Seeds of doubt over GM wheat
SEEDS OF DOUBT
With taxpayer funding of nearly £1million, Rothamsted Research have sown the UK’s first ever open field GM cereal trial and have begun to harvest a storm of doubt, dissension and controversy.
The field trial of GM spring wheat has raised questions about the technology and the intentions of the researchers. Research team leader Prof John Pickett says he is surprised by the furore as protest group “Take the Flour Back” have thwarted plans to quietly increase by a third the UK’s GM research portfolio with threats to destroy the crop that have hit the media headlines.
Licensed by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the trial is to look at a spring wheat variety called Cadenza which has been genetically modified to “naturally” repel aphids. Nicknamed “whiffy wheat”, it has been engineered to release an odour which acts as an alarm signal for aphids and their predators. The researchers say they have had significant success in the lab and that the principle now needs to be field tested.
This work is a flagship for the so-called “new” generation GM which claims to be environmentally friendly and sustainably intensive. However closer examination reveals that it has worrying similarities to its predecessors.
FIRST OF ALL, IS IT NEEDED?
The choice of Spring Wheat as the trial crop is a curious one. In the UK it is a very minor crop compared to Winter Wheat and aphid infestation is a relatively small problem. Aphids either directly or indirectly as vectors of a disease called Barley Yellow Dwarf Virus (BYDV) can in some years cause economically significant damage in conventionally grown Winter Wheat but even the most pro-GM farmers struggle to make the case for a Spring Wheat focussed trial.
In fact even in Winter Wheat it is arguable how much of a problem aphids pose. Their impact is very weather dependent infestation has reached economically damaging levels in only 2 of the last 6 years. Even this year where a mild winter created very favourable conditions, the cold and wet spring has so far kept populations well below damaging thresholds.
The aphid associated disease BYDV is more worrying for farmers than the direct impact of aphids and conventionally this is successfully managed by fungicides which are relatively inexpensive. Recent press comments by farmers have highlighted that they have bigger and more expensive worries.
Of course, any reduction in pesticide use is a good thing and the researchers have been vigorously pushing this line. But successful non-pesticide and non-GM strategies already exist and are being used by farmers in the UK.
ALTERNATIVES TO GM
Organic farmers do not have problems with either aphids or BYDV in cereal crops. A combination of rotations, the avoidance of soluble nitrogen fertiliser, later sowing dates, an active soil microbial population, hedgerows and floristically diverse field margins that encourage aphid predators provide a successful “control strategy”.
Many of these techniques can be followed by conventional, non-organic farmers. In fact one of the most indefensible aspects of this GM trial is that ignores previous government funded research undertaken by Rothamsted and others. This clearly demonstrated that aphid levels can be kept below economically significant levels by maintaining diverse field margins and hedgerows. Here, highly innovative research was really based on an understanding of agricultural ecology. After more than three years work and over £1million of taxpayer’s money this study sits on the shelves gathering dust and ignored by the GM researchers.
AND SECOND, WHAT IS REALLY BEHIND THE TRIAL?
With that background it is hard to understand the justification for this work. Are there hidden agendas here which would not be unusual in the GM world? One can speculate on two fronts;
Firstly, is it to do with commercial exploitation of genes and patents? The researchers deny this and say they want to make the technology freely available. However Rothamsted Research is under pressure to operate in a similarly commercially focussed fashion as US GM research institutes and its new director is experienced in GM patent exploitation.
This might explain the curious way in which this project has been variously described in the media and Rothamsted’s application to Defra. Press comments have made much of the fact that the trial is about environment and even ecology (albeit chemical). The line is that the modification involves an alarm pheromone, (E) Beta-farnesene (EBF), “widely occurring in nature”.
In fact the engineered plants contain two synthetic genes; one resembles genes found in peppermint and the other a sequence found in cows. The” peppermint” gene has been patented in the US by the organisation set up to commercially exploit the research work of Washington State University but it seems that the “cow like” sequence has not yet been patented.
It may at first seem a cheap shot to make the obvious observation that it is hard to envisage any natural occurrence that puts any bit of a cow gene in a wheat plant. However, Rothamsted’s application to Defra for a license for the trial specifies that these are engineered gene sequences “and are not found in nature”.
It appears that the trial has been structured primarily to compare these two synthetic genes. Interestingly, it seems that the wheat plants own internal defence mechanism more successfully resists forced modification from “plant-like” sequences than it does those that are “animal-like”. A new patented gene sequence in Spring Wheat could be a very attractive commercial proposition in the US, where it is more economically significant than here.
OR IS IT A SOFTENING UP PROCESS?
That may be an overly cynical view of the rationale behind this trial. Another one is that the BBSRC and the research establishment in general are desperate to get GM research trials on the ground and in the open environment. They are frustrated by the public’s lack of support for GM and also the apparent hesitation in the farming and food sector.
Someone might have come up with the idea that sneaking in a relatively small trial on a research establishment with an environmentally friendly story that can be fed to the press was a good and relatively cheap way to begin to break the GM logjam.
That might not be a worthy thought but it is certainly a reasonable explanation for how this trial has been funded, set up and promoted. One answer heard from Rothamsted to the question of why not use Winter Wheat where the potential benefits are more obvious, was that they couldn’t get enough money to do the monitoring that would be required on that crop.
Under £1million is not a lot of money to undertake the study that is being claimed for this trial in its PR; but it is an ample budget to get something going “under the radar”, picking up favourable press comment and good political vibes along the line. And if that was the goal they would have succeeded had it not been for a spontaneous, mixed bagged grouping of people who came out of nowhere and made a fuss.
Thanks especially to GM Freeze for background material.
Powell W, A’Hara S, Harling R, Holland JM, Northing P, Thomas CFG and Walters KFA, 2004. Managing biodiversity in field margins to enhance integrated pest control in arable crops (‘3-D Farming’ Project) PROJECT REPORT NO. 356 Part 1 Home Grown Cereals Authority