Over the weekend protesters were prevented from destroying the work of a group of scientists researching the next generation of genetically modified crops. The protesters, led by the group Take The Flour Back had planned a “decontamination” of the wheat engineered by Rothamsted Research on Sunday but were kept away from the research site by police. The real heroes however are the scientists themselves. By taking a stand against the threat of vandalism and speaking out in public they’ve shown how weak the the anti-GM mob’s rhetoric-rich, fact-light arguments are. Taken in the context of a growing acceptance of GM technology, this incident represents a significant win for the future of biotechnology in the UK.
Which as far as I’m concerned is a good thing. Fields such as chemistry or physics have already yielded to human intellect and we’ve been able to apply that knowledge to great effect. Biochemistry and biotechnology however, couldn’t even think about getting started until the discovery of DNA 60 years ago and has been playing catch up ever since. Now the field has solved most of the mysteries of the living cell it’s beginning to move towards applying its knowledge too, and it’s going to be beautiful.
The trial in question is an example of just that. I’m in full agreement with the protesters that most GM crops developed to date aren’t fit for purpose. To pick a single example “Roundup ready” crops are engineered to be resistant to glyphosate, a common herbicide, which simply means we can douse our fields in toxins without damaging our precious crops. These early designs are as crude as our first forays into any technology, but what the protesters have failed to grasp is that this new research is smarter, safer and far more refined.
The GM wheat in question has two extra genes to make it resistant to aphids. Instead of getting the plants to pump out toxins, or making them resistant to the insecticides that we produce, the researchers have made the plants produce an insect hormone, farnesene, that discourages aphids from feeding on the plant. It doesn’t wipe them out, just makes sure that they won’t be eating the wheat. Of the two genes that an organism needs to produce the farnesene one is in nearly every organism on earth and the other is present in over 400 plants, from potatoes to peppermint, who use the same aphid repelling trick. The tests have been done indoors, now they just need to see how it works out in the open air.
It’s a pretty smart idea (although admittedly one borrowed from mother nature), using our knowledge of plant and insect biochemistry to design a crop that gives us what we want without trashing the environment. In many ways I’m glad this trial was selected for destruction by protesters, because it highlights so many of the positive reasons that further research into biotechnology is important. It was a relatively easy argument to win already, and that was only made easier by the shocking hyperbole and inaccuracy by the anti-GM protesters.
Their major concern is of transfer of the “new” genes to other plants and animals. They cite wind dispersal of pollen to other plants, seeds getting loose, germinating and growing to contaminate other plants and and gene transfer to unrelated species. First off the wheat variety used self pollinates and isn’t adapted to wind dispersal. Secondly cross-pollination is obviously a large concern for the scientists too which is why they’ve taken every available measure to stop it, while still holding the trial in the open air. As for seeds getting loose, there is an underlying assumption that we’re talking about industrial application of this design, not eight 6x6m plots that have to be carefully monitored even after the trial is over. Gene transfer is barely worth mentioning because a random piece of DNA inserting itself into another cell, as you might imagine, is incredibly rare and transferring those two specific genes which make up just 0.00000013% of the wheat genome is practically impossible. We should be more worried about our children becoming photosynthetic.
Take The Flour Back do raise more problems on their website. The fact that we don’t know the impact of these GM crops on our wildlife, which is rather the point of this test in the first place. That we might suffer health impacts from a chemical we produce in our own bodies. Or that GM contamination of other farmers crops would mean that they can’t sell them, you got the sense they were grasping at straws at this point.
More substantive are the issues around destructive agri-business, which I can agree with, but is entirely irrelevant to a GM trial by one of the oldest running charitable research institutes in the country. If anything Rothamsted Research, by not patenting their designs and releasing the research into the world, are helping to break the grip of corporate profit whores like Monsanto. There may be problems with how GM crops are deployed, but that’s no reason to block off the research at its source.
The world, and the techniques of genetic engineering have moved on since the GM wars of the 90’s. Instead of the scientists hiding and hoping when protesters decided to try and destroy years of their work, they argued the validity of the project and their case was good enough to convince the public and, more importantly, the media. It left the anti-GM protesters looking foolish, especially when they suddenly cancelled a public debate with the scientists in question.
GM technology is going to be huge in this century. We’ve been stumbling around in the dark for decades and now we’re beginning to make some progress. Plants that produce more vitamins, grow faster, replenish the soil with minerals, produce useful chemicals like drugs or petrol and don’t damage the wider environment are all in development. If we don’t put in the time and effort now, we’ll only regret it when we truly need these organisms and the people skilled enough to make them.