Tag Archives: TtFB

I’m a scientist: GM Zone

Somehow I managed to get so caught up in that stupid EU Commission advert this weekend that I completely forgot to mention I’m a Scientist, Get Me Out Of Here.

I’m a scientist is a really cool outreach program that allows school kids to talk to real scientists, asking questions and evicting the ones they don’t like for a two week period. It runs twice a year, and this year an extra ‘Zone’ has been added that starts running this week (the normal Zones all finished last week). This time it’s not just for school kids, and instead of a broad theme, they’re talking about GM foods. Anyone can ask any question they like and the five scientists involved will do their best to answer. Pretty cool huh?

I’m a big fan of the I’m a scientist program: it’s engaging and inspiring and does a good job of showing kids what science is really about and just how human scientists really are. (It’s pretty common to get personal questions thrown into the mix as well as questions about science!) Hopefully this time around it can also be a fantastic tool for engaging with the public over GM foods.

As I say it all kicks off today, but you can still submit questions for the next two weeks, so go get involved!

A quick round up

It’s been a busy few days, and in the meantime lots of other people (who may be more articulate than I am right now) have done some great coverage of the Take the Flour Back protest, and GM stuff in general. I kinda want to get out of my little Rothamsted loop and talk about something else, so here are some links to articles and blog pieces I enjoyed.

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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 letter from TtFB

So following on from Rothamsted’s open letter to Take the Flour Back, which I blogged about here,  our friendly garden environmentalists have written their own letter in reply. Credit where credit is due, it isn’t quite the rabid attack that I would have expected, and they do make some sensible points.

Side note: The fastest way to turn me off to a cause, be it environmentalism, feminism or the Catholic church (all of which, by the way, I am at least partly in support of) is to lie, exaggerate or give in to personal attacks. As far as I’m concerned, if you cannot make your point articulately, politely and truthfully, then your point probably isn’t worth agreeing with. 

So TtFB get immediate brownie points in my book for their opening paragraph:

We would welcome the opportunity to engage with you in a public debate over the forth-coming weeks, so that both sides of the debate have an equal chance to hear and understand each others’ perspectives. To this end we invite you to join us on neutral ground, with a neutral chairperson, for an open exchange of opinions and concerns.

Then we get to the actual argument. So we’ll start with this one:

We … are therefore somewhat bemused to note your insistence that aphid-resistant GM wheat will decrease pesticide use. This often repeated biotech industry claim has been widely discredited. (1) On the contrary, findings in the US, Canada and India, show that weeds and predators rapidly develop immunity to GM strategies, resulting in the use of ever increasing amounts of herbicides and pesticides.

You’ll see the little (1) there, representing a source of information. While it’s great that they’re properly referencing their letter, they’re referencing a Friends of the Earth report on GM crops (unbiased? Hmmm) and the link provided doesn’t even work.

Since I can’t read the report I’ll have to guess, but they’re probably talking (albeit not explicitly) about Roundup Ready Corn / Soybean: basically the most widely grown GM food crops, grown all over the States.

This is also from the FoE website, albeit not the report they’re referencing, but I’d hazard a guess that Friends of the Earth have a fairly consistent approach to these things:

The adoption of GM crops has led to a significant increase in pesticide use

 Government studies show a 15-fold increase in the use of the herbicide RoundUp (glyphosate) in the United States and an almost 80 per cent increase in Brazil [3]. This is resulting in increasing numbers of glyphosate-resistant weeds around the world, leading to higher production costs for farmers as well as concerns about the environmental impact [4].

The corn or soy is resistant to herbicides, so the crop can be drenched in the stuff to kill off weeds, without effecting the yield. The Rothamsted crop is a different ball game. What they propose is a crop that repels aphids, thereby allowing the crop to be sprayed less frequently with insecticides (and thereby reducing the fallout for other non-pest insects in the fields). To suggest that the two are equivalent is daft: in scenario one you do something that makes the crop resistant to a pesticide. In scenario two you do something that makes using the pesticide unnecessary.  The report might also reference Bt corn (which contains a toxin that basically dissolves the gut of insects eating it), but I’m yet to find anything about that on the FoE website, or really understand how it could increase pesticide use, so I’ll keep schtum on that for now.

Now this line strikes me as deliberately inflammatory / trying to sound like they have the moral high ground rather than actually discussing any issue.

In your letter you make no mention of the serious issue of the antibiotic resistant marker gene.

Antibiotic resistance genes are used by scientists to check where a newly inserted gene has gone. You put the gene in a piece of circular DNA called a plasmid, and on that plasmid you have a variety of genes that allow you to select where something goes. So say you’re trying to transform some bacteria then you can grow them on an agar plate with the antibiotic in it, and only the ones with the gene will live. That’s why it’s there. Now although it’s in the plant, it’s not functional (i.e. no protein is being made). Also, since there aren’t any antibiotics in the soil, even if something funny were to start happening to the promoter so that the plant made the protein, and even if the incredibly rare process of gene transfer happened, there would still be no selective advantage for the bacteria so the gene would be useless to them. 

Here’s another golden line from the letter

In the last few weeks Swiss scientists have published data demonstrating that the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxin Cry1Ab emitted as a pesticide by genetically modified (GM) Bt maize increases mortality in young ladybird larvae. (3) This is just another example of how a non-target organism can end up being inadvertently harmed by unforeseen problems with GM technologies. Again, this fails to show regard for the precautionary principle on which sound and responsible science should be based.

Once again I have to commend the group for having done their research, and clearly if Rothamsted were producing a crop that contained a similar toxin then that would be concerning. But they’re not. The pheromone produced by the wheat does not kill the aphids. It’s an alarm pheromone that aphids make themselves to say Shit guys! Better get out of here! So yes ladybird larvae can detect it… and they choose to move towards it, just like they do in nature, because it means there’s probably a high density of aphids freaking out and ready to be eaten.

The cow gene comes up again

You say that to “suggest that we have used a ‘cow gene’ and that our wheat is somehow part-cow betrays a misunderstanding which…has no basis in scientific reality.” Yet the description of the gene you have synthetised as being “not found naturally” and having “most similarity to that from cow” is taken directly from own your application to DEFRA. (10)

Here’s the line from the DEFRA paper-work

However, the enzyme encoded by the EBFS cassette is similar to that found in peppermint (Mentha × piperita) and the enzyme encoded by the FPPS cassette has most similarity to that from cow (Bos taurus) but is generally ubiquitous and occurs in most organisms.

For the record, they used a synthetic gene, rather than an actual cow gene or wheat gene or anything else gene, and the reason for using a cow-like one, is that they wanted an enzyme that would produce the pheromone all the time rather than according to a circadian rhythm like a hop one would.

Anyway, that’s quite enough rambling for now. I shall probably edit later. For now, I’m tuning back into the Rothamsted Q+A session.