Anti-GM wheat group stirs debate in UK – experts respond

Independent scientists have commented on an open letter from UK researchers whose field trial of genetically modified  wheat has been threatened by an anti-GM activist group.

Protesters from a group called Take the Flour Back have declared their intent to put an end to an trial experiment with GMO wheat in the UK. The trial is in a strain of wheat designed to repel insects and so require less pesticide.

In response, scientists at Rothamsted Research, the centre that developed the wheat strain and are running the trial, released an open letter to the protesters.

You can read the full letter here. Examples of subsequent media coverage include the BBC and the Daily Mail.

The protest group has responded, asking for a public debate in an open letter published on its website.

The threats come not long after a similar attack occurred in New Zealand, where protestors destroyed hundreds of GM pines in field trial being conducted by forestry research institute Scion. The CEO of Scion, Warren Parker, responded to the allegations of New Zealand protestors in a column in the Rotorua Daily Post.

Expert reaction collected by our colleagues at the UK SMC:

Professor Mark Tester, Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics and University of Adelaide Australia said:

“As ‘a Green’ I support this research in the strongest possible way. The work provides wonderful opportunities to efficiently and economically deploy organic-style agriculture and reduce the input of chemicals to agricultural systems.

“The neo-religious opposition to all applications of GM is as unscientific as it is illogical – each use of GM must be treated on a case-by-case basis.

“The potential benefits of this are clear, and tests should go ahead to test the practical efficacy of what they have done in field conditions. Otherwise, however will anyone know if it is beneficial or destructive? ”

Professor Dale Sanders, Director of the John Innes Centre said:

“Science is part of our lives, from the mobile technology or washing powder we use to how we understand our place in the world around us. Science has also been a part of agriculture since a single mutation in wild grasses enabled us to harvest grain for the first time about 12,000 years ago. Our knowledge of plants today, built through research funded by tax-payers, is such that we can now use it to secure our food supply more sustainably. If there is anything detrimental to be found out about any one technology, research will bring it to light. Destroying research will leave us in the dark about both the benefits and the weaknesses.”

Douglas Kell, BBSRC Chief Executive said:

“World-class bioscience leads to discoveries that impact on major global issues, such as the increasing demand for fuel and food, and ensuring we live long and healthy lives. We believe in the continued development of a range of potential solutions to address these issues. We will only find answers by staying at the forefront of research.

“BBSRC funds and supports research that tests the feasibility of producing GM crops with specific beneficial traits. Growing experimental GM crops under realistic farming conditions will always be a necessary part of this research. Preventing publicly funded trials of GM crops closes the door to one avenue of research and its potential benefits. This risks blocking solutions for major global issues. We need to keep doors open by conducting research into a range of tools that could help us in an ever-changing future.

“BBSRC strongly defends the right of scientists to conduct legal and robustly regulated experiments. This is a core principle of scientific research in the UK. Without conducting experiments and trials we cannot hope to generate the evidence and knowledge that all proponents in the GM debate would like to see.”

“Results from scientific research (funded by BBSRC and others) over the past decade into the potential safety, environmental and other impacts of GM crops have not revealed any safety or other problems arising from the transgenic technology itself.   A growing body of empirical evidence from worldwide commercial production of GM crops has also not revealed any safety problems in food production. In some specific applications of herbicide tolerance, there is on-going debate about potential impacts from gene flow to weeds, and this highlights the importance of further research.”

Professor Tim Benton, the UK’s Global Food Security ‘Champion’ said:

“The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) predicts that global demand for food will increase up to 70% by mid Century.  Increasing yields, whilst reducing environmental impacts, is one of the great challenges of the next 40 years. Without increasing yields, more land will be needed, leading to the potential for enormous ecological degradation. Improving yields or maintaining yields where climate is making growing more difficult, through GM, has the potential to meet the challenge of sustainable agricultural production. GM is just one of the tools which could help us achieve the goal but the consequences of denying the right to research this area could be disastrous. Only recently, the Ministers of Agriculture for 24 African countries recognised the need for research in biotechnology to help solve their food insecurity, and the UK’s potential contribution from our fantastic research base is enormous.”

Tim Smit, KBE, Chief Executive, Development at the Eden Project

“If I may say so this is a superb letter. It is courteous, impassioned and truthful. They should feel proud of stating their case so well. I truly hope protestors will listen with the same generosity of spirit in which the letter was written.

“In my experience when addressing large audiences where the subject of GM is brought up, I find that the vast majority are still labouring under the idea that all GM involves taking genes from animals of all kinds in some kind of Frankensteinian bargain. The truth is we need a new name for GM!! – to make it clear that GM is a broad church, When you point out that Interferon is GM, they all support its use. When you ask whether it is reasonable to explore whether a plant that is salt tolerant might provide a gene for rice grown in parts of the world where sea water often breaks through (such as Bangladesh), they almost unanimously support the thought. Then you say to them that it is totally consistent to be in favour of the first two propositions and still be darned angry at irresponsible field testing (as has occasionally happened) – they relax.

“This isn’t black and white – there are many shades of Grey-as the many great scientists at Rothamsted would agree and I am delighted their views have been so articulately voiced.”