Wednesday, 30 May 2012

The science of GM and the politics of food: can they (and indeed should they) be assessed in isolation?

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 [2]’ and different research showing wheat outcrossing at between 1% and even up to 6% [3] .

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[4]. Another study showed rates of 0.25% at 60metres [5].

There is also evidence that GM wheat can be more likely to outcross [6], 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 [7]. 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 [8]. 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[9]. 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. (under health and safety questions)

3. Out-crossing rates for 10 Canadian spring wheat cultivars. Hucl, 1996. Canadian Journal of Plant Science, 1996

4. Matuz-Cadiz MA, Hucl P and Dupuis D, 2007. “Pollen-Mediated Gene Flow in Wheat at the Commercial Scale”. Crop Science 47.

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

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.


9. 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.


  1. "Greens are not anti-science; we aren’t making any claims that GM means Frankenstein food."

    This is a non-sequitur, there are ways of being anti-science which don't include calling GM franken-food - it's much more pernicious than that.

    "raise awareness of all these issues."

    I think the defensive way in which this has been approached by the party suggests otherwise, the way in which the 'visit to the protest' was first put forward, rather than the second version which was slightly more balanced, was in the context of "support" for the protest, not a visit to the protest.

    Supporting the protest, and it's "decontamination" aims is *not* taking part to highlight all of these issues, there is too much nuance in there that you pretty much have to bend over backwards in order to explain it (a common Green Party problem if I'm honest), and in those circumstances you are not going to highlight anything.

    "There are scientists and geneticists who have concerns about this particular research project"

    Citation needed, I don't doubt it, but it's an important cornerstone to your argument and given that much else of what you are saying has citations, it would be good to have one for this.

    I'm not sure that the references in 3 and 5 that you provide are saying the things that you think they are:

    3 - This is specifically about the out crossing of different varieties, some are clearly higher than others and there is only a marginal relationship between the varieties characteristics (that the study looked at) and the OC amounts - the amounts you quote - between 1 and 6% are looking very much at the higher end of the scale - the amounts on the paper range from 0% to 6% rather than 1 %, with a couple of varieties coming in very low - this shows a real range of potential risks, none of which can be compared effectively to the Rothamsted trial because it's not clear what variety their wheat is based on, and if it has any relationship to these results.

    5 - This is very much a US test the results of which might be able to cross over to Russia and parts of Southern Europe - jointed goat grass isn't found in the UK, so any cross pollination study between spring wheat and it isn't going be that relevant to Rothamsted, where there is no jointed goat grass, in fact there is a great quote on the first page of the study on the matter:

    “therefore the risks existing in one region because of the presence of a wild relative itself may change completely the range of the risks”


    “Risk assessment studies on a regional basis are therefore required”

    Which is relevant in this case.

    7 - this is a relevant concern, but isn't an argument against the study - they don't know what the result is going to be, and there is a good chance, given the results in that study, that it will corroborate what they found in their study, which would be a good thing.

    In terms of the 20m exclusion zone, the studies you've provided suggested that the exclusion zones of 3 - 10m might not be enough (I paraphrase - but it's from Ref 3) so double that is surely a better bet - clearly there is nothing to support 20 over say 30 or 40, but how far would be good enough for the anti-GM lobby? at a guess, whatever the distance there would be some kind of evidence to support that it wasn't enough.

  2. Thanks for your comments. I'm not sure you've quite understood what I'm saying about cross contamination. I'm not suggesting that the 6% studies are directly relevant, but what they show is that we just don't know, as there are so many variables. We will of course find out if this study goes ahead (!), but by then the contamination will have occurred and no one is talking about what that might mean. I found Prof Pickett talking about zero risk v worrying.

  3. There was another post put on here earlier, it has now disappeared and I don't know why. Just to say it wasn't me deleting it.

  4. Hello, I think it was mine. I'll put it back up when I come back home, if that is ok. I think I should still have the page up on my home computer.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. The issue with your using 6% as a marker is not so much the 6% aspect it's that you provide a range of between 1% and 6% - when the range in the study linked actually ranges from 0% to 6%, with a heavy lean towards the 0% end of the scale - that doesn't come across at all in what you wrote.

    It's worth noting that the study is for outcrossing between wheat cultivars, that is, in order to get to the 6% margin the cross pollination would need to be with another wheat cultivar - which there isn't in the vicinity - although the H&S Q&A isn't clear about distances, it could potentially be 20m it could be as much as 33 metres (trial site + 10m space + 3m pollen barrier + 20m control area) which are controlled, it's simply not clear. The real question is if there is concern with it cross pollinating, what is it going to cross pollinate with?

  7. Hi Doug,
    The point I am making is that it doesnt matter if the lean was towards zero. 6% has been recorded, so to say the risk is zero, when it is infact unknown, is untrue.
    But we are in danger of not seeing the word for the trees. Interestingly no one has come back on the wider issues of corporate control, funding and whether our broader vision is valid.

  8. *wood* not word- obviously.
    BTW have you read our science policy?

  9. Thanks for removing my post. I thought the Greens tolerated dissent? It was hardly offensive.

    Anyway, rather than putting it down to not getting your message across, how about less spin and a bit of "hands up, we're wrong on this one"? It reeks of major party politics, on message types all agreeing on a line. Not my thing. I do support the Greens on pretty much every other issue apart from very few science-based issues. Recent party improvements have been massive and very welcome. Don't bottle it now.

  10. Hi Steve,
    I deleted your comment because on a number of occasions you have posted unnecessarily aggressive posts on my blog. I have asked you to engage by providing your full name and you haven't.
    Life is too short to put up with trolls. So I don't.
    I'm amazed to hear you support much of what we say if this is the way you behave.
    Hard as this is to believe this is my opinion, not a party line. I believe when you look at all the factors around GM it is not the way forward. Science cannot be assessed in isolation. To do so is dangerous and naive.