The debate: opportunities versus risks

The opponents’ main fear is cross-pollination. They claim this would be a problem not only because of the two inserted genes, but also because of the plant’s resistance to the herbicide glufosinate, which is conferred by a marker. If the plants were to outcross, wild grasses could develop glufosinate resistance. The trial’s opponents also believe it is conceivable that the pheromone could harm non-target organisms or that a change in the aphids’ behaviour and modification of the wheat plants’ make-up could lead to changes in the ecosystem.

The scientists responded to these concerns saying that the purpose of the current field trial is to investigate potential agroecological impacts. They claim that the risk of outcrossing is almost zero, since wheat is a self-pollinating plant. Nevertheless, a buffer strip of conventional wheat has been planted around the trial field and there is a fence to prevent plant material being carried off the field by animals.

Another of the protesters’ accusations is that the research project is unnecessary. The genetic modifications have been carried out on spring wheat, which is hardly grown in the UK and is not affected by aphids. They claim that experience with insecticide- and herbicide-resistant GM plants has generally shown that pests develop resistance, leading eventually to an increased use of chemicals. Organic farming is, they say, a better solution. The critics point out that the Rothamsted Research Institute itself trialled companion cropping recently. Companion cropping involves sowing plants alongside a crop that deter pests by emitting odours.

The scientists stress that spring wheat is just being used as a model plant in this instance and that the new genes can be transferred to winter wheat at a later date without any problem. They say that companion cropping is very labour-intensive and is mainly suitable for small subsistence farms, e.g. in Africa. It would be too costly, however, for Britain’s high-performance agricultural sector.

Finally, the critics question the scientists’ claim that the trial is purely for public research and is not intended for commercialisation or patent purposes. They cite the Rothamsted Research Institute’s numerous industrial partnerships. If the plants are in fact grown, they claim, they will have to be marketed commercially, and only large corporations would have the necessary resources.

Scientists seek publicity

It is partly thanks to the scientists’ proactive stance that there has been such an intense public debate about plant genetic engineering in Britain in recent weeks. The online petition against the crop destruction had received around 6000 signatures from a broad cross-section of society by May 27. However, because Take the Flour Back did not call off the planned destruction, the trial field was eventually given police protection. On May 27 around 400 GM opponents and about the same number of police officers turned up at the site. The demonstration in Rothamsted Park remained peaceful and lasted several hours. The following night, however, the institute’s website was down for several hours as the result of a cyber attack. Nevertheless, the open field trial can continue, and so can the debate about plant genetic engineering.