Misplaced protest

Journal name:
Nature
Volume:
485,
Pages:
147–148
Date published:
DOI:
doi:10.1038/485147b
Published online

Rothamsted's genetically engineered wheat should be allowed to grow.

Plant scientists at Rothamsted Research, a complex of buildings and fields in Hertfordshire, UK, that prides itself on being the longest-running agricultural research station in the world, have spent years preparing for their latest experiment — which will attempt to prove the usefulness of a genetically modified (GM) wheat that emits an aphid alarm pheromone, potentially reducing aphid infestation.

Yet instead of looking forward to watching their crop grow, the Rothamsted scientists are nervously counting the days until 27 May, when protesters against GM crops have promised to turn up in force and destroy the experimental plots.

The protest group, it must be acknowledged, has a great name — Take the Flour Back. And it no doubt believes that it has the sympathy of the public. The reputation of GM crops and food in Britain, and in much of mainland Europe, has yet to recover from the battering it took in the late 1990s. In Germany, the routine destruction of crops by protesters has meant that scientists there simply don't bother to conduct GM experiments any more.

The Rothamsted scientists have also attempted to win over the public, with a media campaign that explains what they are trying to do and why. After the protesters announced their plans to “decontaminate” the research site, the scientists tried to engage with their opponents, and pleaded with them to “reconsider before it is too late, and before years of work to which we have devoted our lives are destroyed forever”. The researchers say that in this case they are the true environmentalists. The modified crop, if it works, would lower the demand for environmentally damaging insecticides.

As Nature went to press, the stalemate continued. The GM crop at Rothamsted remains, but so does the intention of the protesters to destroy it.

“To destroy experiments before the outstanding questions can be answered is more than local vandalism, it is recklessness on a global scale.”

There are very real consequences to this kind of protest. German chemical giant BASF this year announced that it would move its transgenic plant operations from Europe to the United States, in part because of the perception of continuing widespread opposition to GM crops in Europe. And although farmers in other parts of the world have taken to GM crops with gusto, Europe, with some exceptions, misses out. Evidence suggests that it is missing a lot. The adoption of herbicide-resistant oilseed rape has reduced the use of herbicides by farmers in North America, and also reduced tillage, which has its own environmental benefits. The adoption of pest-resistant GM cotton has lowered the use of pesticides. Nevertheless, the reasons for the hostility towards genetic modification in Europe are clear. Justifiable unease over the way in which GM-led business models would hand entire food chains to large agrochemical companies found a popular proxy in less-realistic concerns over the possible health impacts of the new technology.

But with the world's population now at 7 billion and counting, the rejection of genetic modification of crops on such spurious scientific grounds now threatens the environment it claims to protect. To feed a population likely to top 9 billion in 2100, we are going to need to change the way we grow our food. Harking back to old-fashioned methods and talking up organic farming will not do it. Genetic modification alone will not do it, but it could be a crucial tool and one that it is foolish to oppose on sentimental or ideological grounds.

This will not convince diehard opponents, of course, just as pleas for the value of scientific research failed to sway the criminal faction of the animal-rights movement. But, just as it proved with animal rights, it is far from clear that GM protesters, however many turn up at Rothamsted in a fortnight, truly attract public support.

GM crops could significantly reduce the use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, and provide greater tolerance to a more extreme climate. True, we are still in the early stages of this technology. And there are some legitimate concerns, such as possible leakage of GM material into the local environment. But to destroy experiments such as the one at Rothamsted before the outstanding questions can be answered is more than local vandalism, it is recklessness on a global scale.

Comments

  1. Report this comment #42716

    Rosemary Mason said:

    I would like to challenge two of the oft-repeated statements by GE scientists and the Industry. Claim 1. ?The adoption of pest-resistant cotton has lowered the use of pesticides.?

    The 69-page (independent) Report in 2009 by Charles Benbrook: Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use in the United States: The First Thirteen Years, (which includes cotton) shows the exact opposite. The actual number of GE crops has increased overall pesticide use by 318.4 million pounds over the first 13 years of commercial use, compared to the amount of pesticide likely to have been applied in the absence of HT and Bt. seeds. Weed control is now widely acknowledged as a serious management problem within GE cropping systems. In the US, by early 2009, as many as 14,000 sites on up to 5.4 million acres were infested by populations of nine glyphosate-resistant weeds. Farmers and weed scientists across the heartland and cotton belt are now struggling to devise affordable and effective strategies to deal with the resistant weeds emerging in the wake of herbicide-tolerant crops. This has produced economic problems as well. Benbrook says: ?The economic picture dramatically darkens for farmers combating resistant weeds under average soybean yields (36 bushels) and market prices ($6.50 per bushel). Such average conditions would generate about $234 in gross income per acre. The estimated $80 increase in 2010 costs per acre of HT soybeans would then account for one-third of gross income per acre, and total cash operating costs would exceed $200 per acre, leaving just $34 to cover land, labor, management, debt, and all other fixed costs. Such a scenario leaves little or no room for profit at the farm level.?
    Dow and Monsanto have also admitted the problems of resistant ?super-weeds?. They have just obtained registration to resurrect two older herbicides; Dow AgroSciences, 2,4-D choline, a herbicide related to Agent Orange, and Monsanto, the herbicide dicamba. Dow hopes to have 2,4-D-tolerant ?Enlist? field corn on the North American market next year and 2,4-D tolerant soybeans in 2015. Monsanto plans a limited launch of dicamba-tolerant soybeans in 2014.

    Claim 2. ?To feed a population likely to top 9 billion in 2100, we are going to need to change the old way we are growing our food. (GM) could be a crucial tool and it would be foolish to oppose it on ideological or sentimental grounds.?

    In 2009, Doug Gurian-Sherman, Senior Scientist in the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) Food and Environment Program, published a 61-page report which challenges the claim that GM crops are essential to feed the world: ?Failure to Yield? Evaluating the Performance of Genetically Engineered Crops. In the Executive Summary Dr Gurian-Sherman says: ?This report is the first to evaluate in detail the overall, or aggregate, yield effect of GE after more than 20 years of research and 13 years of commercialisation in the United States. Based on that record, we conclude that GE has done little to increase overall crop yields.?

    But don?t take my word for it, or the competing scientific claims. Just ask the users; the farmers in the US. Since 1996, they have experienced GE crops first-hand. The link is to a 23-min video (Farmer to Farmer; The truth about GM crops) made by a British farmer visiting the US on a fact-finding tour.
    http://vimeo.com/18994807

    Two pages later in Nature (p 149), is the warning in Daniel Sarewitz? article about systematic positive bias in industry-funded trials: ?Beware the creeping cracks of bias?. He says: ?Early signs of trouble were appearing by the mid-90s?The problem, after all, was not with science, but with the poison of the profit motive?.

    In the light of these independent findings, for your editorial to brand the protesters as being vandals is clearly nonsense. On the contrary, it is the scientists at Rothamsted who are being reckless ?on a global scale? by only taking the word of the Industry, without due enquiry, at least from the farmers who now have 14 years? first-hand experience. In addition, the effects of the increasing prophylactic use of these pesticides on human health have been completely ignored. For example, in 2008, Yang et al. showed that the brown planthopper, Nilaparvata lugens, had been able to develop 1424-fold resistance to imidacloprid in the laboratory after the insect was selected with imidacloprid for 26 generations1. Mammals do not have the ability to adapt rapidly like insects or plants to the increasing numbers and quantities of pesticides. Government and industry scientists have completely failed to take human health and the environment into account. As a result of industry pressure to produce positive results, and their suppression of independent researchers, it is too late to reverse the disasters in the US, but at least the protest group ?Take the Flour Back? could ameliorate some damage in the Europe by stopping the Rothamsted trial on 27th May.

    1. Wang, Y. et al. Susceptibility to neonicotinoids and risk of resistance development in the brown planthopper, Nilaparvata lugens (Stål) (Homoptera: Delphacidae). Pest Manag. Sci., 64: 1278?1284. doi: 10.1002/ps.1629 (2008).

    Rosemary Mason MB, ChB, FRCA, UK.

  2. Report this comment #42786

    Paul Matthews said:

    I downloaded Rosemary's "Independent" Report and it turns out to have been written by someone from an organisation called "The Organic Center". So I wasted no time in reading it.

  3. Report this comment #42787

    Gabriel Leon said:

    The adoption of GM crops has lowered the use of pesticides. Hutchinson et al (Science 2010: Vol. 330 no. 6001 pp. 222-225) first show that among US farmers and now, a study performed in India has recently shown that farmers are using less pesticides and this has a huge impact in the frequency of intoxication cases among smallholder farmers (Ecological Economics, Volume 70, Issue 11, 15 September 2011, Pages 2105?2113). And of course, the claim than GM crops have failed because they not produce higher yields is exactly the same that claim that the use of airbags have no impact in the reduction of car accident rates...of course, airbags are not used to reduce car accident rates, they are use to reduce lesions and death rates in car accidents. For GM crops is the same: they are not designed to obtain higher yields (in fact, there are only few genes identified in model plants that have impact on seed yield) but use less pesticides and herbicides, and current GM crops do that. Farmers use these more expensive seeds because they save money by using and applying less pesticides and herbicides; farmers had never used these seeds if they obtain no benefit or improve their income.

  4. Report this comment #42833

    Anthony Kerwin said:

    Paul Matthews says, "...it turns out to have been written by someone from an organisation called "The Organic Center". So I wasted no time in reading it." Do you have the same attitude when looking at something written by someone with connections to the GM crop industry?

    Gabriel: you say that "farmers had never used these seeds if they obtain no benefit or improve their income." What about those farmers whose crops have been contaminated through cross-pollination, then sued by corporations for using their patented seeds without paying for them?

    I'm not taking sides, but will pose some questions. What is the follow up to resistance developed by pests? BT resistance and weed resistance to Roundup have already occurred. We need to move away from rejection of opinions we disagree with and look at the implications from a scientific viewpoint, ...both short- (generally good), and long-term (often not what we were hoping for).

  5. Report this comment #63719

    Norman Morgan said:

    And of course, the claim than GM crops have failed because they not produce higher yields is exactly the same that claim that the use of airbags have no impact in the reduction of car accident rates...of course, airbags are not used to reduce car accident rates, they are use to reduce lesions and death rates in car accidents.
    gateste: no

  6. Report this comment #63723

    Carry Jones said:

    For GM crops is the same: they are not designed to obtain higher yields (in fact, there are only few genes identified in model plants that have impact on seed yield) but use less pesticides and herbicides, and current GM crops do that. I think farmers use these more expensive seeds because they save money by using and applying less pesticides and herbicides; farmers had never used these seeds if they obtain no benefit or improve their income.

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