Sean Poulter — Mail Online June 25, 2015
Millions of pounds of public money was spent on the trial of a crop that GM scientists and supporters hoped would win over consumers sceptical about the technology.
The wheat was genetically modified to release a scent that would supposedly drive away aphids or pests, so allowing the crop to flourish.
However, while the idea worked in the laboratory, it did not when it came to growing the wheat in field conditions at Rothamsted Research Institute in Harpenden, Hertfordshire.
The trial was hailed by the former Environment Secretary Owen Paterson in a major speech promoting GM technology given at the Rothamsted site in June 2013.
At the time, he condemned critics of GM, describing them as part of the ‘Green Blob’, and praised the trial of the aphid resistant wheat as ‘cutting edge’.
The minister declared: ‘It is precisely the type of pioneering science that we are famous for.’
Now the research team has published the results, which reveal the wheat did not repel the insects as expected.
The project, including developing the crop and installing security, cost almost £3million, which was funded by the taxpayer and the Government through the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.
The science element to develop what was called ‘whiffy wheat’ cost £732,000, but this was dwarfed by another £2.23m on fencing and other security measures after threats of destructive attacks by anti-GM activists.
The wheat was engineered with a gene derived from the peppermint plant that enabled it to release a pheromone called (E)-beta-farnesene (EbetaF).
Aphids use the alarm to alert each other to the presence of threats such as parasitic wasps and ladybirds. In the wild, the scent causes the insects to flee from danger – and also attracts predators that recognise the aphid signal.
In laboratory tests the GM wheat produced the pheromone in significant quantities without its appearance or growth being affected, and successfully repelled aphids.
But in the field trial there was no statistical difference in the number of aphids infesting GM and conventional wheat.
The findings are reported in the online journal Scientific Reports, part of the Nature publishing group.
Rothamsted attempted to put a positive gloss on the study by insisting the fact the wheat did not work as expected should not be seen as a failure.
A spokesman said: ‘The experiment itself was successful, because it allowed us to test the hypothesis of whether the GM wheat could repel aphids in the field.
‘It provided a conclusive answer that the wheat had failed to repel aphids, but that is not the same as a failed experiment or failed science.’
Rothamsted researcher Dr Toby Bruce said: ‘In science, we never expect to get confirmation of every hypothesis. Often it is the negative results and unexpected surprises that end up making big advances – penicillin was discovered by accident, for example.
‘This trial has ended up yielding more questions than answers, but that means we have more work to do to understand the insect-plant interaction and to better mimic what happens in nature.’
GM Freeze, an umbrella group representing a number of campaign organisations including the Soil Association and Friends of the Earth England, said the trial result was clear evidence of the ‘folly of focusing public resources on the development and promotion of GM crops’.
Its director, Liz O’Neill, said: ‘A basic understanding of evolution tells us that GM offers, at best, a sticking-plaster approach to complex and evolving problems.
‘We know that pests are very good at adapting to their environment but, like the aphids in the trial, those promoting GM as the first-choice solution to our food and farming needs stopped listening to nature’s alarm signals as soon as they became inconvenient.’
Policy director of the Soil Association Peter Melchett added: ‘The GM wheat trial at Rothamstead was a waste of time and money, whether it worked or not.
‘Aphids are not a significant problem on wheat crops in the UK, which is confirmed by the fact that organic farmers, using no insecticides, do not have significant problems with aphids attacking their wheat crops, with no use of pesticides.’
The director of GeneWatch, Dr Helen Wallace, said: ‘We must now recognise that GM has had its chance and failed to deliver.
‘We must move on to an agricultural system that does work and produces safe food that consumers want and that doesn’t damage the environment. Our research systems need to now move away from their stubborn obsession with GM and instead provide what the public wants and the environment needs.’