I feel we are making a difference

The Rothamsted aphid-resistant GM wheat field trial; some memories from 2012.


With the field site now fallow and post-harvest monitoring plans in place, it seems a good time to reflect on the 2012 trial of GM wheat plants genetically-engineered to deter aphids with a non-toxic pheromone. This alarm pheromone, normally given off by aphids under attack from predators, is known to repel aphids and attract their natural enemies. We wanted to test whether wheat plants making this same chemical would be protected from aphids in the field. The fact that this trial went largely according to plan and was safely harvested in spite of threats, protests and an intruder on the site was due to an impressive team effort by the Director and many Rothamsted staff that I do not mention by name here. 

Decisions about our future agricultural systems are always better made from a position of knowledge and understanding

My recollections of the work on the trial fall into two distinct worlds, the rational day-job of molecular genetics, wheat transformation, risk assessment, GM inspections etc, and parallel universe of banners, protests, public meetings, police statements, media coverage etc. I will not touch on the former which will be published in due course but rather I will highlight a few memories of the wider ramifications of the trial. Right from the start, the trial received vocal opposition from an ad hoc group calling themselves ‘Take the flour back’ whose name, I assume was a witty reworking of the song ‘Take the power back’ by the band Rage Against the Machine. In answer to their repeated call for the GM trial to be ‘decontaminated’, we published an open letter and colleagues made a short YouTube video explaining our research and pleading with the protestors not to destroy the trial. We also tried to set up a public meeting where concerns could be heard and discussed. I agree that the world of ownership, regulation and commercialisation is not all perfect but I also appreciate the significant promise this technology brings for precise and rapid plant breeding of crops that require less inputs and produce healthier food. There is certainly a dialogue to be had and it was unfortunate that this meeting did not happen.

One contributor, a doctor, wrote simply “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”. Spot on doc!
However, our attempts to engage TTFB obviously struck a chord with many main-stream media reporters who, for a few weeks, could not get enough of the story. Rothamsted scientists also accepted many opportunities to discuss the trial with stake-holders and interested parties including numerous farming groups, local bee-keepers, St Albans Friends of the Earth, schools etc. In addition, a ‘Don’t Destroy Research’ petition set up by Sense about Science collected over 6000 signatures from people with a diverse spectrum of jobs including; musicians, psychiatrists, bartenders, housewives, nurses, teachers, even one comedian! Their comments were simple, honest and echoed the fundamental idea that decisions about our future agricultural systems are always better made from a position of knowledge and understanding. One contributor, a doctor, wrote simply “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”. Spot on doc! All these messages were a great inspiration and if you have not read them, I would recommend it; http://www.senseaboutscience.org/petition.php

A memorable Sunday in May started with an early phone call to say there was someone inside the trial fence pulling up the plants! By the time I arrived, the intruder, who we now know was Hector Christie, had already been arrested and was in police custody along with a small bag of experimental plants he had managed to dislodge. In addition, he had brought and scattered a few Kg of wheat seeds over the site, presumably in an attempt to ruin the experiment. The experimental plants were already well established so the trial was in little danger from these alien seeds but we still spent most of that morning working with portable generators and vacuum cleaners removing as much of them as possible. I later contacted the arresting officer to remind him of his responsibility for containment and appropriate disposal of the GM material now at the police station. He was clearly not happy and after weighing and photographing the material as he promptly returned it all to me for safe keeping! Over the subsequent few days I felt my neighbours’ curtains twitching and imaginations working overtime as I had several evening home visits from police involved in the case taking statements etc.

Field at Rothamsted

Looking back, my overriding feeling is that we are making a difference. The Rothamsted wheat trial made the news world-wide and largely side-stepped the polarised ‘is GM good or bad’ question. It got people talking about biotechnology in a different, more sophisticated way. Even the more tabloid media started to dissect biotechnology and talk about the benefits and risks separately from the politics and issues of commercialisation. TV and radio coverage included discussion about agronomic traits and consumer benefits, the pros and cons of biotech approaches verses chemical insecticides for insect control. I’m already looking forward to repeating it all in 2013. I hope the public debate will continue and that we can further improve the opportunities for quality dialogue with those who don’t agree.

Huw

huw.jones@rothamsted.ac.uk

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