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Rothamsted GM trial: cow genes on toast, anyone?

United Kingdom
Genetically modified (GM) foods have been all but off the shelves and out of British fields for many years now. But the biotech lull appears to be over as scientists launch trial crops of GM wheat, adjusted to repel aphids, in Hertfordshire, England.

Researchers at the Rothamsted Research station have billed the strain as ‘eco-friendly GM’. Their experimental crop has been engineered to produce hormonal chemicals that scare aphids away with a pheromone. It sounds harmless enough on first reading, but campaigners highlight that synthetic gene sequences similar to those found in peppermint and cows are involved in this pheromone’s production process.

Anna Thompson of the Community Food Growers Network says genes like these ‘should not be used in a food crop without a full public consultation’. She is part of an anti-GM group which argues that the crop trial employs technology that is haphazard and poorly understood. Organizing under the banner ‘Take the Flour Back!’, it is planning a mass action for 27 May.

GM foods were seen off in Britain by vigorous campaigning back in the 1990s. But ever-rising food prices and tightening food security worldwide means they are staging a comeback. The idea of a technological fix to feed the estimated one billion people who go hungry has never sounded so seductive, with a rising world population and dwindling resources.

But Thompson insists that GM foods will not feed the world. ‘We need solutions that work with nature rather than against it, such as predator strips and companion planting – all of which have been used for generations,’ she says, adding that contamination of non-GM crops would destroy Britain’s valuable wheat export market. ‘And if it’s allowed to flower, it may be here to stay. Successive consultations and polls have shown that people simply do not want to eat GM foods.’

This is a measure of the success that anti-GM activists have had in tapping into consumer fears of ‘frankenstein foods’. Historically they’ve generated consistent media hits with protesters clad in de-contamination suits and the iconic grim reaper charging through fields pulling up GM crops in acts of non-violent direct action.

But Rothamsted Research is hitting back with a PR campaign of its own. A video played on Newsnight on Thursday showed a group of distressed, down-to-earth scientists begging protesters not to destroy years’ worth of research.

Rothamsted, one of the leading agricultural research institutions in Britain, is a far cry from Monsanto, or any of the other major biotech conglomerates faced down by activists in the past. But the institute is very supportive of GM technology and has carried out GM trials before. Its director, Professor Maurice Maloney, has spent his entire career working in GM technology, according to campaign group GM Freeze.

In its detailed rejection of Rothamsted’s application to sow the crop outdoors, GM Freeze highlights that the GM wheat is built to tolerate glufosinate ammonium-based herbicides (similar to Monsanto’s RoundUp), which could open the door to an upsurge in the use of a chemical associated with cancer, birth defects and neurological illnesses.

GM Freeze calls the crop ‘a step backwards for farming’. Consumer unwillingness to touch GM foods makes the test a waste of time – and $1.5 million of public money, it points out.

Instead, it argues, Rothamsted should re-visit its own research into promoting predators of aphids such as ladybirds (which can put away 33 aphids a day) and spiders, which flourish in complex, biodiverse landscapes.

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