The activist group “Take the Flour Back” has called for members of the public to join them in the destruction of a genetically modified wheat trial in Rothamsted, England on May 27. Scientists have spoken out after the announcement, which called for a mass “decontamination” of the trial.
The test plot was planted in April to test GM wheat that has been engineered to be the first crop in the world that would repel aphids instead of kill them. This particular wheat emits a pheromone called E-beta-farnesene that is normally emitted by aphids when they are threatened. When aphids smell it, they fly away. However, natural enemies of aphids, including ladybirds, lacewings and a parasitic wasp, are attracted to the wheat.
After the activist group announced its intentions, scientists involved in the research released a statement in response.
“We appeal to you as environmentalists,” they write in an open letter. “”Our GM wheat could, for future generations, substantially reduce the use of agricultural chemicals.”
The scientists explained that if approved, this wheat would have an advantage in western countries.
“You have described genetically modified crops as ‘not properly tested,’” they wrote. “Yet when tests are carried out, you are planning to destroy them before any useful information can be obtained.
“We do not see how preventing the acquisition of knowledge is a defensible position in an age of reason.”
“What you are planning to do is reminiscent of clearing books from a library because you wish to stop other people finding out what they contain. We remind you that such actions do not have a proud tradition.”
The activists claim there is no evidence that the GM fields require less pesticide and they argue against the scientists using an antibiotic resistance gene as a marker. In addition, they have published materials suggesting the crop contains a cow gene. The questionable gene is a promoter gene, which switches on other genes, is a synthetic variant of one found in many organisms, including wheat. But the activists claim the researchers chose a variant closer to the cow version than the wheat one.
This is not the first time that scientists have chosen to publicly address activist groups. However, it is a relatively new tactic. It was used by the Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich in 2011. Protests against a GM potato trial never actualized and the crop was not destroyed.
In this case, “Take the Flour Back” have written back to the scientists inviting them to meet on “neutral ground” for a public debate.
In its reply, “Take the Flour Back” wrote, “We would welcome the opportunity to engage with you in a public debate over the forth-coming weeks, so that both sides of the debate have an equal chance to hear and understand each other’s perspectives.
“To this end we invite you to join us on neutral ground, with a neutral chairperson, for an open exchange of opinions and concerns.”
It remains to be seen if the debate will happen and if it will prevent any destruction of the GM wheat trial on May 27.