A team of researchers at the Rothamstead Research Station in the UK are currently in the process of developing a genetically-modified (GM) strain of wheat which would carry an enzyme that produces an aphid repellent. The hope is that this would increase crop yield and significantly reduce the amount of pesticides used in wheat farming. As with many GM crops, the implications for third-world countries, in which large swaths of the ever-growing population suffer from starvation, are extremely important. Rothamstead is about to enter the phase of testing this GM wheat literally in the field, but are facing resistance from an anti-GM outfit called “Take the Flour Back”.
On their website, “Take the Flour Back” is claiming that there are numerous “Unknown health/environmental impacts” of which to be wary (because fear of the unknown should dictate scientific progress), and that GM crops are generally not as safe as non-GM ones, the methodology used in the modification process is “haphazard and poorly understood” (not mentioning according to whom this is the case), and that Europeans and the English don’t want GM wheat (no one said this is the target audience.) They further point out concerns relating to the antibiotic-resistance gene used in the formation of the wheat strain, warning that “the antibiotic resistance could be transferred horizontally to bacteria in our environment, increasing the problems of ‘super bugs’, such as MRSA.” There is no mention that the gene was synthesized from bacteria already present in the wild. Cross-contamination is also a big concern of theirs, despite Rothamstead assuring that safeguards against the spread of their transgenic plants would be implemented, and that cross-contamination is not much of a concern with wheat anyways.
Rothamstead has responded with an open letter pointing out that “Take the Flour Back” couldn’t possibly decry a reduction in pesticide use, which is the ultimate goal of the project, and that their claims against the Rothamstead GM wheat strain are hollow.
Either way, the group is threatening to uproot the fields of the GM wheat should Rothamstead not heed their warnings. Though the government has officially restricted the area of the tests from public entry, I am not sure activists of this stripe are generally deterred by trespassing charges. So far, the called-for date of destruction, May 27th, has passed without incident.
We will have to wait and see how the activists act. But this just brings me back to an episode I saw of Penn & Teller: Bull@!#$, focusing on organic and raw-food activists. The show is not the most even-handed, deeply researched program out there, but there is often something to be taken away from the theatrics. In this case, at the end of the episode, Penn looks deadpan at the camera and says something along the lines of “when it comes to GM crops, if you have enough to eat, you need to shut the #$@! up.”
[Image Source: Florian Siebeck]