Science in Society Archive

People Power and Open Science Won the Day

I-SIS played a part in helping the local community of Mathry remain GM-free. Here's an excerpt from the diary of Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

"We shall meet at the car park of the Farmer's Arms," said Gerald Miles, with a mock conspiratorial air, his dark eyes twinkling beneath bushy eyebrows in the twilight. A dark stocky fellow of medium build, he has the air of someone in the know and in control.

It was after a long lively public meeting at the City Hall, which drew an audience of more than two hundred from around the area. That was the third talk that Brian Goodwin and I had given in less than twenty-four hours. We spoke first to the farmers the previous evening, and then to the politicians and local representatives in the morning. And all through that bank holiday weekend in May, the sun was shining gloriously on Mathry, Pem-brokeshire of Wales.

The local community had organised several protest actions over the past weeks, all well reported in the local media, and everyone was alert and drawn much closer together as a result. There was tension, but also a carnival-like atmosphere. The landlord Tony Marlowe, however, stood his ground on the intended field trial. Nevertheless, he had sent word via his neighbour and prime adversary, Gerald Miles, to invite the visiting scientists to give him a private tutorial on GM.

Gerald runs a small organic farm right next to Castle Cenlas, owned by Tony Marlowe, where 14 acres have been designated for the trial of Aventis' Chardon LL GM maize. Gerald converted to organic several years ago. "For the first time in my life, I am actually enjoying being a farmer," he told us. He stands to lose £50 000 if he loses his organic status from GM contamination.

Another very concerned person was Robert Jones, representative of the 22 local beekeepers. Robert had spoken up in the seminar that morning, pointing out the great distances bees travel, how maize pollen could be collected by bees because maize flowers late in the season when few other plants are in flower. GM contamination is not the only problem, the other problem is the spread of antibiotic resistance to bacteria that infects beehives. Foul brood disease must be treated with antibiotics including tetracycline and ampicillin. Chardon LL has an ampicillin resistance gene that is not active because it has lost the promoter, but government scientists had already warned that it could be reactivated by genetic recombination.

Gerald has tried his best to persuade his neighbour to call off the field trial, including offering to lease his neighbour's land to farm organically, but Marlowe had refused. It would be hard to match the £1400 per acre that Marlowe would receive from the government in any case. "How do you know the GM seeds haven't been planted already?" Someone asked. "Oh no," Gerald said, another twinkle in his eyes, "the phones will be ringing throughout the land."

Ian Panton, Chair of the St. Davids Peninsula Tourist Asso-ciation, a tall gangly and affable fellow, was one of the key players in the local campaign to keep Wales GM free. He drove the scientists to the car park, but no sign of Gerald. Then, a car suddenly materialised in front of us with its headlights on, and out popped the man himself, together with a young woman, Moyra Charles. Moyra, a local solicitor, has volunteered to represent the farmers free of charge, in case they have to resort to the courts to argue the loss of earnings due to genetic pollution of their crops.

"Tell him all you have told us," Gerald advised, "Tell him he will contaminate his land. And be sure to show him your overheads." Thank goodness I got my overhead transparencies organized recently, which I now carry around in a ring binder. They go down extremely well with all concerned, apparently because then they know you are a real scientist.

And so we drove on. By this time, night has fallen. Ian drove with breakneck speed down the narrow country lanes, regaling us with stories about what goes on in the Department of the Environment Transport and the Regions (DETR), which is paying out £3 million of taxpayer's money for the field trials and giving formal approval to the sites selected. A certain civil servant in the DETR has made it his job to withhold information and corre-spondences from the Environment Minister, just like the sitcom, "Yes Minister" which was extremely popular in the Thatcher era.

Ian was a member of a local delegation that met with Michael Meacher, Minister for the Environment. That was when the Minister discovered the required minimum 10-day notice for the field trial had not been given to the local residents. "Michael Meacher was not pleased, "Everything should come to me", he said to the 'microminion', looking him straight in the eye, sending him away skulking," Ian recalled with glee, as he made another wide swerve across to the lane of the oncoming traffic. Ian used to be a pilot in the RAF, and has never got used to line markings on the roads.

We passed a car parked next to a hedgerow. Ian told us they were part of the 24 hour vigil that the local residents were mounting. I strained my neck to look over the hedge and could just see the rolling field where the Chardon LL would be planted. On the far side, yards away from the field, is a river inhabited by otters, an endangered species, certainly to be harmed by the glufosinate herbicide that would be sprayed on Chardon LL, engineered to be glufosinate-tolerant. The Welsh Wild Life Protection would compensate farmers for that, Ian said, another angle to be explored in persuading Marlowe to give up the trial.

We arrived in front of a Georgian mansion. The full moon was a ghostly galleon impaled upon the bare trees, as Ian unloaded the portable overhead projector from the car boot, together with the rolled up screen, looking too much like a dangerous weapon. It reminded me of the letter that Aventis wrote to the local community to protest that they had not been invited to our debate, which was untrue; and also demanded protection for the 'intimidated' farmer.

We knocked on the door, and again, but still no reply. Gerald pushed lightly at the door to find it ajar. "It's a trap!" I whispered. By this time, there was motion from inside. A white-haired man of robust build came to the door, followed by his partner, Jill Chambers. The atmosphere was relaxed, even friendly. We were led to the living room and offered drinks. I accepted a glass of red wine, as Ian and Gerald busied themselves setting up the overhead projector and screen.

"There is such a lot of misinformation around," Gill complained, "Mo Molem writes to tell us one thing, then Michael Meacher says another. We are not getting all the information." I wasted no time in getting down to the tutorial, but there were constant interruptions and questions from Marlowe and Chambers, both obviously interested and engaged, though somewhat on the defensive. They were particularly keen to know about horizontal gene transfer and how GM crops differed from conventional breeding. It must have been at least an hour before I stopped, and Brian Goodwin added important information on the toxicity of glufosinate. At the end, Marlowe congratulated himself on how he had never had a biological education, but had managed to understand everything.

We didn't really expect Marlowe and Chambers to change their mind right then and there, but felt that we had given all the missing information they needed. It was two hours later when we set out on the road again. We found three cars parked at the vigil, and got out to exchange greetings. A biting wind was blowing in the night, but everyone was in high spirits.

Back at the Farmer's Arms, drinks were offered all round by the pub's owner, who was somewhat apologetic that he could not appear to be taking sides. Gerald told us in all earnestness how he loves his pigs and piglets, and how, since the foot and mouth outbreak, he was heartbroken to have to take them elsewhere and leave them for six hours before they were slaughtered. "They are so intelligent, the little piglets, they look into your eyes and see your soul!" A television crew had just interviewed him and his pigs. "Next time," I said, "hold the little piglet, it's the image of the new man. The women will go wild."

That was Saturday. Sunday morning, Ian took us for a windy boat-ride from St Justinian around Ramsey Island, spotting seals and seabirds and exploring the caves and rock formations, a much welcomed reprieve before an interview with BBC Wales. The visiting scientists, Brian Goodwin, Angela Ryan and myself, went home very impressed with the community spirit that made everything run so smoothly and seem such fun.

The BBC Wales interview turned out to be crucial. I had said in my lectures that Chardon LL is illegal. I recalled how, at the public hearing objecting to Chardon LL last October, I told the presiding judge that it could not have passed the test for Distinctness, Uniformity and Stability (DUS) required for approval. A few days later, the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food put out a press release admitting as much. Apparently, the required test was two years in the field, but France had approved it on behalf of the EU based on one year only. The UK public hearing was suspended indefinitely. So technically, we have to suppose that Chardon LL is not legal. BBC Wales thought that was very significant, and the same day, the local media picked that up too, and very soon, even the politicians, who could not be persuaded before, took up the cause.

The following Wednesday, Tony Marlowe and Jill Chambers issued a press release calling off the field trial, blaming pressure from the local community and "a campaign of misinformation and disinformation"; by whom, they did not say.