It’s good that scientists working on GM foods are more prepared to stand up for their work, but progress in this area may be held back by the emphasis on precaution and sustainability that many researchers share with environmentalists.

Depending on who you were reading, it was either a showdown between rational, progressive scientists and wacky, ignorant Luddites, or it was a brave attempt by caring greens to stop an environmental catastrophe. In truth, the Battle of Rothamsted seems to have been a bit of a damp squib.

The ‘battle’ came about because a campaign group, Take the Flour Back, announced that on Sunday it would protest against Rothamsted Research, a government-funded agricultural research facility north of London, and destroy an open-air trial of a new, genetically modified wheat that produces a pheromone that repels aphids. The pheromone is already present in 400 other plants. The aim of the new wheat is to reduce reliance on pesticides. But in the minds of anti-GM groups, mucking about with the fundamentals of life is far more dangerous than using pesticides. The group’s video has all the hallmarks of green activism: patronising, scientifically dubious and riddled with anti-corporate conspiracy-mongering.

What was different this time was that the research centre didn’t take the matter lying down. Instead it appealed to the protesters not to go ahead with their action. Professor John Pickett and other researchers at Rothamsted wrote an open letter to Take the Flour Back, pleading: ‘We know we cannot stop you from taking the action you plan, nor would we wish to see force used against you. Therefore we can only appeal to your consciences, and ask you to reconsider before it is too late, and before years of work to which we have devoted our lives are destroyed forever.’ A petition was launched by the scientific community – under the banner ‘Don’t Destroy Scientific Research’ – which has gathered over 5,000 signatures.

Will Hutton, writing in the Observer on Sunday, compared the Rothamsted researchers to past luminaries of science like Francis Bacon, Galileo and Darwin. ‘The young scientists at Rothamsted are brave; they court a violent reaction from protesters who really believe that the integrity of nature is at stake. It is slightly fanciful, but they are directly in the great Baconian tradition. Like scientists over the centuries, they are having to stand by the logic of where intellectual inquiry takes them, however their ideas are received.’

However, Lucy Harrap, one of the organisers of the anti-GM protest, told the Guardian: ‘If this wheat goes to commercialisation, there would then be cross-contamination and we would no longer have a choice about GM or non-GM. When that happens it is not going to be Rothamsted who are going to pick the tab up – it is going to be farmers in this country.’ Of course, if farmers are unable to sell crops because they are contaminated with GM, whose fault will that be? Perhaps the people who have made it their business to create unfounded scares about GM?

In some ways, the polarisation of the debate is puzzling. Because actually, GM researchers and anti-GM protesters share much in common: concern about the environment, a distaste for big corporations (if the crop is commercialised, Rothamsted’s aim is to make the results of the publicly funded research available without restrictive patents), and a desire to help farmers. But Rothamsted’s appeal to the protesters fell on deaf ears: the attempt to destroy the crop went ahead anyway, attracting derision from many quarters.

As it happens, neither side attracted an enormous presence on the ground, if the BBC’s David Shukman is to be believed. There were ‘about 200’ anti-GM protesters, ‘about a dozen’ counter-demonstrators, and undoubtedly far, far more police, backed by court orders won by the local council preventing anyone from entering the Rothamsted site. While Take the Flour Back may have won the numbers game on the day, the wheat is still standing.

If there are any losers in this PR battle, it is the protesters. The whole affair has done considerable damage to the pretence that environmentalists are ‘pro-science’. Their claim that environmental action is needed because The Science said so was always a cover for something else. Greens are the ultimate conservatives, desperate to prevent the world from moving forwards, suspicious of progress, distrustful of big companies, harking back to the past and apologising for humanity’s existence.

But nor are greens merely wacky treehuggers, as many pro-research commentators appear to believe. In fact, three key, closely related environmental ideas are at the heart of government at every level from local authorities to the European Union. First, a scepticism about the merits of economic growth. Second, the idea that any development must be ‘sustainable’ - which means that the planet must come before people and that the needs of ‘future generations’ must come before material improvements today. Thirdly, we should not allow the absence of evidence to prevent us taking action on possible environmental threats - the ‘precautionary principle’.

While it is great that greens are being held to account for their arguments, and the lack of evidence for any harm coming from GM crops, it is these fundamental ideas about growth, sustainability and precaution that really need to be challenged. After all, it wasn’t a bunch of tofu-munching hippies that prevented GM crops being commercialised in Europe - that decision came right from the top, flowing directly from the reactionary philosophy of environmentalism that has seeped into every nook and cranny of decision-making. Indeed, the history of environmentalism - from Prince Philip’s royal endorsement of WWF 50 years ago through the Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth to UN-sponsored eco-jamborees in recent decades - shows that it has been driven from the top more than by crop-trashing activists.

But even those who stand up for GM reveal problems. While spiked has always been supportive of GM crops, it doesn’t help when scientists firstly overstate the case for them and secondly do so in the context of confronting one scare story with another. A textbook example came in comments made by Sir John Beddington, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser: ‘The future is really quite frightening. We are going to see enormous increases in the demand for GM food and who’s going to suffer when the food prices go up? The answer is the poorest of the poor… GM isn’t going to feed them all. It’s not going to solve the problem instantly. But it’s part of the sort of developments we are going to need to use to address some of these formidable problems.’

GM crops are not, as some claim, essential to feeding the world. We will be able to feed nine billion people without them (we almost certainly can already). The reason people go hungry right now is due to a variety of problems, most importantly poverty but also a lack of infrastructural development, barriers to free trade, and the missionary zeal with which NGOs and aid agencies promote low horizons in the developing world. The message to poor farmers is frequently: don’t think big or modern, think ‘appropriate’.

Applying genetic techniques will allow us more control over the crops we do produce. That may be drought- or pest-resistant varieties of staple crops. But it may also mean we can produce tastier tomatoes. If the case for GM remains about solving starvation, it will always be vulnerable to attack from greens. We need to assert the right of humanity to manipulate nature to our ends, full stop, whether those applications will save millions or are apparently trivial.

Scare-story justifications for GM also tend to close down discussion, something seen all too often in the debate about climate change, too. Those who believe in GM should be more concerned with explaining why it is in the interest of consumers to support this research, not trying to guilt-trip those with doubts into accepting GM. The irony is that when anti-GM campaigners say that we ‘shouldn’t take the risk’, isn’t that exactly the same argument made by climate-change activists who want to shout down opposition?

It’s good news if scientists are going to be more pro-active in defending their work and laying out the evidence for new technologies for us to judge for ourselves. It would be even better to have a defence of progress and human ingenuity against the pessimism of our fearful elites.

The battle over GM: a noisy distraction, spiked