In the fields of conflict

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The Independent Culture
A GLOSSY, readable book to be published next week goes by the title Britain's Rare Flowers. Nothing strange about that, except that on page 97 it has a picture of a very familiar flower indeed, one with stiff, cobalt-blue petals raying out from its dark centre. "Cornflower (Centaurea Cyanus)," says the caption beside it, "is better known today from seed-packets than wild in cornfields." This proud, blue flower that once flared out alongside blood-red poppies from the edges of fields on hot summer days has almost died out in the wild. Apparently there are just three places where you can find the wild cornflower now in Britain; one on the Isle of Wight, one in Suffolk, and one in Lincolnshire.

I remember picking cornflowers on the edges of Suffolk fields in my childhood, on long summer holidays that were all about mud, brambles, flowers and the wilderness that city children long for. And then we would walk over the Suffolk dunes and hear the skylarks bubble up into the clouds above us. It was one of the best sounds in the world, the noise that told you that the holidays had really begun, that made children like us feel we had stepped into another world. Now, beside that figure of three places to find the wild cornflower, you can consider the statistic that charts the swift decline of the skylark - since 1969, skylark populations in Britain have gone down by 58 per cent.

Who wants to live in a Britain without cornflowers or skylarks? That is what the figures are beginning to suggest - a Britain where one day there will be no patches of cobalt blue in the fields, a Britain where you won't be able to hear the distinctive song of the lark. And it's not just one or two species at risk.

There are hundreds of flowers and birds on the way out that many of us, who spend our lives centred around cinemas and city streets rather than fields and beaches, will never even have seen. There's the grey partridge, whose number has fallen even more steeply than the skylark, and the Deptford Pink, an elegant little flower with sharply incised petals, once common, now on the point of extinction. Are we now part of a country that has no room for songbirds or wildflowers?

The unease that urban people can feel at the idea of the wilderness disappearing may be laughable, given that we live in such tamed and cleaned-up environments, far from the hedgerows and dunes where such battles are fought. But we do feel uneasy, knowing that something has gone bizarrely wrong in places that are still fundamental to our lives.

And it makes us feel helpless, too, when we hear more and more news of the decline of the wilderness, because everyone knows what the problem is for cornflowers, skylarks and their like, but nobody seems to be able to do much about it. It is since Britain shifted to industrialised agriculture, with its intensive use of herbicides, that weeds and wild patches around and within fields have declined. With the weeds go the insects, and with the insects go the birds. That is well-known; that is unquestioned. But still it goes on, and the flowers and birds continue to fade away.

Indeed, it isn't just going on, it's getting worse. Although organic agriculture is on the up, it still takes place in just a tiny proportion of the countryside. And the introduction of genetically modified crops shows how the agricultural business is still obsessed with drenching fields in herbicides. The genetically modified crops that are being grown in fields in Britain - the maize, the beet, the rape - are not there to feed the hungry in the Third World, or whatever idealistic rhetoric the companies that produce them trot out. They are all simply modified to be resistant to herbicides produced by the companies that also produce the crops - Monsanto's Roundup or AgrEvo's Liberty - so that farmers can casually wipe out all growing things on their land apart from the crop itself. This could be more bad news for cornflowers and their like.

But should this nostalgia on behalf of tall, blue flowers blossom into action? God forbid. Those who feel that they would like to be not helpless and uneasy, but active and committed in defence of a vanishing wilderness, must keep quiet - maybe just write a letter to an MP or attend a public meeting or send a donation to Friends of the Earth. Because if we do as those few dozen activists against GM crops have done over the last few weeks, and rush in to try to stop what the agricultural business is doing, we will be - what? Medieval monks; idiots; hopeless conservatives.

The campaigners who have been resorting to direct action, ripping up stocks of rape in Oxfordshire, sugar beet in Hertfordshire and maize in Norfolk, have recently received a terrible press. Not just from the Telegraph or the Mail, but even from more liberal commentators - from this newspaper and The Guardian, for instance, both of whom called them Luddites. The fierce criticism levelled at the activists by liberals seems to be based on the fear that by trying to stop these experiments in their tracks, they are setting their faces against science and progress. So Simon Jenkins in The Times branded the protesters "medieval book-burners". "These people," he wrote, "would have roasted Mercator at the stake and hauled Galileo before the Inquisition."

But that image doesn't square with the environmental activists I've met, or the arguments they are putting forward. Green activists today are not Luddites. They are not medieval book-burners. They are not anti-science. When I visited Model Farm in Shirburn just before the direct action there, for every one bare-footed guy who sounded pretty dreamy I met three or four articulate and convincing people with degrees in microbiology or law or environmental management.

And the science of the protesters tends to sound more logical and convincing than that of their opponents. The activists have resorted to direct action, quite rightly, in order to draw attention to the oddly unscientific nature of these so-called scientific trials. As they point out, these trials are, bizarrely, badly conducted, without buffer zones or baseline ecological studies, out in the countryside where bees and rabbits and deer can transport pollen anywhere without the effects being tracked. If we are going to have experiments on GM crops, they should be better than these. The time to stop them is now, and once other methods have failed, the way to do that is through direct action.

But the activists are also right to make us ask whether we want such experiments at all. We already know that the genetically modified crops produced by Monsanto and Agr- Evo have not been developed to reduce the use of chemicals, but to increase farmers' dependence on the relevant companies' brands of herbicides. We already know that these crops are able to cross-breed with wild plants, so potentially creating strains of resistant weeds and necessitating the use of still more destructive chemicals.

There may be an element of nostalgia in all green activism - nostalgia for the cornflower and the skylark, and all those flowers and birds, those sounds and smells and colours, of a disappearing world. But that doesn't make the activists irrational and medieval. The attitude that looks truly old-fashioned now is the attitude that still trusts in technology to control and recast nature. The attitude that says that humankind can easily master the complicated ecological webs of the world and pull them to pieces without causing any ill effects. That was the dream of the industrial revolution, of the bomb-makers, of the Soviet's Five Year Plans. But nowadays that attitude looks outdated and naive.

The Greenpeace activists don't look to me as though they have set their faces against progress, but as though they have a more sophisticated view of what progress should involve. If their frustration with the inertia of big business and government pushes them to rip up a few crops, can you blame them? Maybe the future lies with them, and not with the interests that would go on trying to turn our country into a silent prairie.

`Britain's Rare Flowers', by Peter Marren, is published by T and AD Poyser, at pounds 24.95