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The Rothamsted GM Debate



After nearly a decade during which the UK has been substantially GM-free, the government has subsidised Rothamsted, the agricultural research station, to conduct an open-air trial of a GM wheat transgenically engineered to repel aphids. In early May, Rothamsted invited protesters planning to demonstrate against the trial to a public dialogue. The Land responded to Rothamsted proposing a debate by email, the first part of which is published here. The six questions we put to Rothamsted focus mainly on the ethics and wisdom of breaking a de facto moratorium on GM in the UK (and most of Europe), rather than on technical aspects of this particular experiment. 

ROTHAMSTED: Before answering your questions we would like to thank The Land for the interest they have shown in our research. We see GM technology as one possible tool to help us improve the efficiency of agriculture which could reduce the amount of land required for food production and hence enable other land to be spared for nature conservation, or even bio fuel production. Inefficient agricultural land use can do considerable environmental damage.

THE LAND: Thank you for responding. We do not see GM as “one possible tool in the box” but as an aggressive techno-fix promoted both by corporations and open source or pirate producers, that can come to dominate agricultural systems extremely fast, thanks to short term monocultural benefits that have every prospect of reducing long-term resilience. Rather than “sparing” land elsewhere for conservation, organic pest management relies on high levels of biodiversity, or “sharing” land with nature. Research that led to increased organic yields might allow us to both “share” and “spare” a bit more.



Where does Rothamsted draw the line at human interference with natural reproductive processes – or doesn’t it?

ROTHAMSTED: Rothamsted does not seek to interfere with natural reproductive processes. The genetic improvement of crops through conventional breeding is not a natural process with crops being artificially selected for more than 10,000 years. The natural wild grasses crops that wheat is derived from would not provide much sustenance for humanity. We see our recent development of transgenic plants as an extension of this process. Conventional crop breeding uses mutagenesis approaches where seeds are exposed to high doses of radiation or mutagenic chemicals to increase the genetic variation for plant breeders to select plants from. Crops developed using mutagenesis approaches are grown by organic farmers today. If GM technology used in scientific experimentation is objectionable on the grounds it is unnatural, it is hard to see why, what could be seen as, the unnatural process of mutagenesis breeding is considered acceptable for food production today, even in organic farming systems.

THE LAND: That doesn’t answer the question. Of course GM technology can be viewed as an extension of earlier selection processes. But the ability of scientists to interfere with natural selection is increasing at an exponential rate, as is the speed at which transgenic changes can be effected. What took 10,000 years now takes a few months. Cloning, chimeras, and stem cell technologies will no doubt give way to even more potent technologies. At what point do you consider that human influence upon and acceleration of evolution will become in itself dangerous – or don’t you?



Why do we need GM wheat in the UK when we already have amongst the highest yielding wheat in the world, and when the world produces so much wheat that we are now converting it into inefficiently into biofuel? (The Vivergo plant at Hull is converting the equivalent of 7.2 per cent of the UK wheat crop into biofuel. The conversion of wheat into biofuels is generally agreed to be inefficient compared to “second generation” biofuels.)

ROTHAMSTED: The wheat we are developing provides an alternative to the use of insecticides for aphid control. The negative effects of insecticides such as killing ladybirds and other natural enemies of pests could be reduced this way. 1,459,580 hectares of wheat were treated with insecticide in 2010. Environmentalists such as Rachel Carson have advocated the development of biologically based solutions for crop protection. It is sad to hear that UK wheat is being used inefficiently for biofuel when there are 1 billion people in the world with insufficient food. Currently food shortages are indeed largely a distribution problem but in the next 10-20 years it is unlikely that agricultural production will keep pace with demand with the impending food, energy and water shortages, highlighted by the UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser. New ways of improving productivity and reducing environmental impact need to be found.

THE LAND: Yes, and because the UK has high wheat yields, because we burn or waste vast quantities of food and nutrients that should stay in the food chain, because we are an island, and because nobody in this country actively wants to eat GM produce, therefore we are ideally placed for researching new ways of improving productivity and reducing environmental impact through organic and low external input methods. In a world overrun by GM crops, this would place the UK’s scientific research in great demand.



What justification is there for breaking a de facto moratorium on GM activity in the UK, when according to repeated opinion polls so many people in the UK oppose GM – and when there is already ample research into GM crops taking place in the Americas and China?

ROTHAMSTED: While there clearly is a section of the public in the UK who oppose GM there is also a section who are neutral. A 2012 survey of consumer attitudes showed, “Just over half of shoppers (51%) neither support nor oppose GM or have yet to form an opinion. This compares with 13% who are strongly opposed and 3% strongly in favour” (Institute of Grocery Distribution 2012). From the further questions in this survey, this neutrality appears to come from people wanting to know more about the technology. This can only be done through scientific research and more than 6000 people have signed a petition supporting our research.

THE LAND: In the poll you cite, over four times as many people are strongly opposed as are strongly in favour. There is ample scientific research into GM being carried out in other parts of the world.



Why do we need GM crops when herbicide and pesticide use is declining anyway? According to FAOSTAT total herbicide use in the UK has declined by 54 per cent from 1995 to 2009 (22,753 tonnes to 10,499) and total insecticide use by 30 per cent (1667 tonnes to 1157). Admittedly, this is by weight, and does not necessarily reflect strength, but we are also told that more modern chemicals are less harmful. Meanwhile yield and production of wheat has remained broadly similar. All this has been achieved without GM crops so why do we need them?

ROTHAMSTED: As you point out, reductions in weight are partly due to increased potency. Pesticides are still the mainstay of our protection of crops against pests. If pesticides are used too much the pests evolve resistance to them. There are some indications that cereal aphids are starting to evolve resistance to the pyrethroids which is the main class of insecticide currently used to control them. Furthermore, pesticides are toxic, require effort and expense to apply, and as mentioned above kill natural enemies of pests.

THE LAND: We agree with Rothamsted’s arguments against pesticides, and accept that there have been cases where GM has appeared to reduce pesticide use (eg in GM cotton in India). However GM crops suffer from the same problems of pest resistance as insecticides, and even when effective can open up a niche for another pest. There are several natural control agents for aphids (including fungi, beetles, and wasps) which can be encouraged through an agroecological approach to farming, using small fields, biodiverse field margins, and judicious timing of farming operations, and this approach has been shown on trial farms to keep aphids below the yield damaging threshold.



Don’t the above statistics suggest that in order to reduce pesticide and herbicide use still further it would be better to focus research upon developing higher yielding organic varieties?

Martin Wolfe of Elm Farm has written:

“In 2000, six modern wheat varieties yielded, on average, 10 tonnes per hectare across national trials under standard non-organic conditions. When these varieties were grown organically the yield fell to less than 4 tonnes per hectare. Oat and triticale varieties under the non-organic conditions yielded, respectively, 8.2 and 6.5 tonnes per hectare. However the same varieties grown organically yielded, respectively, 7.1 and 6.7 tonnes per hectare. Why should there be such a discrepancy between wheat on the one hand, and oats and triticale on the other? The main reason is that wheats bred for non-organic production are short-strawed with an open canopy, so that they compete less well with weeds than the taller, denser oats and triticales. There is a similar contrast in disease resistance. Modern wheat varieties, adapted to utilizing synthetic fertilizer inputs, may also have lost some ability to interact with soil for their required nutrition, relative to older varieties. There is an urgent need, therefore, to breed organic wheat.” (M Wolfe, Recognizing and Realizing the Potential of Organic Agriculture, presentation at Global Ag 2020 conference John Innes Centre 19 April 2001)

ROTHAMSTED: We fully agree with you that there is a need to develop crop cultivars suitable for lower input conditions. That is our philosophy too and it is heartening to find some common ground. The high yielding crop cultivars developed in the first “Green Revolution” only deliver a high yield under optimum conditions that include pesticide and fertiliser applications. We are also concerned that many of the natural resistance traits have been lost when crops have been selected in a pesticide treated background. We have been working with subsistence farmers in Africa to learn more about maize landraces that have natural resistance to insect attack. This trait will be bred into improved varieties in a new non-GM project. The forthcoming shortages of food, energy and water in the next 10-20 years means we should not narrow our options but consider and explore all possible avenues. That’s our role at Rothamsted. The GM wheat trial makes up less than 1% of our overall (overwhelmingly non-GM) work.

THE LAND: We are happy to see some common ground, and we have the greatest respect for the work that Rothamsted has carried out over the last century and a half. That is why it is so distressing to see it jeopardizing its reputation for one little experiment. In the light of the recent media campaign by Sense About Science and others, it is apparent to many of us that what the funders of this experiment are testing is not a particular strain of GM wheat, but the resistance of the public to GM crops ten years after resoundingly rejecting them in a government poll. As a spokesman for the Soil Association put it to The Land, when we asked them why they didn’t have a presence at the demonstration: “The GM PR machine has been very clever in portraying this research as unrelated to corporations such as Monsanto, obviously aware of the negative affect this would inevitably have on public support for the trials. Because Rothamsted carries out a variety of research, we felt the nuances involved in condemning and destroying one aspect of its work would have led to confusion. This would not have been the case had the research been carried out by a large corporation such as Monsanto.” Rothamsted, sadly, has been used, like a civilian human shield, to protect the biotech industry.



Since Britain is an island, isn’t it particularly well placed to fulfil the role of scientific control? The Americas and China are investing heavily in GM research and development, so from a scientific point of view wouldn’t it be better for Europe to remain GM free so we can make a comparison of the overall social, environmental and economic benefits. And if we did fulfil this role, wouldn’t it be economically beneficial, since non-GM products and non-GM scientific research would otherwise be hard to come by?”

Stewart Brand, who is a supporter of GM crops has argued:

“The most massive dietary experiment in history has taken place since 1996. One enormous set of people — everyone in North America — bravely ate vast quantities of genetically engineered food crops. Meanwhile the control group — everyone in Europe — made the considerable economic sacrifice of doing without GE agriculture and went to the further trouble of banning all GE food imports. It was great civilization-scale science, and the result is now in, a conclusive existence proof. No difference can be detected between the test and the control group.”

If there is no difference between the test and the control group, then there doesn’t seem to be any argument for introducing GM. Admittedly Brand is talking about diet, but yields of wheat, barley and maize in the EU have all risen since 1996, while herbicide, nitrogen and phosphate use have all declined (whereas herbicide use has risen in the US, and nitrogen use has remained static). Farmer distress appears to be just as rife in the US as it is in the EU. What exactly are the benefits, for a wealthy nation, of GM crops?

ROTHAMSTED: Experimentally, Europe would not really act as an effective control group for North America. There are many differences, and therefore many confounding variables, between Europe and the USA, not just GM food consumption. Therefore to make a comparison of the effects of eating GM food in the way you suggest, by keeping Europe GM free, would not really be a valid experimental design. There is also the issue of consumption of products from Animals that have been fed GM soya which is practiced in Europe. Nonetheless, we are not aware, after more than a trillion meals of GM food, of any scientifically valid studies showing adverse health effects in North Americans of eating food grown from GM crops. We think, if the new generation of GM technologies can provide advantages like reducing the need for pesticide or fertiliser, then these benefits are worth considering rather than ruling out the option completely.

THE LAND: We are not in this instance advocating ruling out the option completely. Here we are suggesting that even if you do think there may be some value in GM technologies, there is still an overwhelming argument for keeping parts of the world free from GM crops as a control group. It goes without saying that experiments on this macro-scale cannot be carried out with the precision of a lab-controlled experiment, but that doesn’t make them invalid. In regions where GM crops are promoted they have come to dominate some sectors in a very short time (about 90 per cent of the US soya and Indian cotton crops are GM for example). If this is allowed to happen everywhere in the world, and GMOs come to dominate the market everywhere through short term advantages of yield, then we will never know whether we might not have done better going down a different route.