Research Institute asserted that the GM crop trials are vital to making value judgement on the crops, many pointed out that they were approved without adequate public consultation. One person said that while the government had assured the public the crops were safe, when pressed for research proving this, none was forthcoming.

Throughout the day, one concern that came out very strongly was the need for independent science, as the audience consistently questioned the murky links between industry, government and scientists. Funding of research and academic institutions by corporations and a pro-biotech government is producing a bias that needs to be urgently reversed. As the Pusztai affair attests, when the safety of genetically engineered foods was called into question by sound research, independent scientists, instead of being supported, have been vilified and victimised. The conference was very unhappy about misdirected scientific research that does not benefit the public.

To counter this sorry trend, we must demand public input into science and research policy. We, as citizens, need to insist on science that is accountable and in the public interest, and not driven by profit.

Patrick Holden of the Soil Association summed up the mood of the meeting with a new vision for organic agriculture in the UK. He called for an end to unhealthy, industrial agriculture, for which gene technology is billed as providing the technological fix. But that only treats the symptoms. It is necessary to address the causes of the farming crisis, to work with nature instead of against nature.

The Munlochy Vigil is going from strength to strength. It is organising a petition to the Scottish Parliament calling for an immediate end to the GM trials in Scotland, and for a full parliamentary debate, with a free vote on GM crops in Scotland.

Nick Papadimitriou

Intent on getting in on the action at Munlochy, I impetuously volunteered to stay in the yurt. I admit I almost had second thoughts when, at 8pm on a cold night, the train pulled in at Inverness amidst flurries of sleet and snow. Li Ching and I piled into a dilapidated car beside chief vigilantes, Jacko and Nigel, who assured us we would be perfectly warm in the coming night. I gazed out on the bleak vista as the concrete road-bridge and the ruffled surface of the Moray Firth swept past, not at all reassured.

I would like to say that I slept warmly that night. But, I gallantly gave my sleeping bag to Li Ching and had one of the most uncomfortable nights of my life. Twisting and turning, I struggled with the blankets to stop my precious body heat escaping downwards, upwards and sideways out into air so cold my breath froze. I found myself wondering at the devotion of the vigilantes, unaware that everybody else slept warm and sound in their caravans, piled high with duvets and secure from the highland wind. A surprising number of cars tore up the quiet lane throughout the night and passed so close they managed to terrify me out of what sleep I did get. Nevertheless I got up early next morning in good spirits.

Walking out, I found myself wondering why anybody would want to plant GM crops in such a magical place. Icelandic moss, the curious grey-green lichen, covered almost every wooden surface, including fence posts. It is an indicator species for healthy ecosystems. Stray boulders marked field corners. There were many more birds than I have ever seen. I spotted red kites, redwings and fieldfares, hedgesparrows and hoodiecrows. I even saw a female merlin with buff and brown spots perched in a tree.

Those who defend GM often accuse those opposing it to be luddites and naive nature lovers. When Vivian Moses, one of the pro-GM scientists visited the yurt the day after the debate, the first thing he asked was where we held our pagan rituals. Let’s set the record straight.

Most of the people in the Munlochy Vigil were motivated out of a sense of social justice rather than from a desire to protect a "nature" perceived as pristine or uncontaminated by human activities. Insufficient consultation prior to the planting of the test crop and the threat to the organic status of local producers were cited as reasons for the protest. While everybody was impressively knowledgeable about the flora and fauna and the geology of the region, there was also a strong awareness of the human dimension and its part in shaping the environment.

Over the next few days I frequently saw furze and broom growing together Both indicate acid soil and are therefore at home in the region. However, much of the broom was planted originally as cover for foxes during the enclosures of the highlands in the 18th century. Evictions and blood sports have shaped the landscape. Criticism of genetic engineering does not imply the endorsement of other shaping forces in the environment. In fact foxhunting was banned in Scotland that very week. On the other hand, accepting the presence of the broom or of the numerous other introductions growing in the region, such as cedar or the vast Wellintonias I saw near Rosehaugh doesn’t mean green light for GM crops.

On my last night there, we had a fierce argument about the existence of God. It was clear that opposition to GM rested on a differing basis for almost everyone there. Once I got my sleeping bag back I slept soundly, wakened only by the pattering of the mouse, which lived under the stove. I even managed to cook a meal for everybody.

The yurt forms the core of the protest and has attracted numerous locals who wanted to get informed or to debate the issue. A book containing hundreds of signatures supporting the vigil is on display. The signatories come not only from Scotland, but from all over the world.

On my last evening, I went for a walk down to Munlochy Bay, along to an old ruined castle on the headland. Snowdrops pushed up in the gardens of cottages and a dead deer lay in the wet grass by the roadside. As the light grew dim, a cold wind rose and moaned across the fields. I pulled my collar up and tried to read my map. For a moment I worried I was lost then calmed down as I saw the eerie green of the yurt across the fields. I hurried on feeling much safer. I was home.

New Posting on ISIS website:
Letter to Scottish Parliament Petitions Committee from Dr. Mae-Wan Ho in support of Munlochy Vigil

Article first published 04/03/02

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