(Beyond Pesticides, May 9, 2012) In what is being presented as “a clear risk to British farming,” protesters in the United Kingdom have organized a campaign to protest field sites being used to test a new strain of genetically modified (GM) wheat. The industry developing the GM wheat is asking the campaigners not to ruin their experimental plots, but the group, ”˜Take the Flour Back,’ has vowed to “decontaminate” the site unless the research is halted.
The “Take the Flour Back” campaign is protesting the outdoor field trials of a new strain of GM wheat which has the potential to contaminate surrounding fields and spread GM material to others areas off-site. Campaigners say controlled indoor trials should be done instead before the crop is planted outdoors. The trial at Rothamsted Research in Harpenden, Herts in South East England is evaluating the efficacy of wheat modified to deter aphids, an insect pest. Rothamsted Research insists this minimizes crop losses due to aphid attack and the fungal infections and viruses that can follow in their wake, and reduces the need for chemical spraying against aphids. Rothamsted agricultural research establishment is set to conduct open air trials of wheat to be planted in spring 2012 and 2013.
The wheat has been engineered to include genes for antibiotic-resistance and an artificial gene ”˜most similar to a cow.’ The wheat is designed to produce a pheromone called E-beta-farnesene that is normally emitted by aphids when they feel threatened, repelling the insects. E-beta-farnesene itself is produced naturally by a number of plants, including peppermint and potatoes. The other gene in question -a promoter gene, which switches on other genes- is a synthetic variant of one found in many organisms, including wheat itself. However, Rothamsted researchers explained that they chose a variant closer to the cow version than the wheat one in order to prevent other genes in the wheat from recognizing its activity and regulating it.
There is serious doubt that the aphid alarm pheromone as found in this GM crop would even work. Other scientists have raised concerns that if aphids get habituated and insufficient predators are available, this may increase the aphid burden on the wheat and thus potentially increasing the need for pesticides and chemical spraying against aphids.
One activist, Welch farmer Gerald Miles, is leading the calls against “irresponsible” and “negligent” GM crop research. Mr. Miles stated, “The wheat is being injected with genes from a cow, antibiotic genes and peppermint genes in order to detract aphids from the crops. This is totally irresponsible on many levels. Firstly, it is totally negligent to conduct an open air trial where there is a significant risk of cross contamination with other wheat crops in the area and the wider country.”
Last week, the Real Bread Campaign, which is also opposed to GM wheat, delivered a pledge to the government from more than 350 bakers, millers, farmers and consumers not to sell or buy GM wheat. The pledge was accompanied by a letter to Caroline Spelman MP, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, expressing deep concerns about the testing of GM wheat at Rothamsted. ”˜Take the Flour Back’ is organizing a day of protest on May 27th advertising it as a “nice day out in the country, with picnics, music from Seize the Day and a decontamination.”
GM wheat poses high risk of environmental contamination since wheat is a wind pollinated crop. GM wheat, like other GM crops, can cause serious environmental damage, including the development of resistant weeds, contamination of non-GM crops and organic farms and the unknown impacts of human health. Other GM crops, like corn and soy, have already been shown to produce resistant weeds contaminated with GM material due to result of cross-pollination. Resistant insects are also a growing problem. Thus far, much of industry’s promises for GM crops have not come to pass. Instead of decreased pesticide use, herbicide use has soared, mostly due to the onset of weed resistance.
GM crops have faced fierce resistance in Europe. Given the persistent wariness of GM organisms in Europe, biotechnology companies like BASF have stopped developing new products targeting the European market. Research and development on transgenic products aimed solely at the European market, including a mildew resistant high-starch potato and a variety of fungus resistant wheat, have been halted. European farmers have long defended their right to grow non-GMO food. In 2009, farmers, consumers and civil society organizations in Australia, Canada, and the U.S. released a joint statement confirming their collective commitment to stop commercialization of genetically engineered (GE) wheat. The EU has several policies that strongly regulate genetically modified materials from food, including one for honey that states that honey produced though cross-pollination with a GM crop must be authorized as a GM product before being sold. In 2009, Ireland passed a policy banning the cultivation of all GM crops and introduced a voluntary GM-free label for food.
On the contrary, the U.S. has in recent times moved to deregulate GM crops. Most recently, the USDA is considering deregulating GM corn engineered to be tolerant to 2,4-D in order for farmers to control weeds that have become resistant to Roundup. GM crops tolerant to Roundup have proliferated over the last decade and have directly resulted in resistant “super weeds.” Beyond Pesticides and dozens of other organic and environmental organizations wrote comments to USDA, urging the agency to not allow this new strain of GM corn to enter the environment.
The U.S. decision to welcome and deregulate GM crops fails to take into account several scientifically-validated environmental concerns, such as the indiscriminate nature of genetically modified gene flow in crops, a heavy reliance on faulty data, and a high degree of uncertainties in making safety determinations. It also overlooks the problem of herbicide-resistant weeds and insects, as well as the widespread corruption of conventional seed varieties by GM strains, along with documented severe economic injury to farmers and markets. There is also an oversight of possible health consequences from eating GMOs, despite the fact that long-term health effects of consuming GM food are still largely unstudied and unknown.
Fortunately, GM crops are not permitted in organic food production. For more information about why organic is the right choice, see our Organic Food: Eating with a Conscience Guide and visit the Organic Program page. For more information on the failure of genetically engineered food, read “Genetically Engineered Food Failed promises and hazardous outcomes,” from the Summer 2011 issue of Pesticides and You, or go to our Genetic Engineering web page.
Photo: Take the Flour Back
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.