Scientists working on a new generation of genetically modified crops have sent an open letter to anti-GM protesters pleading with them not to destroy “years of work” by attacking their research plots.
The activist group, Take the Flour Back, has pledged to carry out a “decontamination” at a test site in Hertfordshire, where agricultural researchers are growing the world’s first genetically modified wheat that can repel insect pests by emitting a repellent-smelling substance.
Appealing to the protesters as fellow “environmentalists”, scientists from Rothamsted Research led by Professor John Pickett called on the group to “reconsider before it is too late”.
“Our research is trying to shed light on questions about the safety and usefulness of new varieties of the staple food crops on which all of us depend,” the scientists write. “(…)We do not see how preventing the acquisition of knowledge is a defensible position in an age of reason.”
The pheromone exuded by the new strain of “whiffy” wheat is naturally produced by “frightened” aphids as a warning signal to deter other aphids. However, activists claim that the wheat contains an artificial gene “most similar to a cow” and that open air trials represent an “imminent contamination threat to the local environment and the UK wheat industry”.
Scientists said that the suggestion they had used a cow gene “betrays a misunderstanding which may serve to confuse people or scare them but has no basis in scientific reality”.
Matt Thomson, from Take the Flour Back, told The Independent yesterday that action against the Rothamsted site would go ahead as planned.
“The concerns that we have are not addressed in this letter,” he said. “The way that Rothamsted have publicised this trial has been patronising. This wheat contains genes that are not naturally occurring.” Mr Thomson said that the allegation about cow genes in the wheat had come from comments made by a Rothamsted scientist.
The new strain of wheat could combat aphid attacks, which can cause damage upwards of £120m a year, without the need for pesticides, scientists claim. It is one of several “second generation” GM crops that scientists hope will prove more acceptable to the British public than the herbicide-tolerant, commercially-grown GM crop strains that provoked environmental concerns and widespread protests in the 1990s. The Take the Flour Back group claims to include “bakers, retailers, growers and grassroots food campaigners”
Scientists from Rothamsted, which was founded in 1843, pledged to explain their work to demonstrators on 27 May, the date set for the action.
“When you visit us on 27 May we will be available to meet and talk to you,” they write. “We would welcome the chance to show you our work and explain why we think it could benefit the environment in the future. But we must ask you to respect the need to gather knowledge unimpeded. Please do not come to damage and destroy.”
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