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.