GM food. Should we be worried?

GM crops are back on the menu. But should we be worried?

Worldwide we’ve got a food problem, and some reckon that genetically modifying crops could help. Genetic modification (GM) is a way of artificially changing the DNA of an organism to make it grow or behave differently – in food plants that usually means repelling pests or diseases, or increasing yields. But many activists like UK-based Take the Flour Back (TTFB) are sceptical about the science. In May, 250 TTFB activists marched to the Rothamsted Research centre, just outside London, threatening to pull up a field of GM wheat plants and ruining the trial. ‘Decontamination’ was how the activists described the plant-pulling protest they had planned. The Rothamsted scientists preferred ‘vandalism’.

In an unusual response, the scientists put out an open letter to the campaigners, and even spoke out in a YouTube video, calling for them to leave the plants alone and instead be part of a public debate. In the last decade, in Europe at least, GM has all but vanished. Consumers and pressure groups rejected it and no crops were cultivated. But now GM is back on the agenda. And at the time of writing this article, the experimental GM wheat is still standing.

So should we be worried? Should we even care? This breakdown of the debate should help you decide.

What’s going on at Rothamsted? For a start, Rothamsted is not Roswell. There’re no top-secret experiments going on there. The site is an innocuous collection of newish buildings – think regular business park plus a few fields. There’s been experimentation on the site since 1843, and it’s thought to be the oldest agricultural research centre on earth, exploring everything from plant nanotechnology to diet and health. One way or another, you can be certain that the results of Rothamsted’s research have found their way to your stomach.

But it’s their latest experiment that’s got the protesters worried. A team is working on reducing pest attacks on wheat, particularly from bugs called aphids, better known as greenflies. Aphids eat plants, but they also spread plant viruses similar to the way mosquitoes spread malaria. Scientists found that aphids release a pheromone when they’re scared that alerts other aphids to danger and makes them fly away. And researchers have found a way to make the wheat release a similar pheromone. They engineered a gene in the lab and inserted it into the genome of a wheat variety. In the lab, experiments suggest the GM wheat works. The next step is to try it outside.

So what? This experiment seems to mark a decisive shift in policy. If GM’s given the okay for this one test, it will have implications for all the food we eat and the countryside that surrounds us.

But we need a bit of perspective. Scepticism about new technology is useful; mass hysteria, not so much. There’re a couple of rumours that need clearing up. First, the leap from conventional food plants to GM isn’t as big as many would have you believe. Scientists have fiddled with plant genetics for years, and used a range of technologies to help them move traits from one variety to another. It’s thanks to this that agriculture – including organic – is so productive. The only difference is the way the genes are moved about. Until now we’ve relied on plants’ sexual reproduction to get genes from place to place. With GM, we’re doing it for them.

Second, we need to get over the bizarre mythical status we’ve bestowed on the genome. All this chat about ‘playing God’ is unhelpful. The genome isn’t a direct line to the man upstairs; it’s just a set of instructions that tells a cell how to assemble a few proteins. Plus, random genetic mutations happen all the time – it’s the cause of diversity of life on earth.

So who’s arguing what? For the scientists at Rothamsted, testing this GM crop is a vital cog in their wider research agenda. They reckon that in future, plants that include this trait could benefit the environment by being more productive while needing less pesticides. The research, they state, has been publicly funded and will be in the public domain – no company will own patents or monopolise their findings.

But anti-GM activists aren’t convinced. They cite examples from other experiments where pests have developed resistance to GM techniques, or when non-target organisms, like ladybirds, were killed. They’re worried about GM material contaminating non-GM crops, making it harder for non-GM farmers to sell their yield. Also, they reckon the experiment is just a handout for big agribusiness as, if the trial is successful, they’ll be the only ones who have the infrastructure to make the GM wheat commercially viable.

Who should we trust? This is where stuff gets confusing. The anti-GM campaigners have stirred up anxiety by suggesting that scientists have put a cow gene into the wheat. But according to Rothamsted’s application to DEFRA, the gene is synthetic; it just looks similar ‘to that from a cow’, they say. Campaigners also believe that GM genes could contaminate regular crops. But the general rebuttal is that wheat is self-pollinating, and if pollen does leave the plant it’s only viable for about an hour, making the chance of contamination incredibly small. Finally, activists have also complained that Cadenza, the wheat being tested, is almost never grown commercially in the UK, making the whole experiment pointless. The counter-argument, however, is that Cadenza is great for tests like these because it grows quickly.

Confused? Well, those on the pro-GM side have been frustratingly oblique, too. Let’s face it: scientists are crap at engaging with the public. Rothamsted’s website about the trial is a perfect example: a page of fairly generic info, followed by links to unreadable scientific papers hidden behind a paywall. Plus, for all the hype about how GM will solve world food shortages, the reality is way different. Scepticism about the GM lobby’s intentions is well founded, given its been used by corporations to make big profits out of a basic human need. To call this ethically dubious would be a gross understatement

So neither side comes off that well. But GM technology can’t be uninvented. And perhaps that’s no bad thing. GM on it’s own won’t solve everything, but it could help. We need proper debate about how it’s used and who benefits. Discussion, listening and compromise are what’s needed, not ill-informed knee-jerk reactions. But this’ll only happen if the public wise up.

Question is: what do you make of all this? Start by hearing both sides, but don’t stop there. Keep digging.