The village hall was packed. People who had got there in time to grab a seat were asked to shove forward to leave more room for those standing at the back. Late-comers could get no further than the entrance to the building, where they strained to see over the heads of those in front. You could sense the anticipation.
So was it quiz night? No. Nor was it a whist drive or amateur dramatics, or any of the events commonly associated with village life. The 300-odd souls who had given up a midsummer Friday evening in a beautiful corner of southern England had done so to take part in a debate about GM crops.
Forest Row in East Sussex is not, it seems, like other villages. Its timber-framed houses, narrow winding lanes, handsome church and proximity to Ashdown Forest make it obviously a desirable spot, and the property prices are the confirmation: at least £400,000 for a nice family home. But what you would really be buying into here is not tangible. It is perhaps no coincidence that the village is home to a school and a college that are both based on the teachings of the philosopher Rudolf Steiner. The people of Forest Row have a very clear idea about the kind of world they want to live in, supporting not one but two organic farms, declaring the village GM free, and showing the collective commitment to pull off a debate like Friday night's, which brought together an impressive trio of platform speakers: Charles Hendry, the local Conservative MP; the pro-GM Professor Vivian Moses from University College London; and Pete Riley from Friends of the Earth. The Government's call for a national GM debate before next month's EU decision on whether to go ahead with GM has not generally met with an enthusiastic response. Forest Row is an exception.
"We're quite a community," said Penny Crowder, a special needs teacher. "Especially when it comes to food. One of the reasons we are united is that we recognise that we are very privileged to have these organic farms." The Seasons organic shop turns over £1.25m a year, a huge amount in a village of 5,000 people. The only thing delaying its expansion, said director John Walden, was lack of staff.
Today the village will be going one stage further, with a naked protest in a rapeseed field. More than 40 people are expected to take part. They will strip off, lie down, and form the words "no GM rape". The organiser, Forest Row resident Mike Grenville, is an old hand at this sort of thing. In February, during the build-up to the war in Iraq, he organised a similar protest, with naked bodies spelling out the word "peace". The image flew around the world. "It was amazing," Mr Grenville, 53, said. "There aren't many people who can say they've appeared naked on page three of The Financial Times." Ms Crowder will be one of those joining in the protest. "It's a way of getting attention, but also there is a uniting factor about it," she said.
At the village hall debate, scornful cries greeted Professor Moses's comment that some people wanted GM, and that their freedom to choose it should be respected. The cautious note struck by Mr Hendry went down much better, and Mr Riley was applauded for pointing out the likelihood of GM contamination of non-GM crops. "There are huge risks associated with GM that are just not worth taking," he said. A number of speakers drew comparisons between the way the Government led the country into war with Iraq in the face of public opposition and the way it is "forcing through" GM.
Vanessa Underwood, an actress, gave a short impassioned speech from the floor. "It's all very well giving people the chance to have GM, but not if it's threatening my liberty to eat GM-free food."
Forest Row has spoken. Will others follow?Reuse content