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Friday, 7 June, 2002, 05:00 GMT 06:00 UK
Drama taps into GM debate
Fields of Gold
A scene from BBC's conspiracy thriller Fields of Gold
A new drama starts on BBC One on Saturday about a genetically modified crop gone wrong.

Fields of Gold was co-written by Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger. He explains what intrigued him about the issue and how the programme provoked a backlash even before being screened.

Every so often British intelligence officials do a tour of our universities to drop a quiet word of advice about foreign nationals wanting to enrol on certain science courses.

You'd expect them to take a keen interest in anyone studying nuclear fission. But more recently they've begun to express concerns at, for instance, Libyans or Iraqis wanting to study plant sciences.

Did you know that? And do you find that knowledge reassuring, alarming, alarmist or merely interesting?

Alan Rusbridger
Rusbridger: Unprepared for opposition to script
You probably know that antibiotic resistance in humans and animals is causing great concern in the scientific, veterinary and medical communities.

Some doctors fear we're one drug away from a public health disaster.

But did you also know that biotech companies have been in the widespread habit of using antibiotic resistance marker genes in plant trials? Reassured? Alarmed? Interested?

Most of us do not spend our lives reading scientific journals or the reports of parliamentary select committees on such matters.

Pandora's Box

The latest advances in biotechnology are way beyond our comprehension.

The speed at which things have moved since the first genetically modified plant was approved for marketing in May 1994 is bewildering.

Most people, I suspect, have very mixed feelings about it all.

Some may hope, or believe, that these developments have the potential to feed the world and, perhaps, save the world.

Others may feel that it is all happening without proper debate or democratic scrutiny and that there is at least the possibility that we are opening a Pandora's box which may greatly harm the world.

Anna Friel
Actress Anna Friel plays a press photographer
Some may even hold both these thoughts in their heads simultaneously. I'm certainly in that camp.

One day (coincidentally while reading the Day of the Triffids to one of my daughters) it occurred to me that between those two polarities - saving the world and harming the world - there is great dramatic potential.

What would happen if something went seriously wrong with a GM crop trial?

We have in this country a prime minister who dismisses sceptics about the new technologies as Luddites and a science minister with an extensive personal and financial interest (held in trust) in biotechnology.

Opposing views

The big biotech and pharmaceutical companies are notoriously rich and powerful and, say their critics, increasingly sophisticated in discrediting those who threaten their vested interests.

On the other side you have a green movement which, in the view of many scientists and businessmen, plays fast and loose with the facts and which will never concede the benefits of the new technologies.

They may not have the resources of the big companies and governments, but environmental pressure groups have much credibility with the public and have learned to make formidable use of the internet and e-mail in order to get their point of view across.

In the middle you have the media, trying to make sense of a tidal wave of information and disinformation.

Max Beesley
Max Beesley plays the farmer at the centre of the drama
All this struck us - my co-writer, Ronan Bennett, and me - as being fertile ground for a television drama.

We pitched the idea to the BBC and some 18 months later - holidays, weekends and the odd late night of research and writing - the scripts were ready.

Nothing quite prepared us for the orchestrated pre-emptive strike on the series from some scientists.

It is not often that such a concerted effort is made to destroy the credibility of a drama in advance.

The question is, why? One answer is contained in the script itself.

An awful lot hangs on the outcome of the current trials in Britain and elsewhere of genetically modified crops.

It is difficult to think of any other period in science when so much was at stake.


At the most elevated level, pro-GM scientists and not a few politicians would argue that the entire future of the human race depends on this technology.

They sincerely believe that, without biotechnology, the human race will be incapable of feeding itself within a generation or two.

At a more pragmatic level, billions upon billions of dollars stand to be made or lost on this technology.

The last thing some of these businesses want is a searching public debate.

Since this is one of the themes of the drama it is not without irony that some people have gone to such lengths to rubbish it in advance.

The second answer lies in the nature of drama itself.

Because these issues are so complex to grasp they are difficult to project journalistically.

Viewers will make up their own minds after seeing both programmes

Alan Rusbridger
Some editors chart an easy course in dubbing anything to do with GM produce "Frakenfood".

But the nitty gritty business of trying to produce balanced and detailed coverage of the science is often rather dull.

It does not often produce heated discussion around the water cooler.

A peak time drama on BBC One is entirely different.

If Fields of Gold is making some people nervous it will be because it has taken the bare bones of the scientific predicament and projected it dramatically in a way which will - if it succeeds - engage a mass audience and make them question the issues behind it.

That is an alarming prospect for those who would rather have restricted this debate to a small elite.

It explains why Monsanto was offered early copies of the drama and why people at the highest levels of government are known to be anxious about the fall-out.

X Files

And it explains why the Science Media Centre, extensively backed by the biotech and pharmaceutical industries, mimicked some of the clumsiest spin techniques of New Labour in trying to discredit it in advance.

Viewers will make up their own minds after seeing both programmes.

As a journalist straying for the first time from the printed word, it has been a fascinating illustration of the power of drama, even in prospect.

And also a slightly dispiriting view of the willingness of one or two fellow journalists to pursue their own agendas, or simply fall for the easy lure of spin.

Still, it would be churlish not to be grateful for the publicity, including 3,000 words so far in the Telegraph alone.

To be compared with Star Wars, John Wyndham and the X Files may not be quite what we had in mind, but it may have the unintended consequence of making people actually tune in.

See also:

31 May 02 | TV and Radio
23 May 02 | Education
06 May 02 | Scotland
14 May 02 | Science/Nature
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