By Eve Mitchell
At long last we hear news of the much-trumpeted UK field trial of wheat genetically modified (GM) to repel aphids with a mad mishmash of peppermint and synthetic cow genes (no kidding). Researchers at Rothamsted Research hoped to mimic a natural alarm process to drive aphids off the wheat and thereby rescue the faltering image of GM crops with a “sustainable” puff piece no sceptical consumer could resist.
The result? It doesn’t work.
As predicted before the trial started, the aphids, which receive the natural chemical alarm signal in short bursts, grew accustomed to a constant barrage of faux repellent from the GM plants. Rather like tuning out background noise, they just got used to it.
Rothamsted’s takeaway learning? “This experiment shows that the real world environment is much more complicated than the laboratory.” No kidding.
If I sound tetchy maybe it’s because as a UK tax payer I know that this trial squandered millions, much of it public money, while elsewhere the Government enacted painful austerity budgets. Science is good, but this is just chasing expensive rainbows while threatening a crop that, by Rothamsted’s own admission, is worth £1.2 billion per year to the UK.
Despite the clear failure, Rothamsted is showing worrying signs of not having got the message, calling the results “disappointing” and still listing the GM wheat in its “Success Stories”. A spokesperson said the team “now knows” it has to phase the timing of the repellent to prevent the aphids acclimatising to the alarm signal.
Even if it had worked, the best imaginable result for this trial would presumably have been for the GM wheat to drive aphids off – and onto neighbouring non-GM crops. This would have been a neat trick for forcing all wheat farmers onto the GM treadmill, but only into the arms of a seriously hostile market. This could never have been a winner, so here’s hoping they let this one go.
The sad thing is Rothamsted does other great, ground breaking, useful, non-GM work. It helped develop the superb and now widely-used “Push Pull” system for controlling maize pests in Africa that is cheap, works splendidly and relies on natural processes because, as Rothamsted rightly says, “pesticides are impractical for small scale farmers in this region”. More of this, please.
Meanwhile ongoing merger talks between Syngenta and Monsanto, neither a stranger to GM crops, claim to be headed for a new UK HQ. The GM wheat trial failure is a big blow for GM’s reputation (and if this is the best they can do, bring it on), but if a deal like that is on the cards, the show ain’t quite over yet.