Last week, scientists at Rothamsted Research, an agriculture science institute based in the UK, made a rather unusual announcement: A five-year long field trial to test a genetically modified variety of wheat found that the crop did not repel pests as it was designed to.
The news media, both in the UK and U.S., widely covered the story. Why was this unusual? It’s not often that a hypothesis that is not confirmed by experiments is published, let alone that it would receive so much attention. But, in this case, the wheat trial had caught media buzz earlier in 2012 when an activist group called ‘Take the Flour Back’ threatened to destroy and ‘decontaminate’ the field trials. Scientists eventually managed to convince the activist group to not damage the crop. So a demonstration and a relatively peaceful protest outside the institute resulted instead. Upon learning of the outcome of the trials, those opposed to GM crops quickly pointed out that the decision to do the experiments was flawed to begin with and called the trials a ‘pointless’ waste of public resources in a “bid to outwit nature”.
But the whole ordeal brought to light a bigger issue at play. Rothamsted disclosed last week that while the research funded completely by the UK government cost a little more than $1.1 million, UK taxpayers spent more than thrice that amount – approximately $3.4 million in fencing to protect the field and security measures to prevent the crops from being destroyed by vandals and activists.
A cost that not mentioned and likely harder to calculate is the time and money lost by the institute in its efforts to engage Take the Flour Back in peaceful dialogue and protect its facilities from damage. They even spent the time to make an appeal on YouTube emphasizing that they were all publicly funded scientists conducting research, the results of which would be freely available.
Threats against trials of GM crops funded by governments or non-profits are not new. In 2011, Greenpeace vandalized a GM wheat trial in Australia, a crime for which the organization was fined and two members given suspended jail sentences. The organization also destroyed trials of a genetically modified Bt eggplant in the Phillipines, leading to prosecution there as well. Infamously, in 2013 activists wearing HazMat suits uprooted fields of vitamin A enriched ‘Golden Rice’ being tested in the Philippines by the non-profit International Rice Research Institute with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation.
Opposition to GM crops often tends to focus on the potential control of all agriculture and in turn the food supply by large multinational corporate entities. Kumi Naidoo, the executive director of Greenpeace International wrote in an opinion that he supported “Greenpeace Australia’s efforts to stop control of this crucial food staple from falling into the hands of transnational GM food companies.” But when crop varieties (GM or otherwise) developed by governments and non-profits are made freely available to farmers who can use them without any fear of patent infringement, this would only allow more growers to take control over what seeds they get and how they use them, contradicting the idea of a monopoly over food supply. Acts of vandalism only serve to push this process back, both in time and money.
Going back to the Rothamsted trials, the failure of these experiments is not really a failure for all GM crops as has been portrayed by many media reports. Firstly this was the first time a plant had been engineered to produce an insect pheromone, a feat in itself. And even as researchers hypothesized planned further experiments to overcome the potential problems with the current variety, there was much information gained from the trials that could be put to use in the future. Jonathan Gershenzon, a plant chemistry expert at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Germany commented on this in a Nature News article,
“It was good that they tried. It’s a different system with wheat, it’s a different aphid,” and they did it in field conditions, he says. “I give them lots of points for trying and even more points for being willing to publish negative data. It shows how science can work.”
The trial has brought to everyone’s attention however, how such violent activism and protecting against it costs millions of dollars to taxpayers, significantly increasing the economic burden and slowing down research. At a time when research funding has declined significantly there is little doubt that these costs could have been put towards a more important goal – identify the most promising research be it either in organic, conventional or GMO agriculture and bring it to market as quickly as possible.
Arvind Suresh is a science media liaison at the Genetic Expert News Service. He is also a science communicator and a former laboratory biologist. Follow him @suresh_arvind.