Report, 4 March 2002
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
conference brought several of us from ISIS to the community. Here are
some highlights from each of us.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
(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
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
"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 cological 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 roving this, none
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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