Yesterday, Hertfordshire police kept hundreds of protesters from campaign group Take the Flour Back away from a field where genetically modified wheat is being tested by the Rothamsted Research Institute.
Take the Flour Back activists fear the testing on the GM wheat, which has been enhanced to fight aphid infestation, is unsafe and risks contaminating other fields. The group pledged to lead activists to the site ‘where those who wish can participate in removing the GM crop’.
Take the Flour Back’s aggressive stance included rallying speeches from spokesperson Kate Bell, who said: ‘We wanted to do the responsible thing and remove the threat of GM contamination, sadly it wasn’t possible to do that. However, we stand arm in arm with farmers and growers from around the world, who are prepared to risk their freedom to stop the imposition of GM crops.’
Rothamsted Research has communicated widely, updating both its website and Twitter feed with the latest news. It also offered to hold a public debate with Take the Flour Back, which was declined by the protest group. The research centre has used Professor Maurice Moloney as its spokesperson, taking the stance that the protesters have their facts wrong and that the centre is very open to ‘civilised debate’.
Alex Deane, head of public affairs at Weber Shandwick, said: ‘It's great to see a research institution handle comms so well. If the protesters are happy to shout slogans, but not debate in a rational way, what does it say about them and their cause?’
Deane felt the aggressive stance by Take the Flour Back was indicative of a worsening state of protest movements in the UK.
He said: ‘Protesters in the UK have been getting worse and worse. These cases will continue, so researchers are going to have to get into the comms game and handle things well – like Rothamsted has. Science one, whining greenies nil.’
Nick Laitner, director of public affairs at MHP, applauded Rothamsted’s comms handling but also expressed concern: ‘The scientific community and authorities have done well to portray the protesters as extremist zealots. This approach could serve to further polarise and politicise the debate so it becomes a matter of right vs left, rather than the science vs superstition debate the authorities would prefer.’
The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) has also questioned the campaigners’ aggressive style of protest. BBSRC chief executive Professor Douglas Kell said: ‘We understand that some people do not agree with this research and… have the right to make their views known - but we deplore those that turn to criminal damage.’
PRWeek contacted Take the Flour Back for comment and has not yet received a response.