Ineffable: the mutterings of a science student

News

By Heather Stevens

On 2nd May, scientists at Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire released a letter and video appealing to the consciences of environmental activists planning to physically destroy their research in a protest – described on their website as “a nice day out in the country, with picnics, music from Seize the Day and a decontamination” – set to go ahead next Sunday.

In a campaign called “Take The Flour Back”, on 27th May activists are planning “a mass action against genetically modified wheat”. The experiment that activists have taken issue with, is a series of trial plots of wheat which they claim “poses a real, serious and imminent contamination threat to the local environment and the UK wheat industry”. The wheat has had a synthetic gene inserted into its genome so that it produces a pheromone called (E)-β-farnesene, or EBF. EBF is an alarm pheromone that is released by aphids – pests that commonly blight crops – when they die, warning away other aphids and causing them to flee. It also attracts the natural predators of aphids, such as ladybirds and lacewings, and in conducting their trial the researchers aim to find out whether this kind of genetic modification could reduce the quantities of insecticides needed in order to control crop pests.

As such, their letter appealed to the activists “as environmentalists”, stating that the genetically modified crop “could, for future generations, substantially reduce the use of agricultural chemicals.” Curiously, Take The Flour Back’s logo is a cow with a torso made out of bread, and their website states that the new wheat contains genes “similar to a cow”. But whilst this may excite the beef sandwich aficionados amongst you, the researchers state that “to suggest that we have used a ‘cow gene’ and that our wheat is somehow part-cow betrays a misunderstanding which may serve to confuse people or scare them but has no basis in scientific reality.” On their website, Take The Flour Back claim that “there is serious doubt that the aphid alarm pheromone as found in this GM crop would even work”. The question of whether or not this kind of genetic modification could reduce pesticide use is precisely what the trial aims to find out, and in response the Rothamsted researchers argue that preventing the trial from taking place, and thus preventing them from ever finding out whether the genetically modified crops could reduce pesticide use, “is reminiscent of clearing books from a library because you wish to stop other people fi nding out what they contain” and that they “do not see how preventing the acquisition of knowledge is a defensible position in an age of reason”. Take The Flour Back responded with their own open letter to the Rothamsted researchers in which they proposed a public debate “on neutral ground with a neutral chairperson, for an open exchange of opinions and concerns”.