New Internationalist

Rothamsted GM trial: cow genes on toast, anyone?

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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  1. #1 Karl Haro von Mogel 18 May 12

    I conducted an interview with a scientist involved in the Rothamsted GM Wheat experiment, and it is not the scary thing that the protestors make it out to be. In fact, the trial is very well controlled, and has the potential to help ecologically-based farming. Here is the interview:
    I urge people to support the researcher's right to continue the experiment, and condemn the threat of vandalism being waged by trumped-up food fears.

  2. #2 Karl Ragerman 19 May 12

    Not a well researched article. The first sentence is already wrong, a GM content in food is accepted up to 0.9% and is widely used! Above that it must be declared on the label by EU law. Needless to say that the manufacturers stay below and keep the consumers in the dark!
    Unfortunately the basic question hasn't been answered : do we really need to do all what science is able to do? Without consideration of possibly irreversable effects?

  3. #3 Paul Roberts 19 May 12

    Liz Hosken, Director of The Gaia Foundation has spoken out in support of the campaign by Take the Flour Back. She says:

    “The contamination risk that the Rothamsted wheat trial poses cannot be underestimated. But there is also much more to this debate than what we see here in the UK. As things stand today, GM is the tool used to see out a corporate agenda for the takeover and monopoly of the global food system. The potential for profit through controlling something so essential to us all, is what really drives GMO research. Small scale, diversity-rich farming is being eroded and replaced with ever-larger monocultures deserts. This displaces farmers from their land, and huge amounts of traditional agricultural knowledge and diverse indigenous seeds are lost forever. We cannot support any trial which reinforces the myth that GM is there as a benefit to people and planet, when in reality it feeds not humans, but a greedy corporate agenda.”

  4. #4 Hazel Healy 19 May 12

    Karl - You're right that it is all but impossible to be GM-free. GM farming giants have brought GM soya into the food chain and it is now is an ingredient in some cooking oils on sale in Britain. In effect, as you point out, European regulation has undercut the moratorium on GM foods in place in the UK. Nonetheless, UK supermarkets still ban GM from their own product lines. It's remarkable that GM- with all the corporate power behind - has been kept at arms length by sustained campaigning in some parts of Europe. Compare this to say, America, where 65% of all supermarket products contain GM ingredients and people eat it every single day.

  5. #5 Oliver Dowding 21 May 12

    There are better ways of dealing with the need to feed everyone. Such as I outlined here and they would mean we simply don't need GM.

    Do we need any more evidence than this report? I'd be far more interested if Maloney and his crew were prepared to answer how we would deal with what the Americans are suffering. This is not theoretical, unlike the gains that they are offering from their GM crops.

    I find it interesting when the reports are coming across the Reuters news wires, and not from what one might refer to as anti-GM sources only.

  6. #6 Huw Jones 23 May 12

    I'm scared! Whats wrong with cow genes on toast. Is it unsafe to have buttered toast? Do I have to give up cheese on toast?

    Your article is scaremongering and one sided. Please try and do better. You could try reading about the science

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About the author

Hazel Healy a New Internationalist contributor

Hazel Healy became a co-editor at New Internationalist in 2011. She began her working life as a researcher with Colombian feminists in Medellin, coaxed peas and beans out of the soils of East Manchester with kids, and went on to do advocacy work with refugees from the Congo, Ethiopia and Sudan.

She took up journalism full time in 2007, co-founding online investigative paper Manchester Mule and going on to cover everything from campaigns by Senegalese migrant organizers in Madrid to the trials of Dominican gardeners in New York.

Since joining New Internationalist she has written on food speculation, climate adaptation and digital freedom, and keeps a close eye all things migratory. She also edits the Agenda section of the magazine.

Her work has also been featured in The LA Times, by La Agencia EFE and the Women’s Studies Review.

Read more by Hazel Healy

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