Stop the open-air release of GM Wheat that contains genes ‘most similar to that of a cow’
Rothamsted have planted a new GM wheat trial designed to repel aphids. It contains genes for antibiotic-resistance and an artificial gene ‘most similar to a cow’.
Wheat is wind-pollinated. In Canada similar experiments have leaked into the food-chain costing farmers millions in lost exports. There is no market for GM wheat anywhere in the world.
This experiment is tax-payer funded, but Rothamsted hope to sell any patent it generates to an agro-chemical company. La Via Campesina, the world’s largest organisation of peasant farmers, believe GM is increasing world hunger. They have called for support resisting GM crops, and the control over agriculture that biotech gives to corporations.
‘Take the Flour Back’ will be a nice day out in the country, with picnics, music from Seize the Day and a decontamination. It’s for anyone who feels able to publically help remove this threat and those who want to show their support for them.
Meet Rothamsted Park, Harpenden, Herts (30 mins from London by train) 12 noon on 27th May.
Read more about the trial of genetically modified wheat at Rothamsted, Hertfordshire
Rothamsted agricultural research establishment has been granted permission to conduct open air trials of wheat, genetically modified to be resistant to aphids, to be planted in spring 2012 and 2013.
£1.28 million of public money was awarded to the institution from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. The crop is modified to secrete a hormonal chemical compound which acts an alarm signal to keep aphids away and attracts aphid predators to the crop. The theory is that this minimises 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 – increasing profits for farmers.
However, the application raises many serious concerns, listed below:
The genetic modification has been undertaken using two chemically synthesised genes which, the application says, are “not found naturally.” The application states they are, respectively, “similar to that found in peppermint…” and have, ” most similarity to [one] from a cow…” (1a). This is the first synthetic copy of an animal gene. The scientists do not know whether the plants will produce the desired result and trialling them in the open air carries huge risks of:
GM seeds and crops can easily cross-contaminate wild and domestic plants through wind-borne pollen, seed dispersal, volunteers, and horizontal gene transfer. They can also contaminate related and unrelated species, including soil micro-organisms and bacteria living in the gut of humans and animals through a process called horizontal gene transfer.
There are a number of ways in which a GM crop may cause contamination:
- Cross-pollination of neighbouring crops or related wild species.
- Seed spilt at harvest that germinates and contaminates later crops grown in the field.
- Seed spilt around fields and on verges during transport after harvest.
- Mixing of GM and non-GM crops in storage or during distribution. Grain stores or equipment may not be cleaned out properly, or mistakes may be made by operators leading to mixing or errors in labelling.
The application for the trial notes the possibility of seeds being carried off site by wild birds and small mammals, and pollen being carried away by the wind (paragraph 6 in Part A of the application). GM traits from oilseed rape have already cross contaminated with a common weed during the Farm Scale Evaluations from 2000-2003. (Centre for Ecology and Hydrology 2005) Once this trait is released into the open there is no way to get it back. (1)
The photo of bagged wheat (see right) is from inside the research facility. This demonstrates the precautions that are taken to avoid cross pollination even in windless environments.
Unknown health / environmental impacts
The UK public have objected to GM soya (a largely invisible ingredient of processed foods) from the late 90s onwards, so they are unlikely to want to eat bread made with GM wheat given the importance of bread in the UK diet. GM ingredient bans remain in place by all supermarkets 14 years after the first ban by Iceland. The lack of any adequate safety testing before release, of the effects of this wheat on human health raises huge concerns. The method for introducing the new DNA is haphazard and poorly understood. There is a presumption that GM foods are the same as non-GM ones (substantial equivalence) but this has not been fully tested. Recent experiments in Canada found the GM Bt toxin in the blood and umbilical cords of 90% of pregnant women tested. (2)
A majority of Europeans believe that the development of GM foods should not be encouraged. (3)
This GM wheat worryingly contains an antibiotic-resistant marker gene. The EU phased out markers for antibiotic resistance because they may have “adverse effects on human health and the environment”. (EU Directive 2001/18 Article 4.3). The antibiotic resistance could be transferred horizontally to bacteria in our environment, increasing the problems of ‘super bugs’, such as MRSA.
Economic threat to our farming
FACT: The UK is one of the most successful wheat-growers and exporters in Europe. We currently produce around 15 million tonnes of wheat each year, of which 25% is exported. About 40% of our national crop becomes animal feed, and the remainder is eaten by us, with wheat being used in thousands of products and responsible for the daily production of 10 million loaves of bread (http://www.ukagriculture.com/crops/wheat.cfm). Major export markets in Europe do not want to eat GM. Cross contamination runs the risk of losing these export markets.
Monsanto abandoned GM wheat research in the EU in 2004 (BBC 2004). More recently sources in Canada (Canadian National Research Council 2011) and Australia (ABC 2011) report that there is significant opposition to restarting GM wheat development. The countries they export to have said they won’t buy it and farmers are afraid that they will lose their industry. (4)
Consequences for nearby farms
What would happen to nearby wheat fields if the genetic modification works as planned? They might experience increased aphid attack, especially considering the potential lack of predators, which could have been attracted to the GM crop. If the contamination is greater than 0.9% this needs to be labelled as GM under EU Regulation 1830/2003 and cannot be labelled organic, threatening both conventional and organic wheat markets.
This is an unnecessary solution to a non-existent problem.
The average UK yield is 8.5 tonnes/hectare; the world record is over 16 tonnes – so the genetics of non-GM current wheat varieties are capable of very high yields already. Scotland held the world record for wheat yields for several years. Aphid related losses to wheat crops for spring wheat in the UK are small. Non-GM aphid management techniques have been trialled previously by Rothamsted and others (Powell et al 2004). Solutions which work with nature (rather than against it as GM does) such as predator strips and companion planting, have been in use for generations. Farmers still cite soil fertility and crop rotation as the best ways to attain high yields.
The science is flawed.
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 increase the need for pesticides and thus increased chemical spraying against aphids. In March 2010 Monsanto announced insects had developed resistance to the Bt toxin in the Indian State of Gujarat (India Today). If pest-resistance is failing in other crops designed to deter predation it is also likely to have the same result in aphid resistant plants.
Feeding the World?
Many groups challenging GMOs do so in the full knowledge and direct experience that agro-ecological farming practices are more productive than GM and industrial agriculture, and that they ensure the health of humans, biodiversity, ecosystems, soils, livelihoods and food security. The value of their work to revive seed diversity, farmers’ rights, indigenous knowledge, organic agriculture techniques and local markets was confirmed at the highest levels by the 2008 International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). The largest-ever assessment of global agriculture involved more than 400 scientists and 30 governments, and was dismissive of GM’s potential to address global hunger. Instead it recognised that the only way to ensure future food, farming and ecosystems was through a wholesale emphasis on agro-ecological practices. In 2011, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter confirmed that small-scale farmers can double global food production within 10 years, through a shift to agro-ecological and organic methods.
The voices of citizens and movements from across the world renew and reinforce this message. It is time to make our food and farming GMO-free. It is time to build the real solutions to hunger and climate uncertainty. It is time for Food Democracy. (4)
GM and climate change
The threat of climate change has been used very successfully to win over people who were previously wary of GM. In desperate times, the argument goes, we should use all the tools at our disposal, and we’re told GM technology has the potential to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gasses, and to make it easier for us to go on producing crops in extreme weather conditions.
This approach, however, is fundamentally flawed. “After 20 years of unsuccessful research (but rather more successful PR), hopes that GM will provide crops that are resistant to disease or drought have also proven illusory. No GM drought tolerant or ‘climate ready’ crops have made it to the table in Africa or elsewhere in the world. The complexity of plant physiology means that genetic engineers are unlikely to successfully harness and control the interaction of the estimated 40 genes required for drought tolerance. Instead, GM companies are on the hunt for drought-tolerant varieties developed using by farmers using traditional breeding techniques, and patenting these themselves. They then add their herbicide-or-pest-resistant GM genes to these crops, to claim that they have developed such crops as “GM drought-tolerant maize”. Genetic Engineering has also failed to produce disease resistant crops. Monsanto’s attempts to develop a virus-resistant sweet potato in Kenya proved embarrassing when 2004 trials revealed that the GM crop was less resistant to disease than conventional varieties. Yet the lore of the GM sweet potato is still repeated as an example of how millions in Africa can be spared from hunger.” (4)
The biotech industry is currently engaged in a ‘second push’ to get GM into the UK. Two recent ongoing GM potato trials have now been joined by the Rothamsted GM wheat trial. Add to that a government which has declared its intention to be the most pro-GM yet, by the current environment minister, who is an ex-biotech lobbyist (Caroline Spelman).
Rothamsted Research has hosted GM research and trials in the past, but with the appointment of Maurice Moloney as director in 2010 they have made a huge commitment to pushing forward GM trials. Moloney was Chief Scientific Officer of SemBioSys Genetics Inc., a plant biotech company well known for its controversial work on pharma crops (eg. producing insulin from safflower seeds).
Previously, Moloney led the Cell Biology group at Calgene, acquired by Monsanto in 1997, where he developed “the world’s first transgenic oilseeds, which resulted in RoundUp Ready GM Canola.” Moloney’s GM Roundup Ready Canola has, of course, led to contamination of no-GM farmers’ fields and legal cases over patenting, like the Percy Schmeiser case, and to the end of organic canola growing in parts of Canada due to GM contamination. (5)
As the world’s largest crop, commercialised GM wheat represents a potentially great financial prize for whoever might eventually benefit from the publicly-funded GM research being undertaken at Rothamsted. But the high costs of bringing a GM crop to market mean that it will not be Rothamsted themselves who do this, begging the question of which biotech company with the required financial clout might do so.
In the meantime, for farmers in the UK now, there is much to be lost from the risk of cross-contamination, both economically and environmentally, both from this trial and the eventual commercialisation of GM wheat in the UK.
(1a) Rothamsted Research Centre, Application for Consent to Release a GMO – Higher Plants pg 4 pt 12 http://archive.defra.gov.uk/environment/quality/gm/regulation/docum...
(1) http://www.news.colostate.edu/Release/1336 and http://www.stopgm.org.uk/whats-wrong-with-gm/gm-threat-to-environme...
(2) http://www.gmfreeze.org/site_media/uploads/publications/GM_blood_st... and http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-1388888/GM-food-toxins-bl...
Also see http://www.stopgm.org.uk/whats-wrong-with-gm/gm-health-risks.html
(4) (The GMO emperor has no clothes (Full Report, in English and in PDF format): http://bit.ly/ov9ZnJ
The GMO emperor has no clothes (Synthesis Report, in English and in PDF format): http://bit.ly/pWP1rX
GM Banana slips in South Africa: Key issues and concerns: http://bit.ly/rcBt9i
Biosafety Information Center: http://bit.ly/qaY07S
Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy: http://bit.ly/YT7dD
The Guardian: http://bit.ly/ahcby6
Center for Food Safety: http://bit.ly/Jv8cM
ABC, 2011. “Fears GM wheat could harm Japan trade”. See
BBC, 2004. “Monsanto drops plans for GM wheat”. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/3702739.stm
Canadian National Research Council, 2011. Statement made to the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, June 2011. See www.cban.ca/Resources/Topics/GE-Crops-and-Foods-Not-on-the-Market/W...
Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, 2005. “The potential for dispersal of herbicide tolerance genes from genetically-modified, herbicide-tolerant oilseed rape crops to wild relatives”. Defra contract reference
Powell W, A’Hara S, Harling R, J Holland M, Northing P, Thomas CFG and Walters KFA, 2004. “Managing biodiversity in field margins to enhance integrated pest control in arable crops (‘3-D Farming’ Project)” Project Report NO. 356. Home Grown Cereals Authority
Sharma, Dinesh, 6 March 2010. “Bt Cotton Has Failed Admits Monsanto.” India Today. Available at http://indiatoday.intoday.in/site/Story/86939/India/Bt+cotton+has+f...
Wheat exports: http://www.hgca.com/content.output/5165/5165/Exports/Exports/Export...