Most of the attendees don’t even work with GM crops.
Monday morning at the annual conference European Society for Plant Breeding Research in Switzerland started as planned. Researchers presented a talk on genomics and bioinformatics to the hundreds of scientists attending. But then things took a dramatic turn.
"It's around 11 o'clock when a group of activists enters the conference room of the ETH Zürich, throwing urine on the audience while painting 'Shit on technology' on the wall," said Beat Boller, the president of the society, in a released statement. "When they were gone they left considerable damage, a mess of rotten eggs and poo, and an audience full of incomprehension behind."
Police strongly suspect the activists were protesting against genetically-modified crops, according to the New Journal of Zurich, and said the masked individuals threw cow dung, urine, and rotten eggs. Some conference participants did get feces thrown on them, but no one was injured, according to the report.
But if the activists really were anti-GMO, this conference probably wasn't the place to stage their protest. It's true, the event was sponsored by some big names in the GM crop world, like Syngenta, Monsanto's Swiss rival. But it was attended by scientists and researchers with all kinds of backgrounds, who were coming together to look at new technology and share ideas with a specific goal in mind: finding a solution to food insecurity.
The conference brought together researchers from around the world with academics and industry representatives to share ideas on how to improve crops. There were talks by scientists from UC Davis, the University of Zurich, and Australia's Curtin University. These solutions can include genetic modification—GM crops that are more resistant to disease or climate change helps preserve food security—but it's not the only, or even the biggest, strategy being talked about.
"Plant breeding encompasses all forms of crop improvement and is designed to help growers that wish to grow using both conventional and organic cultivation methods. Very little is actually about GM crops," said Carol Wagstaff, an Associate Professor in crop quality for health at the University of Reading, who was in attendance Monday. "Most of the delegates, whether representing academia or industry, are based in countries where GM crops are not permitted for growth in the field."
Still, GMOs are a perpetual hot topic. Even though the science has made it clear that eating GM crops poses no risk to human health, there are legitimate questions to be asked about seed patents and whether or not we want all our crops to be controlled by a single, profit-driven, private company like Monsanto. But even if the protesters had those criticisms in mind, they were still at the wrong place. As Wagstaff pointed out, publicly sharing research and work at a conference like this counts as disclosure in the world of patents.
"Therefore those of us talking about our work do so because we want the results to be adopted and used to improve the resilience and quality of crops available in the future, not because we are seeking to patent our findings and make vast profit from them," Wagstaff told me via email. "I suspect these are goals that the protestors would also wish to see achieved if they thought about it."
"The science was not silenced."
After the protesters finished their literal smear campaign, they tried to make a run for it, but Wagstaff told me some of the attendees went after them and stopped them from getting away as police were called to the scene. After a short break, the conference moved to a different room and continued as planned, Wagstaff said. She told me her fellow attendees have been "pretty stoic and unperturbed by the whole thing."
"No one was hurt and the science was not silenced," she said. "The meeting has not suffered in the slightest."