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Won't Someone Please Think of the Aphids?

It's a beautiful day for a food riot in Harpenden.
28 May 2012, 2:10pm

The SCORCHER that was the weekend was all about getting out and about and enjoying the great outdoors. So, naturally my Saturday invlolved a game of “who can throw a Frisbee at whose balls the hardest”. But come Sunday, it was time for VICE snapper Henry Langston and I to put on our serious faces because a bunch of eco-warriors were planning to tear up a field of GM crops, which had been planted there so that a bunch of scientists could "science".

The experimental crop – which gave off a smell warning aphids it wasn't edible, negating the need to spray it up with pesticides – has the hippies spooked because they reckon it could get into the eco-system, despite the scientists' assurances to the contrary.

  We boarded the train to Harpenden, just outside of London, and it felt like the sort of place people go on hot days like this, except that a large "trespass ban area" meant that we weren’t going to be able to see many of Harpenden's famous sights. This also made us fear for the demonstration – that red dot on the map is where the protesters were allowed to go.

  The protest felt like how I imagine Glasto would have felt before it sold out, and I think half of the people there could have verified that for me had I asked them.

Luckily, actor Joanna Lumley was on hand with some cows and we grabbed her for a chat.

  She told us that she doesn’t trust scientists because: “I come from the age when Thalidomide was said to be safe for women, and look what happened there! I don’t think scientists always have the answers, unfortunately. We’re all demonised as hippies.”

The protest had been preceded by a week of thoughtful and well-reasoned debate with no hint of moronic hyperbole whatsoever. Oh, except that someone from the National Farmers Union compared the environmentalists to Nazi book burners. And an anti-GM article – referring to a gene added to the crop that occurs naturally in many plants and which is similar to a cow gene – had the scaremongering headline “Cow Genes on Toast, Anyone?”. Oh noes! Cow genes? On my TOAST?! That sounds awful!!!!! Oh no, wait; cheese on toast is delicious!

So, who’s in the right and who’s wrong? Frankly, it’s a bit of a headfuck. Eminent professors are certainly very good at making the protesters look like fuckwitted yokels and bleeding-heart Guardianistas who would prefer people to starve rather than allowing them to eat anything other than organic wholemeal bread and free-range quince jam. On the other hand, the anti-GM people have been pretty good at pointing out who cashes the scientists' cheques and the dodgier actions of the people behind their PR.

There was a contingent of French activists in attendance. I’m dyslexic, so at first I thought their T-shirts said "OMG NOM". Which obviously isn't the message they were trying to put across.

The speeches began and a bunch of local kids turned up and started ironically writing things like “save the trees” on themselves. We hardballed their press agents and managed to talk to some of them.

 

VICE: Why are you here protesting against GM?
Girl Who Didn't Wanna Tell Us Her Name (Left): Errr. I think it’s the fact that it’s polluting us. I only live down the road.

Are you big into permaculture, then?
Zoe (second from right): What does that mean? Yeah! If that’s a good thing then yeah. I smoke the ganja.

What if they could find a way to make ganja using GM so it was super-strong?
Yeah, that would be sick!

What’s your favourite organic restaurant?
Nando's. Actually, I prefer McDonald's. Chicken burger with chips and a milkshake. What’s yours?

I’ve heard that Borough Market is nice.

    
Speeches over, it was time for some action. About 200 activists started marching towards the test site, linking arms as they went in order to break through the police lines.
  The French, ever eager for more rolling heads to boot up and down the Champs-Élysées, led the charge.

They reached the police line. This is it guys. Time to smash through and destroy the Frankenstein food!

Actually no, let’s just sit down and listen to another speech instead.

Some of the protesters ran up the hill in what at first looked like a daring second attempt to break through the police lines. But all the achieved in doing was opening up another front to loiter near grumbling. To be fair, the police presence was pretty huge. While we were up there, we bumped into a "Don’t Destroy Research" counter-protester. You can’t tell from the picture, but she was crying.

Rebecca Nesbitt, 28, PR

VICE: Hi, are you crying because you love GM research so much that the thought of it being stopped brings you to tears?
Rebecca Nesbitt: No, I’ve got hay fever! I’ve just seen a banner go past saying, "BIO-DIVERSITY, NOT CORPORATE MONOPOLY"...

Catchy.
Yeah, I mean, that’s just so exactly what I believe. It’s a shame that they’re not engaging and understanding the difference between Rothamsted which is a publicly funded research organisation and a corporate monopoly. Maybe some bad things have happened in the past because of the GM-corporate mixture, but that doesn’t mean we can’t look at it as a way to improve food security.

Would you consider yourself an environmentalist? Even though nature hates you so much it gave you hay fever?
Yes, definitely. When all this was kicking off about ten years ago, I would have considered myself anti-GM. I’ve realised since that a lot of scientists are environmentalists and are fighting the same cause that I am, so I trust them.

As any attempt at disorder petered out, we caught up with Theo Simon from Take the Flour Back, who had been manning the mic most of the afternoon.

He told us that, even though he agreed with the scientists that there was a very "low risk" of contamination happening, there was also a very "low risk" of Fukushima exploding before it actually blew. "The warning's meaningless until it happens – like with a nuclear accident! We need to get the technology back. Or we're buggered. We're buggered. It should be in the hands of the community, not the technocracy!"

Despite Theo's warnings of a grim future full of exploding, radioactive food, the planned "decontamination" never happened, and the evil GM alien-weeds remained stubbornly planted in the earth. But maybe a movement has been reborn. It seems that what is at stake here is not only the question of whether or not GM is a good idea, but who gets to make those decisions, and who should be told that they’re too stupid or too corrupted by money to have a say.

On Sunday, a bunch of angry hippies forced their way into the debate and issued a rallying cry for the little guy.

I guess you don't get much littler than an aphid.

Follow Simon and Henry on Twitter: @simonchilds13 and @henry_langston