7 June 2002
FIELDS OF IRE
The Guardian, Friday June 7, 2002
A BBC drama about a GM crop that goes wrong has come under fire from some scientists who say it distorts the facts. But, asks co-writer Alan Rusbridger, could the criticism have more to do with the interests of the biotech industry?
Every so often, British intelligence officials do a tour of our universities to drop a quiet word of advice about foreign nationals who want to enrol on certain science courses. You would expect them to take a keen interest in anyone studying nuclear fission. But more recently they have begun to express concerns at, for instance, Libyans or Iraqis wanting to study plant sciences. Did you know that? And do you find that knowledge reassuring, alarming, alarmist or merely interesting?
You probably know that antiobiotic resistance in humans and animals is causing great concern in the scientific, veterinary and medical communities. Some doctors fear we are one drug away from a public health disaster. But did you also know that biotech companies have been in the widespread habit of using antibiotic resistance marker genes in plant trials? Reassured? Alarmed? Interested?
Most of us do not spend our lives reading scientific journals or the reports of parliamentary select committees on such matters. The latest advances in biotechnology are way beyond our comprehension. The speed at which things have moved since the first genetically modified plant was approved for marketing in May 1994 is bewildering.
Most people, I suspect, have very mixed feelings about it all. Some may hope, or believe, that these developments have the potential to feed the world and, perhaps, save the world. Others may feel that it is all happening without proper debate or democratic scrutiny, and that there is at least the possibility that we are opening a Pandora's box which may greatly harm the world. Some may even hold both these thoughts in their heads simultaneously. I'm certainly in that camp. One day (coincidentally while reading The Day of the Triffids to one of my daughters) it occurred to me that between those two polarities saving the world and harming the world - there is great dramatic potential.
What would happen if something went seriously wrong with a GM crop trial? We have in this country a prime minister who dismisses sceptics about the new technologies as Luddites and a science minister with an extensive personal and financial interest (held in trust) in biotechnology. The big biotech and pharmaceutical companies are notoriously rich and powerful and, say their critics, increasingly sophisticated in discrediting those who threaten their vested interests.
On the other side, you have a green movement which, in the view of many scientists and businessmen, plays fast and loose with the facts and which will never concede the benefits of the new technologies. They may not have the resources of the big companies and governments, but environmental pressure groups have much credibility with the public and have learned to make formidable use of the internet and email in order to get their point of view across. In the middle you have the media, trying to make sense of a tidal wave of information and disinformation.
All this struck us - my co-writer, Ronan Bennett, and me - as being fertile ground for a television drama. We pitched the idea to the BBC and some 18 months later - holidays, weekends and the odd late night of research and writing - the scripts were ready.
We did not really expect any of the parties portrayed in the drama to come out as cheer-leaders for Fields of Gold. Biotech companies, greens, farmers, big pharma, government and media will all have reasons to dislike some elements of it. But nothing quite prepared us for the orchestrated pre-emptive strike on the series from some scientists.
The Science Media Centre - recently established with the laudable aim of promoting un derstanding of science, although with up to 25% of its funding from biotech and pharmaceutical companies - coordinated the attack, lining up an array of sound bites ("makes Star Wars look like cinema verite") and offering them to anyone "wanting a pop at the BBC/Guardian in one go".
One or two newspapers were only too happy to oblige. Dr Mark Tester, a Cambridge scientist who had read the original script, was given a starring role in the subsequent coverage - mainly in the Daily Telegraph. An editorial in that paper fulminated that "every single scientific premise on which the drama is based is demonstrably false".
This was, as Roy Lodge, the sodden old hack in the drama would say, bollocks.
It is safe to say that the leader writer - who seemed to be mysteriously fixated with Ronan's views on Irish politics - has not spent much time studying this area of science. His de haut en bas dismissal of the scientific basis for the programme soon looked a bit silly.
The paper could not resist giving away the plot. I won't do that. But, briefly, the chief area of controversy surrounds the question of whether an antibiotic resistant gene introduced into wheat - along with a virulence gene - could result in antibiotic resistant bacteria moving into the soil and thence, or independently, to human beings.
Some scientific premises:
Are antibiotic resistance genes routinely introduced into GM crops? Yes, they are. Are plenty of scientists worried about this? Yes.
Does VRSA - vacomycin resistant staphylococcus aurea - exist and is its spread feared by the medical community? It does, and it is. In evidence to the House of Lords select committee on science witnesses spoke of the "catastrophe" we faced should this super bug become more common.
Do scientists accept the possibility of genetic material transferring from crops to soil, humans or animals? As Tester himself puts it: some do, some don't. An extremely eminent professor working in this area said last week: "The truth is, we have an extremely poor understanding of how genetic matter moves around in the natural or managed environment. Scientists working with bacteria tend to be far more cautious than anyone else."
Some scientists are sceptical about the possibility of horizontal gene transfer, if not outright dismissive. Others have no doubt that it occurs.
A 1999 letter from Mr N Tomlinson, a senior MAFF official stated: "there is cause to be concerned about the problem of gene transfer to environmental organisms. Such bacteria could also act as a gene pool that may interect with human pathogens".
The letter attacked assumptions that only healthy adults might be exposed to the threat. "Transfer of genes may pose a much more significant threat to the very young, the elderly and those people who are immunocompromised" and warned that, if exposed, it could have "much more serious consequences... than healthy adults." The first people to fall ill in Fields of Gold are the elderly.
A Defra spokesman said this week that he thought this advice had now been overtaken by further research and that the likelihood was now "remote." But, as Tomlinson's letter noted, "Given the huge amplification of resistance genes implicit in the agricultural application... even rare events will happen."
As last week's controversy rumbled on even Tester was forced to concede that the central thesis of the drama was a possibility, even if he believes it to be improbable. He could hardly do otherwise since his original memo to the BBC stated that he had an open mind on the question. That memo went much further in helpfully suggesting ways in which the material could be made more dramatically plausible. It is difficult to go into further examples without betraying the story. But the memo's emphasis was not that the science was wrong, but that ways should be found to make it more explicit.
So what began with screaming headlines about "BBC lies" eventually fizzled out with mumblings about what was dramatically plausible and whether drama had the duty to be "responsible". It is not often that such a concerted effort is made to destroy the credibility of a drama in advance. The question is, why?
One answer is contained in the script itself. An awful lot hangs on the outcome of the current trials in Britain and elsewhere of GM crops. It is difficult to think of any other period in science when so much was at stake.
At the most elevated level, pro-GM scientists and not a few politicians would argue that the entire future of the human race depends on this technology. They sincerely believe that, without biotechnology, the human race will be incapable of feeding itself within a generation or two. At a more pragmatic level, billions upon billions of dollars stand to be made or lost on this technology. The last thing some of these businesses want is a searching public debate. Since this is one of the themes of the drama it is not without irony that some people have gone to such lengths to rubbish it in advance.
The second answer lies in the nature of drama itself. Because these issues are so complex to grasp they are difficult to project journalistically. Some editors chart an easy course in dubbing anything to do with GM produce "Frankenfood". But the nitty-gritty business of trying to produce balanced and detailed coverage of the science is often rather dull. It does not often produce heated discussion around the water cooler.
A peak-time drama on BBC 1 is entirely different. If Fields of Gold is making some people nervous, it will be because it has taken the bare bones of the scientific predicament and projected it dramatically in a way which will - if it succeeds - engage a mass audience and make them question the issues behind it. That is an alarming prospect for those who would rather have restricted this debate to a small elite. It explains why Monsanto secured early copies of the drama and why people at the highest levels of government are known to be anxious about the fall out. And it explains why the Science Media Centre, extensively backed by the biotech and pharmaceutical industries, mimicked some of the clumsiest spin techniques of New Labour in trying to discredit it in advance.
Viewers will make up their own minds after seeing both programmes. As a journalist straying for the first time from the printed word, it has been a fascinating illustration of the power of drama, even in prospect. And also a slightly dispiriting view of the willingness of one or two fellow journalists to pursue their own agendas, or simply fall for the easy lure of spin.
Still, it would be churlish not to be grateful for the publicity, including 3,000 words so far in the Telegraph alone. To be compared with Star Wars, John Wyndham and The X-Files may not be quite what we had in mind, but it may have the unintended consequence of making people actually tune in.
Fields of Gold is broadcast on BBC1 at 9.05pm on Saturday. The second part follows on Sunday at the same time.
Saturday, 8 June, 9.05 - Fields of Gold - BBC 1 TV
"First in a new two-part conspiracy thriller starring Anna Friel. An eager young photographer and a bitter tabloid hack are sent to investigate mysterious deaths at a cottage hospital. But why is the new environment minister keeping tabs on their every move? Concludes tomorrow at 9.05"
Sunday, 9 June, 9.05 - Fields of Gold - BBC 1 TV
"Continuing yesterday's thriller. Lucia is compelled to resort to desperate measures. Contains disturbing scenes. Concludes after the news".
Sunday, 9 June, 12.30 - The Food Programme - BBC Radio 4
"Sheila Dillion investigates how US biotechnology companies are preparing to launch a new offensive on the reluctant European market and examines how far the GM debate has moved on" [Includes studio debate with Professor Vivian Moses and Mark Griffiths - repeated Monday 4.30]
Sunday, 16 June, - Bitter Harvest - BBC 2 TV
"The science and controversy of GM food go under the microscope in a BBC 2 series" (no time yet specified, but this looks like being the first in a series of programmes)
ngin bulletin archive