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Scientists and protesters battle over GM crops


Underneath a cloudless sky and surrounded by the greenest of English landscapes, two opposing forces assembled their ranks on a plot of land in the middle of Hertfordshire like two medieval armies readying themselves for battle.

On the one side stood the scientists of Rothamsted Research. On the other, the less-disciplined ranks of 200 anti-GM movement known as Take the Flour Back. In between them stood the police, who appeared to have everything under control.

For this was no Agincourt and Appletree field, in Harpenden, where Britain's first trial of GM wheat is taking place, has for the moment escaped the threatened "decontamination" by the anti-GM activists who had vowed to destroy a crop they said contained cow genes.

The activists were out manouevered, and probably outnumbered, by a security operation involving scores of police and private security guards who successfully prevented anyone getting near Appletree field, in the grounds of Rothamsted Research, where several small test plots of GM wheat are growing.

The leader of the Rothamsted Research experiment, Professor Maurice Maloney, told journalists allowed through the 6ft high fence surrounding the GM site yesterday, why the research was necessary. He said the modified wheat contained an extra gene that allowed the plant to exude a harmless insect pheromone that deterred aphids, a major wheat pest, and testing the technology in the field was the only way of judging if it will work.

Professor Maloney claimed Rothampsted scientists had tried to engage Take the Flour Back in a meaningful dialogue but this had been met with threats of destroying the crop, which culminated in yesterday's abortive attempt by the group to penetrate the site.

Protesters had assembled in a nearby public park. "We're here because every section of British society has rejected GM technology and this is a deliberately provocative act," said Theo Simon, a veteran anti-GM campaigner.