Let’s be clear, the main concerns of Greens around GM crops go wider than the science involved.
There is plenty of evidence from overseas that GM seed technology is dominated by large corporations who are able to use their patented technology to exert control over farmers, control the wider industry and promote an agriculture dominated by large monocultures and a dependence on their products, not just seeds but related agro-chemicals.
Greens have a different vision for agriculture and food supply, of a smaller scale, less resource intensive industry; that reduces waste, protects soils and minimises pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. We are not alone in this vision. In 2008 the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development [IAASTD] [1}, a four year project involving 400 scientists, concluded that what was needed urgently to ensure we could feed the world was sustainable ways to produce food. The scientists said they saw little role for GM in feeding the poor on a large scale, the report *concluding that "Assessment of the technology lags behind its development, information is anecdotal and contradictory, and uncertainty about possible benefits and damage is unavoidable". I do not believe things have improved substantially since then.
Greens are not anti-science; we aren’t making any claims that GM means Frankenstein food. I do not think that the current polarised debate is healthy and welcome further engagement with scientists, as occurred during the rewrite of our science policy in 2011. Our policy supports increased funding for scientific research generally and allows for further research on GMOs in the laboratory at this stage. We do not oppose the use of GMOs in confined and well-controlled situations.
However, we do believe that there are unanswered questions about the safety and efficacy of these technologies when they are being released into the environment, ones that need to be further characterised and quantified either through laboratory research, or by taking a more critical look at what is already happening where GMOs are used extensively, such as in the US.
Jenny Jones’ visit to the protest at Rothamsted was intended to highlight that this research was going ahead and to raise awareness of all these issues. Jenny had no intention of destroying any crops or bullying scientists. But protest can be necessary to highlight an issue, as certainly happened in this case. There really ought to be a public debate about government money being used on field trials of GM and I do mean debate, not mudslinging, which unfortunately has occurred on both sides.
There are scientists and geneticists who have concerns about this particular research project and who felt that the case could not be made for a field trial at this stage. They suggested that indoor greenhouse trials at were more appropriate while questions remained unanswered and we do wonder why further research has not occurred in this arena. Some particular issues identified are:
· The main concern for many people is the risk of contamination. Mixed messages have been received from Rothamsted, I understand that Prof Pickett has been quoted as saying there is ‘zero risk of contamination’ as wheat is not wind pollinated. However this does not appear to be the case with other information from Rothamsted saying they estimate ‘ a very low rate of probability of seeds moving from the trial site or the transfer (via cross-pollination) of inserted characteristics ’ and different research showing wheat outcrossing at between 1% and even up to 6%  .
A 20 metre buffer is planned, but a Canadian study has found cross pollination at low levels (0.01%) at up to 190m, albeit on a commercial scale. Another study showed rates of 0.25% at 60metres .
There is also evidence that GM wheat can be more likely to outcross , suggested to be due to the transgene insertion events.
It is not at all clear what Rothamsted is planning to do about monitoring for outcrossing and cleaning it up if it does occur. This is not a technology that can simply be withdrawn once it is out there and from my reading on this I am yet to be convinced we really know what a low level or very low level actually means in terms of the spread of these genes, it is far from clear to me in any information Rothamsted have put out.
· Scientists are also concerned that the hypothesis is under-developed and requires further work in the lab. Research suggests that the protection postulated to occur due to the pheromone is not occurring . In just three generations the aphids appear to be habituating and there are also questions about whether the fact that the pheromone production from the plant is continuous, compared to the natural pulsatile release, leads to additional habituation- I cannot find the evidence that these questions have been answered in the lab.
· There is a lack of information about the transformation process. It seems reasonable to me that the position and structure of the DNA inserted can affect adjacent genes or cause mutations that lead to unintended or unpredicted effects. Apparently any such changes have not been assessed.
· There are antibiotic resistant marker genes present, which can be removed and yet they have not been. If the crop remains contained there shouldn’t be an issue and there is still debate about whether there is any risk. The European Medical Agency previously expressed concerns that the antibiotics involved are important ones used to treat resistant infections . Although it should be noted that the EFSA (European Food Safety Agency) thought the chances of adverse effects ‘unlikely’, although the panel was not in complete agreement on this. The risks may be low (and of course over use of antibiotics in factory farming is a much bigger issue for antibiotic resistance, but better leave that for another day...) and any soil bacteria might be expected to ‘soon die out’, but surely better to trial something without these genes if they are not necessary and some doubts remain amongst experts.
· There is also a concern that the wheat could outcross to a troublesome weed (couch grasses). While this would be considered a rare event, similar crossing events have occurred in other trials. These weeds are being controlled, but only within 20metres.
· As I understand it, the design of the experiment does not address other potential deleterious impacts on neighbouring fields, such as an increase of aphids there, or a reduction on aphid predators, due to them being attracted by the pheromone. If the research does go ahead, as many potential outcomes, both good and bad should be considered.
I’m not a geneticist, although I did study genetics in my intercalated degree year. I don’t claim to fully understand the science behind GM and am happy to learn and discuss these concerns further. But as things stand, I believe there is enough here for us to be concerned about moving this experiment to a field trial. There are geneticists who think this, I have met them.
And then again we come to the wider picture. Public funding is not a bottomless pit, so in reality using money to fund GM is likely to mean less money funding other research into agriculture and food production. I feel that we are a tipping point and that if this trial does go by unquestioned, then we will see more GM research and even less funding for research into agricultural methods such as agro-ecology and low-input farming that have proven benefits for biodiversity and sustainability.
What then for the sort of work Rothamsted and others have done in the past, which has shown that creating a more biodiverse habitat with surrounding sources of nectar and pollen attracts natural predators of aphids. Will that be forgotten as we progress from one genetic modification to the next as aphids habituate? We’ve seen how nature has a tendency to ‘out smart’ us, for example, with the development of Roundup resistant weeds after GM Roundup Ready crops (modified to be resistant to that pesticide) were doused in the stuff.
The debate about GM research isn’t just a matter of science, it is also part of a wider debate about the whole direction that agriculture is taking. With a recent review of agriculture and food policy, we have set out our stall and at the moment, for reasons that go beyond science, GM is not one of our answers to the many challenges that lie ahead in global food supply.
2. http://www.rothamsted.ac.uk/Content.php?Section=AphidWheat&Page=QA (under health and safety questions)
3. Out-crossing rates for 10 Canadian spring wheat cultivars. Hucl, 1996. Canadian Journal of Plant Science, 1996 http://pubs.aic.ca/doi/pdf/10.4141/cjps96-075
4. Matuz-Cadiz MA, Hucl P and Dupuis D, 2007. “Pollen-Mediated Gene Flow in Wheat at the Commercial Scale”. Crop Science 47. https://www.crops.org/publications/cs/abstracts/47/2/573
5. Colorado State University, 2008. “Estimating Gene Flow from Wheat to Wheat and Wheat to Jointed Goatgrass (Aegilops cylindrica)”. Agricultural Experiment Station Technical Bulletin TB08-03
6. Silvan Rieben*, Olena Kalinina, Bernhard Schmid, Simon L. Zeller 2011. Gene Flow in Genetically Modified Wheat http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0029730
7. Kunert G, Reinhold C, and Gershenzon J, 2010. “Constitutive emission of the aphid alarm pheromone, (E)-bfarnesene from plants does not serve as a direct defense against aphids”. Bio Med Central Ecology. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3002888/
9. http://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/focusfood/docs/focusfood05.pdf pg2
* I should now add that this should say 'part of the report concluded'. This was my error. Its still definitely in there though
Please note these views are my own informed by my formal education and experience in assisting in the rewriting of Green Party science, food and agriculture policy and the research involved in that process.