The conspiracy to undermine the truth about our GM drama A BBC eco-thriller is at the centre of a furious row. Ronan Bennett, co-author of Fields of Gold, says that the attacks are orchestrated and groundless Ronan Bennett Observer Sunday June 2, 2002 One of the characters in Fields of Gold, a young, keen news photographer working on suspicious deaths at a cottage hospital, tries to convince her senior, somewhat jaundiced colleagues there is more to the story than meets the eye. Sighs all round. The reporter she has been working with apologises sarcastically to his editor: 'Missed the story. Big conspiracy by the forces of darkness. It was right in front of me and I didn't see it.' The silly little girl is sent off with a flea in her ear. Conspiracies are the stuff of thrillers, not real life. Except that Fields of Gold, a two-part drama about genetically-modified crops
Last week The Times and Daily Telegraph ran prominent news stories in which a number of senior scientists, who appear not to have seen Fields of Gold, attacked the drama, which will be shown on BBC1 on 8 and 9 June.
According to Lord May, president of the Royal Society, it is an 'error-strewn piece of propaganda'. Mark Tester, a Cambridge researcher who gave the production team some helpful notes as we were about to start filming but has since changed his mind on some of his earlier advice, claimed it risked 'inflaming further the anti-GM attitude in the West, to the detriment of the developing world'. Fields of Gold was likened variously to Spiderman, Star Wars, The X-Files and Day of the Triffids, and the BBC was upbraided for treating GM as 'fatuous science fiction. Just now, when the Prime Minister has spoken so forcefully in favour of rational discussion, it is particularly important to keep the debate on a realistic footing.'
The Times headlined its piece: 'BBC drama peddles ludicrous lies on GM'; the Telegraph's story was billed: 'Adviser accuses BBC of being anti-GM in "ridiculous" thriller'. More puzzling, it accuses me of 'contaminating the GM debate with the methods of Irish Republican agitprop' - puzzling because the drama is nothing to do with Ireland, but understandable in the context of Telegraph editor Charles Moore's bizarre personal crusade against me and my work.
Since the Telegraph accuses us of 'dramatically modified truth' and the Times accuses us of 'lies', it seems odd that they are not being open about the origin of the story. Nowhere did they mention it had been brought to them by a lobbying organisation, Science Media Centre.
SMC was set up recently and, according to its website, has 'a brief to renew public trust in science'. Its funders include Dupont, Merlin Biosciences, Pfizer, PowderJect and Smith & Nephew - all biotech or pharmaceutical companies with a direct interest in the promotion of the technologies the drama explores.
Though SMC seems keen to become a sort of Mandelsonian rapid rebuttal unit, it has yet to learn the subtler arts of black propaganda. When 'Fiona' from the centre was touting the story around last week, she finished her email with a last inducement: 'There will no doubt be others keen to have a pop at BBC/Guardian in one go.' Helpfully, she sent the email to the Guardian, sister paper of The Observer. The Guardian's editor, Alan Rusbridger, my co-writer on Fields of Gold, declined the honour. Fields of Gold started life almost three years ago when Alan and I met Jane Tranter, the BBC's drama commissioner, to discuss a possible serial about genetic modification. Alan had been running a series of articles on Monsanto and other GM corporations, assessing the impact of the technology on farming, the environment and the developing world. We were all familiar with footage of environmental activists trashing GM trial sites and mounting public concern about the contamination of ordinary crops by their genetically-modified near neighbours. There was also Dolly the sheep, the mouse with the hideous ear on its back, and, of course, incessant speculation about human cloning. A rich and, on the face of it, promising concoction. Jane commissioned us to write the scripts. These were completed last summer, after the usual rewrites and editing, and filmed in the autumn, directed by Bill Anderson and starring Anna, Friel, Phil Davis, Max Beesley, Ron Cook and James Fleet. The Times and Telegraph articles give the impression that Alan and I set out with the intention of discrediting GM and that the BBC was our willing accomplice. The truth is that Alan places himself in the 'don't know' camp, and while more sceptical I am certainly not anti-science. Part of the problem about the debate over science is its polarised nature. If, like me, you have no fundamental ethical or practical objections to the new technologies but are nervous about how they are being developed - and worried about the involvement of big business - you tend to find yourself dismissed as a Luddite, the phrase favoured by Tony Blair. Hardly a happy term for the 'rational discussion' scientists say he is so keen to promote. The substance of the SMC-orchestrated attack is that Alan and I made up the science to suit our purposes. This is wholly untrue. From the beginning, we were adamant that the drama should be grounded in the real world, that what we portrayed should be plausible. Before we started writing, Alan collected a great deal of research material. As with all research, every area you investigate takes you somewhere else. We started with GM crops. That took us to the crisis in British farming. That took us to animal husbandry - to pig-breeding in particular, a sorry and distressing tale in itself. Pigs, we discovered, like all farm animals, are pumped full of hormones, growth promoters and antibiotics. None of this is new, but I was astonished by the scale of the pharmaceutical industry's involvement in what we eat. Pharmaceuticals led us to another very topical area: antibiotic resistance and the pharmaceutical industry's continuing and urgent efforts to develop new drugs to combat bugs that have learnt to get round existing medicines. We spoke to doctors and scientists and read House of Lords select committee reports - rarely covered in the media - on the alarming increase of antibiotic resistance and the emergence of superbugs such as MRSA and the vastly more terrifying VRSA (vancomycin-resistant staphylococcus aureus). The phrase that stays with me is: we are one drug away from disaster. Every time scientists invent a drug, the microbes eventually find a way to outsmart it. The scientists then invent another drug and the cycle continues. We have got used to MRSA in hospitals and care homes, but few people are aware of VRSA, a highly infectious and deadly bug resistant to everything. So far, there have been only a small number of limited outbreaks, but if VRSA ever got into the human population the consequences would be catastrophic. The Pentagon and Ministry of Defence have contingency plans for such an eventuality. By the time we had digested this information we seemed to have come a long way from our starting point of GM. But then we asked: what if VRSA got into a genetically-modified crop? What would be a possible outcome? Two big questions here: one, would it be possible to get the vancomycin-resistant marker gene into a crop? Second, having got it in, how would it get out? Could VRSA be transferred 'horizontally', that is between organisms, for example from plant to animal to man? I'm reluctant to get too technical or to give away the plot, but this is the key to the scientific objections to Fields of Gold. We did more research and eventually found a suitable storyline. As the scripts were developed, the BBC production team sought scientific advice. Was our scenario plausible? Among those contacted for their opinion was Mark Tester, who has now, with the help of SMC, taken the lead in denouncing us. In July 2001 he gave us the following advice on the question of whether you could get a vancomycin-resistant gene into the crop: 'Usually a bacterium is used - you could change this to a virus... The plant culture then needs to have hormones added to it to encourage the growth from the culture of new plants, among which will be the GM plants. All this must occur in sterile conditions... He also needs to be able to prepare the DNA, so needs a device that can shake flasks at 37 degrees... The rest is bits and pieces - pipettes, petrie dishes, kitchen scales, and time.' In other words, yes. Or, as another scientist put it to us: an A-level chemistry student could do it in his kitchen. But now Tester appears to have changed his mind and says the idea is 'ridiculous'. He is also quoted in the Times on 'horizontal transference'. He is adamant that 'horizontal gene transfer' could not happen 'readily or easily' and is one of the false premises of our scenario. Yet in July 2001 he told us: 'Horizonal gene transfer may or may not occur... I remain open-minded.' Open-minded no longer, it seems. In fact, scientific opinion remains deeply divided. Only last week, a three-year study at the University of Jena in Germany concluded that genes from genetically-modified crops can spread from plants into other forms of wildlife, supporting environmentalists' warnings and raising the possibility that people who eat GM foods may also be affected. The research may not have been taken seriously by Tester and SMC, but Nick Brown, the Agriculture Minister, made an emergency announcement advising farmers to plough in the crop, a reversal of the Government's position that no such action would be necessary. There are other contradictions between what Tester says now and what he said to us almost a year ago. But this is really beside the point. More pertinent is the over-excited way in which a certain section of the scientific community has responded. In orchestrating their unpleasant campaign to denigrate the programme-makers, they are confirming the suspicions of those who have legitimate concerns about how and why the new technologies are being developed. Campaigners on GM are used to the smear tactics described by George Monbiot last week in the Guardian when he revealed how GM giant Monsanto used fake email addresses to lobby on its behalf and attack opponents. Equally unappetising has been the readiness of certain newspapers to run the story without asking basic questions about its origins. Fields of Gold is not Luddite, it is not anti-GM propaganda. It is not anti-science. On the contrary, the GM characters make a powerful case for their technology in the opening minutes. Pro and anti arguments are heard throughout and in the end no character has his or her view entirely confirmed or overturned. All are left, as we all must be for the present, in a state of not knowing.: