From Chapter 14:  Backlash



As the days grew warmer and farmers prepared the ground for planting, the "Guy Watson affair" erupted. It was the first of what Patrick Holden, chairman of Britainís largest organic farmersí group, the Soil Association, referred to as "acts of God; windfall events which hugely altered the attention that the media gave to the issue."

In reality, it was an act of Patrick Holden. Holden is an enormously articulate man with silver hair, a lean, tanned face, and piercing, unsmiling brown eyes. In the early 1970s, when Holden was barely out of his teens, he spent a year living near San Francisco, and discovered the Californian counterculture in all its glory. It was one of the "defining influences" of his life, Holden says. "I became interested in new models for communities, for rural development, and for agriculture."

During the 1990s, the Soil Association had moved from an "open-minded" stance on genetic engineering to fierce opposition. There were many reasons for this position, Holden says. They included fears of environmental disruption and worries about the safety of food, but also objections to biotechnologyís scientific "arrogance", and lack of respect for nature. Skeptical observers of the organization perceived another, more self-interested reason. Organic producers stood to gain if they could convince consumers that conventional foods were tainted and possibly dangerous. Whatever the reason, the Soil Association began the biggest campaign in its half-century of existence, and the Guy Watson affair became its central event.

Watson owned a large organic farm near the town of Totnes, in the southwestern corner of England. Totnes, says one of Watsonís employees, is "a thriving community of artists, alternative therapists, greens and even new age travellers. If a fervent anti-GMO campaign was going to start anywhere in the UK, it would have to be in Totnes."

In April of 1998, one of the citizens of Totnes, reading the legal notices in the local paper, came across a notification that a seed company was planning a field trial of genetically engineered Liberty Link corn nearby. The test crop would be planted right across a small river from Guy Watsonís farm.

At this point, the Soil Association got into the act. It declared that "genetic contamination" from the Liberty Link corn might endanger Guy Watsonís status as an organic grower. If windblown pollen from the genetically engineered corn appeared likely to fertilize his sweet corn plants, the letter stated, "we reserve the right to withdraw certification from the crop." Guy Watson, backed by the Soil Association, went to court, trying to block the field trial of genetically engineered corn, which he claimed was a grave threat to his livelihood.

Various environmental groups issued statements of outrage. "FRANKENSTEIN FOODS THREATEN ORGANIC FARMER", trumpeted the press release from Friends of the Earth. Patrick Holden told journalists that "there could be no future for organic farming unless genetically engineered crop testing is brought under control and commercial planting prevented."

Most media coverage echoed Holdenís fears. Few journalists paused to ask how the presence of genetically engineered pollen in a farmerís field might render it non-organic, or why the Soil Association claimed that it would. If wind-blown grains of pollen had fertilized a few strands of silk on the ears of Guy Watsonís organic sweet corn, foreign genes would have ended up in the small embryo deep within those kernels of corn. But no genetically altered offspring would have grown from those kernels, since Watson didnít replant seed from his own harvest. Nor would the presence of this pollen have altered Guy Watsonís organic farming methods in the least.

"I always thought it was a bit of a bogus argument," admits Guy Watson, the organic farmer, looking back on those days of controversy and fame. "But I suppose you canít get into these fights and stay squeaky clean." The possibility of cross-pollination was a "tool", he says; The leaders of the Soil Association "were quite keen to use the situation, and I was willing to be used."

But no matter. The idea that genetically engineered plants would "contaminate" the countryside through windblown pollen seemed, instinctively, to make sense. It became the central metaphor for environmental dangers posed by genetically engineered crops. And one night, before the Liberty Link corn near Guy Watsonís farm sprouted tassels bearing pollen, activists went into those test plots and ripped out the genetically engineered plants. (It was among the first such "decontamination" efforts. Some were carried out in secret, others as open acts of civil disobedience. A year later, art imitated life. The entire British nation listened in rapt attention as Tommy Archer, a main character in the BBCís wildly popular radio drama "The Archers", went on trial for destroying genetically engineered crops near his familyís organic farm. The jury declared him not guilty.)