Tag Archives: food security

More Q & A from Rothamsted

Sense about Science have published another interesting Q & A session with the Rothamsted scientists about GM in general and their experiment in particular.

You can read it all here.

And in related news a man has been charged with criminal damage (having vandalised the Rothamsted test plots).


When debate and petitions aren’t enough

For the last month or so, I’ve been blogging on and off about the GM wheat research at Rothamsted and the reactions to this by a group called Take the Flour Back. The group have been planning a ‘decontamination’ event for next weekend, at which they and their supporters will uproot the crop, thereby destroying many years of hard work and some really valuable research. I’ve mentioned the researchers’ open letter; and the Sense about Science petition, as well as some of the reasons why I think TtFB are just plain wrong.

The Rothamsted scientists did their darndest to communicate with these activists, in the hope that they could allay some fears and generate some useful dialogue. After several attempts to contact them and arrange a proper public adjudicated debate, TtFB declined to join in with this, and so the only debate that has really happened was via Newsnight.

More on that here.

Sadly yesterday somebody decided that waiting for a proper debate, or the published article in the Guardian just wasn’t an option, and decided to vandalise the trial a week ahead of the planned ‘decontamination’ date. I’m beginning to lose all faith that these activists will listen to any evidence, no matter how calmly and co-operatively it is presented.

The only debate we’re likely to get

Since the Take the Flour Back activists found themselves unable to find two or three speakers for a formal, lengthy debate the only real visible dialogue between anti-GM activists and Rothamsted has been this episode of Newsnight.

There are so many things that make me sad about this debate: not least that every time either Prof. John Pickett or Dr. Tracey Brown speaks they are shouted over by Jyoti Fernandes. Even in the opening comments, nobody jumps on Jyoti when she says that she thinks GM is ‘really dangerous’, but she won’t even allow Prof. Pickett to finish his opening spiel. She immediately challenges him on what he means by sustainable, and even before he’s finished answering her question she interrupts him again!

Since they didn’t get a chance to answer some of the questions, or meet some of the challenges I’m going to put my two pence in here:

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A rose by any other name…

Biofortified, a group blog I read sometimes, is carrying a piece today called Crop Plants with DNA Deletions are not GMOs. The piece is largely about exciting new technology used to examine disease resistance in rice. But the title comes from this passage:

Instead of adding a sentence or two to the genome book, as is done by standard genetic modification (GM) approaches, they removed a few letters; the rice varieties they generated lack anywhere from 3 to 57 bases in their genomes (as in the Figure to the right from the Li paper). Thus, the rice plants generated by Li et al. do not contain extraneous DNA and cannot by any reasonable definition be considered “GMOs.”

Figure 1e from Li. The top row is a DNA sequence in the gene that makes wild type rice susceptible to blight. Each of the other rows have deletions (marked by dashed) or additions (red letters) induced by the TAL-nuclease.

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Got that Monday Feeling

Usually, I’m pretty good on Mondays. I’ve gone to bed in a good mood, having spent Sunday training and singing: both things likely to fill me with endorphins. I’ve probably been for a pretty good run, having forced myself to start the week the way I mean to go on. And I’ve had a chance to take a step back over the weekend and think about the problems I’m facing in my PhD.

Today, I am tired, starting with a cold, unable to run due to injury and in a spectacularly bad mood about various things that people have done in the lab to make my life more difficult. (I’m sure I will write about this another time, but for now let’s just say that I think labmate rules should be similar to housemate rules: things like ‘you don’t open or finish someone else’s milk/reagents, and you don’t use anything that’s monstrously expensive (read: alcohol / enzymes / Qiagen kits) without asking unless you’re utterly desperate.)

So instead of an actual blog post, here are some things I have read or seen while sat at my desk ‘doing admin’ that I have found interesting enough to share.

Fetal microchimerism on DoubleXScience: about how cells swap between mother and baby across the placenta, remaining in one another’s bodies long after the pregnancy ends. (Cool, even if it sounds like something out of Alien).

This shirt containing the ingredients of a human, which I really want. (I have too many science t-shirts!)

An article about the need for proper science out-reach over at The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The Society of Biology are asking for people to make videos of their Life in the Lab. (I am really keen on this. One of my slides for my generic ‘going into schools’ presentation has pictures of lots of my friends doing fieldwork, or even things other than science to get across this idea that ‘Not all scientists wear white coats’.

And finally, the podcast from the second Sense About Science Q & A session with scientists from Rothamsted is now live. I haven’t had a chance to listen yet, but it should be pretty good.

More on Rothamsted and TtFB

I really will write about something other than GMO field trials soon, but I’m having a fail lab day, and this is really irritating me.

Beyond Pesticides Daily have published an article today referencing the whole Rothamsted / TtFB debate. I think the pop science I read, the more I notice examples of bad journalism and sloppy editing, and writing a biased piece. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m sure that whatever I write will be influenced by my own feelings on the subject, but I hope that I can at least keep straight facts and opinions and experts vs lay people.

The piece starts of with at least a semblance of impartiality:

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.

And then any hint of ‘allegedly’ or ‘reportedly’ disappears, and it becomes pretty clear which side BPD’s bread is buttered on.

a new strain of GM wheat which has the potential to contaminate surrounding fields

Really? Have they read about the level of precaution taken in planning this experiment? It is really hard to get wheat to do anything other than self fertilise. On the off chance that a wheat plant manages to expose its anthers before self-fertilising, and another individual manages to expose its stigma, Rothamsted have been very clear about the margin between the experimental plot and any other wheat fields, and have planned an exclusion zone, from which all the material will be destroyed, just to be on the safe side.

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.

Interesting that in an article with so many links this isn’t even referenced or attributed. I have a few questions about this. 1. How can aphids become habituated to a chemical that they make themselves? It’s like suggesting that we might become habituated to serotonin or insulin and start ignoring it. 2. Who are these scientists, and where have they been making these claims? 3. Why would there be fewer predators than their current are? Ladybird larvae are attracted by E-beta-farnesene. If anything, there will be more of them, not fewer.

Then we get onto quotations:

One activist, Welch [sic] 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.”

Once again, we have the fallacious claim that there is a significant risk of cross contamination. More frustratingly, from my point of view, Mr Miles is presented as being some kind of expert. He’s an organic farmer, and as far as I can tell from his blog presence, his expertise in the field of science goes about as far as copying and pasting things from organicconsumers.org

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.


You know what makes me so angry about this? I’m not even sure we should be growing or eating GM wheat. But what I am sure about, is that activists shouldn’t have to spread disinformation and lies in order to convince the general public that this research is a bad idea.

You know what I’m eating today? A salad, with lentils. And I’m drinking some ginger beer. And I GUARANTEE you that tomorrow there will be no trace of lentil DNA or ginger DNA in my genome. Because my cells do not MAGICALLY start taking up the DNA of whatever I’ve eaten and incorporating it into my own DNA.

And what is with all the talk about super weeds?!?! Even if there was convincing evidence that gene transfer was responsible for weeds becoming resistant to glyphosate (which there isn’t) then that would still have precisely zero to do wheat that is modified to produce a pheromone.


GM wheat and Take the flour back

Who they are

First up, some background. Rothamsted Research is one of the world’s oldest agricultural research stations. They have four main areas of research, one of which is “20:20 Wheat” aka how to increase wheat productivity to yield 20 tonnes per hectare in 20 years (compared to a maximum right now of about 10t/ha). This is really important, because the UK is one of the world’s lead producers of wheat (in that we’re very good at producing high yielding fields, even if we don’t have many of those fields) and the world as a whole is currently miles away from reaching our target of doubling food production by 2050.

What they’re doing

Scientists at Rothamsted are trialling a variety of GM wheat that produces a pheromone that aphids don’t like. Aphids eat wheat, and reduce crop yields. If you can stop them from going near the wheat, then the yields should be higher. As a pre-emptive strike, I’m going to point out that the gene added to the wheat occurs naturally in many species of plant. It is not, as has been said, a ‘cow gene’, though the particular variant being used is more akin to an animal gene than a plant gene because this makes it easier to control its expression.

The opposition

A group called Take the flour back are not very happy about this. They are planning a ‘decontamination’ aka trampling, setting fire to or otherwise destroying the wheat plots at May 27th. Amongst their reasons for doing this are the fact that GM crops are untrialled. To which the obvious solution is to destroy field trials… Apparently. I’ll get back to you once I’ve figured out how that one works.

Anyway, last week the Rothamsted scientists wrote an open letter  to the TtFB guys asking them to actually come and look around and engage in some dialogue about their issues. It’s a good letter. I’m impressed. And today Sense about Science have launched a petition to allow the every day people to make the point that the views of the minority do not represent the rest of us, and that actually we are quite keen for vital GM research of this ilk to continue. I’ve signed it: You should sign it too.