Don’t vote Green until they drop the anti-science zealotry

Green Party activists going about their business
Green Party activists going about their business

• Interestingly, the page on which the Green Party’s Jenny Jones called for the vandalism of scientific research (linked below) seems to have gone down. Whether that’s deliberate or not I don’t know. Here’s a cached version (thanks Nathaniel Avery on Twitter).

This is one of those agonised posts. I actually like the Green Party. My dad used to be, and may still be, a member. They’re well-meaning and many of them share my taste for unkempt beards. I think I put Jenny Jones as my first choice in the London mayoral elections.

But the trouble is that they’re scientifically illiterate and have what seems to be a fear of technological process. The one big thing they’ve got right, that anthropogenic climate change is a threat to human wellbeing, they seem to have got right by accident.

Today they’ve reached a possible new low. That self-same Jenny Jones, recipient of the Chivers vote, is to appear at the “Take the Flour Back” protest at Rothamstead Research, which is intending to “decontaminate” – which is to say vandalise – an ongoing experiment into genetically modified wheat. (Thanks to Mark Lynas for the heads-up.)

This is ugly, idiotic Luddism. The research is non-profit. It is attempting to find ways to make wheat farming less environmentally damaging: by adding a gene which would make the plants release a pheromone that aphids use to warn each other of danger, the researchers hope that it will reduce pest attacks and thus allow farmers to use less pesticide. Actual supporters of environmentalism, as opposed to kneejerk technophobes, should support the efforts. It is also safe. As Prof John Pickett, one of the researchers on the experiment, said in this paper on Tuesday, fears of cross-pollination of the GM strain with wild plants are founded on a lack of understanding:

Wheat is 99 per cent self-pollinating: it is a real challenge to make wheat-to-wheat hybrids, let alone cross it with something else. The only wild plant theoretically capable of crossing to wheat in the UK is couch grass, and although there have been some lab experiments that have made hybrids between wheat and couch grass, this needs human intervention and has never been seen in the wild… To be doubly sure, we have put in place strict safeguards to minimise the spread of seeds or pollen, for example by surrounding the GM plots with other wheat and barley crops as a barrier that will all be harvested and destroyed at the end of the trial.

So is cross-pollination possible? Yes, as scientists we work on the principle that anything is possible. Is it likely? No. What’s more, even if it did happen, the actual chances of this GM wheat successfully establishing itself in the wild are extremely low, since wheat is uncompetitive with other plants.

But even aside from all of that, this is an experiment. It is an attempt to find out more about how the world works, and it may allow us to feed more human beings. Agricultural technology, as led by the father of the Green Revolution Norman Borlaug, is credited with saving a billion lives last century, and GM is just another aspect of that. How can a serious political party back acts of vandalism against scientific research? Until Jenny Jones and the rest of the Green Party drops this awful, damaging, stupid behaviour, no serious environmentalist should be able to vote for them.


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