31 May 2002

Adviser accuses BBC of being anti-GM in 'ridiculous' thriller

By David Derbyshire, Science Correspondent

The BBC was yesterday accused by one of its advisers of inflaming the hysteria surrounding genetically modified crops with factual errors and bad science.

Mark Tester, a GM crop researcher at Cambridge University, disowned the corporation's new thriller, Fields of Gold, after he had been invited to review its scientific content and was then, he claimed, ignored when he pointed out apparent errors. He accused the programme makers of being blinded by their own political agenda.

"It is important to engage in a balanced and informed debate about GM crops, but this is not the approach encouraged by Fields of Gold," said Mr Tester.

"It presents ridiculous errors of fact to inflame uninformed anti-GM hysteria, which is a pity because such a drama could easily have raised legitimate questions that are worthy of debate while still retaining an exciting screenplay."

The thriller, due for broadcast next month, was written by Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, and Ronan Bennett, who was criticised for another BBC production, Rebel Heart. It was described by critics as a "hopelessly one-sided" dramatisation of Ireland's history from 1916 to 1922.

Fields of Gold, starring Anna Friel, follows two journalists as they investigate suspicious deaths and GM crop trials. The plot hinges on the premise that a gene for antibiotic resistance has been added to GM wheat. During trials, the gene is transferred to bacteria, creating an antibiotic resistant superbug that kills wildlife, the local elderly and which threatens the world.

The show's scientific credibility is undermined by several scenes. It emerges that the GM strain was created by a scientist in his bedroom with a food blender, and that the extremely rare and dangerous resistance gene for the antibiotic vancomycin was originally found in waste left lying around a hospital.

During a crucial scene, there is concern that harvesting the wheat will spread genetic contamination around the country in dust.

Mr Tester, a former member of the Green Party, said there was no evidence that a gene has ever leapt from a plant to bacteria, while an antibiotic resistant superbug should pose no special threat to a fox - unless the creature was regularly taking antibiotics.

"Obviously this is drama and not a documentary. But it seems that the makers were blinded by their own political agenda," he said. "It is an irresponsible piece of television."

Scientists who have seen a preview of the programme were lining up yesterday to add their criticism.

Sir Robert May, the president of the Royal Society and a former Government chief scientific adviser, described it as a "ludicrous piece of alarmist science fiction" and "hysterically inaccurate".

Prof Ian Crute, the director of the Institute of Arable Crops Research said it was a "piece of fiction on a par with the X-Files".

A BBC spokesman said that viewers would recognise the use of dramatic licence and Rusbridger insisted that there was no political agenda.

"The point of exploring the subject is that lots of people believe GM has the capability to feed the world and others believe it could destroy the world," he said. "That is why it is an interesting dramatic subject. It is not an attempt to make a documentary.

"I do not accept that the science is flawed. During the programme, you do not know exactly what has been going on, except in a broad brush way."