A perfect sunny day in England, a lovely corner of the Hertfordshire countryside, a quiet laneway across from the cricket club – what better place for a violent act of anti-technological dissent?
That was the scene last Sunday in the village of Harpenden, where 200 protesters from across Europe had arrived with plans to "decontaminate" or otherwise destroy a field of experimental genetically modified (GM) wheat, only to be stopped by a massive force of police and pro-science protesters.
It was meant to be a resurrection of the long-dormant anti-biotechnology movement, a force that ripped across Europe and North America a decade ago, driven by consumer alarm at stories about tomatoes containing salmon genes and other such horrors. Indeed, Sunday's rural standoff could have been a scene from those days, when cries of "Frankenfoods" led to mass protests against genetic engineering and provoked the European Union to impose a ban on GM crops and a moratorium on imports.
But it wasn't. In the past decade, almost everything in the world of food and crop science has changed. Genetically modified food has gone from dark corporate plot to progressive rallying cry, and those Harpenden protesters were shocked to find that they are no longer a popular cause.
Ten years ago, it was a stark political divide: Opposing GM food was a cause backed by the major left-wing parties and ecological movements. And on the other side were a number of highly questionable American mega-corporations and a group of libertarians mainly interested in profits.
This week, the politics had almost reversed themselves: After Harpenden, no less than three articles supporting the scientists ran in the left-wing Guardian, and it was the far-right Daily Mail that chose to run a feature spread opposing GM crops. Opposition to biotech has been left to revanchist agrarian conservatives such as Prince Charles, a handful of fundamentalist green groups and people who believe what they read in the tabloids.
That's because the world has changed since 2002. Back then, there were huge worldwide food surpluses, forcing most Western countries to destroy large parts of their harvest, and the main reason why anyone would go into genetic engineering was to increase profit margins. It was the domain of companies like Monsanto, known for its aggressively defensive approach to marketing herbicide-friendly crops.
But today, the frontier of biotechnology is in the sphere of international development and public interest. The research lab facing protests last Sunday was Rothamsted, a non-profit, entirely government-funded, public-sector institute. What its scientists have created there is a strain of wheat that repels aphids, potentially ending the deadly developing-world problem of entire crops being destroyed by aphid infestation. It is one of hundreds of "pro-poor" GM initiatives designed to create a new range of crops that will allow Asian and African countries to eclipse the West in food production. That's vitally important because the world has faced food shortages since 2008, for the first time in three decades.
The first generation of GM crops didn't entirely live up to their promise. True, widespread planting of insect-resistant cotton and corn have reduced the world's use of pesticides hugely. But scientists were over-optimistic in predicting a genetically driven "second Green Revolution" to match the early-1970s wave of hybrid crops that ended continent-wide mass starvation as a major phenomenon in the world.
But that is all the more reason to support the latest research. By 2050, Isobel Coleman of the Council on Foreign Relations notes, there will be two billion more mouths to feed and a 70 per cent increase in global food demand. "We need another Green Revolution to increase agricultural productivity, especially in Africa," she writes, "and we should pursue a variety of approaches to meet that challenge," including new crops resistant to insect plagues, flooding, low irrigation and spoilage. Those, combined with better irrigation, transportation and training, could get the world back into a food-surplus position – even with its higher population – by the end of this decade.
"Biotechnology is helping to revive African agriculture," says Calestous Juma, the Kenyan scientist who runs the program on agricultural innovation at Harvard's Kennedy School.
Biotechnology, he notes in his book, The New Harvest, has already "improved soil productivity and enhanced natural weed and pest control." The next wave of crops, which contain micro-nutrients, can put an end to the infections and child-development problems that plague the continent. They can resist flooding, salt water, under-irrigation, transport spoilage and produce far more food on the same, formerly famished land.
But, he notes, too many poor countries still ban the new crops – because they believed the Western hysteria over Frankenfoods a decade ago.
This time around, perhaps our laboratories will export something other than fear.