I have seen first-hand how GM activism holds back crucial progress in how the UK and developing world feed themselves
I read with particular interest the open letter by Rothamsted Research to a group of activists intending to destroy Rothamsted’s GM field trial to control aphids. If the trial is destroyed it will be almost exactly four years since one of our publicly funded trials at the University of Leeds was also destroyed.
That trial was to test plants made resistant to nematodes, microscopic worm-like pests that cause an estimated $118bn annual losses to world crops. Like the Rothamsted trial it had no company involvement. One aim was to establish a future approach for UK agriculture. We also wished to evaluate the general value of the technology before donating it for development by public scientists in sub-Saharan Africa, where over 50% of the banana yields are lost to nematodes. The uprooting of the plants could have destroyed many years of publicly funded research.
Luckily, that outcome was avoided by a trial in the following year – but only because we spent money on security fences and a 24-hour guard. Our progress has now enabled scientists in Africa to develop nematode-resistant bananas for field evaluation, but the issues that arose at that time are still unresolved. The debate in the UK about the benefits and concerns surrounding future use by farmers of GM crops in the UK and globally, needs to progress.
The concerns raised by protesters about environmental and food safety issues would truly only apply once widespread cropping by farmers occurred. They do not apply to these small-scale field trials. The distinction between such trials and commercial cropping is recognised by legislation in the European Union and elsewhere. The small-scale trials are needed to test whether promising approaches developed in laboratories and glasshouses will also be effective under field conditions.