Genetic modification has always been a contentious issue and it hit the headlines again last month after protest group Take the Flour Back threatened to destroy research into GM wheat carried out at Rothamsted Research.
The protest group planned a day of action on 27th May – “a nice day out in the country, with picnics, music…and a decontamination,” said their website. Their aim was to decontaminate an open air experimental site where researchers are studying wheat modified to deter aphids, and in the long-run reduce pesticide use.
They argue that the GM trial presents a clear risk to British farming, and that genes from the modified strains could spread to and contaminate neighbouring fields. They also say that there has been no evaluation of whether foods made from GM wheat would be safe to eat.
The group are concerned that the wheat contains genes synthesised in the lab. Their particular bugbear is that the promoter gene – which switches on other genes – is closer to the cow version of the gene than the wheat one.
However, Rothamsted researchers explain that they chose this variant to prevent other genes in the wheat recognising its activity and regulating it.
“To suggest that we may have used a ‘cow gene’ and that our wheat is somehow part-cow betrays a misunderstanding which may serve to confuse people or scare them but has no basis in scientific reality,” Professor John A Pickett, Research Fellow and Scientific Leader of Chemical Ecology at Rothamsted, said in an open letter to Take the Flour Back.
The gene will produce the pheromone E-β-farnesene, which is normally emitted by aphids under threat. When other aphids smell it they fly away, while their predators – ladybirds, lacewings and parasitic wasps – are attracted to the wheat.
Interestingly, the gene is already found in over 400 species of plants, many of which are consumed as food and drink on a daily basis – so there is nothing unnatural about the gene itself, as Take the Flour Back would have people believe. It just isn’t found naturally in wheat.
Researchers argue that wheat – along with many other crops – has been modified over thousands of years to serve the needs of humanity. This may be via selective breeding – choosing the hardiest wheat, wheat that doesn’t grow too tall, or the variety that is most suitable for making breads and pasta – rather than via modification in the lab, but it has been modified all the same.
Take the Flour Back seem to have decided that the GM wheat is bad and undesirable, even before researchers have had a chance to test it. They state on their website: “There is serious doubt that the aphid alarm pheromone as found in this GM crop would even work,” and they may be correct – but how do they know if it hasn’t been tested?
“If you destroy our test, you and we will never know,” Pickett said. “Our research is trying to shed light on questions about the safety and usefulness of new varieties of the staple food crops on which all of us depend.”
He argues that destroying research before any useful information is obtained is akin to preventing the acquisition of knowledge by clearing certain books from library shelves.
He says that their research is publically funded and the results will not be patented or owned by any private company – if Take the Flour Back does destroy the research, the only situation will be for studies of this type to be carried out by big corporations who can afford security needed to protect their work. “You therefore further promote a situation you say you are trying to avoid,” he said.
Pickett is humble in pointing out that scientist do not have all the answers: “That is why we need to conduct experiments. And that is why you in turn must not destroy them.”
Instead of destroying the research on 27th May, Pickett invited the protestors to meet and discuss the research with people working on it – a move which Take the Flour Back welcomed, although they prefer neutral ground and neutral chairperson for an open exchange of opinions.
They remain strong in their belief that the research threatens the livelihoods of the farming community and that it could spread contamination – and that the research should be stopped at all costs.
Without the research, how do we know if something is going to work or not? We simply don’t: if it doesn’t work as expected, at least we know. But if it does – we’re all going to benefit. As we go to print, it remains unclear what – if any – action will be taken on the 27th, but what is clear is that we need more scientists like those at Rothamsted to discuss their research with the general public. It’s all very well and good publishing in peer review journals once the research is complete, but I would much prefer that researchers – particularly those working on contentious issues – keep us informed as the work progresses.