29 September 2000

ONE WOMANS FIGHT ON THE GM FRONT…

The only woman farmer to take part in the governments GM

trials of oilseed rape has spent the last six months making

a personal radio diary for the BBC. In it she records her

hopes for the technology, her anger at demonstrators and

the pleasure and frustration involved in working on the land.

Nancy Nicolson spoke to her at her Aberdeenshire farm

THE sign at the road end warns "Danger Lady Farmer", the electric fences are running at their maximum voltage and Shirley Harrison casually mentions that if she was still farming in Africa, the holster at her side wouldnt hold a mobile phone but a loaded handgun.

Powerful arm muscles and large working hands add to the impression that this petite, attractive woman is a force to be reckoned with. Its when she speaks, however, that you fully understand how a potentially vulnerable female, living alone on an isolated farm, has single-handedly fended off the countrys Press and media, sceptical neighbours and packs of environmental protesters intent on demonstration and destruction. The combination of assertive voice and aggressive manner has proved to be more effective than any of the physical scare tactics, and theres a glint in her eye that suggests she has enjoyed the sparring.

"It took me six hours to get the hang of the Press, then I treated them like dirt," she gloats. "I invited all the protesters and doubters round, and the only worthy adversary I had was Patrick Holden of the Soil Association. The rest were uninformed and could form no logical argument about why they were against GM crop trials."

Shirley says her trial by public opinion was predictable but admits to being shocked by blatant attempts at intimidation which saw her Aberdeen- Angus herd let loose on a main road, grain contractors warned that they would be blackballed if they worked on her crops and the trial plots damaged. The level of abuse reached a point where she expected every morning to find her cat or dog poisoned, or her beloved cows dead in the field.

&#42 African experience

"Some people may have felt threatened by the letters I received but Ive farmed in Africa so I know what real intimidation is all about," she says. "At one point I was getting uninvited visitors every day, and I didnt know what they were capable of doing. But the threats published in the local newspaper brought neighbouring farmers in to unite behind me."

Six months of living under this type of pressure would be more than enough for most people, but for Shirley the constant demands to justify what she was doing led instead to a strengthening of resolve. She has underlined her commitment to GM technology by signing up for the next phase of trials, and a plot of winter oilseed is now in the ground. So what are her motives for enduring such disruption to her working life?

"Firstly, having lived in Africa where people are starving, I believe passionately in helping to alleviate world hunger by any means, and GM crops have the potential to do that. I have also been interested in biomedical issues for many years and have read every article on the subject in every farming paper and made up my mind that its the route for agriculture to go down," she says.

"Growing spring oilseed rape isnt something Id be interested in doing normally, but we have to get these GM trials out of the way before we can get on with growing modified wheat for medical purposes – and that will come, for sure.

"The future for British farming isnt in growing crops for human or animal consumption – that can be done much more economically and without subsidies elsewhere in the world. Instead it is in producing dedicated cereals for pharmaceutical or biotechnological use. Im simply on the first rung of that ladder."

&#42 Determined

Shirley Harrison does nothing by halves. She runs an immaculate farm, keeps meticulous records and her determined spirit means shell see the GM project through to the very end.

* Hear My Story – Trial by GM on Radio 4, on Oct 9 at 8.02pm.