An open field trial with GM wheat in Harpenden near London can go ahead thanks to the police, who prevented a planned destruction of the trial on May 27. In the run-up to the protest action there was a broad public debate throughout the UK in which the scientists engaged proactively with the GM opponents. The protest group argued that the research project was unnecessary and would pose risks to the environment. The scientists explained in a video and blog and on Twitter that they are attempting to contribute to a more environmentally friendly form of agriculture. An online petition against the trial destruction received over 6,000 signatures.

On May 1, after the protest group Take the Flour Back had announced publicly that they intended to destroy the trial field at the Rothamsted Research Institute on May 27, they received a public video message. In the video, four of the scientists involved in the research explain their project, ask the protesters not to destroy the trial field and appeal to them to join the debate. The video appeal was published on the Sense about Science website together with the text of the message and an online petition against the trial destruction. A large number of newspapers reported the story and on May 22 representatives from both sides clashed on BBC Newsnight.

In order to facilitate a more in-depth discussion, the Rothamsted Research Institute invited the GM opponents to attend a public discussion at a neutral location on May 24. Take the Flour Back had originally suggested a public debate of this kind, but declined the invitation to attend the May 24 event shortly beforehand.

The research project: pest-resistant wheat

As part of publicly funded research, a mechanism used by some plants to protect themselves against aphids was transferred to wheat. A large proportion of conventionally grown wheat in Britain is currently treated with broad-spectrum insecticides to control aphids. The aphids suck sap from the plants and transmit viruses, so can cause considerable damage to crops. Repeated use of insecticides can lead to the pests developing resistance and can harm non-target organisms. Moreover, insecticides have to be applied using agricultural machinery, which uses energy.

The transgenic wheat carries a gene similar to one found in peppermint which contains information for a chemical alarm signal that deters aphids: the aphids move away as soon as they come into contact with the E-ß-farnesene. As well as deterring aphids, the substance also attracts their natural enemies, including ladybirds. In addition, the wheat carries a gene for an enzyme that produces the precursor molecule for E-ß-farnesene. This enzyme, farnesyl pyrophosphate synthase (FPPS), is present in almost all organisms, although there are species-specific differences in the gene sequence. Wheat naturally contains an FPPS gene, but the transgenic wheat variety has had an additional FPPS gene inserted so that it produces E-ß-farnesene more efficiently. The added FPPS gene is synthesised artificially. Its DNA sequence is closest to that found in cows.

It was this alleged “cow gene” that provided the inspiration for the logo used by the Take the Flour Back campaign: a loaf of bread with the legs and head of a cow. The idea that an animal gene had been added to wheat set lots of people against the research project.