You misidentify the victims in your News Feature on conflicts among scientists over genetically modified (GM) crops (Nature 461, 27–32; 2009). The real victims on this “battlefield” are not the handful of people criticized for their research, but those scientists who want to realize the potential of plant biotechnology and the farmers who apply authorized products.
These people have to endure bomb threats, insulting letters and telephone calls, destruction of their fields (almost no UK field experiment has survived since 2000) and harassment of their children at school. As author of a UK Food Standards Agency report concluding that organic food provides no additional nutritional or health benefit, Alan Dangour was bombarded with hate mail from activists.
The whole biotech debate is an emotionalized mess, fuelled by lobbyists and society's zero-risk mentality. Scientists should not be wary of publishing their results just because they could be deliberately misinterpreted. But they must be vigilant. As Kai Diekmann, chief editor of Bild, the largest newspaper in Germany, said in a recent television broadcast, “More than 10 million readers is a huge responsibility. I have to consider every single word before it is printed.”
Why are some scientists so sensitive if weak data are published? When I first met Ingo Potrykus, the inventor of the famous transgenic 'golden rice' (so called because of its extra β-carotene content), I was still Germany's top anti-GM campaigner with Friends of the Earth. Some 15 years after our public debate, I now understand his frustration. As a humanitarian and Roman Catholic, he has worked hard to develop rice varieties he believes could improve the lives of millions of poor children likely to become blind. But Greenpeace and other activists are sabotaging his efforts with false claims, initially that children could be poisoned by excess vitamin A (see http://go.nature.com/DFzvpc) and later that 4 kilograms of rice is the daily requirement for a therapeutic effect (see http://go.nature.com/GvklD9).
Scientists should think more carefully about the impact their words might have on the future of society, and their responsibility towards it.
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Katzek, J. Battlefield: hitting the supporters of biotechnology. Nature 461, 875 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/461875a