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Threats spook UK crop researchers

UPDATE 3/5: The ‘Take the Flour Back’ group has now published their own letter in response to the Rothamsted scientists. In it they “welcome the opportunity to engage” and offer to meet the researchers “on neutral ground, with a neutral chairperson”. However, they say the 27 May protest will go ahead.

Both letters are now online.
Rothamsted letter.
Take the Flour Back letter.

Scientists at the United Kingdom’s leading agricultural research centre are pleading with protestors not to destroy an experimental wheat plantation.

John Pickett, a chemical ecologist at Rothamsted Research, and his colleagues say that experiments at the site in Hertfordshire that have been running since the 1800s could be destroyed by protests against genetically modified (GM) crops. They have offered to meet and talk to protesters who plan to descend on the site later this month.

A group called ‘Take the Flour Back’ has vowed to tear up Rothamsted’s current GM wheat trial. Their protest is scheduled for 27 May, and follows incidents last year in Germany and Australia in which GM wheat experiments were torn up.

Pickett told Nature that it was essential for his team to conduct a proper field trial, rather than working in greenhouses, with their crop, which produces an aphid alarm pheromone researchers hope will reduce the need for pesticides by scaring the bugs away and attracting wasps that prey on the aphids. Contamination of non-GM wheat was highly unlikely, he said, and the chemical the GM plant will produce is found in more than 400 species, including the hops used in brewing. Without these experiments, it will be impossible to say whether or not the crop can help the world food supply, he says.

Both sides have put out videos explaining their positions:

Pickett and his colleagues also note that some experimental plots at the Rothamsted site date back to 1843, and attempts to disrupt the nearby GM trial could endanger this work.

“We can only appeal to your consciences, and ask you to reconsider before it is too late, and before years of work to which we have devoted our lives are destroyed forever,” say the writers of an open letter to the protestors released today. “We do not see how preventing the acquisition of knowledge is a defensible position in an age of reason — what you are planning to do is reminiscent of clearing books from a library because you wish to stop other people finding out what they contain.”

However, one member of the ‘Take the Flour Back’ coalition who would give her name only as Helen told Nature that it was the Rothamsted scientists who were being “irresponsible” by forcing the protestors to take action.

“We’re being pushed into this,” said Helen. “Nobody who’s involved wants to be doing something against the law.”

As well as concerns about contamination of non-GM crops, the protestors say they do not believe assurances from Rothamsted that the crop will not be patented. Pickett admits that companies building on this work in the future make take out their own patents if they seek to commercialize related plants.

In other agricultural-research news, protestors at the University of California, Berkeley, continue to occupy a research field in Gill Tract in Albany, California.

The ‘Occupy the Farm’ protestors say that the university is planning to build on the site. “The [University of California] allows researchers use of the field, but as long as this master plan remains in effect the clock is ticking, and the planned redevelopment will displace all researchers from this land as well,” they claim. “We are acutely aware that our presence on this land presents challenges for the researchers who have been using this land, as well as for the neighbours living around it.”

However, Berkeley says the ‘master plan’  that the protestors cite proposes to eventually convert the land parcel to “open and recreational space for the community”.

“The existing agricultural fields on the Gill Tract are currently, and for the foreseeable future, being used as an open-air laboratory by the students and faculty of our College of Natural Resources for agricultural research,” says a statement from the university. “As of now research projects are continuing and the university has not taken any steps to implement the Master Plan on the parcel.”


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    Paul Walker said:

    The above article (and much of the current coverage on this issue) seems to imply scientists are universally pro-GM. This is totally untrue, for example scientists who compiled the IAASTD report, involving the UN and dozens of scientists across the world, argued strongly that GM has no place in feeding the global population. Professor Bob Watson, the director of IAASTD and now chief scientist for UK’s Department for Environment Farming and Rural Affairs, when asked if GM could solve world hunger, said: “The simple answer is no.”

    Despite Pickett’s reassurance above, it seems contamination could be a risk, and an irreversable one at that:

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